The Belfast Lough and Lagan Catchment Stakeholder Group was designed to engage stakeholders in developing a plan for managing the Belfast Lough and the River Lagan Catchment area in the metropolitan areas of Belfast and Lisburn in Northern Ireland.
Problems and Purpose
The Belfast Lough and the River Lagan Catchment area in the metropolitan areas of Belfast and Lisburn in Northern Ireland was experiencing several difficulties in need of management: pollution, “runoff,” “erosion and sedimentation” from agriculture; “point source pollution” from industry, “sewage and urban wastewater”; and “connectivity” (Challies, 2018, p. 92). A well considered, comprehensive water management plan was needed to address these issues but, owing to the European Water Framework Directive adopted into UK law and policy in the 2000s, officials were required to integrate some level of public participation into the process (Challies, 2018). Accordinginly, a public engagement process largely consisting of stakeholder meetings, was pursued in the development of the Belfast Lough and the River Lagan Catchment area management plans (Challies, 2018, p. 94).
Background History and Context
As the European Water Framework Directive was being integrated into UK law and policy in the 2000s, local governments and administrative bodies revised their policies to align with and fullfil the directive's provisions. In Northern Ireland, one consequence was the introduction of various methods of stakeholder participation in the management of water resources. This included the Belfast Lough and Lagan Catchment area whose management plan was put under public consideration starting in 2007. The first phase of the process occurred in 2007-2009, and a second phase during the period 2010 through 2015.
Organizing, Supporting Entities, and Funding
The process was designed by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and run by the agency’s River Basin Planning Group.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The process involved one type of participatory design: the “catchment stakeholder group” (Challies, 2018, p. 92). Nine of these groups met in Northern Ireland; one of these groups was the Belfast Lough and Lagan Catchment Stakeholder Group. Recruitment of some important stakeholders was by invitation, complemented by a policy of enabling participation by “all stakeholders, including the wider public” (Challies, 2018, pp. 92, 107).
In the first phase of the process, meetings took place twice per year, for a total of five meetings, each held in a different location in the catchment area. From twenty to thirty personnel from stakeholder groups attended each meeting. Few citizens attended. Participants included personnel from angling and recreational groups, smaller environmental groups, the national “water company”, the power industry, and government (Challies, 2018, p. 94). Personnel from the agricultural industry and from larger environmental groups attended infrequently, because they used other venues to provide input on policy, including a “National Stakeholder Forum” that ran parallel to the catchment stakeholder group process (Challies, 2018, p. 93).
The level and characteristics of participation in the second phase of the process are unclear.
Methods and Tools Used
The basic procedure of a catchment stakeholder group meeting was to begin with presentations by agency personnel and other experts, followed by a break in which informal discussion occurred among participants, and ending with a question-and-answer session. Meetings were facilitated by agency personnel. The length of an average meeting is unclear.
In the first phase of the process, in the initial meeting the topic was key “water management issues” in the catchment area (Challies, 2018, p. 94). Participants offered feedback through questionnaires, spoken comments, and comments written on post-it notes placed on a wall. Agency personnel gathered the written input, organized it into a summary, and distributed the summary to participants. In addition, agency personnel ranked the issues in importance, began to design measures to address them, and reported on the development of measures in the 2008 meetings. In the first meeting in 2009, agency personnel presented a draft of the official river basin management plan, asked for comments about the draft from participants, and recorded the comments. Agency personnel reportedly took those comments into consideration when revising the plan, the final version of which was presented at the second meeting held in 2009, which also discussed implementation of the measures set out in the plan. Part of the implementation discussion concerned new “Local Management Areas” at the sub-basin level and “Action Plans” for implementing measures in each local management area. The agency also allowed participants to submit written comments about those action plans.
In the second phase of the process, it’s not clear what procedure was used in catchment stakeholder group meetings.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Deliberation among participants was not observed in catchment stakeholder group meetings. The formal discussion that occurred in meetings consisted of question-and-answer interactions between presenters and participants. In some meetings, presentations occupied the entire agenda, and so no formal discussion occurred. Some informal discussion among stakeholders took place during the break following presentations. Participants from “angling groups” said they felt that their concerns had not been seriously considered during the process (Challies, 2018, p. 98).
Participants did not engage in decision making during catchment stakeholder group meetings.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
This process does not appear to have influenced policy. Although agency personnel said that participants’ comments had influenced the content of the official river basin management plan and some local management area action plans, observers could not identify specific provisions or measures in any of the plans that had been influenced by participants’ comments. Further, it’s not clear whether adopted measures had had any practical effect. Few adopted measures had been implemented due to budget limitations, and some stakeholders said that many adopted measures would be difficult to implement because they were “too general and ambitious” (Challies, 2018, p. 98). Water quality has not substantially improved in the catchment area. While some measures to prevent agricultural pollution have been implemented, those measures were not produced through the Belfast Lough and Lagan Catchment Stakeholder Group process.
In terms of social outcomes, participants reported increased understanding of how to participate in European Water Framework Directive matters and in local water-management efforts, but did not report increased knowledge of other participants’ views or priorities. There was evidence of capacity building among participants, in terms of the ability to work effectively in local water-management efforts. This was partly enabled by training that agency personnel gave to some participants on how to contribute to pre-existing local water-management efforts. In some instances, after having received this training, participants stopped attending catchment stakeholder group meetings so that they could participate in local water-management projects. There was also evidence of capacity building among agency and other governmental personnel, as, through catchment stakeholder group meetings, they developed “partnerships … with … local stakeholders” to carry out local water-management projects (Challies, 2018, p. 99). Further, there was evidence of increased networks and contacts among stakeholders, and among agency personnel and stakeholders. One manifestation of the latter was the agency’s financial grants to several participants for use in local water-management projects; recipients later gave reports to the agency on the progress of the projects. Agency personnel then conveyed the progress information to other participants during catchment stakeholder group meetings, to demonstrate the potential of local water-management efforts. Regarding trust, participants did not report increased trust as a result of catchment stakeholder group process.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Even though this process appears to have had little practical impact on water management in the catchment area, the participatory aspect of the process seemed to some extent successful. Evidence of success was manifested in improved capacity building and networking among participants, and improved ties between government personnel and stakeholders which may have increased the overall governance capacity in the catchment area.
The participatory aspect of the process might have been improved had the organizers changed the design of the process to (1) enable interaction and mutual learning among the participants, (2) allow participants to propose and prioritize measures, (3) require agency personnel to coach participants on how to devise measures that were sufficiently specific and practical to be implemented, and (4) require agency personnel to report to participants on how participants’ input had influenced particular provisions and measures in the final plans.
Stakeholder Group Process (method)
Challies, E. (2018). Stakeholder engagement in Water Framework Directive planning in the United Kingdom: Two case studies from Northern Ireland and Scotland. In E. Kochskämper, E. Challies, N. W. Jager, & J. Newig (Eds.), Participation for effective environmental governance: Evidence from European Water Framework Directive implementation (pp. 90-113). London: Routledge.
Lead image: Department of Agriculture, Environment, and Rural Affairs https://goo.gl/s8kyPb