A single sentence in a newspaper unravels to reveal how strategic policy can be 1) like a Russian Doll, and 2) open to various interpretations of blame.

On 13 October, an article in the Guardian claimed that:

All five big parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP – signed off on the 2013 ‘Going for Growth’ strategy, which intensified farming and sent ever more slurry into Lough Neagh.

This is a deceptively simple statement.

Rather than try to pin down its overall accuracy – which is trickier than it seems at first glance – instead we’ll use this as a nice launching point for an examination of public policy and how it is crafted. Particularly when it comes to long-term, high-level strategies.

Design, sign off, implementation: it sounds very basic. However, big strategies often contain plans within plans, and plans to make further plans. 

This muddies the waters around what decisions, made when, actually led to change on the ground.

Ultimately, the statement in the Guardian makes two claims:

1. All five of the largest parties signed off on Going for Growth.

2. That strategy led to more slurry going into Lough Neagh.

The first claim could be called accurate or inaccurate, depending on your perspective. The second is difficult to unpick.

The starting point is 2012, and the creation of something called the Agri-Food Strategy Board (AFSB).

  • AFSB

The Agri-Food Strategy Board was established jointly by the then Department for Agriculture and Rural Development and the then Department for Enterprise Trade and Investment, whose respective ministers at the time were Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and the DUP’s Arlene Foster.

The creation of the board resulted from a Programme for Government commitment, at a time when each of the largest five parties were part of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Its purpose was to “recommend longer term actions required to assist the sustainable development of the NI agri-food industry.”

Although most of the board came from the agrifood industry, it also contained a handful of government appointees, and therefore was not strictly independent.

It put out a call for evidence in August 2012 and the following year published its strategic action plan: Going for Growth (GfG).

  • Strategic actions

Going for Growth – a strategic action plan in support of the Northern Ireland agri-food industry contained 118 recommended actions, covering the breadth of the agri-food industry.

It’s worth noting that slurry – a mixture of livestock manure and water, and sometimes other farmyard waste material like flecks of concrete – is only mentioned in the 85-page document once:

“Northern Ireland, therefore, has a strong competitive advantage in having ample water and low projected impact from climate change. Much good work has already been done in improving water quality, both with on-farm investment to better manage slurry and with a halving of the amount of fertiliser applied to our grassland. A strong regulatory position and supportive investment from Government has helped raise our game significantly. Further improvements could be delivered quickly if the industry-led solution for converting poultry waste into energy is supported by Government and help provided to encourage water recycling in food processing factories.”

The paper has no mention whatsoever of the word “manure”. The only references to  Lough Neagh note that there is a “long tradition” of harvesting its eels, and that more should be done to “to harness the resource of Lough Neagh for alternative species.”

The AFSB published the plan in 2013 and later that year the NI Assembly carried out research on how many of the 118 recommendations in it were new.

This research suggested that 25% of the recommendations were (or possibly were) “new” and some others partially so, leaving over two-thirds of the recommendations carried over from existing documents. Therefore, even from its inception, large swathes of what GfG recommended pre-dated that strategy anyway.

  • Sign off?

In 2014, the Executive published its own strategic action plan, in response to GfG. However, this Executive response basically amounts to the adoption of GfG’s recommendations (with some caveats, that we’ll come to later).

So, in a literal sense, the Executive did not sign off on Going for Growth. Instead, they produced their own plan “in response to” GfG.

However, that plan is extremely similar to the AFSB’s own document, with an action plan that is basically identical. A rose by any other name.

Is it accurate that all big five parties “signed off on the 2013 ‘Going for Growth’ strategy”?

If you want to say it isn’t truly accurate, you should still concede that what they actually did was effectively very similar. This is the same as how, in health, the Bengoa report (Systems, Not Structures) is not actually the Executive’s plan to transform Health and Social Care. Instead, that is Delivering Together, a strategy based on Bengoa’s work.

Anyway, what about all this slurry?

  • Plans, more plans, and plans within plans

The recommendations contained in GfG and in the Executive’s response amounted to a “strategic action plan” in the truest sense – it was lots of plans to make more plans.

That is fine. In fact, it’s in the nature of high-level, long-term strategy.

It does call into question how much that specific things that happen in the real world are tied to the initial plan, rather than decisions that were made in response to that plan.

Specifically, both GfG and the Executive response contain a set of actions related to “Better Regulation”, including action number 38:

“Regulators and Industry must engage in order to develop an agreed regulatory environment which adds value, is proportionate, informed and has a risk-based approach to regulation.”

Further to this, the Executive response to GfG contains several general, non-specific, but nonetheless clear statements that a balance will need to be struck between industrial development and environmental protections:

“The Executive welcomes the AFSB’s commitment to sustainable growth and the promotion of sustainability as a cornerstone of the NI brand. We have a duty to safeguard our natural heritage and biodiversity for future generations.”

The document said officials and industry will work together to “develop an agricultural land use strategy to determine how to optimise production efficiency and balanced environmental outcomes”, while the Executive itself will develop “a new Environmental Farming Scheme which will include measures to sustain and enhance biodiversity, improve water quality, increase woodland creation, and help to mitigate against climate change.”

The Executive response said further that:

“We recognise industry’s desire for a more business-friendly regulatory environment but are also mindful that this must be balanced with our duty to protect consumers and the environment.”

  • The finger of blame

Fast forward a decade, and Lough Neagh is dying.

The reasons for that are varied and complex. Slurry may have played a significant part.

However, is that because of Going for Growth, a high-level strategy that does not specifically address slurry or livestock manure?

Even if environmental failures have been made in the wake of GfG, arguably they arose from poor decisions made long after GfG (or, strictly, the Executive response to GfG) was adopted as policy and, in fact, represented a failure to implement the Executive’s idea that reforms should balance agri-food development with environmental sustainability. And, so, the plans that were planned for in the strategic action plan ultimately became bad plans, even though the initial plan to make more plans was itself an OK plan.

For instance, updated regulations on disposal of animal manure were made in April 2019, covering a three-year period. There is no clear relationship between the Nutrient Action Programme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019-22 (NAP) and Going for Growth. Those regulations have a much more direct relationship with slurry disposal and water quality than GfG – and, of course, equivalent regulations were in place long before the formation of GfG.

Or you could take another view.

It is just as plausible to suggest that, however non-specific it may have been, GfG has some ownership of everything that flowed outwards from its strategic recommendations – and indeed, on what was omitted from consideration as a result. And, being a high-level document with a very wide umbrella, that is arguably most if not all agri-food policy in NI for the past decade.

When it comes to marrying together public policy and blame, sometimes we all have to make our own choices.