Chapter 2. Environmental governance and management

Hungary has strengthened its regulatory framework for environmental management. However, institutional challenges impede more effective implementation of environmental law and the uptake of good regulatory practices. More needs to be done to preserve environmental democracy. This chapter analyses Hungary’s environmental governance system, including horizontal and vertical institutional co-ordination, setting and enforcement of environmental requirements. It also addresses public participation in decision making and access to environmental information, education and justice.

    

The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

2.1. Introduction

The World Bank 2015 Worldwide Governance Indicators show that the governance score of Hungary for regulatory quality is below the European Union (EU) average and has deteriorated since 2006 (World Bank, 2017). The 2013 European Quality of Government Index ranked Hungary 21st out of 28 member states (Charron, 2015). Hungary’s governance challenges, particularly in the institutional domain, have had important repercussions for the design and implementation of environmental policies.

Hungary has made its legal framework consistent with the EU environmental acquis. However, it has not been pursuing good international practices in implementation of environmental law. Despite a strong legal foundation of environmental democracy, there have been concerns in recent years in the areas of public participation and access to information.

2.2. Institutional framework for environmental governance

The environment is largely the responsibility of the central government and its territorial institutions; county and municipal levels have limited functions in this domain. The frequent changes in the institutional framework have led to fragmentation of environmental responsibilities at the national level, policy uncertainty and loss of human resource capacity. Those changes have improved inter-institutional co-operation at the national and territorial levels of government, in line with a recommendation of the 2008 Environmental Performance Review. However, enhanced co-operation occurred primarily to compensate for the break-up of the former environment ministry’s functions.

2.2.1. National institutions and horizontal co-ordination

Since the 2008 Environmental Performance Review, the central environmental administration has been significantly restructured. In 2010, the government drastically reduced the number of ministries to cut down on bureaucracy. The Ministry of Environment and Water was merged into the Ministry of Rural Development (renamed Ministry of Agriculture in 2014). At the same time, the Ministry of National Development took over responsibility for climate change issues. Furthermore, water management was transferred to the Ministry of Interior in 2012.

Hungary is one of the few EU member states without a dedicated environment ministry. The environment-related responsibilities are fragmented across several large ministries:

  • The Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) is responsible for most environment-related issues: air quality and noise protection, industrial pollution, environmental assessment, soil protection and remediation (excluding groundwater protection), waste management, biodiversity protection, etc.

  • The Ministry of National Development oversees climate policy, transport and energy issues, as well as municipal delivery of water supply, sanitation and waste management services.

  • The Ministry of Interior is responsible for water management and protection (including flood protection and water quality issues) and disaster management (including industrial safety). The General Directorate for Water Management and 12 regional water directorates (along river basin boundaries) are responsible for river basin management.

  • The Ministry for National Economy handles budgetary issues and economic regulation, including economic instruments in the field of environment.

  • The Ministry of Human Capacities has responsibilities for environment-related education and health issues (including drinking and bathing water quality).

The fragmentation of ministerial responsibilities is particularly significant in the water domain. While one ministry is in charge of surface water and groundwater management and protection, another one oversees pricing and operation of drinking water supply and wastewater treatment. River basin management and water permitting are handled by different agencies under the Ministry of Interior.

A 2012 government decree required the harmonisation of strategic planning documents across ministries. However, there is no environment-specific horizontal co-ordination mechanism at the national level: consultations between ministries are part of the general administrative process. An Environmental Sustainability Directorate established at the President’s Office in 2015 plays only a technical support role. Except for a limited number of spatial data sets, Hungary’s data policy does not allow free data sharing between public administrations. This creates an important obstacle for environmental decision making (EC, 2017).

Territorial institutions of the central government also underwent a major overhaul in 2010-14. Consolidated government offices (GOs) were created in the capital (Budapest), 19 counties and 197 districts. These GOs have subsumed previously independent authorities such as territorial environmental directorates (Box 2.1).

Box 2.1. Hungary’s State Territorial Administration Reform

The State Territorial Administration Reform (STAR) was primarily triggered by lack of transparency in the structure and functioning of the territorial state administration. Other factors included significant disparities in the standards and quality of public services between more advanced and less-developed regions. STAR was among the top programmatic priorities of the government elected in 2010.

STAR has fundamentally reshaped the jurisdictional, organisational and human resource foundation of service delivery at all levels of Hungary’s public sector. First, it integrated former territorial branch offices of the central government’s sector agencies (the so-called deconcentrated organs) into newly established county GOs. STAR also re-established administrative districts, abolished during the Communist period, to serve as the seats of district GOs. At the same time, the new Act on Local Governments substantially changed the competences, responsibilities and tasks of local self-governments in both county cities and municipalities. The scope and pace of the reform has proven very ambitious, hindering a constructive dialogue with stakeholders.

Because of the disparate policy formulation and budgetary arrangements, the state territorial administration does not have many strategic planning, data collection, and monitoring and evaluation functions. No explicit assessment of the costs and benefits of the reform has been carried out.

There has also been lack of co-ordination between individual “professional portfolios” within GOs. The OECD’s 2015 Public Governance Review recommended a thorough re-evaluation of the lines of responsibilities, reporting and co-ordination of various public bodies and government levels. At the same time, it called for adequate matching between the delegated responsibilities and the resources available to carry them out.

Source: OECD, 2015.

The institutional arrangements for environmental permitting and compliance assurance have also changed significantly. In 2014, the permitting and compliance functions related to water were shifted from the independent Environmental, Nature Conservation and Water Chief Inspectorate and respective county inspectorates to the National Directorate General for Disaster Management and its subordinate 12 Directorates for Disaster Management (and not water directorates within the same Ministry of Interior, which oversee water resources planning). These directorates are organised along the lines of river basins.

At the end of 2016, the Environmental and Nature Conservation Inspectorates were merged into GOs. The Chief Inspectorate became part of the Pest County Government Office. At present, the county GOs oversee environmental permitting, inspection and enforcement. However, district GOs conduct most day-to-day operations. Acting as a National Environment Authority, the Pest County Government Office carries out second-instance review of decisions of the county GOs. This reform has lowered the administrative burden on businesses through one-window permitting by GOs. However, it has eliminated the independence of environmental enforcement authorities. In addition, it has reduced their human and technical capacity, particularly at the district level.

2.2.2. Sub-national institutions

As of January 2016, Hungary had 3 155 communities, including 346 cities (the capital, 23 towns with county rights and 322 towns). Local governments’ environment-related tasks include spatial and territorial development planning, environmental public services (water supply and wastewater and waste management) and local nature protection. Around 40 inter-municipal associations (each comprising up to six local authorities) pool resources for municipal solid waste management services. Using EU funding, these associations have joint forces in waste collection and built waste management centres, transfer stations and recycling centres (Chapter 4. ).There are a few such associations in wastewater management, while inter-municipal co-ordination also exists in territorial planning.

County authorities (not to be confused with county offices of the central government) prepare regional environmental programmes, spatial and territorial development plans, and oversee municipal programmes and plans. They also have a say on draft municipal by-laws in the environmental domain.

2.3. Setting of regulatory requirements

The Fundamental Law, which came into force on 1 January 2012, contains several principles of sustainable development and environmental protection, providing important constitutional guarantees. Framework Environmental Law 53/1995 contains the basic principles of environmental protection and spells out the main environmental management responsibilities and tools. The development of issue-specific environmental laws has been heavily influenced by the transposition of EU directives.

Since 2008, there have been few changes in Hungary’s environmental regulatory requirements, all of them driven by changes in the EU legislation. The EU Air Quality Directive (2008/50/EC) and the Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU) have been transposed into Hungarian legislation through updated regulations on air quality standards (2011), emissions from large combustion plants (2013), waste incineration (2014) and emissions of volatile organic compounds (2014). The 2012 Act on Waste brought the Hungarian waste management legislation in line with the EU Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) (Chapter 4. ).

2.3.1. Regulatory and policy evaluation

The Act on Legislation (2010) lays down rules of preliminary (ex ante) impact assessment of all draft bills, government decrees and municipal regulations. This assessment, prepared by the drafting authority, covers social, economic, budgetary, environmental and health-related aspects of draft regulations. It also estimates the administrative burden on the regulated community. It is supposed to include cost-benefit analysis, but seldom carries it out.

The Act on Legislation also mentions the possibility of ex post impact assessment as part of the continuous revision of the legislation. The responsible minister may order one as needed to compare the actual impacts of the regulation with the ones projected by the ex ante analysis. However, this has happened in very few cases. One such case was the evaluation of environmental impact assessment (EIA) regulation in 2012 in the context of its harmonisation with EU Directive 2011/92/EU.

Hungary’s system of strategic environmental assessment (SEA) fulfils the requirements of EU Directive 2001/42/EC and the UNECE Protocol on SEA to the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. SEA is mandatory for local spatial plans and territorial development concepts (Section 2.3.3). It is systematically conducted in large- and medium-sized cities (those with county rights), but only sporadically in small municipalities. SEA is also required for policies and programmes related to agriculture, forestry, fisheries, energy, industry, transport, waste management, water management, tourism and regional development.

The SEA procedure comprises two main steps. First, the competent authority decides on the need for an SEA and approves the scoping document of the environmental report prepared for the draft plan or programme. Second, competent authorities evaluate the full environmental report with public participation. In a recent example, SEA of the Rural Development Programme (2014-20) imposed conditions on resource efficiency, mitigation of air emissions and ecosystem conservation criteria for land use.

2.3.2. Environmental impact assessment and permitting

The Hungarian permitting system, based on a 2005 government decree, is complex. It requires an “environmental permit” tantamount to the approval of an EIA and an integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) permit in line with the EU Industrial Emissions Directive (2010/75/EU). The permitting authority (county or district GO) may merge the two procedures based on the operator’s request; otherwise, they are conducted sequentially. Both the EIA and the IPPC permitting procedures include public participation (Section 2.5). Planning authorities (which are now part of the same GO) and disaster management directorates (responsible for water regulation) are also consulted.

If the decree does not list the activity, the operator may have to obtain permits based on requirements of medium-specific environmental legislation. County GOs issue permits for waste management (collection, transport and treatment) and nature conservation (for handling plant and animal species). Directorates for Disaster Management issue water abstraction and discharge permits. The operator may also request a “combined environmental use permit” that would consolidate single-medium permits into one document. Obtaining environmental permits is a precondition for building and/or operational permits. Permits are available to the public through the National Environmental Information System.

For activities with a low level of environmental impact, an operator may simply notify the competent authority without requiring an environmental permit. A ministerial decree regulates the operation of small and medium-sized combustion plants. However, there are no sector-specific environmental regulations (often called general binding rules) that would cover other activities dominated by low-impact installations. This is contrary to good practices in other OECD member countries such as France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

The EIA process has been brought in line with the latest EU directive on this issue (2014/52/EU). Projects listed in Annex I of the 2005 Hungarian decree, which have potentially significant environmental impact, undergo full EIA. For their part, Annex II projects are subject to thresholds and screening. Furthermore, the 2005 decree introduced – as part of EIA – the assessment of cumulative effects beyond the impact of the proposed project. However, on several occasions, competent authorities relied on a special procedure, called environmental performance evaluation, to assess an existing or ongoing project instead of carrying out an impact assessment before the project is authorised (EC, 2017).

2.3.3. Land-use planning

Land use is governed by spatial planning and territorial development instruments, which are implemented separately. At the highest level of the spatial planning hierarchy, the National Spatial Plan contains a mix of general guidelines and strategic plans. The National Spatial Plan (2003) stipulates regulations for “spatial structure” (infrastructure networks) and zoning (for the protection of natural, landscape and cultural heritage).

Spatial plans for two regions are also developed at the national level. They cover the urban agglomeration of Budapest and the tourist area around Lake Balaton. County spatial plans (elaborated every seven years) lay out details of the national plan’s directions, outline areas for future development and for nature and cultural heritage protection, and determine permitted uses of areas not specified by the national plan (OECD, 2017).

At the local level, settlement structural plans combine zoning with strategic planning. They are binding for land owners. Core areas and ecological corridors are zones designated for ecosystem protection. Other zones restrict designation of urban areas based on the risk prevention principle, including areas of high-water bed and flood reservoirs (EEA, 2013). A local spatial plan requires “supporting studies” on the protection of local historic and architectural heritage, environmental protection, landscape and nature protection (including Natura 2000 areas), transport management, water supply and sanitation infrastructure, and storm water management.

Formal requirements for SEA of local spatial plans were introduced in 2005. Planning regulations require assessment of environmental consequences of local plans. However, such assessments have been conducted almost exclusively in larger, county-level cities or in municipalities that apply for EU funds (for which an integrated urban development strategy is a prerequisite). In addition, although SEA effectiveness in Hungary has not been systematically evaluated, there is evidence that most assessments fall far short of best practices (Jones et al., 2013).

Spatial plans at all three levels of government are accompanied by “development concepts”. These define long-term social and economic objectives for territorial development at the respective geographical scale and guide sectoral planning. The 2014 National Development and Territorial Development Concept and county-level territorial development concepts define strategic goals, while territorial development programmes lay down operational measures. Each development concept guides preparation of spatial plans at the corresponding administrative level, within the limits provided by higher-level spatial plans (OECD, 2017). Despite their considerable influence on land-use planning, territorial development concepts are not subject to SEA.

2.4. Compliance assurance

Compliance assurance covers the promotion, monitoring and enforcement of compliance, as well as liability for environmental damage. Compliance promotion does not get the attention it deserves from Hungarian environmental authorities. Compliance monitoring and enforcement activities have been complicated by the recent institutional changes (Section 2.2.1). They do not follow international good practices such as risk-based planning of inspections or multi-factor guidance for the application of sanctions.

2.4.1. Environmental inspections

Each county GO produces an annual inspection master plan (including the frequency and types of inspections) for all departments. Based on this master plan, the environmental department draws up and carries out an annual programme of routine environmental inspections. The master plan is published on the office’s website. However, it does not specify names of facilities to be inspected or respective inspection dates.

The relative risk level (including compliance record) of individual installations is not explicitly considered in the inspection planning. For installations that require an IPPC permit, the planning is co-ordinated with disaster management directorates as the responsible authority for water-related issues. Inspection frequency varies between annual to once every three years. The latter frequency is too low for high-risk installations in comparison with good practices in other EU member states. For non-IPPC installations, inspection priority is assigned to facilities that create nuisance in residential areas, waste handling facilities and operators who have previously received an enforcement order. The frequency of inspection of water-related permits is set in a regulation.

The overall number of inspections has been declining in recent years, leading to lower detection of non-compliance (Figure 2.1). The 2016 abolition of the environmental inspectorate is likely to aggravate this situation further.

Figure 2.1. The number of inspections and detection of violations is declining
picture

 StatLink http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933712377

The share of planned inspections between 2008 and 2015 was 93%, which is very high by international standards. Unplanned inspections are conducted in case of serious non-compliance incidents and complaints. However, given that there is no risk-based planning of inspections, planned inspections do not address non-compliance in the most effective way. Indeed, non-compliance rates have been rather high (Figure 2.2), especially in the water domain (almost 18% of inspected cases).

Figure 2.2. Non-compliance is highest with water and nature protection regulations

 StatLink http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933712396

2.4.2. Enforcement tools

Inspectors can issue compliance orders and/or impose an administrative fine. Both fixed and variable fines are stipulated in issue-specific environmental legislation. For example, the 2005 IPPC regulation provides for daily fines of HUF 50 000 to HUF 100 000, as well as fines of HUF 200 000 to HUF 500 000 per violation, depending on the seriousness of the breach. These fines do not take account of the operator’s economic benefit from non-compliance. Criminal sanctions, including imprisonment, can be imposed in case of endangerment of, or significant damage to, the environment.

There are no data-collection arrangements to track the use and effectiveness of different compliance assurance interventions, even the actual use of administrative fines. It is also unclear how the Hungarian authorities ensure a proportionate response to different types of detected violations (EC, 2017). There is no guidance for competent authorities on the application of different sanctions. However, the nature of the violation, its environmental impact and recurrence of the breach are systematically considered in determining the size of the penalty.

2.4.3. Environmental liability

Liability for damage to the environment

The EU Environmental Liability Directive (ELD, 2004/35/EC) was transposed into Hungarian law in 2007. Environmental liability is strict: having an environmental permit does not provide immunity for any damage caused by the polluting activity. Over 2007-13, there were 563 reported cases of damage to the environment: around 37% of those concerned damage to surface water and groundwater, 35% damage to land and 23% damage to biodiversity. This is the highest number of any EU member state (EC, 2017). One reason for this high number is the broader liability coverage of Hungarian law (which, for example, includes damage to air) than that of the ELD. Of the total number of reported cases of damage, only 35% resulted in remediation. In other cases, ceasing the negative impact was considered sufficient. Moreover, the example of Hungary’s biggest environmental disaster in recent years – the 2010 toxic “red mud” spill (Box 2.2) – shows that actual enforcement of environmental liability is lacking in many cases, with taxpayers bearing clean-up costs.

Box 2.2. The 2010 toxic sludge spill highlights the importance of industrial sector regulation

On 4 October 2010, the wall of a tailings pond at the alumina plant in Ajka burst. The incident sent 600 000 to 700 000 cubic metres of toxic red mud and water through three villages and creeks that flow into the Danube River. Red sludge is a by-product of the production of alumina from bauxite. It is highly alkaline and contains arsenic and vanadium, toxic to humans and other species.

The collapse was the largest environmental release of red sludge in history. Ten people were killed and over 120 injured. One of the worst hit villages was declared uninhabitable. In the small Marcal River, all fish died. Around 800 hectares of adjacent agricultural land were polluted. There was also concern about downstream impacts in the Danube, as it flows through or near Budapest, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine on the way to the Black Sea.

Extensive mitigation efforts by the Hungarian government costing HUF 38 billion (EUR 127 million) have helped the ecosystem to slowly recover. However, these remediation costs were not recovered from the responsible party. In February 2015, the government set up a compensation fund for the victims, with many claims still outstanding. A HUF 135 billion fine was imposed in 2011 on the MAL Zrt. company that owned the plant. However, the fine was not paid, and the company has since been nationalised. Furthermore, in 2016, the plant’s former director and 14 employees were acquitted of charges of negligence, waste management violations and damage to the environment.

Source: Tran (2010); Lian Hui Lim (2014); The Guardian (2016).

Contaminated sites

The clean-up of contaminated sites (over 40% of which are abandoned waste disposal sites) is generally funded by polluters themselves. When the responsibility for contamination cannot be attributed (e.g. for contamination by former state-owned companies), remediation is funded from the national budget or the EU Cohesion Fund.

The publicly funded National Environmental Remediation Programme for the identification, assessment and remediation of environmental pollution has been in place since 1996. It has resulted in the remediation of more than 500 contaminated sites. Remediation standards for groundwater and soil have also been developed in conjunction with this programme. Data on the identification, registration and technical classification of all contaminated sites are stored in the National Environmental Information System. In addition, the Environment and Energy Efficiency Programme for 2014-20 allocates HUF 22.8 billion for environmental remediation tasks. In 2007-13, 23 sites were remediated with HUF 39.3 billion under the same programme.

Hungary has introduced a system of mandatory financial security, but it is limited to hazardous waste management. The required security may be a deposit, a bank guarantee or a liability insurance policy. In addition, it is possible to obtain environmental insurance policies on a voluntary basis. However, this rarely happens due to the shortage of appropriate insurance products on the Hungarian market. Further, there is not strong demand for insurance, which indicates insufficient enforcement of strict liability. The recent EU Environmental Implementation Review of Hungary recommended expanding the system of financial securities for environmental liability (EC, 2017).

2.4.4. Promotion of compliance and green practices

Government promotion of compliance and green practices can reduce costs for businesses by allowing them to achieve and maintain compliance as efficiently as possible. It may also reduce regulatory costs by increasing the efficiency of compliance monitoring and enforcement. Providing advice and guidance is particularly effective when targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises.

Hungarian environmental authorities do not engage in any compliance promotion activities. Although the 2015 National Action Plan on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) emphasises environmental performance, there are no voluntary agreements with individual economic sectors on achieving environmental targets. Several CSR initiatives emanate from the business community (e.g. Action 2020 by the Business Council for Sustainable Development, sustainable development work of the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum). However, they are not recognised or rewarded by the government.

Greening public procurement

Green public procurement (GPP) can be another tool to promote green practices, if criteria for public purchases of goods and services consider suppliers’ environmental performance. Hungary has not yet adopted a national strategy for GPP. According to a 2010 study, the share of Hungarian authorities that included GPP requirements in more than half of their contracts was estimated at between 10% and 20% (Adelphi, 2011).

Eco-labelling is not integrated into GPP criteria either, even though the designation of “environment-friendly” products under both the EU Eco-label and the national eco-labelling scheme has been assessed more vigorously over the last decade. The Hungarian Eco-labelling Organisation is responsible for the assessment, while the minister in charge of the environment makes the designation.

Environmental management system certifications

The potential of environmental certifications to promote green practices is not fully used. The number of new certifications to the ISO 14001 environmental management system (EMS) standard in 2015 (1 940 certifications) was only 6% higher than in 2008. The corresponding growth in ISO 14001 certifications over the same period was 45% in Austria and 239% in Slovakia, Hungary’s neighbour countries (ISO, 2016). There are no government incentives for ISO 14001 certification, and no demand from the domestic market. It is primarily export-oriented firms that obtain EMS certification; others consider that its costs outweigh benefits.

The EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) is even less popular: there are only 28 EMAS-registered organisations in the country. The government has provided limited incentives for EMAS certification (registered organisations are subject to less frequent inspections), but not for ISO 14001 certification.

2.5. Promoting environmental democracy

Hungary is party to the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters. The country has historically strong legal provisions in these domains. However, Hungary has made little progress since the 2008 Environmental Performance Review recommended that it further promote citizen participation in environmental decision making and access to justice on environmental issues. Hungary’s Deputy Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, Ombudsman for Future Generations – whose role is highly appreciated by civil society groups – has repeatedly raised concerns about environmental democracy in his annual reports (UNECE, 2017).

2.5.1. Public participation in environmental decision making

Public involvement in decision making is regulated by the Act on Legislation (130/2010) and the Act on Social Participation (131/2010). Most environmental laws require government agencies to provide opportunities for public input at an early stage in the decision-making process. Environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can register as parties to the administrative process and be automatically notified of the start of official procedures in their field of work. However, government agencies are not required to seek public input on decisions relating to environmental matters. Consultations with the business community have become rarer over the last decade. In addition, the government has substantially reduced its financial support for NGOs, including environmental ones.

The National Environmental Council (OKT, established in 1996) is a consultative body for the evaluation of draft environmental legislation, policies and strategies. It includes representatives of environmental NGOs, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Confederation of Hungarian Employers and Industrialists. The government must ask OKT for a formal opinion on draft environmental legislation. However, it does not have to accept the opinion or even report back to OKT on whether its position has been taken into account. Over the years, OKT has made a meaningful contribution to the development of environmental legislation (Cotta, 2015). However, consultations on draft legislation tend to be mostly non-public, informal and limited to selected stakeholders. The National Council for Sustainable Development, created in 2008 under the auspices of Parliament and chaired by the Speaker, also has a strong NGO membership. Its expert groups elaborate opinions and advice on government policy in different environmental domains. However, deadlines for comments from NGOs are unrealistically short (UNECE, 2017). There are no publicly available impact assessments underpinning legislation (EC, 2017).

As part of the EIA process, a public hearing is required if the project potentially affects more than 50 parties, or if requested by at least 5 NGOs. However, restricted public participation (with a shorter comment period) has been introduced for large infrastructure and transport projects, or those considered by the government as of significant public interest. The number of such “priority investments” has been growing steadily since 2011 (Szabó, 2017). Public consultations remain limited: the median number of days open for consultation was only 5 days in 2014 and 3.5 days in 2015 (EC, 2017). The controversial extension of the Paks nuclear power plant, where public consultations were even more limited by a special 2015 law, raised further concerns about restrictions on public participation (Antal, 2015).

2.5.2. Access to environmental information

The Act on the Right of Informational Self-determination and Freedom of Information (Freedom of Information Act, 112/2011) defines rules on the protection of personal data and the rights, range and access to data of public interest and its dissemination. The National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information was established in 2012 as an autonomous administrative body. It can request (but not order) the relevant government body to provide information based on a public complaint. However, freedom of information cases only accounted for 17% of the authority’s total case load in 2015, and none of those cases was related to environmental information (NAIH, 2016). The post of Parliamentary Commissioner for Data Protection was abolished in 2011.

The Freedom of Information Act requires government bodies to respond quickly to public requests for environmental information. However, they can refuse to provide data that are claimed to be part of the ongoing decision-making process. There are also concerns that privately-held environmental information is excessively protected on the grounds of commercial confidentiality (WRI, 2017). According to Act 90/2010 on Adoption and Amendment of Certain Economic and Financial Acts, state-owned enterprises are not considered to be public bodies, which also complicates obtaining environmental information from them (Antal, 2015). Whereas access to environmental information held by government authorities was free of charge before 2011, the costs of obtaining it have increased significantly since then.

There are no specific remedies against the refusal of, or an inadequate response to, a request for environmental information. Those requesting the information may file a suit in a regular private law court, which can order the holder of information to disclose the requested data in case of a substantiated claim. However, courts do not have access to the information the disclosure of which is disputed, and the judge must decide upon the freedom of information claim practically without knowing the information in question (European e-Justice Portal, 2017).

Hungary maintains its part of the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register. To further improve access to environmental data, the government established a data collection and processing network compatible with the European Environment Information and Observation Network. Moreover, this network has led to the creation of a national spatial data infrastructure required by the EU INSPIRE Directive (2007/2/EC) and further improvement of the National Environmental Information System. However, implementation of the INSPIRE Directive is lagging behind other EU member states: not all spatial information needed for the evaluation and implementation of EU environmental law has been made available or is accessible (EC, 2017). Environmental data are fragmented across several separate information systems. Their accessibility has been further complicated by recent institutional changes in the environmental domain (UNECE, 2017).

The last government-issued state of the environment report was published in 2013. Since then, the production of such reports has been outsourced (due to financial and staff constraints) to the Herman Ottó Institute. The latest annual report on the state of Hungary’s environment was issued in December 2017. However, little polluter-specific information is available on relevant government authorities’ websites, especially about administrative decisions such as permits and enforcement actions (UNECE, 2017).

For several years between 2005 and 2010, the National Network of Green Point Offices (GPOs) played an important role in disseminating environmental information to the public. GPOs operated at all regional offices of the environment ministry, offering free access to government-held environmental information in person, by phone or electronically. They also served as a conduit of environmental complaints from citizens to competent government authorities. However, the government’s institutional reorganisation leading to the dismantlement of the environment ministry and its regional offices has also led to the disappearance of the GPO network. Although a few GPOs still exist, they no longer perform the same functions.

2.5.3. Access to justice

Most administrative decisions can be appealed to the superior authority. The exceptions are decisions by the head of a central administrative agency or by a minister in the first instance, which must be appealed directly to court. In environmental cases, courts review both the procedural and the substantive legality of decisions. In other words, they review whether the content of a decision is in line with the regulation, and also whether the decision was made in the proper way prescribed by law. The most prominent example of this is EIA cases where courts review whether environmental impact statements are scientifically verifiable, and involve external experts in their adjudication. To contest land-use (spatial) plans that are adopted as municipal laws or resolutions, the plaintiff must first exhaust an administrative appeal process to the local government itself and to a county GO in the second instance (European e-Justice Portal, 2017).

There are no special courts to adjudicate on environmental matters in Hungary. Therefore, environmental cases are either decided by administrative and labour courts or by regular private law courts, depending on the nature of the legal dispute. Individuals and NGOs can file a suit against a government agency only if its decision is alleged to be intentionally or negligently wrong. Appeals to the Constitutional Court on environmental matters are possible, but almost never occur.

Only individuals directly affected by the environmental impact have standing to file environment-related lawsuits. NGOs whose activity is aimed at the protection of a fundamental right or the promotion of public interest also have standing in court. However, environmental NGOs have legal standing in environmental administrative procedures only if they operate in the impact area of an activity or facility. The standing rules also differentiate between nature protection and other environmental cases, further complicating access to justice (EC, 2017).

To initiate an administrative or a court proceeding, the plaintiff must pay a duty or a court tax. For example, a duty for a judicial review of administrative decisions is HUF 300 000 (about EUR 1 000). These fees are waived for certain types of applicants, but nonetheless constitute a barrier for access to justice. Lawsuits initiated to secure public access to information or in the event of an authority’s failure to execute its obligations are free of charge. While legal aid is generally available on environmental matters, there are no specific mechanisms to provide it (European e-Justice Portal, 2017).

2.5.4. Environmental education

The 2008 Environmental Performance Review recommended that Hungary pursue environmental education efforts; further develop the environmental training of elected officials, civil servants and teachers; and establish training for justice officials. This recommendation has been partly implemented. The MoA conducts environmental training for staff of national and local governments. In addition, the National University of Public Service and the Hungarian Legal Academy offer optional environmental courses for civil servants and judicial officials as part of their in-service training programme. However, the optional nature of these courses significantly limits their reach.

Several areas of learning in the National Core Curriculum deal with environmental protection and sustainability, and there are several optional teaching manuals on environmental issues. The number of certified eco-schools – recognised by the state and operating with an audited quality system – more than doubled over 2009-16 from 471 to 988, amounting to almost a quarter of all schools. The eco-school programme is managed by the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development. Similar green kindergarten, forest school and forest kindergarten programmes also exist. They receive some support from the Ministry of Human Capacities, but mostly rely on international donor funding (UNECE, 2017). The inter-ministerial committee for environmental education, created in 2008, has now been abolished.

The government organises environmental awareness campaigns and public actions to promote sustainable mobility, waste management, energy efficiency and nature conservation. However, many environmental problems (such as air pollution from residential waste burning for heating purposes, Chapter 1) still stem from the low environmental awareness of the Hungarian public. The Social Renewal Operational Programme has supported research and educational efforts on environmental and green economy issues in several Hungarian universities, although their extent remains limited.

Recommendations on environmental governance and management

Institutional and regulatory framework

  • Raise the political profile of the environment by renaming the Ministry of Agriculture as the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment; reduce the fragmentation of policy and regulatory responsibilities in the water domain by consolidating them within that ministry; continue to integrate environmental aspects into other ministries’ mandates and enhance horizontal co ordination at the national level; merge all environmental compliance assurance functions at the territorial level within respective government offices.

  • Build capacity of government staff, particularly at the local level, on best practices in implementation of environmental law; enhance the technical resources in support of their functions.

  • Streamline and simplify the environmental permitting regime for installations not subject to integrated pollution prevention and control permits; consider introducing sector-specific, cross-media regulations for facilities with low environmental impact.

  • Strengthen the implementation of SEA by applying it systematically to all spatial plans and territorial development concepts, as well as to all government policies and programmes with a potential environmental impact.

Compliance assurance

  • Introduce risk-based planning and targeting of environmental inspections; enhance the use of economic sector-specific guidance, certifications and recognition awards to promote compliance and green business practices.

  • Evaluate the deterrent effect of administrative fines and consider reforming them to account for the economic benefit of non-compliance; develop enforcement policies and guidance for inspectors on proportionate application of sanctions; expand use of financial security instruments such as insurance, security deposits and letters of credit to help enforce liability for damage to the environment.

Environmental democracy

  • Enhance opportunities for meaningful public participation as part of environmental rule-making and EIA; restore government funding for environmental NGOs; remove restrictions for individuals and NGOs to access justice on environmental matters and ensure that it is free of charge.

  • Make environmental information, including facility inspection records, more accessible to the public online; remove all restrictions and fees for public access to environmental information held by public bodies and review confidentiality-related restrictions of access to enterprise data.

  • •Strengthen vocational environmental training for public officials; step up environmental awareness-raising campaigns on energy- and climate-related issues, as well as biodiversity protection, and increase budgets for them.

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