Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 24 October 2000 (continued)

Mr Hussey:

Where are they?

Mr McLaughlin:

One is in London, the other in south-east England. I can ask my Colleague to provide the Member with the names if he needs them, for I have them here.

Four major advantages have been observed from the implementation of the zero waste approach in other countries. There is a lesson in them for the sceptics amongst us and for this Assembly. They are the environment, economic regeneration and employment, the quality of life itself, and the practicality of recycling. Waste minimisation measures, and in particular regulations which place responsibility for them on those who can design it away, reduce material use and ease its reuse.

In Germany the very stringent laws that country has introduced have reduced quantities of packaging materials by 13%. German industry is now engaged in close-loop design, which indicates further major material reductions. In Canada, the National Packaging Protocol achieved 50% recycling and reduction by 1996. Those materials reclaimed through recycling have been found by a series of significant international studies to offer major environmental savings by replacing virgin materials. In the United States the 1994 Tellus study carried out a life-cycle inventory of 13 packaging materials and concluded that the decisive environmental benefit of recycling stems from the avoidance of the environmental cost which would have resulted from the extraction and processing of the displaced virgin materials.

The organisational structure - and, indeed, the culture - required to develop intensive diversion is markedly different to that of the traditional disposal industry, whether the issue be landfill or incineration. That is why it has been difficult for many in the traditional waste industry and in local authorities to encourage or even to envisage any diversion other than the building of bottle bank collections with only modest projections of recovery levels. All of that clearly points to the need for a zero waste strategy.

6.30 pm

I shall conclude with some interesting figures. Globally, 1998 was the warmest year measured in history. The top 10 warmest years measured worldwide over the last 120 years all occurred after 1981, with the six warmest of those occurring after 1990. That gives us all reason to be concerned. When one considers that major reinsurance companies have calculated that economic losses due to weather extremes have increased by a factor of eight since the 1960s, one can see the urgency of taking action. I urge the Assembly to set achievable but ambitious targets and to work within the framework of a zero waste policy towards ever escalating levels of achievement.

I ask Members to support the motion and reject the amendment. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Question That the amendment be made put and negatived.

Main question put and negatived.

Motion made

That the Assembly do now adjourn. - [Mr Deputy Speaker]

Future of the Mournes


Mr McGrady:

This subject is very dear to my heart. It is not a parochial debate about the Mournes, but is about the greater issue of how we use the environment in Northern Ireland.

A recent article in 'The Irish Times' said

"So much of what tourists treasure is available in south Down and careful investment will be a boon.In the warmth and glory of summer, the surrounding landscape is breathtaking. Fields are edged with dry boulder walls and uneven with velvet pockets and rounded hummocks"

It is a beautiful, idyllic setting. The article describes the outstanding qualities of one of Northern Ireland's greatest national assets - the Mournes - which requires proper management for use by future generations.

We must never forget that people with varying interests not only live in the Mourne region and its surrounding settlements but eke out, in many different ways, an existence from the land and sea. There has been some diversification, but that has not filled the gap. Such diversification was the basis of European funding and I am concerned about the continuity of that funding. We must find a way to bridge the gap between the completion of the last tranche, on 31 December 1999, and the commencement of the funding for the next six-year period, which will not be available until spring. I hope that the Government will act swiftly to bridge that gap.

We need a management plan for all who live and work in the Mournes and for those who visit as holidaymakers - there is no doubt about that. The plan needs to satisfy a range of interests: farmers, fishermen, small industrialists, commercial concerns, rural dwellers, tourists and day-trippers.

Who is responsible for the implementation of such a plan? Now that political authority has been devolved to the Executive, it is we. Acting in unison, we should ensure that a proper management plan for the Mournes is devised. The plan already exists; it was devised by the Mourne Heritage Trust.

It has been endorsed by three district councils - Down, Newry and Mourne and Banbridge - as well as the 60 community groups that make up an organisation known as the Regeneration of the Mournes Ltd. Surely this reflects an acceptable level of community involvement.

This management plan was devised under direct rule. The Ministers at that time took the easy option and side-stepped the issue on the basis that the enhanced management structures proposed would involve resourcing, so, theoretically, they left it for the devolved Assembly to deal with.

Previous political Administrations relied on the protected areas designation and other protective notifications. However, there has not been a single focus on how to develop what I have described as a national asset for Northern Ireland. The whole thing illustrates the cop-out that was taken by previous administrations.

The gains to be had from the implementation of a properly structured, properly resourced, co-ordinated and cohesive management plan would outweigh all the disadvantages. The only disadvantage that I can discover from all the correspondence and the meetings with various Departments is the question of cost. However, by adopting a more sensible approach to that plan, the costs involved would be returned manyfold.

The Mourne Heritage Trust reckons that for every £1 that is spent £4 has been returned in investment and better resources for the area, and economic regeneration involvement has increased. That is a 400% return on investment, and the potential is even greater; we should remember that. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report was published in respect of the Canadian national parks programmes, and it showed that for every dollar invested, $9 was generated for the local and regional economies. This seems to apply in many other areas also.

I am very pleased that the Mourne Heritage Trust has been able to devise and develop this plan. They recently made an excellent presentation to the Minister of the Environment, and I thank the Department for receiving the delegation so sympathetically. If there is a problem with money eventually, we will discuss this as well. I have received an assurance from the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment that he would like to hear a similar presentation, and I hope that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will follow suit.

This exemplifies the cross-cutting interdepartmental nature of what should be our new programme, about which we heard so much in this morning's debate. An interdepartmental approach to the future management of the Mournes is urgently required, and the impetus for this can be provided only by the new political institutions here - through the Executive, aided by the Assembly.

The central feature of such a management plan is the concept of a national park. In this instance the national park concept has been changed, ameliorated and devised to cater for the local situation. It is known throughout the isles as the Celtic Model Park. This has been devised for the Mourne area, and, if successful, it will be a model for many other areas in Ireland. The principle designation of national park status in Northern Ireland emerged in the original ad hoc management committee of the Mournes, known as the Mournes Advisory Council and was noted in the draft regional strategic framework document 'Shaping our Future'.

This document provides a framework for both rural and urban planning requirements for the next 25 years. It is important to get in on this on the ground floor and get our act right. The Mourne Heritage Trust is satisfied that this Celtic model of national park status may be a solution for Northern Ireland, providing consensus for the future management and development of the Mourne area in a way which would add considerably to Northern Ireland's overall environment and tourism products.

The main components of Celtic national park status are as follows. The existing Mourne Heritage Trust would continue to exercise its management function. The Department of the Environment would retain the planning powers - which make central government jittery sometimes - for the Mournes. As socio-economic and nature conservation programmes go hand in hand, these would be play an equal role, and in fact, that role is already devised. The three district councils would still be the access authorities.

When the park is fully operational, it will require core funding estimated at £1·2 million per annum. I understand that the core cost is presently £200,000, so we are talking about an estimated additional £1 million. It sounds like a great deal of money, but, as I mentioned earlier, the clawback for the regional and local economy may be four times, or - if the Canadian experience is repeated - nine times the sum invested. The three district councils and the Craigavon and Downpatrick planning divisions currently provide the local governance of the Mournes.

What exactly is the Mourne area? It is not just the Mourne Mountains. When you refer to the Mournes, people think of the mountains and the song about them sweeping down to the sea. I want to give you some physical statistics. The area consists of 29,000 hectares of farmland; 1,500 farms with a small average of 20 hectares; 20,000 hectares of moorlands and mountains; 5,000 hectares of woodlands and forests; 72 km of coastline; and a series of rivers, lakes and reservoirs. This is one of the greatest natural resources in the island of Ireland, North or South. We are not paying enough attention to its potential for development.

In addition to the natural physical features, there are 350 historic monuments; two sustained village conservation areas; 400 listed buildings; and 1,700 derelict vernacular buildings, which could be restored and used for economic purposes. Those are some of the characteristics that translate the picture-postcard image of the Mournes into a reality which is available for development.

Why should the Mournes be designated with national park status? It is happening elsewhere, and unless it is dealt with urgently, we will be left lagging behind. There are eight parks in England already, two of which are being proposed for management. There are three national parks in Wales and two new national parks being created in Scotland. Northern Ireland is probably the only country in the EU which does not have a national park. That speaks for itself. National parks - whose features lend themselves so well to departmental cross-cutting - rejuvenate, yet sustain both the natural and human environment. Therefore we need to examine it quickly.

Although the existing management is doing an excellent job and making considerable progress, because it is under-resourced things tend to happen in a piecemeal fashion at present. Indeed, it lacks effective power to carry out many of its duties, remembering always that the local population consensus is totally behind it.

6.45 pm

There are competing pressures on all such beautiful areas between landowners, developers, tourist interests, farmers, rural dwellers and, in this case, fishermen. They all demand a better-resourced co-ordinated effective management plan for the Mournes. National park designation would confer the special status that is required. A local body capable of managing such a park already exists in the form of the Mournes Heritage Trust, which is recognised by the Departments. The Government policy context is supportive through the future strategic planning strategy. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board policy that underpins sustainable and cultural tourism is also on board.

The Environment and Heritage Service, which supports biodiversity and wishes to ensure access to such areas, is also in favour of it. The economic and tourist development strategies of the three district councils, European Union environmental policy and the rural development plan submitted by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to Brussels for European Commission approval all support the key theme of rural regeneration and development through funding for environmentally sensitive areas. Not only is this an environmentally sensitive area, but it is one of the largest less-favoured areas in Northern Ireland.

For all of these reasons, it is both good common sense and a good practical use of our natural resource, and also a requirement to provide a continuing custody of that area, as well as ensuring the economic well-being of the people who live there.

Financing still remains both an objective and an obstacle. I believe that it is an obstacle that the Celtic model of National Park status could overcome with the figures that I have given you. The return on investment, pound for pound, is one of the best deals that one can get. It is much better than stocks and shares or investing in the open market. It may not be apparently returnable in terms of a pound coming out of the Department and four pounds going back into the Department - that is not what happens. But it means that there is that 400% or 900% renewal in the local and regional economy.

Much of the Mournes is already designated as an area of special control. These areas of special control are important, but piecemeal. They have different designations: areas of outstanding natural beauty, areas of special scientific interest and a plethora of other mnemonics. We need a holistic approach to bring all these together along with the human element - the resources and requirements of the people who live and work in the Mournes - and give them an economic future.

I do not want to pre-empt the ministerial response, but I think the system of management that is proposed has the approval - not in writing, but certainly in spirit - of the Department. It is a very interesting and viable practical approach to preserving, developing, using and making profitable that natural resource. The only thing wrong is the hesitancy and reluctance to give it the initial financing.

Legislatively, it would be a very simple matter. It would only require an Order, in consultation with the public and the proposed managers, to have it translated from its present status of management to that of a national park. It would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and the European Union in terms of national parks with respect to the environment, tourism, the local and regional economy and the local community who live and work there.

I strongly recommend that we take the new initiative to create the specialised tailor-made national park concept known - in the circles that deal with these matters - as the Celtic model, and try to develop it immediately in the Mournes. There will undoubtedly be a resource problem, but the Department of the Environment, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development should encourage the proposal.

The £1 million should not have to come from the Department of the Environment alone. There should be greater interdepartmental involvement. If the cost were split between three or four Departments, each would only have to pay £250,000 a year. That investment would have a great return.

In addition, I am sure that a reasonable case could be made for resources from Europe, particularly from the Rural Development Fund. If there is willingness, acceptance and drive, the money can be found on a cross-departmental basis. The total burden should not fall on one Department.

Let us implement the Mournes concept as a pilot scheme. I am sure it will be extremely successful and will provide an enormous boost to the local economy and to the people who work and live in the area. The primary purpose is to open up the area for the tourist influx we are anticipating under the new peace regime while sustaining and protecting that national asset we are selling to tourists. It is important that we achieve a balance between the people who live in the area, tourists and day visitors who come to enjoy the area and the environment.

The plan that the Mournes Heritage Trust has presented to the Department of the Environment - and which it will present to other Departments in the next couple of weeks - is the most professional management plan that I have seen for a long time. I have great confidence that if the trust is given enough encouragement, it will be able to set up Northern Ireland's first national park. Once that has been shown to be successful and economically productive, the idea can be extended to other areas of Northern Ireland, which have different but equally valuable natural assets to develop for tourism.

While the Assembly cannot vote on this matter, it is hoped that the participation and effort of individual Members inside and outside the Chamber will drive Departments to work together to acquire the modest resources that are needed. Funding is the only obstacle. I have not yet heard any arguments against the concept or the detail of the plan.

I cannot help but compare the position to that of the Department of Education on the issue of museums, when it said that it did not have the necessary resources, so there was no point in formulating policy. The Department continued to say that for 10 years, which was a disastrous way to proceed. These policies should be adopted and the money obtained from somebody's pocket, be it ours or someone from Europe.

I recommend to the Assembly the unique concept of a Celtic national park that initially will apply to the Mournes and then be extrapolated to other areas.

Mr Wells:

I support almost everything the hon Member has said. I want to query only one issue in his entire contribution. We agree, as would Mr Bradley, that we are privileged to represent what is without doubt the most scenic constituency in Northern Ireland. I have had the occasional debate with my party leader on that issue, but in terms of overall scenic quality, nothing compares with South Down. Most of the constituency comprises the Mournes area of outstanding natural beauty. Walking in the Mournes is one of my pleasures, and I recall some wonderful sunny days walking up the Brandy Pad and the Annalong Valley and climbing Lower Cove or Ben Crom - some of the most wonderful peaks in the Mournes. I adore the area. I am a former member of the Mournes Advisory Council and a current member of Friends of the Mournes. Like Mr McGrady, I am absolutely committed to its protection.

If the Mournes region were in any other part of the world, it would be a national park. When conservationists visit Northern Ireland and ask where our national parks are, they are astounded when we guiltily admit that we do not have any. It is extraordinary. Even more extraordinary is the fact that the legislation to establish national parks in Northern Ireland has been in place for 35 years. The enabling legislation is the Amenity Lands Act (Northern Ireland) 1965, which was replicated in the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. This is not even a matter of legislation: the Assembly has the power to establish national parks.

The idea of national parks was followed up in 1965, and a civil servant was sent out to Fermanagh to test the reaction. I heard a rather amusing story about that. Many farmers disagreed with the idea because they felt that national parks were parks for Nationalists. Needless to say, that suggestion was erroneous. National parks were not for Nationalists, but for the entire community. However, some of the farming community became confused about what national parks meant and there was some opposition to them. The idea was gently shelved.

However, national parks were debated at great length during consultations on the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and I remember that there was a tremendous push to establish a structure that would enable the effective management of our areas of great scenic quality. Sadly, nothing happened.

Here we are, 15 years later, and still there is no structure in place. That is not to decry the excellent work done by the Mournes Heritage Trust and its predecessor, the Mournes Advisory Council, or the district councils and all the community groups involved with managing the Mournes. However, we do not yet have the overarching structure to provide adequate management for the Mournes.

Members may think that the Mournes is an attractive area, but it is under enormous pressure such as that which is undoubtedly caused by intense recreational use. The large number of walkers causes serious erosion. Sometimes there is overgrazing although, ironically, the ban on sheep grazing caused by the outbreak of cryptosporidium may take us to the other extreme. There may not be enough grazing in the Mournes, and the nature conservation value of the area may decline because there would not be sufficient grazing to maintain the quality of the area's flora.

There is unsympathetic development in the Mournes. Many farmers are under such enormous economic pressures that they have been forced to try to obtain planning permission for bungalows for as many sites as possible. Some bungalows are well designed and are in keeping with the Mournes landscape, but others are not. The pressure on the planners is becoming greater as they are being pushed to give planning permission, thereby providing farmers with income. That will only lead to further unsympathetic development.

I am very concerned about the impact of the landfill tax. It is a good concept, but it has led to the filling in of a lot of small wetlands in the Mournes area with inert hardcore infill. Developers and waste disposal operators do not want to pay landfill tax, which they would have to if they took waste to a registered site. Therefore it is tempting to open up the hedge and cover a small wetland with rubble. The result is that such areas are completely destroyed from the nature conservation perspective.

There are many pressures, but perhaps the most notable at present is the drastic decline in farming incomes in the Mournes. Like the rest of Northern Ireland, farmers in the Mournes have faced an incredible reduction in their net incomes of at least 90%.

7.00 pm

Most farmers in the Mournes are running at a loss. Many of them are at the edge of viability anyhow. The 90% fall in incomes, combined with the impact of the sheep-grazing ban, is going to have a devastating effect on those communities.

The only hope for the long-term sustainable future of the Mournes is some form of eco-tourism, which does not lead to the reduction of the ecological value of the area. The difficulty is that there are a whole series of government bodies, district councils and quangos, each of which has responsibility for a bit of the Mournes.

The Rivers Agency is responsible for drainage. Environment and Heritage Service is responsible for the areas of special scientific interest, the area of outstanding natural beauty and the designation of nature reserves. The Department of Agriculture and Regional Development is responsible for the implementation of the environmentally sensitive area and less-favoured area schemes. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board is involved in the promotion of the area to incoming visitors. There is no body, scheme or system that enables holistic, coherent policy implementation to be brought in and activated in the Mournes.

I believe that a model is needed. It may not be exactly like a national park; I agree with the hon Member that an adapted version might be appropriate. We might argue about the phrase "the celtic model", but I know why it is called that, and I know it is not an attempt to make a political point. I would prefer to call it the Ulster model or the Northern Ireland Model, but we will not argue over semantics. We need to have some structure that can deliver what the Mournes so seriously need.

All we really need is £1·2 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but we all welcomed the substantial increase in funding that the Department secured in the Budget statement. That is long overdue. There may well be sufficient funds within that increased budget, in conjunction with other Departments, to enable a proportion to be allocated to the Mournes.

We are not talking about an awful lot of money; we are talking about 80p per annum for every man, woman and child in this Province. Is that too much to spend on the maintenance of what is clearly one of our most scenic areas? I see enormous benefits in a proposal to have some form of management structure for the Mournes, in terms of both the economic well-being of the area and the protection of the environment.

The lesson has been learned throughout the rest of the United Kingdom and - dare I say it? - in the Irish Republic, where four national parks have been designated. It has been clearly shown that there have been enormous economic benefits from the designation and the management, as well as the protection of the environment. I believe that if we go forward with this proposal and give the Department the support that it needs to implement it, it could be used as a best example that could be duplicated elsewhere.

We are very fortunate in Northern Ireland to have some of the most outstanding areas of natural beauty in the United Kingdom. The north Antrim coast, the Glens, Fermanagh, the Sperrins, and what I feel to be one of the most underrated areas of all, Benevenagh in north Londonderry. They are all outstanding areas.

If we get it right in the Mournes, we can go forward to implement a similar structure throughout the Province. My final point is that where we score, as far as the Mournes are concerned, is that a huge proportion of the central part of the Mournes is Government- owned. It is owned by the Department for Regional Development. Therefore there is some direct departmental control over it, and we can implement policies much more easily in that situation.

If we develop a structure that is suitable for Northern Ireland and take it out to the farming community and the district councils, I am sure we will get their support, particularly if we can show the leverage effect. The economic benefits that will accrue from that will bring real sustainable employment to the Mournes as well as protection.

The situation in the agricultural community is so stark at the moment that anything that can be offered to bring about genuine increases in their incomes will be more than welcome. I see enormous merit in what Mr McGrady is suggesting. I can assure him that we can provide cross-community support for these suggestions. Throughout the Mourne community, all sections of the community will say that this is an idea whose time has come. Let us go forward together and do something very positive for that community.

Mr McNamee:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The brevity of the title of the Adjournment debate gives a lot of scope as to what we talk about regarding the future of the Mournes, whether we are talking about its geographical, ecological or environmental features, its communities, or its economy. What is going to have a major impact on all of these is the area plan that will govern the Mournes. Part of that plan will be determined by Newry and Mourne District Council and, no doubt, by Down District Council.

In order to sustain any area, you have to sustain the communities that live in it. The Mournes is a largely rural area, and it is difficult for people who live in it to build homes. People who come from farming backgrounds and whose ancestors have worked the land are finding it increasingly difficult to acquire planning permission to build houses and to live on their own family farm. I acknowledge the need for control of the development of housing in rural areas, particularly in an area of outstanding natural beauty such as the Mournes, but the pressure and restrictions on planning permissions has increased the value and the scarcity of sites. Certainly in the Newry and Mourne district prices have increased by more than 200%, in some cases in as short a period as two years. This means that young people who are indigenous to rural areas such as the Mournes simply can not afford to buy property. The net result is that younger people are moving out of their rural communities and into towns and cities while better-off people, who are wealthy enough to purchase the sites, are moving in. So there is a breakdown in terms of the rural community itself. The area plan, which is under consultation, needs to take on board the issue of future housing provision in rural areas. There needs to be a preference towards the indigenous population. At the same time the rural environment must be protected.

The Mourne Mountains have a largely unspoiled natural beauty. I often hear people talking about Killarney, Wicklow, Connemara, north Antrim, the Giant's Causeway and Mayo, but anyone who sings the praises of those places, without visiting the Mournes, should take a hike -a hike along the Trassey track, up through Hare's Gap, round the Brandy Pad, over the side of Slieve Donard and down into Newcastle. It took me quite some time to walk through it, and I must say I have not met any other Assembly Members during my visits there. However, there is no doubt that it is an area of outstanding natural beauty that is practically unknown in Ireland, let alone in other places. It has a tremendous tourism potential, but it needs better road and transport infrastructure.

Another element is the proposal building of a road bridge link at Narrow Water, connecting the Carlingford peninsula and Warrenpoint and leading to the Mournes. This would have a major impact on linking up tourist routes in the South and that would work both ways. The Mournes must be given consideration. The link would open up a tourist avenue that would benefit both sides of Carlingford Lough. Not only would it help to advance tourism, it would also be a strategic transport link for the economic development of the Mournes area in general.

One of the main economic assets in the Mournes area is the port of Warrenpoint. Any future development is restricted because of the traffic congestion in Newry. Traffic from the north must travel through Newry to reach Warrenpoint. Many heavy goods vehicles, whether coming from the North or the South, travel through Newry to reach Warrenpoint. The construction of a road bridge link at Narrow Water would open up the potential for a future road link with the Dublin-Belfast route south of Newry.

As well as promoting tourism, this could further promote the economy. As a large rural area, the Mournes depends heavily on agriculture. I will not rehash previous Assembly discussions about the crises affecting farmers, not just in the Mournes but also in other areas, issues including BSE, the pig industry and the price of sheep. Giving sheep away was almost more economical than keeping them.

The area plans must also consider the future of the Mournes. It is crucial to focus on giving farmers leeway in matters such as farm diversification. In rural areas like the Mournes, planning restriction can prevent farm diversification because farmers do not get the necessary permission for such developments.

Traditional farming in the Mournes and in many rural areas throughout Ireland maintains the nature of our countryside. Overgrazing and undergrazing have just been mentioned. We must consider the future if farmers abandon land in the Mournes and the surrounding area. We do sometimes not recognise the non-remunerative work that farmers do in preserving the very nature of rural Ireland. Generations of farmers have given us the environment that we now have. Farming is currently not economically viable, and some farmers are being forced to leave the land. Eventually, the nature of rural Ireland as we know it may disappear, and disappear at a great cost.

Today the Programme for Government was launched. I hope that the specifics of the final draft and of the next Budget will give due weight to the need to support the agriculture industry. I am not only concerned about the effects on the agricultural and rural communities, but also about the long-term effect on the rural nature of the environment as we know it in Ireland, and particularly in the Mournes. If the economic future of the Mournes is to be viable, the plan for that area must address the potential of a road bridge link at Narrow Water. If we are to secure the environmental future of the Mournes we must address the crisis in farming. If we are to safeguard the future of rural and agricultural communities, the area plan must take into consideration the issues which I raised about the strategic planning framework for the Mournes area. Go raibh maith agat.

7.15 pm

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mr Bradley, may I remind you that our time is limited to one hour? I would like to give the Minister an opportunity to respond.

Mr Bradley:

It is easy for us all to identify with national parks. If we are lucky enough to go on foreign travel, the first thing a lot of us look for is a brochure to identify the national parks. They are undoubtedly an asset, and if we have one in our own area, so much the better. Coming from a council background, I am tempted to look at the detrimental effects, and it is easy to envisage it just as a planning issue. In his presentation, Eddie McGrady used words such as "consultation" and "balance". If this national park materialises, its proper implementation will derive from those factors.

In my maiden speech in the Assembly, I referred to the problems that authentic applicants in the Mournes were experiencing with planning permission. The administration of the national park concept could include proper legislation allowing for those people to be considered.

Great hopes for rural Northern Ireland were expressed in this morning's programme for Government. The rural population of our villages and townlands will be catered for at both higher education level and on the farm. We thought young farmers might leave their farms in the future. If the Government encouraged them to stay at home, it would step up demand for additional housing. Who would choose to be a Minister at this stage, trying to achieve such an intricate balance? The area plan contains proposals to look at our hamlets and the closes. The very old maps of the Mournes show many addresses as closes. In my area I can think of Magee's Close, Fagan's Close, O'Hagan's Close - all clusters of four to six houses. If we decide to regenerate in the future, our plans must accommodate the people who will carry out the regeneration. Perhaps the Minister will examine the idea of hamlets and closes to see how they could be facilitated.

If the benefits of a national park are properly harnessed, everyone will be the better for it - the indigenous population, their offspring for generations to come, and tourists and visitors. I will conclude with Eddie McGrady's two words "consultation" and "balance". We need to get those things right.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

I commend Mr McGrady and the other Members who have taken part. They seem to have a great love for the Mournes, and that is very commendable. They have presented a good case, but it is wrong to suggest that others have no interest in the Mournes. Different groupings have great interest in the Mournes, and I will expand on that shortly.

There are differing reactions across the Province, so such issues can be difficult. I come from Fermanagh, where the council members were frightened of having designations in case they would inhibit planning in their area. Members, and Mr McGrady in particular, have raised issues relating to the management of the Mournes and the well-being of the people who live there. I agree with the importance of integrated management, and this can be achieved through the present arrangements. An example is the joint approach by the Departments and the Mourne Heritage Trust, which I will refer to later. I will summarise the general background.

The Mourne Mountains, and the farmed landscape and coastline that surround them, are important to the people of Northern Ireland and particularly to the people who live near them. They are important environmentally, economically and culturally. My Department has recognised this by designating the Mournes/Slieve Croob area as an area of outstanding natural beauty on account of the landscape value and the recreational value of this beautiful area.

The Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 allows the Department to take measures for the management of such areas and to promote their enjoyment by the public. The Mournes were the first area designated under that legislation, and since 1984 - even before the designation - the Department has committed staff and resources to tasks associated with environmental management and recreation in the area.

In recent years we have become increasingly aware of the changing nature of the management of special landscapes throughout Europe and particularly in the United Kingdom. In all such areas it has become fundamentally important not only to facilitate proper sustainable management and public enjoyment, but also to do so in ways that involve and empower local communities. It is very important to involve local communities.

Sustainable use for tourism and recreation brings benefits to the local economy, particularly at a time when traditional agriculture is under great pressure. With this in mind, my Department took the lead in establishing the Mourne Heritage Trust. We have subsequently been the main funders of the body, providing almost half its running costs. I welcome the additional support that has been given by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the three district councils in the area.

It is wrong to say that the area is being ignored - it is not; we think about it very much. The trust and its performance over the first three years of its life are currently the subject of an evaluation by consultants. While this review is not yet complete, I can tell Members that it has shown the trust to have been effective in raising the profile of local environmental issues and in delivering an area-based strategy for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. However, the review has also identified several issues that must now be addressed. The trust should address some of these, such as the need to work more directly on habitat creation and nature conservation issues. Other issues have wider implications that will need to be addressed in due course not only by my Department, but by other Departments and by the Assembly. I refer to matters such as the adequate resourcing of the trust for a continuing and increasing rural regeneration role, and the issue of matching funding being made available for larger projects.

Such issues also impinge on the consideration of national park status. National parks in England and Wales, and more recently in Scotland, have undergone the evolution to which I referred earlier. They have moved from a largely conservation agenda to one of the sustainable use of the environment - a process involving, and benefiting, local people. Such parks are well funded by subvention grants from the exchequer. The detail of the recently announced national parks for Scotland is not yet known. However, the national parks in England and Wales have a constitution, board membership and operational powers, including planning. These are all approved by Parliament.

It is important for the Assembly to consider what is right and appropriate on such matters as they relate specifically to Northern Ireland. The idea of declaring the Mournes a national park, however deserving of that status they may be, cannot be implemented without full and proper consideration of the implications. Resourcing, mandate and detailed operational matters all have to be closely considered. To do otherwise would be unwise and very much premature.

In considering a form of national park designation for the Mournes, we need to examine the implications for other areas. We also need to assess the capacity of the infrastructure to handle extra visitors, and to look in detail at any management arrangements and the resulting resource implications.

I recently met Mr McGrady and officers of the Mourne Heritage Trust to consider the national park issue. There is no doubt that there are arguments in favour, subject to what I have said about full and proper consideration. As a result, I have asked my Department to consider this issue and the designation of the remaining Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, bearing in mind the fact that this programme is only half complete. My officials will report to me as soon as possible. I will, of course, consult widely on any proposals I decide to put forward.

None of this detracts from the value and importance of the Mournes and the need to sustain that environment and its communities. The Mourne Heritage Trust has provided very valuable and effective help in this regard. I certainly intend that my Department should continue to support such activities by the trust at a level appropriate to our resources.

The complexity of rural issues and the fact that these come within the remit of a number of Departments requires close co-ordination between Ministers and between their officials. This is happening, and work is under way to devise programmes for the next round of EU funding, notably the national resource rural tourism programme led by the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development. The Mournes, along with other protected landscape areas, will be very well placed to benefit from this.

Finally, I would like to express my appreciation of Mr McGrady's continued interest and support in this very important area of my Department's work. I appreciate it very much.

Adjourned at 7.27 pm.

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23 October 2000 / Menu / 11 November 2000