Why the Lough Neagh Development Trust?
We all, directly or indirectly, have a stake in Lough Neagh. We drink its water, eat its fish, build with its aggregates. Visitors from near and far enjoy and learn from its wildlife and natural habitats whilst others use it for recreation, education and science. At the same time the benefits we derive from the Lough are being severely limited by fragmented ownership, disjointed governance and the absence of a strategic overview. Despite some great work being done by a number of local organisations the full potential offered by the Lough is far from being realised and, as things stand, this is unlikely to change.
Local shared ownership will be key to bringing about successful change. The Lough (bed) remains largely in private ownership, an asset which can be bought and sold on the open market. The risk remains that ownership could change with unknown impacts on the Lough itself, local communities, other stakeholders and the wider region. Public (state) ownership of the Lough has recently been considered as an option for the future and discounted.
The current majority owner, the Earl of Shaftesbury, has been involved in discussions with the Lough Neagh Development Trust since its inception. He is committed to finding a way forward for the Lough which would ensure sustainable, appropriate and professional management of this resource for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. He has said that he is open to the principle of common ownership and that the Shaftesbury Estate will continue to work with the Development Trust to find a way forward that is right for local people and which enjoys wide support.
Alternative Models of Management and Ownership
The challenges facing Lough Neagh are not unique. Internationally similar situations exist and new models of natural resource management are emerging. Two such models are Community-Based Natural Resource Management and Integrated Water Resource Management which recognise and address the need to improve the management and development of natural resources such as Lough Neagh. They provide an accepted modern alternative to the fragmented, sector-by-sector, top-down management style that has dominated in the past and is evident around Lough Neagh today.
At the same time, in jurisdictions close to hand, the principle of shared common ownership has been developing apace. In rural Scotland for example local communities have bought estates, villages, towns and islands through Community Land Trusts. Local ownership has acted as a catalyst energising and revitalising communities, attracting investment and generating employment whilst protecting local culture, heritage and the environment.
Clear evidence from elsewhere indicates that shared ownership and responsibility represent the way forward for Lough Neagh. Wildlife conservation and protected area management around the Lough can successfully sit alongside commercial activity including fishing, aggregate extraction, farming, renewable energy and tourism. Critically, local people having a powerful voice in decision making will result in better stewardship along with balanced, responsible economic and environmental development for the benefit of all.
The Trust is advocating a new and inclusive form of shared management and common ownership which will help realise the potential the Lough has to offer whilst safeguarding and sustaining it for all.
Acquisition of the Lough by the Trust will be a first step. The allied acquisition of shore based (publicly owned) assets will facilitate the development of an integrated, effective Lough Neagh development strategy and act as a further catalyst for a stronger, more sustainable future.