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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 2 October 2000 (continued)

Mr Roche:

Absolutely. The way to protect competition in Northern Ireland is through the market mechanism. The economic thinking of the SDLP, like their politics, is the road to ruin. It is indistinguishable from the thinking laid out in pages 92 and 93 of a book called 'The Politics of Irish Freedom'. The sad and predictable fact is that if and when the leader of the PUP rises to speak, his thinking will share the same closed and parochial mindset as is evident in the motion.

Ms Morrice:

Going by the debate so far there is obviously a bit of confusion surrounding this issue, which reflects the confusion surrounding planning policy in general. It is something which needs to be changed, and changed very speedily.

We discussed this motion's wording and listened to criticisms from Mr Paisley Jnr. We are concerned about the dangers that out-of-town shopping developments pose to small towns and local retailers - they must be addressed. That is the essence of this motion, and it cannot be ignored because of the wording. It is important to take into consideration the need for balanced development between out-of-town retail super-shops and local towns and villages - the need to keep them vibrant and alive, and Mr Dallat's opinion that the heart and soul of the community is the local town.

We need vision, we need strategy, we need consultations, we need consideration, and we need community involvement. We have got none of those yet. Surely if we look at the motion we see that it is basically suggesting "Hold on, boys, until we get this properly planned".

11.45 am

Mr P Robinson:

That is a sexist comment.

Ms Morrice:

Vision is what is probably needed so that we can get this right.

I am sorry that Mr Paisley Jnr is not in the Chamber for I want to refer to his comments about interference "in the natural course of market forces". I wonder when he was last in one of the major superstores. On the subject of interference, when you look for Tayto crisps, you cannot find them on the shelves any more because the supermarket's own brand is up front there. Talk about interfering in natural consumer forces: if you want the product that you have been used to, you cannot -

Mr S Wilson:

If you are looking for Tayto crisps, Tesco at Knocknagoney had them at the weekend.

Ms Morrice:

The problem is that they are getting harder to find. Local produce is getting harder and harder to find on the big superstore shelves. Why is that? It is because the superstores' produce is guaranteed to get them better prices if they are put up front. I have had to search through all the potato crisps to find the Tayto brand.

It is a very serious problem and we have been lobbied about it on many occasions. I am sure all Members have seen the document from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association called 'And then there were none .', which is about local independent retailers and where they are going. Those are the important considerations that need to be taken into account when we are looking at planning developments for superstores. The document refers to the mass closure of small shops, the damage to the supply network, irreversible damage to rural communities, and lack of choice and access for consumers. All those things need to be taken into account when we are looking at superstore shopping and how it is carried out.

I want to make an important point about what is described as an "independent impact assessment". I talked to an experienced consultant who stressed the need for the independence of the impact assessment because the developer or big shopkeeper commissions the retail impact statement, and we all know what that leads on to - the statement is done but it is not independent. The key word in this motion is "independent".

The Department of the Environment should commission the impact statement and charge the developer as part of the application fee. I have spoken to experienced consultants. I said this to Mr Paisley, who said that consultants are not paid unless they come up with an impact assessment that is favourable to the developer. Therefore the independence of the impact assessment is very important.

Let me move on to the words about the moratorium that have been criticised from this part of the Floor. I cannot find the exact quotation but 'Strategy 2010', the economic handbook for the future development of Northern Ireland, states that there should be a rethink on out-of-town shopping. The wise gurus of economic development are saying that. A headline in my local paper, the 'County Down Spectator', states "Empty shops shelve small retail hopes".

Mr Roche:

I do not believe that there is a competent economist in Northern Ireland who would give any credibility to the so called 'Strategy 2010'.

'Strategy 2010' has an enormous wish list, but it contains no strategy to achieve any of the items on that wish list. Therefore it is not a strategy, and it has been rubbished by some of the most competent economists in Northern Ireland.

Ms Morrice:

May I read the list of people who were involved in 'Strategy 2010', to whose words Mr Roche gives no credence? They are Dr Alan Gillespie, Mr Gerry Loughran (now head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service), Mr Frank Bunting, Mr Chris Gibson, Ms Teresa Townsley, Mr Bruce Robinson, Dr Aideen McGinley, Mr John McGinnis, Mr David Gibson, Sir Roy McNulty, and Dr Patrick Haren.

We must take into account all the different viewpoints that exist, whether they be the views of local newspapers, retailers, economists, or those expressed in Mr Dallat's motion. There are major problems with this but the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee is considering them all. There are problems with superstores, and we must work out how to deal with them. It is as simple as that.

The motion mentions a moratorium but does not put a time limit on it. That is important. If there were a time limit, it could be limited to, for example, 12 months or until such time as the policy, vision and strategy are in place. The motion does not state that this is a lifelong moratorium, that there will be no more shopping centres. It is saying that we should get a strategy and a vision before we move. It is important that we know where we are going.

In this new dispensation in Northern Ireland, where we are trying to build peace and reconciliation, we must also try to build new structures, new environment policies and new policies to help us move forward. I think that is what this motion is about, and that is what the House should be considering.

Mr Savage:

I agree and disagree with some of the issues contained in Mr Dallat's motion. Shopping trends have changed over the years, and there are quite a number of small, rural enterprises. I live in a rural area close to three villages where there are small enterprises. They are part and parcel of the rural way of life, and they must be protected. I know that things have changed in many ways, but that way of life must be protected.

Planning regulations must exist, but they should be tightened. Multinationals should be allowed to expand, but they should not be allowed to take over a whole town. There must be a limit on what they are allowed to do. These supermarkets - no matter where they start up - can be very beneficial to towns and to the other shops in them. For instance, when Marks and Spencer came to Sprucefield, many people said that it would ruin the town of Lisburn. It has not. It has given the town a tremendous boost.

Over the last year or 18 months, attempts have been made to open such a retail outlet in Lurgan, and we hope that that will happen. When the shopping complex does open, other things will flow from it, and the shops nearby will benefit immensely. Many things are happening at present, and people are entitled to a choice. In the rural areas where there are small enterprises people will go wherever they choose for fresh food and fresh fruit.

There is no reason why those people should be steamrolled over. Many small businesses in those areas have been trying, without success, to get planning permission. They should be given that opportunity. If the outlets are not beneficial to the area then they will not survive. As I said, trends have changed. Nowadays people work all hours. There are all-night shopping centres, and people have the choice whether they want to visit them. It would not be my choice, but I like to support my local area as much as possible. These retail outlets are essential. There is one thing staring me straight in the face with regard to types of businesses in town centres. What need is there for builders' suppliers in the middle of a town? They have to be on the outskirts of a town or village because big lorries are constantly coming and going with materials. If they are in the middle of a town people constantly complain about the noise. I can not support the motion.

Mr Attwood:

I would like to comment on some of the contributions to the debate so far and, in particular, on the opening contribution from the DUP. The Member for North Antrim, in a rather typical speech, veered from verbosity to pomposity and this is reflected in some of his comments. He referred to Mr Dallat's contribution as hare-brained, ill-advised and ill-informed. He then went into overstatement, referring to the motion as having a devastating effect and hampering development and customer choice for ever. That is verbosity and pomposity, and it did not inform the debate very well. It certainly did not represent the content of Mr Dallat's speech.

The most interesting comment from the Member for North Antrim was the devastating contribution in which he said that nothing should be done to stop the natural course of market forces and the natural course of supply and demand. I have never heard a more dogmatic statement about laissez-faire economics in any Parliament in recent times than the Member's that those factors should determine retail development in this part of Ireland.

If this motion is not accepted by Members then the conclusion will be drawn that that is the view of many people in the House. That will ill-inform planning development, commercial development and will ill-serve the many small retailers in the towns, villages and hamlets of North Antrim who no doubt have given votes in the past to that Member.

Mr S Wilson:

Does the Member accept that it was made very clear that there are concerns and that the proper way of dealing with this would be for the Environment Committee to look at the issues and to come forward with informed proposals to the House?

Mr Attwood:

I am delighted, Sammy, that you came in, for the most eloquent indictment of the Member for North Antrim's speech was your contribution. Standing behind the Member for North Antrim, you said explicitly that you thought that the best criticism of Mr Dallat's speech -

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Attwood, please address your comments to the Chair.

Mr Attwood:

- came not from the Member for North Antrim but from the Member for North Down. I thought that was the most telling indictment of the misinformation supplied by the Member for North Antrim.


Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Attwood, will you please refer to Members by their surnames? There are several Members from North Antrim and South Down.

Mr Attwood:

Only one Member from North Antrim has spoken in this debate, Chair.

Mr P Robinson:

It is "Mr Deputy Speaker", not "Chair".

Mr Attwood:

Thank you. I will note that.

Mr Sammy Wilson's contribution was, as always on planning issues, thoughtful. He outlined a number of proposals that would influence planning development for retail developments in a healthy and creative way. He said nothing that we in this party would have any difficulty with.

The second point I want to make is that I want us to go back to what John Dallat said. If you actually read the speech, you will discover that it is a very well researched paper that borrows from experience in Britain, the Republic of Ireland and Europe in order to draw conclusions about what best informs planning policy in the North. It goes further than that. It lists the devastating statistical evidence about how many villages in Britain are no longer served by a shop and the devastating impact that that has on people without a car, the elderly, the disabled and the disadvantaged generally. It talks about how many countries in Europe have tried to implement planning policy to ensure that major retail developments do not run riot in their economies. It invokes evidence given to two Assembly committees.

On that point, I thought the contribution of Mr Roche was particularly noteworthy. He gave way to Mr Paisley Jnr, who said that the Agriculture Committee did not draw the conclusions that John Dallat said it did. The Agriculture Committee said explicitly in its report 'Retailing in Northern Ireland - A Fair Deal for the Farmer?' that it identified the need to examine the planning policies in relation to large multinationals because of their immense power to monopolise and dictate prices.

Mr Roche should agree with that, rather than agreeing with Ian Paisley Jnr, whom he seemed to be in accord with, and who then went off on a wild goose chase, quoting the writings of Gerry Adams as if they were somehow relevant to this debate. I think he should go back to what the committee said and respond to that, rather than scoring some narrow point based on the writings of another Member. I have not heard any credible indictment of, or disagreement with, the core content of this motion from the Ulster Unionists, the DUP or anybody else.

I want to end by going back to the core of the motion. What does the motion say? It invokes a number of principles. The first one is that there is a need for credible independent impact assessments. I have heard no Member say that that is a false principle. I have heard Members say that the fact that multiples appoint their own assessors is not an appropriate response to ensuring that economic development of superstores is developed in a planned and systematic way. I have heard nobody say that the current system is credible and independent, but I have heard people, including Sammy Wilson, say that there is a need for credible independent impact assessments, and that that principle should be upheld by voting for this motion.

Secondly, I have heard nobody say that the principle that John Dallat outlined - namely, giving shoppers maximum choice while protecting the legitimate rights and needs of indigenous retail trade - is false. Nobody has disagreed with that. That is another reason why this motion and those principles should be endorsed. As for Mr Dallat's suggestion of a moratorium, what does that mean?

The purpose of a moratorium is not to prevent development but to let us manage development properly, get it right and in the meantime not have any of these major retail developments because they are prejudicial. Why should the Chamber support this motion? As Mr Dallat said, there is an ongoing review of planning development in the North. He said

"The Minister of the Environment, Sam Foster, is on record as saying that the planning document 'PPS5' is to be reviewed shortly, while the Deputy First Minister has announced that a Planning (Amendment) Bill will be introduced to the Assembly during this session."

How can we inform both the review of PPS5 and the Planning (Amendment) Bill? The way to do it is to say on the Floor of the Chamber that there are a number of principles, which Jane Morrice outlined in a very powerful contribution, that should inform what they are doing. Those principles are the credible independent impact assessments for major retail outlets, maximum choice for shoppers, protection of legitimate rights and needs of the indigenous retail trade, and a moratorium - not forever, but in the interim - until the Government get those planning considerations correct. The best way to influence what the Government are doing now is to pass this motion. I commend it to the House.

Mr Carrick:

The motion before the House today gives us a welcome opportunity to debate the issue. There is no doubt about that. However, in the wording there is a lack of definition that contributes to doubts in our minds about whether we can support the spirit of the motion. We can relate to Mr Dallat in the underlying spirit of the motion, but having considered the issue carefully, I cannot support it in its present form. However, it is a timely opportunity to debate an issue that cuts across planning issues, and the economic fabric and social structure of our society. There are also commercial considerations.

I have drawn on the EDAW final report of January 2000, 'The Northern Ireland Town Centre Re-invigoration Study', and the planning document 'PPS5'. I trust that my remarks will be constructive and help the debate as it is carried forward. The EDAW final report identified major retail development as a key policy issue. It said

"One of the key policy issues for planning in Northern Ireland is the impact of major retail development and particularly out-of-town retailing. The initial surge in superstore development proposals in the mid-1990s have now been joined by demands for non-food and other multiples... The impact of the volume of applications has resulted in significant delays in the time taken to process them.

There is a considerable volume of floorspace with permissions likely to get permission which will take some time to feed through to development have on identifiable impact on existing town centres."

I have difficulty with the considerable number of applications and the lack of definition of a major retail development. 'PPS5' indicates that a major development is something over 1000 sq m, but it is not clear from the motion that Mr Dallat means precisely that. Without some further clarity I would be opposed to a moratorium at this time.

I do not think that we can argue with the objectives listed on page three of the 'PPS5'. The Government's objectives for town centres and retail developments is to sustain and enhance their vitality and viability, to focus development, especially retail development, in locations where the proximity of businesses facilitates competition that benefits all customers and maximises the opportunity to use transport other than the car, to maintain an efficient, competitive and innovative retail sector and ensure the viability of a wide range of shops, employment services and facilities which are easily accessible. The Department is committed to freedom of choice and flexibility in terms of retail development throughout Northern Ireland. That is all quite clear, and we can all identify with those objectives and that approach.

However, in the first recommendation EDAW indicates that there is a strong case for 'PPS5' to be reviewed, as a matter of priority. The present policy is ambiguous and therefore open to interpretation by the Planning Service. Despite the clarity of the objectives, there seems to be some ambiguity or difference in interpretation that might cause problems.

It is suggested that a retail capacity assessment for Northern Ireland should be commissioned, to provide an objective, independent base upon which to assess further applications for more major retail developments. That would also be helpful. "Credible" and "independent" are the operative words. The decision remains to be made as to where, and in what circumstances, any new development would be permitted. It is generally accepted that the locations of such developments would be market-led. Certainly the inclusion of a more explicit sequential test requirement would be desirable. It would be appropriate to offer more explicit guidance to applicants suggesting different types of town centre development, to encourage diversity.

Other Members commented on the fact that there are small towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland. The second recommendation of the EDAW report states that a review of policy on rural shop support and market town development be undertaken as part of a wider study of rural social exclusion. This recommendation is particularly relevant to my own constituency. Not only is it relevant in respect of the rural social support structure required for towns such as Banbridge, Gilford, Scarva, Waringstown, Donaghcloney, Magheralin and Seapatrick, but it also recognises the unique circumstance that the city of Craigavon includes two market towns - Lurgan and Portadown. After 30 years, substantial retail development in the centre sector of Craigavon is beginning to put a heart into the centre of Craigavon and has had a knock-on effect on the retail development of those two market towns. The challenge with regard to the retail sector is to ensure that market towns such as Lurgan and Portadown have the ability to attract and retain retail investment and maintain their viability and commercial vitality.

12.15 pm

Therefore, it is important that planning policy recognise the legitimate rights and needs of indigenous retailers and maintain a vibrant economic fabric in small towns and villages across Northern Ireland. It is an undeniable fact that consumers are voting with their feet. Increasingly they wish to shop where there is comfort and protection from the elements, a wide range of goods, free car parking, and, of course, competitive prices. If indigenous traders wish to compete with the multinationals, there must be a new approach and a new attitude. Town centres must adapt to the twenty-first century consumer's expectations and create an attractive and welcoming retail environment. Customer service and comfort must be of the highest order.

The proposer spoke of a moratorium on major retail outlets. I hope that that does not include smaller retail developments, many of which are in the planning pipeline and which, I hope, will provide an economic lifeline for certain communities in towns across Northern Ireland. Many of our towns are facing competition from existing major retailers in other towns. There is competition between towns. The establishment of the smaller retail developments in towns is one way of stopping the consumer haemorrhage and retaining shoppers in their own towns and villages. The retail trade must adapt to meet the expectations of the consumer. If that service is not available locally the shoppers, with their increased mobility, will shop elsewhere. That is a proven fact.

However, our market town centres require assistance as they struggle with the management of change. That is the key. Our traditional market towns need assistance. They need financial help with their infrastructure and with the creation of a new environment. I hope that there will be sufficient support in this House to include the financial provision within the appropriate departmental budgets to effectively maintain the viability and vitality of market towns and villages across Northern Ireland.

In closing, I say to Mr Dallat that in view of the degree of sympathy in the House for his general principle, perhaps he should consider withdrawing the motion in the best interest of the House. I think that on a future occasion or for a different motion, he would find unanimous support.

Mr McHugh:

A Cheann Comhairle. I support the motion. When you read the motion, there is really nothing there that anyone could have difficulty with. Some of the opposition to this is either driven by one reason or it is city-driven to some extent. The motion has a creditable aim in independent impact assessments and a moratorium - which can be lifted at any time - on major retail outlets. I see nothing wrong with that, certainly as it affects the area that I represent, which is a rural area.

I have a document from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, which represents 874 independent food retailers. They claim that they are making a significant contribution to the local economy in terms of employment and revenue, as well as providing a strong focal point in local communities, and without some positive action from the Assembly, according to them, the future of the Province's independent retailing infrastructure looks bleak. One statistic that is particularly striking is that 40% of small towns and villages in Britain no longer have a local shop. That has to be of concern to anyone.

This motion reflects the approach which has been adopted in respect of retail planning in the South of Ireland and, indeed, in many other European countries, although I think there is a need for some sort of limiting factor on large retailing outlets. There can be a benefit to the local retailers, however, and I agree with some of the arguments about size. If the size of the outlet is right, and it is placed in or near a town centre, then it can have added value for that town, and if the local retailers work together and utilise the resulting spending power, they can gain. The difficulty lies with the large out-of-town shopping centres, which, in many cases, lead to a displacement of jobs.

The Agriculture Committee's recent discussion on retailing raised the business of profit. These large outfits can hoover money up from the local population. They have 90 days in which to pay back what they have paid for their products. They get a large amount of money from the local population, and they use it to build their establishments all around the world. They then use their power to wipe out the local retailers thereby creating their own monopoly. That is a business trend that is worked right across the globe. About eight main retail supermarket chains currently control virtually the whole food sector right across the world - certainly in Europe.

If you look at the small towns in the South - and small towns are significant, whether in the North or in the South - their picturesque townscapes are a very important part of the tourism industry. That has to be taken into account in terms of planning, and if one out of two shops in a main street are closed or shuttered up, that takes away from the character of those towns. That has to be a serious concern. There are out-of-town shopping centres in the South as well, and the large supermarket retailers have made progress in terms of placement there - there are 20 times more there than in the UK in the last three to five years. That is how quickly they have taken over in that part of the world. [Interruption]

Mr Deputy Speaker:

There are five different private conversations going on in this room. That is very discourteous to the Member who has the Floor, not to mention very difficult for those who want to concentrate on what he is saying.

Mr McHugh:

Perhaps people are discussing the repositioning of their argument.

Can there sometimes be a real saving to the customer as a result of large retailers being in a local town? People will often tell you that there is no real saving to be made overall, whether you use the small local shop or the very large supermarket chain, because what is gained on one thing will be lost somewhere else.

Another factor, so far as agriculture is concerned and so far as I am concerned, is the traceability of products. The whole issue of genetically-modified food and imports and their quality can be lost in the business of own-branding. I am concerned about this, but it is the trend and one over which we have very little control.

As far as 'Strategy 2010' and other strategies which talk about investment and planning the way forward are concerned, it is important for there to be jobs and investment so that people have money to spend in their own areas. In Fermanagh we lost 600 jobs in the last two to three years. Such areas do not have the money to spend on large supermarkets, so it is also a question of getting the balance right.

In any area there can only be so much of the cake of spending power. The Six Counties is a small area with a small population, so there is only so much money to go around for spending. One has to consider who is going to cut the small retailer out first. I believe that the large supermarket retailers have the power to close down small villages and towns completely.

The other question in rural areas relates to the provision of roads and the infrastructure around these large businesses. The fact that people in small towns do not have cars, or a system of travel to these places, has to be taken into account.

Another issue relates to agriculture and the confusion that was brought in earlier. It is that of local suppliers versus the retailers. The findings of the agriculture report show that large retailers have less loyalty to local suppliers. There have been instances of the large retailers dropping contracts a year into the term of the contract because it suits them better to get their produce from an outside, cheaper source. It is one of the difficulties faced by local farmers and people trying to run small businesses.

Those are many of my concerns. I support the motion.

Mr Taylor:

Mr Dallat is to be commended for bringing this motion before the House. It addresses a serious problem for Northern Ireland - one that is a matter of great controversy in the community.

As this is such an important matter, it would increase the prestige of the House if a Minister were to be present to listen and to respond at the end of the debate. Hearing the views of a Parliament or Assembly should always be given priority over other activities.

It may well be that this motion has come too late and that the horse has already bolted. As we have heard, damage has already been done. I particularly dislike the reference to a moratorium. Mr Attwood said that the moratorium would last only until there was a review. Members know that reviews can take many years in Northern Ireland. Therefore there will be a complete stoppage on new large retail outlets in Northern Ireland for years ahead if the Members support Mr Dallat's motion.

I am against a moratorium for that reason. I know of several major retail projects at an advanced stage of planning which will be located, thank goodness, in town centres. These will provide hundreds of jobs in the centres of our towns, and it would be very damaging to those towns if we supported Mr Dallat's motion and so prevented these major projects from being able to proceed.

We should not fall into the trap of knocking the large retail outlets like Dunnes, Sainsbury's, Safeway or Tesco, for in addition to providing jobs, they help the economy of Northern Ireland by purchasing products from our producers. For example, both Sainsbury's and Tesco are each now buying at least £100 million worth of Ulster-made products - not just to sell in their outlets in Northern Ireland, but also to sell throughout Great Britain.

In Dungannon, for example, Granville Meats benefits tremendously from its contract with Sainsbury's, and Foyle Meats in Londonderry benefits tremendously from its contract with Tesco. It must not be a knocking operation against the large retail outlets.

12.30 pm

It is, however, a major controversial issue, which has had a damaging impact on some of our towns. We have had some good projects like the Tesco one in Dungannon and the Sainsbury's one in the centre of Armagh city. However, the Abbey Centre, for example, nearly knocked the heart out of Carrickfergus. It is only in recent years, since Tesco opened in the centre of Carrickfergus and the Co-op store opened near the centre of the town, that the economy and retail centre of Carrickfergus have begun to advance again.

The same applies to Belfast. The D5 project and the Tillysburn project are damaging to Holywood and to the great city of Belfast. There is a major planning issue at stake. Some people say that it requires the review of the planning consultancy document, 'PPS5'. However, I do not subscribe to that. The problem is narrower. It is "What is a town centre?" 'PPS5' refers to planning retail outlets in town centres. The issue is how one defines "town centre". In the city of Armagh, where I live, Sainsbury's built a major store right in the centre of the city, and that was good for the town. However, Tesco now has a plan for Armagh also - way out on the Loughgall Road. When I enquired, I was told "Oh yes, that is inside the town centre." It is about two miles or a mile and a half from the town centre, but, because of the town plan for Armagh, it qualifies as being a town-centre project. However, if that Tesco project goes ahead it will decimate all the privately owned shops in the centre of Armagh city. We need the Minister responsible for planning in Northern Ireland to define "town centre" as a matter of urgency.

Resources will be needed. One of the problems with large retail outlets is that many of them need inquiries to be held. Many are delayed. I know retailers from Britain and the Republic of Ireland who are investing in Northern Ireland. They say that it takes much longer to get planning permission in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the British Isles. Investment here is held back by the planners. That is not because they lack qualifications but because they lack resources and numbers. The real core of the problem is that we need more investment in our planning Department. That would enable town plans, and especially town centres, to be redefined as a matter of urgency, so that large retail outlets can be forbidden to build outside town centres.

Mr M Robinson:

Is it in order for the Member for Strangford, Mr Taylor, to chastise the Minister for Regional Development for his absence, given that the primary responsibility for the subject lies with the Department of the Environment? The Minister for that Department, Mr Foster, is swanning about in London, supposedly on North/South ministerial business.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I understand - and I may look at Hansard - that Mr Taylor did not name any Minister or the reason for a Minister's absence from the Chamber.

Mr Ervine:

Mr Dallat should not be particularly disappointed. I think that his motion will be defeated, and my party will be assisting in the defeat. I do not think that one sentence can sum up the difficulties that planning issues present to all of us. There are massive concerns. I hear much commentary about out-of-town shopping.

Some short references have been made to suppliers, notably agricultural suppliers. These are important groups to consider, but where does a bakery, which is not an agricultural supplier, fit into the scenario? One wonders how companies manage to make bread in Great Britain and transport it over for less than the cost of making bread here. We can question the percentage of Northern Ireland produce stocked by major retailers here, while considering the fact that European law does not oblige them to stock a minimum percentage of local goods. We are trapped. As Mr Taylor said, the horse may have bolted. We are dealing both with planning issues of the future and the aftermath of planning disaster.

According to Paddy Roche, the situation is fine because everything operates on the basis of profit and loss. Quality of life is affected when small towns are denuded of their shopping facilities. Small towns are not the only areas affected. Some Members may travel to this building by coming off the Sydenham bypass and driving along the Newtownards Road or the Albertbridge Road - roads which, along with others in East Belfast, were previously vibrant shopping areas. If you travel after teatime you will drive along canyons of shuttered premises, with the odd light shining from a takeaway shop and no sense of vigour in the area. This is happening all over society, not just in small towns. The vibrant areas of Belfast which, in the past, were almost like self-contained villages have been massively affected and not just by out-of-town development, by development in the town as well.

I have witnessed dramatic changes in the community where I was born and raised and for which I am an elected Member. I understand these changes more than some because I used to be a shopkeeper. I have worked for a living, contrary to common opinion and possibly that of Mr Roche and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party. As a shopkeeper, I had great difficulty in competing. This was to be expected, given the small square footage of my premises compared to that of the large retailers. Nevertheless, if I had been determined enough I could have filled shopping trolleys in one of the major retail outlets and sold that stock myself to make a better profit than I did from goods bought at a cash and carry.

There is unfairness, but how was it created? Is it simply due to the purchasing power of the big retailers? We have heard it said that they screw the suppliers into the ground. A supplier becomes dependent upon a major retailer because he provides so much work that the supplier has no other business to fall back on. Then, just before his contract is due to be renewed, a so-called negotiation takes place and the supplier is screwed, usually on two counts. He will work for less money this year than he did last year. In Mr Roche's economic terms, this may be perfectly legitimate, but in my terms it is absolutely abhorrent.

Alternatively, he may be forced to accept a special form of payment for which he has to wait a long time. The millions of pennies a major retailer retains in his bank account before paying money out will accrue substantial interest for the company.

I am also conscious of the plight of milkmen. Not all retailers have shops; some deliver products to the door. In the past, a milkman was regarded as making a valued contribution to society - he may have been the only person an elderly customer saw all day. A friendly face at the door may give sustenance to an elderly, incapable person.

There is a price to be paid for this, of course. For instance, as retailers massively reduce the price of milk, to below the point where a milkman can legitimately deliver and make a profit, it is not just the retailer or the person behind the counter who is affected. There is a knock-on effect, because the producer of the milk has to get his workers to work for less when the time to renew his contract with the main retailer comes up and if the price does not suit, the main retailer will ship in, just as is happening with bread, from Great Britain.

I do not know if Members are aware of this, but the bakery industry and the milk industry have gone through turmoil. The number of employees in bakery manufacture has almost halved, yet hardly a word is said about it. Is it because people do not eat bread? Or has it to do with how we fill the supermarket shelves?

I think that when Mr Dallat put his motion down he was not looking deeply enough at the matter. This is about jobs; this is about quality of life; this is about choice. The population will vote with its feet and go for the best deal. Like the rest of us, the people have to watch their pennies. And it is those who dictate the policies at the till who will have the people coming running towards them. I have seen this close to my home recently. A new supermarket has opened, and it is the flavour of the month. There is no question about it - I cannot get my wife out of it. It is the flavour of the month.

Mr Shannon:

Don't give her any more money!

Mr Ervine:

I take risks, but not of that sort.

The major retailer is new, and it is cheap. There is no question about that. Of course, we are in the European Union; it does not matter whether we are French or German, we are entitled to free trade, and much of that is to be applauded. But I lay this challenge down to all of us: I do not believe that my new, local supermarket has 1% of Northern Irish produce on its shelves. Not even 1%. If this is the case it is shameful that we, the politicians, do not exact some price from these people when we welcome them to our bosom and allow them to begin to destroy our quality of life.

Mr Poots:

I am in an unusual situation today in that I have some sympathy with what Mr Dallat had to say. The motion, as it stands, is not acceptable, but the general idea behind it was good enough, and I certainly have a lot of sympathy with it. I go to towns in my own area, like Dunmurry or Dromore, which were once vibrant shopping towns. Once many people would have been seen during the day going in and out of the shops, and a lot of trade was done in those towns.

Those shops normally bought their goods locally, and the money was reinvested in the community. That was a good thing. However, over 30 years ago supermarkets started to set up. Crazy Prices, Wellworths and other big supermarkets were set up by local people in the first instance. Subsequently those supermarkets were taken over, and many new clothing retailers came to the province. We now have Next and Habitat and Mothercare, all those different companies.

The trouble with Mr Dallat's motion is that it does not let us know exactly what a major retail outlet is. Is it just the Tescos and the Sainsburys of this world? Is it the Nexts? Is it the Habitats? Where do we stop? Do we stop at a multinational retailer which has a store of 1,500 square feet? Where exactly we stop is not clear.

12.45 pm

We had talk of a moratorium, and I was interested in Mr Attwood's analysis. A moratorium kills off the matter. I could not quite understand what Mr Attwood was trying to say about a moratorium; it just did not make sense. We cannot have a moratorium put in place. Today we are enacting human rights legislation, and one of the key areas of human rights legislation that was taken up, and lost, by the Scottish Parliament related to planning matters.

I have no doubt that if this instruction went to a Minister and he carried out that instruction, the Minister and the Department of the Environment would soon find themselves called to court by a major retailer, and that that court would find in favour of the retailer. So, enacting this particular motion would end up costing the Department of the Environment a substantial amount of money.

It is not legally tenable to carry out this motion, which refers to credible independent retail impact assessments. I am holding a credible independent retail impact assessment that was carried out by Ferguson and McIlveen on behalf of Lisburn Borough Council. It relates to an out-of-town shopping centre that has been proposed for the Sprucefield area of Lisburn. I would like to identify a number of differences between the independent retail impact assessment and what has been put forward on behalf of Stannifer Developments Ltd and J Sainsbury.

With reference to the original assessment from Stannifer Developments Ltd and J Sainsbury, it says that it fails to account for market penetration outside the 20-minute drive time band. It does not acknowledge difference in the trade draw characteristics between comparison and convenience goods; it does not account for trade diverted outside Lisburn town centre; and, most critically, does not adequately justify turnover figures. Moreover, it provides an entirely unrealistic turnover figure, and the degree of trade diversion from the town centre is minimised.

That shows a difference between two retail impact assessments. One provides an honest analysis, and the other an analysis that suits the needs of the person paying for the job to be done. My Colleague, Mr Wilson, clearly made the point that, should a retail impact assessment need to be carried out, it should be carried out by the Department of the Environment. That would be a properly independent retail impact assessment. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, and in this instance - as I have pointed out - we have the J Sainsbury and Stannifer Developments Ltd people paying the piper and the piper delivering the tune they wanted to hear.

When the council asked for an assessment a completely different scenario was painted. I will just indicate the impact that this would have on the general area of Lagan Valley. J Sainsbury proposed an 80,000 sq ft convenience food store. It is estimated that on current trends they would have a turnover of £700 to £1000 per sq ft. That gives a turnover figure of £56 million to £80 million, and 80% of that trade comes from within 20 miles. That gives in the region of £45 million to £64 million spent within 20 minutes' drive of Sprucefield roundabout and will include the areas of Banbridge, Craigavon, parts of south Belfast, Ballynahinch and Dromore. If £64 million is being spent in J Sainsbury at Sprucefield, that money has to be taken away from other retailers.

No doubt there will be a big announcement about job creation, both in the construction of the building and that which follows the opening of the new superstore. We have heard it all before. We have heard how many new jobs have been created in Belfast many times when Tesco, Safeway or J Sainsbury open a new store. However, O'Hara's bakery closed and 350 jobs were lost. A number of other bakeries situated in Belfast closed. A butcher's shop closed with the loss of four jobs and a greengrocer's closed with the loss of another eight jobs.

Throughout the city there was a levelling-off effect. The jobs that were created in the supermarkets were lost in the indigenous stores.

We have a great deal of sympathy for Mr Dallat's proposals. However, in the centre of my own town, Lisburn, a local company with a good track record called Cusp Ltd is to build a £25 million development. It wishes to have a department store as anchor tenant for the scheme. Had this proposal been in place before planning permission was given for the Cusp development, it could not have gone ahead, despite the fact that it is a major development bringing in retailers from outside the Province. It will regenerate an area of Lisburn, bringing more customers in and helping the indigenous shops already in the town, for it will bring extra trade to it. In many areas, this motion would exclude new developments from coming in and setting up in towns.

Mr Shannon:

The Member mentioned Lisburn, but there are very similar examples in Strangford. The Castlebawn development, a £60 million project in Newtownards, will create 300 construction jobs and 1,500 jobs in the business and associated shops. This will reinvigorate the whole centre of Newtownards, for it is within walking distance of it. Does the Member agree that if we accepted Mr Dallat's proposal today it would stop the development, since planning permission has not yet been granted?

Mr Poots:

I thank the Member for a further example of the motion's inadequacy. We should also look at the rates charges of many large retailers. A key advantage of the larger developments is the superabundance of available parking. If someone wishes to go shopping in Belfast city centre during the day he will come back to his car with a bill of £10 or £12. In other towns around the Province it could cost him £4 or £5. At Sprucefield he can stay as long as he wishes, for car parking is free.

The regional strategic framework is supposed to encourage people to move away from private transport towards public transport. One means of encouraging people to use public transport is the introduction of ever higher charges for parking in towns and cities. Supermarkets have free parking, giving them an inbuilt advantage. This can only be counteracted by raising the rateable value of supermarkets and out-of-town centres, leading to their paying more for providing free parking. They would obviously have to charge more for their goods, perhaps resulting in a somewhat more level playing field. That is one of the things which will have to be done for equitable competition between large and small retailers.

The story of small shops is not always black. I know many small shops which have reacted to the current situation and which are now doing very well. They regularly have a loss leader and provide goods at a reasonable price. The element of convenience is much greater. It does not take an hour and a half to get in and out, and they do not have as many shelves to wander round looking for goods. Some small retailers have done very well under present circumstances. Times change, and perhaps it is those retailers who have not changed with the times who find themselves in the greatest difficulty at the moment.

In drawing my remarks to a close, I state my support for those who have urged Mr Dallat to withdraw the motion for today. There could be widespread support for a motion of this nature. It is unfortunate there was not more consultation. I am not aware how much consultation took place in his own party - its members have never mentioned the issue in the Environment Committee. I appeal to him to withdraw it for today and enter into creative consultation with other Members to try to bring forward a motion which would have the Assembly's support and gain credibility for its Members.

Mr P Robinson:

Like other Members, I welcome the opportunity afforded to us by Mr Dallat to discuss this issue; this has been a useful and interesting debate. However, like other Members, I have concerns about the preciseness of the wording of the motion. I should state at the outset that much of what Mr Dallat and other Members who have supported the motion have said in their speeches is generally accepted. However, the motion does not say what they said in their speeches, and that is where the difficulty lies.

I represent a constituency in which there is a plethora of small shops. I am constantly hearing about the difficulties the retailers face in competing against the large supermarkets. These difficulties are obvious. They were explained very well by Mr Ervine, and I agree with what he said. It is difficult for the proposer of any motion to encapsulate, in one sentence, the issues that relate to planning in this sector, and I am not convinced that this motion has approached them in the right way.

One of the defenders of the motion, the Women's Coalition spokesperson Jane Morrice, ended her remarks with the words "I think that is what this motion is about." The Alliance spokesperson, who generally supported the motion, also had to "think" what the proposer was attempting to say. That indicates that the motion is not precise. I am not going to get party political on this issue, but one thing that we in Northern Ireland should have learnt over a number of years is that before you sign up to something you should make sure you know exactly what it means. Members who sign up to this, either by a show of hands or by going into a Lobby, should be sure they know what it means.

I think I know what the proposer was attempting to say when he talked about credible independent impact assessments. In fact, I am wondering whether he wants more than one when he puts it in the plural. Are there going to be a number of independent assessments? Would you ever get an independent assessment of the impact of a planning application? The people who have argued for it in this debate are right when they say, as did my Friend, Mr Poots, that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. Somebody has to pay for the consultants; I do not know of any who are so altruistic that they would carry out these independent assessments without being paid. Somebody will be calling the tune. If you have the assessment carried out at the behest of one person or another - be it the developer or the Department - will it be truly independent?

Ms Morrice:

Will the Member give way?

Mr P Robinson:

I should be delighted.

Ms Morrice:

Does not the Member agree that if, as I suggested, the Department of the Environment itself were to commission the impact statement, that would be an independent assessment?

Mr P Robinson:

In the context of planning, no, I do not. When you come to any planning appeal, there are, in effect, two sides to the equation. One will be put by the planner, who is defending the decision that he has taken, and the other by the developer, who is appealing that decision. They are therefore partisan in terms of any hearing that may take place.

I am on a borough council, and you would not get too many councillors from any party represented on the council who are likely to say that the Department acted in an independent way in respect of some of the planning applications that it has been dealing with.

Mr Byrne:

A great deal of consensus is developing about this independent retail assessment and the question of who would pay for it. As Mr Poots suggested, the local authority would be best placed to commission such an assessment, since it encompasses the aggregate interests of the people in the area.

1.00 pm

Mr P Robinson:

Well, there will be difficulties. I am not sure whether too many councillors would put up their hands to increase the rates by taking on planning responsibilities. I have no problem with increasing the fees for planning applications so as to incorporate an amount that could be used for a planning impact assessment. It is not so much the payment that worries me, but rather who is in control. Who is the person carrying out the assessment going to report to? Ultimately, that is the person who will be calling the tune.

I think I know what Mr Dallat means by "major retail outlets" - that definition is central to his proposed moratorium - but it can mean different things in different areas. A major retail outlet in Belfast would be very different from what might be considered to be a major retail outlet in Strabane. The size of the catchment area and the density of the population would have an influence, unless we directly carry over the Republic's definition of a major retail outlet, which, I believe, is anything over 30,000 sq ft. I suppose that if you propose a retail outlet of 29,500 sq ft, it will not fall under the moratorium, but I would have thought that in many parts of Northern Ireland, that would be considered to be a very major outlet.

I think that Mr Dallat is talking about out-of-town developments in his motion, but he did not say so, and therefore we must assume that it does not just mean out-of-town retail developments but also town centre developments. A number of Members have described the impact that a moraturium would have. I think the moratorium will give Members major difficulties in supporting this motion. There are two reasons for that, one of which has been mentioned by several Members, including Mr Taylor, and that is that the length of time that the review and consideration of this matter would take would create deadlock for up to a year.

However, in the precise terms of this motion it is a review of the policy that is being sought. I do not honestly think that the policy on these matters is that defective. I do not have great difficulty with the policy. The policy does seek the protection of the vitality of the town centre. The policy is in many ways OK. It is the implementation of that policy that is the problem. There could be a moratorium for a year or two while they look at the policy and introduce another policy which will do exactly the same thing in calling for the vitality of the town centre to be protected, but when it comes to implementation, unless the modus operandi of the planners who operate the system is changed, it will not have done any good at all in terms of the protection of town centres.

Jane Morrice referred to the balance that is necessary. There is a balance that one has to get between the competitiveness that is an essential component from the consumer's point of view, in terms of prices and choice, and the protection of the vital part of the Northern Ireland culture that is the corner shop, the local trader and all that that means, not only to the town but to rural communities in the Province.

In closing, I thank Mr Dallat for putting down the motion. It has given us an opportunity to discuss the issues, but he will do a disservice to the planning issues that he is attempting to highlight if he proceeds to a vote on this matter. Far better if he takes the course that has been suggested and allows the Environment Committee to look at the wider and deeper issues involved. Without minimising the effort that I am sure he put into the wording of his resolution, the Committee could bring forward something less fuzzy, a bit more precise, with clearer definitions, and perhaps having considered the impact of some of the generalities that he has put down, and in particular his proposed moratorium.

Now that we have had the debate and had the issues aired, I hope that he will consider these issues. I will not make my attack on the Minister of the Environment as savage as that of the Member for Strangford, but I agree that the Minister, Mr Foster, would have been helped if he and his officials had been here for the debate. I hope these matters will be drawn to their attention so that they know what the Assembly feels about these issues. They would be better dealt with by the Environment Committee, instead of by way of a motion that might misinterpret the mood of the Assembly.


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