Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 7 November 2000 (continued)

Mr Clyde:

I support the motion and commend my Colleagues for bringing it to the House.

I would not have known of the contribution that biomedical scientists make to the efficient running of today's Health Service if I had not seen at first hand the excellent work being carried out when I visited the laboratories at Antrim Hospital in May. Whether we realise it or not, we all depend on this sector of the Health Service. The lives of patients depend on the skills of these trained professionals. They play a crucial role in hospital admissions and many other aspects of healthcare, particularly in the delivery of cancer services, which is all too often underestimated, and they get little financial reward.

Degree-qualified medical laboratory scientific officers, who carry out vital work, including screening for meningitis and cancer cells, can expect to take home salaries as low as £9,726 per year. An equivalent position within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has a starting salary ranging from £10,977 to £19,669 depending on qualifications and experience. The trend towards seeking higher paid jobs in the Irish Republic must also be addressed, as valuable graduates are lost to industry and health provision in the South.

Mr Shannon:

Does the Member agree that most of the problems in sampling are caused by underfunding and staff shortage? Another problem for patients whose samples are sent in for testing is that those tests now take 15 days instead of the previous three to five days. A sample is only valid for a certain period. Does the Member agree that, while we recognise the good work of the staff, we need substantial funding and more staff to make things better for the patient as well?

Mr Clyde:

I agree wholeheartedly.

The exclusion of laboratory staff and others from the remit of the pay review body in 1983 has led to consistently inferior pay rises. Since 1984, pay rises to doctors and nurses, who are under the pay review body, have been 30% higher than awards made to similarly qualified staff not covered by the pay review body. I acknowledge that this situation is being addressed, but can we afford to wait three years for these changes to happen? I fear not.

There is evidence to indicate that a serious shortage of biomedical scientists exists, with almost half of the advertised vacancies in NLCO grade I remaining vacant. Despite the low levels of pay, these dedicated individuals strive to give a professional service to the sick, the needy, and the infirm. It is now time to assess this problem properly. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety should consider that, without action being taken, positions left vacant by those retiring after long careers may not be filled.

Biomedical scientists are essential to health care provision in Northern Ireland, and it is time that their valuable contribution, professionalism and commitment were recognised and rewarded. I support the motion.

Mr McFarland:

I visited the Royal Victoria Hospital and was startled by the situation for biomedical scientists there. I employ a very valiant lady in my constituency office to type and answer the telephone, and I pay her more than these fully qualified scientists with honours degrees get when they begin employment. That is unsatisfactory.

I was also amazed at the technical advances to be seen in hospitals. One scientist was operating a machine and was interpreting the data, giving the consultant what amounted to a diagnosis. That seems to be the way forward. Technical advances are making such rapid progress that biomedical scientists will increasingly be the ones who interpret data for consultants. Consultants will make the final decisions, but the information on which they make those decisions will come from the scientists.

It is strange that biomedical scientists are getting less than folk doing clerical jobs. The situation is nigh to scandalous, and I ask the Minister to examine and address the issue. I support the motion.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

A LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Uasal Hutchinson agus leis an Uasal Berry as an tsaincheist seo a thabhairt go hUrlár an Tí. Tá áthas orm go raibh mé in ann freastal ar an díospóireacht agus chuir mé suim, agus mé ag éisteacht leis an díospóireacht, sna pointí a luaigh Teachtaí.

I thank Mr R Hutchinson and Mr Berry for bringing this issue to the House. I am pleased to have been able to attend the debate, and I have listened with interest to the points made. I endorse Members' views on the importance of this particular group, and all other groups of laboratory staff. I recognise that good pathology underpins modern medicine and agree wholeheartedly with the fact that it will increasingly play an important role in the development of the high-technology medicine of the future. I agree that, as one Member put it,

"they play an absolutely vital role in the prevention and treatment of illness."

I would like to comment on the main points of the motion. First, as regards terms and conditions of employment, the position is that medical, laboratory and scientific officers in the health and personal social services here receive the same rates of remuneration as their colleagues in the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales. There is a statutory requirement to maintain parity with the rates agreed by the relevant Whitley Council.

Points were raised in this respect, both in the motion and in Mr Hutchinson's opening speech. The pay for medical laboratory scientific officers has long been recognised as an issue, and there has been a sustained campaign to improve the position.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

3.00 pm

In June this year agreement was reached on a three-year pay deal for laboratory staff. The agreement covers the period 1999 - 2001. It not only provides for increases to basic salaries, based on the underlying rate of inflation over the period of the agreement, but also seeks to resolve difficulties relating to the recruitment and retention of laboratory staff, particularly for those in the early stages of their careers.

Consequently, the agreement contains provisions to target additional resources at pay scales for new entrants to address recruitment and retention problems. These measures include shortening the pay scale for trainee medical laboratory scientific officers by dropping the lowest six points and extending the maximum of the scale upwards by one point. In the case of medical laboratory scientific officers, the bottom point of the pay scale was removed and the maximum extended upwards by one point.

In the longer term, as many Members have pointed out, proposals are being developed by all four Health Departments, in conjunction with staff representatives, on a new system for determining pay and other conditions of service based on job evaluation. Prof McWilliams asked about interim arrangements between now and the Agenda for Change coming through in approximately2003. There is, as I have stated, a statutory obligation to maintain parity with salary levels in the NHS. Significant changes have already been made to pay scales, and consideration is now being given to further measures to improve pay levels, recruitment, retention and morale. This is being done jointly with staff, but is at an early stage, making it impossible to predict the final outcome at present.

Rev William McCrea raised the question of membership of the pay review body. One of the outcomes of the Agenda for Change pay modernisation programme to which I have referred may well be that membership of the Pay Review Body will be extended to include professional and technical staff. However, it is impossible at present for me to say what the outcome will be.

Mr Roger Hutchinson, Rev Robert Coulter, Mr J Kelly and others referred to the anomaly in salary between medical laboratory scientific officers and other grades. The pay modernisation programme, Agenda for Change, is designed to reward all jobs appropriately, based on an agreed system of job evaluation. The fundamental objective of pay modernisation is to ensure a comprehensive and agreed job evaluation system to assess the rate of each job, and to ensure a fair and equitable pay system throughout the NHS and the health and personal social services here.

The question of timescale was raised by David Ford and again by Prof Monica McWilliams. I refer Members to the statement by the joint secretaries to the recently published Agenda for Change. I can supply a copy of it to Members. Progress continues to be made on a pilot job evaluation scheme that will include social services posts here. It aims to benchmark jobs throughout the NHS and the health and personal social services to assist in the development of agreed job evaluation schemes. It is not possible at present to outline the exact timetable involved, but I will supply a copy of that statement.

Such a system, under the Agenda for Change, if agreed by other Health Ministers and myself, would provide an opportunity for the pay of laboratory staff to be examined to ensure they are rewarded fairly for their responsibilities. I know that staff in biomedical sciences and, indeed, in other pathology disciplines, have expressed concerns about recruitment and retention difficulties, and I agree that effective workforce planning will underpin any exercise seeking to address them. My Department is currently examining ways of improving our workforce planning mechanisms.

A more immediate initiative is a review of pathology services - an issue referred to by John Kelly and Rev Robert Coulter. This review has already started. We are in the early stages of a scoping study examining a range of issues, such as the number of laboratories, staffing and the utilisation of equipment.

This stage, which is expected to be completed within the next few months, will lay the foundation for the later stages of the review. These later stages will assess how pathology services can be modernised to meet demands over the next 10 years, taking into account technological advances in medicine. As part of that review my Department will consult interested parties on the way forward for pathology, including representatives of laboratory staff. I reiterate and assure Members, most definitely, that staff will be fully involved.

Here, as in other parts of these islands, Health Services are changing. Pathology and biomedical services must be geared to the needs of these developments and deliver the high quality service that the public rightly demands. Rev William McCrea asked about additional funding during training. The review will consider this. It will also consider the non-medical education and training levy - a system that does not apply here at present. Biomedical scientists, and all staff in pathology laboratories, will embrace the modernisation agenda and fully participate in shaping what will be an exciting future. I promise that they will be given the opportunity and ability to participate fully.

Members also raised the importance of the Department being fully aware of service needs, and I fully agree. At present the Department receives advice on the planning and provision of hospital laboratory services from the laboratory services speciality advisory committee.

I have listened carefully to the contributions that Members have made. I hope that I have addressed them all. I will address in writing any issues that have not been covered. I welcome this debate and appreciate the attention that the Assembly is giving to this important area of our health and personal social services.

I conclude by assuring Members that issues are being addressed, both through initiatives on pay and through a more wide-ranging review of pathology services, which must and will include workforce issues.

Mr Berry:

There has been much covered in the debate on this important issue. I am sure some people are wondering why we brought the motion to the Floor; they think that this is not an important part of the hospital service. It gives an opportunity, for the first time, for biomedical scientists to have a seat at the top of the table, where the expertise and success that they bring to bear for the benefit of patients across the Province can finally be acknowledged. I commend many of the Members who spoke on this subject. Important issues were raised. I will not go over the facts and figures again as my Colleague Mr Roger Hutchinson in his opening remarks and other Members have covered them well.

Another reason why we brought this motion before the Assembly was the successful lobbying by biomedical scientists in hospitals right across this country. Their successful lobbying, knocking on the doors of Assembly Members, brought this matter to a head. As we listened to biomedical scientists in hospital laboratories throughout the Province, it came across time and time again that these were the forgotten people of the Health Service.

I trust that the Minister of Health will not only take on board all the points that have been raised by Members, but will also start to take action. The problem is not pay alone, but the poor pay given to biomedical scientists creates great problems with trying to attract people into such an important profession. The lack of staff will increase the stress on those who are in post. It is difficult for staff to cope in such conditions. Carmel Hanna said that biomedical scientists were grossly underpaid; I agree. Rev Robert Coulter made the important point that the staff must be involved in a pay review group; I agree. If there is to be a pay review - and there will be one - the biomedical scientists must be fully involved. As I said, they are forgotten people.

We have identified two major problems that will have a great impact on health provision in Northern Ireland. First, there is the difficulty with the recruitment of biomedical scientists, who are the backbone of hospitals throughout the country. Secondly, there is a problem with retaining trained staff. We have heard the ridiculous pay figures and can understand why qualified professional people are not attracted to this important profession within the Health Service.

We listened closely to the Minister of Health. She said that terms and conditions are a UK-wide issue. What about our hospitals, approaching another winter crisis? It is not good enough to push the question off once again; action must be taken immediately to address that serious problem. As my Colleague Mr Roger Hutchinson said, serious shortage of biomedical staff can result in the closure of entire hospitals - not just wards - as was demonstrated in a hospital in Wales in May 2000. There, the closure of an accident and emergency department was attributable to a shortage of biomedical scientific staff. Can we allow that to be replicated in Northern Ireland?

The Health Service is in dire straits as it is; the last thing that we need is for biomedical scientists to leave their jobs. The Health Minister must accept that the present injustice in wages is recognised in 'Agenda for Change', to which she has referred. We all need to know which staff will be included in the remit of the pay review body? 'Agenda for Change' will not be implemented in full until 2003. Will that be too late for biomedical scientists? In the hospitals, we listened to the staff, especially the younger people. Their message was that they would leave as soon as they could get a better job. That is not good enough, but we understand why they say it.

3.15 pm

Rev Dr William McCrea:

It has been pointed out that this is a United Kingdom matter, which must be dealt with across the kingdom. Therefore it would be interesting to know what representations the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has made to the Minister of Health in London to ensure that there is proper and appropriate remuneration for these jobs. Fancy words are not enough. Money must be put on the table, and the Department here needs to put forward a proposal for biomedical staff to be included in the pay review.

Mr Berry:

I totally agree.

It is worthwhile to make the point again that this problem is being addressed in England and Wales. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety must answer Dr McCrea's question. We need to know what the Department is doing at present to address this problem. Will biomedical sciences be included for the first time from April 2001?

Mr J Kelly:

Will the Member give way?

Mr Berry:

I will not give way to a member of Sinn Féin/IRA.

Will this pay review be adopted in Northern Ireland? England is forging ahead while Northern Ireland is being left behind. In her winding-up speech, the Minister referred to MLSO staff and the increase they will receive. It is important that Members know what the actual pay increase for MLSO staff is. We need those details in the near future so that we can clearly understand the present situation in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, I call upon the Assembly and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to give equality of esteem and reward to all Health Service staff, including a recognition of the differential that exists in salary levels, and their plans to close that gap.

Biomedical scientists are a forgotten people, but they must be recognised. They have good qualifications, and if action is not taken immediately to address the serious problems with their pay, there will be severe consequences for the Health Service in Northern Ireland in the near future. Action must be taken to address this problem now.

I trust that all Members will support the motion. I commend all of our hospital staff - especially biomedical scientists, who are doing a wonderful job but, sadly, are often forgotten.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety take immediate steps to redress the staffing inadequacies in the biomedical sciences in the Health Service, initiate a manpower planning exercise to consider the staffing levels, terms and conditions of employment of staff in these areas and establish arrangements to address the needs of the Health Service in Northern Ireland in regard to this area of her responsibility.

Assembly Business: 
Fire Service Motion


Mrs E Bell:

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Since the motion was submitted, I have been informed that various options that may render it unnecessary are being considered. Would it be in order not to proceed with it?

Mr Speaker:

I will deal first with the question of order. It is in order for a motion that is on the Order Paper not to be moved. However, once moved, a motion may be withdrawn only by leave of the House.

Although it is in order for a motion not to be moved, Members need to consider whether it is helpful. When a matter is on the Order Paper, Members prepare to address it, and Ministers, at my request, prepare to respond. A cancellation knocks subsequent items out of joint. Furthermore, matters that could have been on the Order Paper are displaced because the Business Committee has to make a choice.

Members need to consider seriously whether this should be allowed to become practice.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I thank you for your ruling. I quite agree that a Member has the right not to move a motion that stands in his or her name. However, I also agree that it should not be a regular occurrence, for Members prepare to speak, and Ministers attend to respond. Whether a motion is to be moved is a matter for the Member in whose name it stands, and a motion that has not been moved, though on the Order Paper, is not before the House.

Mr Speaker:

I appeal to Members to heed what I have said, not because I have said it, but because it is in the interests of the House as a whole.

Is the motion moved or not moved?

Mrs E Bell:

Not moved.

Motion made:

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

Planning Control: 
Built Heritage (Belfast)


Dr McDonnell:

Mr Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to raise this issue today. I regret that I am speaking a few hours earlier than I had hoped, and my preparations have not been as elaborate as I would have liked. Nevertheless, I welcome the opportunity to draw the Assembly's attention to what I consider to be a disastrous state of affairs in Belfast, particularly south Belfast.

In doing so, I readily recognise that anything I may say about south Belfast or any inference I may draw from south Belfast applies equally well to similar pockets of very attractive housing in both east and north Belfast. I am referring not only to large houses that some people may consider to be too big or to have outlived their usefulness but just as much to very attractive small and medium-sized houses in areas throughout the city that are quite often destroyed for the sake of redevelopment and apartment development.

I have no difficulty with a situation where rot or blight has set in. That can happen to family houses as much as it happens to other buildings, and often it is more effective to demolish than renovate. However, in all the cases that I will refer to, I want to highlight the needless destruction of good-quality, attractive and perfectly functional homes that are a key part of our urban environment and our built heritage.

In many ways this is a heritage that we are claiming to protect. We are supposedly preserving, preparing and restoring it, but in many cases, we are not doing that. Indeed, I know of very few cases where we are.

It is no fault of the present Minister, who has been in office for only a short time, but there is little or no funding to maintain the built heritage. We could look at that issue in a future budget, if not in the current one.

I am concerned that good-quality family homes in excellent repair are being levelled because the land is worth more with apartments on it. About 18 months ago, I bought a house that was being pursued by someone who wanted to knock it down, and I had to pay over the odds for it.

There is little or no legislation to stop this rape and pillage taking place. Existing legislation is weak and platitudinous. Planners really have no authority or power to stop demolition except in the cases of special listed buildings. Even then, when someone demolishes a listed building, they very often get away with it. There is no real penalty or retribution. Much of this is inevitable, as there are no serious regulations or an up-to-date urban plan. Dozens of fine buildings across Belfast are being wrecked needlessly.

Not all houses on the Malone Road are big, and to prove that, I have a couple of photographs of a hole in the ground and a pile of rubble where, a few weeks ago, two excellent, small three-bedroomed houses stood adjoining the Stranmillis Road.

However, this destruction is taking place not only in the Stranmillis area. Number 150 Malone Road is to come under the hammer; 1 Deramore Park South, which adjoins it, has already gone; and 3 Deramore Park South has either gone or is about to go. A whole plot has been wiped out, and a whole corner has been disfigured.

It is not just the built fabric that suffers. This wrecking breaks up family-friendly neighbourhoods and cohesion by removing family homes. It creates anonymous and in some cases unsafe areas in Belfast which were previously safe and secure. We must urgently take whatever measures are necessary to give the Planning Service the powers and penalties to stop this destruction - this unauthorised or inappropriate demolition.

Perhaps it is inevitable. Over the last 30 years Ministers have parachuted in and out of here with regular monotony. By and large, they were flown in by helicopter for an hour or two - or a day or two at most. Nobody in authority gave a damn about what was going on.

I thank the Minister of the Environment for being here, for taking an interest and for responding to me when I raised the matter previously. In the light of the relative peace that has grown steadily over the last six years and the formation of the Assembly and its associated Executive, responsibility for this matter now rests primarily in this Chamber. It is the responsibility of the Assembly, the Ministers and the Departments for Regional Development, Social Development and the Department of the Environment to ensure that future development and land use in Belfast is worked out appropriately. We need a new urban plan that protects and secures family-friendly neighbourhoods and family homes.

The Ad Hoc Committee's inquiry into the port of Belfast 18 months ago revealed that there are hundreds of acres of land. Indeed, the real debate was not about the Port of Belfast; it was about the amount of land down there that was vital to the city.

The majority of the brownfield or disused land in what was the old dockland on the north foreshore and the land adjacent to the shipyard on the eastern side is suitable for housing if the appropriate planning and organisation were to be carried out. In the United States and Europe, areas that were previously derelict have now become the most desirable places to live. This is perhaps most evident in what has been done at Laganside. The efforts that have been made there should be doubled and trebled to ensure that young professionals or those who need apartments find suitable accommodation in parts of the city where there is no threat of family homes being eroded.

3.30 pm

South Belfast is particularly vulnerable in that many of the family homes there have already been eroded for student dwellings. Many neighbourhoods in south Belfast have been eroded. Students need somewhere to live, but providing them with accommodation has broken up those communities. Things are now heading in the other direction, however, and that accommodation is being broken up for apartment redevelopment.

I welcome the fact that the Odyssey developers want to build houses adjacent to its site. If we were to move aggressively and effectively, we could ensure that 2,000 or 3,000 well-serviced and environmentally attractive housing units will be built in the general Laganside area.

Some of the apartments that have already been built are not well-serviced. They are very attractive internally, but the environs are not well serviced with facilities such as shops and other services that people need, so those developments might as well be on the moon as in some of those areas. The erosion and destruction of good-quality family homes will be less necessary if social development continues in Belfast. I want to emphasise again that there is a desperate need to ensure that we develop unused brownfield land and that we do not destroy existing good-quality homes in the process. We must also ensure that those developments are adequately serviced.

There are some beautiful apartment developments in Clarendon Dock, but the public transport system in general is very poor. If we are to have a new city and a new style of twenty-first century living, public transport must be available to service any new development, and we must also be aware of the need for residents to feel a sense of security and cohesion in them. Many of those already living in apartments find them very comfortable inside, but they find them a little unsafe. These are subtle things, but they are driving people to demanding that they live in areas such as south Belfast or parts of east or north Belfast. Good homes are being levelled, as 10 or 12 apartments can be built on the site of a family home at a cost of £1·5 million to £2 million. I do not know of any family who can compete with that. It is not too much to ask that the Department of the Environment, the Department for Regional Development and the Department for Social Development get together and set the process in motion for a cohesive development plan to be prepared - a plan that will provide adequate living accommodation on brownfield sites for the next 10 years.

I want to re-emphasise that this should be on the north foreshore, on the old dockland and on the eastern foreshore, out along the river - areas which, with the right support services, would, I believe, be extremely attractive.

Is it too much to ask that with the help of the Minister of the Environment the necessary legislation be introduced to ensure that planners can stop the current rape and pillage of communities and the best buildings in the south of the city?

I want to mention once again that I warmly welcome the recent efforts of Minister Sam Foster to declare some strengthening of measures in south Belfast and parts of north and east Belfast, but I do not believe that we have gone far enough. The plans can still be got round, and buildings can still be demolished. We need legislation that is ruthless, similar to that which exists in European cities such as Amsterdam, and we need to ensure that we follow through on that legislation so that whatever heritage we have is preserved. In 10 or 20 years' time there will be no point in bemoaning the fact that it has gone. Once it has gone, it will be gone for ever.

Mr S Wilson:

I have no doubt that this House will return to this issue again. There are increasing pressures on the planning system, and the changing demographics in Northern Ireland, which came about as a consequence of economic growth, have resulted in people's having different expectations as far as living and accommodation are concerned. I would like to lay down a couple of principles before I go into some of the details of what Dr McDonnell said today.

First, no city can expect to become an architectural museum. Cities and towns change; they change dramatically, and to say simply that we should preserve everything - that we should have some kind of "pickling" system as far as planning is concerned - would be wrong.

Secondly, we must also recognise the constraints under which we are living. The Government have estimated that by the year 2020, between 100,000 and 150,000 new homes will be needed in Northern Ireland - many of them in the greater Belfast area or the Belfast metropolitan area - and the Government wish to see 60% of those new homes being built on brownfield sites. Brownfield sites do not just simply mean derelict sites; the definition of brownfield sites is much wider than that. The Government, in their assessment of being able to meet those housing targets, also recognise that we are going to have to recycle some sites which presently have some buildings on them. That is another constraint that we have got to work under, for if we do not, we will have to look at more development on greenfield sites. That, I believe, would be unacceptable in terms of urban sprawl and the sustainability which Dr McDonnell mentioned as regards the use and the intensification of the use of the services which we have already poured money into - areas such as schools, hospitals, transport networks or the infrastructure that is required to back up housing developments.

Thirdly, I believe we have to preserve what is good architecturally.

What Dr McDonnell said was not clear. I am not sure whether he is against demolition full stop or whether he accepts that there are properties which are no longer best suited to housing needs and demand and which, perhaps, do not have any great architectural merit.

I am not just talking about listed buildings. There are buildings which are not listed but which, as has been rightly pointed out, form part of the townscape in a particular area. Although they may not be officially listed, we would want to preserve them. The Member did not make it clear whether he was saying to the Department "We do not want any more demolition." If he wishes to clarify that point I will be happy to give way to him.

Dr McDonnell:

The points that Sammy Wilson is making are very valid, and I welcome the debate. I am not against demolition per se. There is a great deal of rubbish that needs to be demolished, such as old warehouses, and I accept that land does need to be recycled.

However, good-quality houses, in a good state of repair and perfectly suitable for living in, although perhaps too big for families, could be put to an institutional use, but in many cases they have been demolished. Such action is ravishing and damaging whole areas. I accept the point being made. I am not against demolition as such, but I am against the demolition of buildings that should not be demolished.

Mr S Wilson:

Dr McDonnell took a minute to clarify that, Mr Speaker. I hope that you will not take that out of my time. I hear what is being said about houses which are perhaps no longer suitable for family needs being put to institutional use. I have also heard objectors to planning applications saying that the institutional use of large properties destroys the character of a neighbourhood.

The fact remains that there are some large properties that are no longer suitable for single-family occupation but cannot be turned into a number of smaller units. The planners have to legitimately ask what can be done about such properties and how they fit into the overall scheme of things.

It is grasping at straws to think that the housing needs can be facilitated on land at the harbour. We must avoid mixing unacceptable industrial use with housing developments. There is limited scope in the harbour estate, but it will not meet Belfast's housing needs. Unfortunately, most of the new housing need relates to single people who wish to have manageable apartments. That is where the housing developers are focusing their attention.

There are a couple of things, however, which could be done and which may help, and I hope that the Minister will take them on board. I know from my experience on the Belfast City Council planning committee - and I have also heard Colleagues from outside Belfast talk about this - that people do not fear apartment developments in their area, but they do fear the accumulation of such developments in their area.

At present there is nothing in the planning rules to allow planners to decide when saturation point has been reached. At what point does another application for demolition and an apartment-type development begin to radically change the nature of an area? I know that the Department is currently looking at a policy paper on housing and settlements, so perhaps that is one of the issues that the Minister ought to be considering. Can we include some requirement in the planning rules for planners to look at where there are unacceptable accumulations of these kinds of demolitions and apartment-type developments? We also ought to be considering where apartment-type developments are most acceptable.

3.45 pm

Perhaps we should be saying that they should be only on road frontages in some areas, although that might not be acceptable for apartment-type developments that are designed for elderly people. What about apartment development above shops? I know that that has been resisted on occasions, and developers who wanted to do it found it impossible, because Roads Service demanded car parking facilities that the developers could not provide it the shops fronted onto roads. So, there is a Roads Service problem. If we are to examine planning issues we need flexibility from the Roads Service as well as from the planners.

There is scope in the quality initiative for making the money that developers pay for large houses - before knocking them down and cramming as much as possible onto the sites - less attractive. That could be done if the quality residential environment requirements were to be applied strictly, but they are not. Several Ministers will need to consider the work that is being done in their Departments, but the Assembly must also realise that it cannot, and should not, stop some of the developments that we have talked about.

Dr Birnie:

I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to Dr McDonnell for not being in the Chamber for all of the introductory speech. That was due to circumstances beyond my control.

I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Member. Across the city, including my constituency, there is widespread concern about change. People wonder whether areas will be changed beyond recognition and whether such change will take place at great - perhaps undue - speed. Like Dr McDonnell, I welcome certain recent policy developments, particularly the designation of the five conservation areas in various parts of the city. On that issue, the Department of the Environment has said

"The prime consideration for the Department in assessing whether development proposals are acceptable will be the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character and appearance of the area."

It is important that the Department live up to its promises to pursue and punish, where appropriate, developers who flout those toughened regulations.

In the past, we had a system that might have been described as retrospective planning control. Developers put up buildings without permission and then hoped that permission would be granted retrospectively. Usually they were successful. Once a building was up, it was rare that instructions were issued for it to be pulled down. There is a danger that we will return to that. We already have a raft of planning regulations. Are they going to be adequately interpreted and implemented to prevent drastic and irreversible changes to the shape, nature and character of supposedly protected areas?

Although I welcome recent developments such as the conservation areas, I regret that the Department of the Environment has not recommended the introduction of third-party right of appeal against planning decisions, irrespective of whether the area concerned falls within the newly announced conservation areas. At present, only the developer has the right of appeal, and that has often been used by, for example, supermarket chains and volume housebuilders to challenge and overturn the rejection of a scheme by the relevant local authority.

The system is rather perverse; it seems to be protecting the interests of the powerful lobbies against the little man or woman - in other words, against the resident. I fully support the policy set out in planning policy statement 6, published by the planning service in March 1999. This states that planning aims to resolve any conflict between conservation and development and to secure mutual benefit as well as prevent development detrimental to our heritage.

I am not against development. I appreciate Mr Sammy Wilson's point that the overall perspective of the regional development strategy lends an imperative to build as much new housing stock as possible in so-called brownfield sites. However, I propose that we retain these sites as genuine brownfields, instead of erasing the sound, attractive gems of our urban fabric.

I am concerned that, until now, we have lacked a central planning authority with real teeth and powers of sanction. I hope we are now moving towards change in that regard. I support the motion.

Ms McWilliams:

We have reached a crisis of interdepartmental conflict. I will speak specifically about south Belfast. Mr Sammy Wilson wondered where we are to build, and I understand his frustration.

This week alone, I am involved in three planning appeals on this issue. I agree with Dr Birnie that we need a third-party-appeal system. One of the appeals I am involved in is a case of rejected development, a complicated case concerning Wellington College, where the developers persist in pressing for the site. That will be heard on Wednesday. Almost 50% of my constituency work is taken up by planning development issues in south Belfast alone.

Overdevelopment is causing enormous problems. I do not want our soccer pitches and our greenfield sites sold off - and Castlereagh Council has been doing this recently - because of the development potential for supermarkets. We have fewer greenfield sites now than ever before. My own son is involved in the south Belfast soccer league, and participating teams are barely able to play a game of soccer because there are so few pitches available. They are now going outside Belfast to play.

The Victorian and Edwardian character of old Belfast is of so little relevance to people, particularly developers, that what was once beautiful about this city is fast disappearing before our eyes. It is particularly poignant to visit areas where houses which are over 100 years old still stand, enhancing their neighbourhoods. These places are pointed out as ripe for development, and people are knocking on their doors, harrying the owners to sell the property. This is happening to my neighbours and residents in my area.

It is possible to reuse older buildings. For example, on the Ormeau Road, religious orders are fast pulling out of children's homes and old people's homes. On the top right-hand side as you approach the Saintfield Road, a convent has been converted into flats and apartments, mainly -and very appropriately - for young, single people. It looks good, and it feels as if a brand new community is beginning to develop there. This was all done within the facade of the old convent.

On the left-hand side of the road the Nazareth Lodge old people's home has just been sold for £3·5 million. The building will be pulled down, and a proposal is in place to build 109 units. Why could the same not have been done on the left-hand side of the road as was done on the right?

The two Departments have an issue to address. One deals with planning development, the other with roads service and transportation. Within 100 yards of that roundabout and junction we will have over 250 apartments. Multiply that by at least two and a half to find the number of people who will come pouring out onto what is already a congested area. We have serious problems.

I suggest that we try to keep the townscape character where possible, particularly where there are buildings of some merit which are over 100 years old. Some planning policies allow for that, but they also allow for exceptions. Those are reasonable if no material change is made to the character appearance of the area. Most of us can live with that. However, as a political representative, I have discovered that there is no statutory power whatsoever attached to an area's townscape character. Real powers are available only when the area is designated a conservation area. On the other hand, Malone is a designated conservation area, yet next week I will be involved in a planning appeal concerning 32-34 Wellington Park. Beautiful houses built in 1875 will be torn down to make way for 53 apartments - and that is in a conservation area. What is going wrong? We designate a conservation area, and then we suggest that these two old houses of such character be pulled down for apartments.

Members may not be aware that the historic buildings grant, which was paid up until October 1999, has now been stopped. I wrote to the Minister and thanked him for responding. He wrote

"Because of the financial commitments resulting from earlier applications, acceptance of new applications received after 28 October 1999 has been suspended."

We introduce historic buildings to be listed, and we argue that they cannot be demolished. I am very pleased with some of the proposals about the demolishing of listed buildings and increasing the fines from £5,000 to £20,000. Only by doing that are we really going to get somewhere. At the same time, however, grants have been suspended. They are not abolished - the Minister rightly says that the policy will be reviewed after April 2001 - so we have to wait another year before the process for grant applications to preserve our historic buildings is reopened.

We are facing a crisis. The grants to protect what historic buildings are around have now been suspended. The issue also relates to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Many people who want to preserve the heritage of Belfast will not be financially able to do so. The grants - minimal as they were - were at least an acceptance and an acknowledgement that some assistance was needed.

Do meetings take place between the Department for Regional Development and the Minister's own Department? Most of the complaints I receive suggest that planning development is taking place in one Department, planning control in another, and the Roads Service is doing something entirely different. The left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

With regard to the introduction of tree preservation orders, it is continually pointed out that we have very few trees in this country, mostly because they were torn down many years ago and others were not planted simultaneously, as they were elsewhere. We have a real problem with old trees. I am involved in another planning inquiry about taking down a beautiful woodland area. I remind the Minister that at the end of this month he is to launch Preservation for Woodlands, yet all those trees are to be pulled down to make way for a major road.

These are serious issues. The Minister should hold up his hand and say that he is going to make some serious changes very shortly and not kick this off into some distant future.

4.00 pm

Mr McCartney:

I apologise to Dr McDonnell that I was not able to be present when he commenced his address.

What is unique about this debate is that, broadly speaking, with a number of peripheral variations, every Member who has spoken has been, at heart, in support of the motion. There is no doubt that the problem in south Belfast is being replicated in many other areas, particularly in my constituency of North Down. There are competing interests. On the one hand there is the need to preserve our architectural and historical heritage and on the other the need to provide housing for an increasing population. The truth is that these competing interests are by no means incompatible. Dr McDonnell has pointed out one area where something might be done.

We should look at how the expansion of multi-storey dwellings is being driven. Is it being driven by the requirement for housing in those specific areas or by speculative builders and estate agents? They are selecting areas, particularly quality residential areas with a architectural background, and deciding that they might knock down a few of those houses and put up, as Ms McWilliams said, 50 or 60 buildings in their place at a vast profit. As Ms McWilliams again rightly said, we see, not only in south Belfast but also in other parts of Northern Ireland, people knocking on doors, offering substantial sums and buying up very fine houses currently occupied by families. They then knock them down, very often before they have planning permission. Unless there is a conservation order there is nothing to prevent the owner of a property demolishing that property. Once he has done that the planners are then faced with a vacant site with a history of residential accommodation. The only question is whether the planners will tolerate a somewhat dissimilar type of residential accommodation in the form of 50 apartment units where formerly there were two gracious Edwardian houses. Unless there is a conservation order, that will be the result.

One of the rather more sinister aspects of this is the knock-on effect. Once a precedent is established and a fine house is knocked down to make way for a block of apartments, particularly in high-quality residential areas, the next thing is those people who objected in the first place become increasingly unhappy. Then when someone knocks at their door, offering them a substantial sum to buy their house for the purpose of knocking it down, they are in a more sensitive position. They already have a block of flats beside them. They are unhappy about the position and are therefore more willing to sell. When the application comes in to the Planning Service for approval for that block of flats, the precedent has been established by the primary one, already up and running.

There is no doubt that planning control must be introduced before permission is granted for demolition. We need to address the problem at that stage. There should be legislation relating to demolition so that those who propose to demolish would have to put in their planning application while the original building is still extant. Then the planners would be faced not with vacant ground but with an existing building, the merits of which might be considered in contradistinction to what it is proposed to put on that space.

The second point I want to raise was mentioned by Dr Birnie. It relates to the builder who demolishes a building and then proceeds to build on the site without having outline planning permission. In other cases, having obtained outline planning permission, the builder rushes the construction of a building with perhaps an additional floor, adding another 10 apartments that were not provided for in the outline planning.

When the planners arrive, it is virtually built. The roofers are busy putting in the roof and the dormer windows. The architect comes along and enters into discussion, retrospective plans are submitted, and the planning department is faced with a very turgid process to have the building demolished. It is also faced with the sense of destruction that people feel at seeing a newly erected building, or part of one, being torn down. Of course, as has happened in North Down, once the builders get away with this, it encourages others to replicate their success.

There is a very urgent need for new definitive guidelines, or perhaps legislation, to provide an opportunity to review not only what is there but the appropriateness of what is intended to replace it, before planning permission is given. These are all matters that have to be addressed.

Finally, in relation to general planning concepts, the planners have often been given guidelines or rules that take into account everything except the sentiments of the people who actually live in the area. It is no accident that the vast majority of complaints that come before the ombudsman are connected with planning matters. People who have lived in an area for many years and who are comfortable with it, its surroundings and their neighbours, suddenly find that its character is transformed. When they go to the planners or lodge objections, the planners very rationally and logically go through everything they say, and say that they are sorry, but they cannot stop the builders because they are not in breach of some logical but inhuman planning regulation.

Mr A Maginness:

One could be forgiven for believing that this was a debate about south Belfast. I would like to widen the focus a little bit to include not just my constituency of North Belfast but all of Belfast. This affects our built heritage, whether in Belfast or elsewhere. However, as the motion mentions Belfast, I will stick to Belfast.

I agree with Mr McCartney that there has been a general consensus in this debate. That is to be welcomed. Dr McDonnell has done a good service to the House in raising the issue of built heritage and, indirectly, the whole issue of planning in Northern Ireland. I agree with him that there has been considerable destruction of family homes, not just in south Belfast but throughout Belfast. It is having an adverse affect on the ability of young families in particular to obtain decent homes within the confines of the city of Belfast. The Minister should take that into consideration when he reflects on this debate. If you drive young families out of Belfast you create a situation in which only single people or elderly people live within the confines of the city, and younger people are forced into the suburbs. That will cause serious problems for the future development of Belfast.

The problem arises where there is an over- concentration of new apartments, and they reach such a critical mass that they squeeze out families. That has happened to a considerable extent in south Belfast, it is happening to some extent in parts of east Belfast, and it is now beginning to happen in parts of north Belfast as well.

Fortunately the process is only beginning in north Belfast, but it can be arrested in this and other parts of the city to the advantage of families. I welcome the creation by the Minister of five conservation zones in the Belfast area - that is particularly helpful. However, as I said in writing to the Minister, the conservation zone in the Chichester Road and Somerton Road area is very welcome, but the zone boundaries have created a problem. Developers are now concentrating their activities in the area immediately outside the conservation zone, thereby increasing pressure on the properties in that area. I am sure that this has happened in other areas as well. The Minister could take into account the negative effects in areas just outside the conservation zone and examine those effects to see if they could be prevented by the extension of some of the zone boundaries. Alternatively, measures could be taken to assist controlled development in the areas immediately outside the conservation zones.

We must also be realistic about our built heritage. Although we may want to preserve a certain building, and while our intentions towards conserving our built heritage may be good, problems often arise when a property, particularly a large one, is owned by a voluntary organisation. It is difficult for voluntary organisations, such as charities or churches, to pay for the upkeep, repair or renovation of those buildings. It is not enough for the Department to place underfunded voluntary organisations which apply for grants on a waiting list because there are too many applications for grants. More funding must be made available for the conservation of our built heritage.

Not only is the preservation of our built heritage a good thing in itself, but it has a wider benefit. Although there is an obvious social benefit, it has the wider benefit of developing the tourist infrastructure and attracting tourists.

Mr Speaker:

May I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr A Maginness:

I have one final sentence, Mr Speaker.

There is value in preserving our built heritage so that it will attract tourism to Belfast, which will be of social and economic benefit to the city and to other areas.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster): I commend and thank Members for their interest, thoughts and comments. This is a timely debate on an important topic of considerable concern to the citizens of Belfast. I shall try to deal with some of the many valid points which Members raised.

4.15 pm

I note Mr Maginness's observations about the pressure just outside the conservation areas and the need to keep the conservation area boundaries under review.

Mr Sammy Wilson welcomed the recognition of the need to balance apartment development pressures with the preservation of architectural standards. His helpful suggestions on these policy issues will be addressed by the Department for Regional Development in its strategic planning role with, specifically, a policy statement on housing and settlements.

Dr Birnie and Ms McWilliams raised the issue of the absence of third-party rights of appeal. This is constantly under review but has not yet been brought to fruition because it has a positive side and a negative side. We are told that the planning authority processes are very slow, and I anticipate their becoming even slower. However, that does not mean to say that I am ruling out third-party appeals.

Reference was made to liaison between the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development. I agree with Monica McWilliams on this issue and will ensure that there is closer liaison.

Belfast is experiencing sustained development pressure at a level not seen since the 1960s. However, we are experiencing difficulties with its current buoyancy - a good situation to be in. The same could be said for the whole of Northern Ireland. Now is the time for planners to take the lead, to give clear directions on the development of industry and to take a firm and unequivocal stand on the protection of our valued townscape heritage.

It is important to recognise where this development pressure is coming from. The strength of the property market signals profound confidence in the future of Northern Ireland, something to be celebrated. Money is being invested in property in Northern Ireland that for many years went elsewhere. Investment is welcomed, but we must ensure that the built heritage of Belfast, the Victorian and Edwardian character of the city that is so precious to residents and visitors alike, is not destroyed in the process. Investment in property can offer much needed refurbishment, but all too often redevelopment is seen as offering the best return on capital.

Much attention has been focused on apartment redevelopment. Where is this market pressure coming from? The population is growing, but even if it were to remain static, we would still need more dwelling units because of powerful social trends in the community. For instance, the elderly are living longer and want to hold on to their independence; young people want to leave home earlier; single parents are living with small children; and married couples are sadly all too often living apart.

One solution might be to continue building more houses in the green belt. This was a subject of much debate at last year's public examination of 'Shaping Our Future', which will soon be brought forward in final form by the Minister for Regional Development. The message that emerged from that exercise is that the green-belt area is cherished and greenfield sites on the edge of the city should be eked out sparingly. It points up opportunities for brownfield development - that is, the renewal of vacant and derelict sites within the city boundaries.

However, there are things to celebrate. We have achieved spectacular success in the heart of the city by promoting development on underutilised land along the River Lagan. Laganside has transformed the river frontage, and waterfront apartments will always attract premium prices because of their location. There has also been a surge of welcome applications for the development of medium-rise apartment blocks in the city centre. Belfast does not have a tradition of city-centre apartments, but in a few short years we have seen a remarkable shift in attitude to living in the city.

All of that is exciting and will transform the centre of Belfast from a shopping, leisure and office destination for commuters into a 24-hour living city. Belfast is booming, and we should rejoice in that fact. Of course, there are things to protect. The demand for homes and the eagerness of investors to capitalise on the new confidence in the future is threatening the more popular suburban areas of the city, the Edwardian suburbs of Belfast in particular. That is why on 4 August this year I announced the designation of five conservation areas, aimed at protecting the city's Edwardian heritage.

Ms McWilliams referred to an appeal coming through and the area losing its conservation area status. Sometimes we get beaten when an appeal is upheld by the Planning Appeals Commission, which rather defeats our policies. By such designation the law provides for consent to be sought for the demolition of existing property. That was going to be important. Some people have said that if the sun, moon and stars were within the reach of predatory human hands, they might not be there either.

We cannot always look to the conservation-area device. The areas designated are not the only ones where family homes are being brought forward for replacement by apartment blocks. These five areas contain a significant proportion of fine, architecturally designed dwellings, built around 100 years ago on generous plots. That characteristic means that these areas can be regarded as strong candidates for conservation-area status.

I am sure Members will agree that it would be quite wrong to designate an area as a conservation area if it did not possess what the law describes as

"special, architectural or historic interest, the character of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance".

We cannot lower standards for the sake of creating a conservation area. We must examine the quality.

Mr Speaker:

I must draw the Minister's attention to the fact that we have only one minute left.

Mr Foster:

Conservation-area status will not put a stop to development, nor should it. The Planning Service has to examine each proposal on its merits, taking fully into account relevant policy statements. However, it has taken the heat out of the situation. The planners have the tools to do the job. This is an important and timely designation.

There are proposals for new legislation, which I should refer to in closing. I intend to bring forward proposed changes to planning legislation that will strengthen enforcement powers and bolster the hands of the planners. These will include extension of the powers to control demolition (we are concerned about this, as all are); new powers to spot listed buildings at risk (a necessary protection issue); increased penalties for altering or demolishing a listed building; and the protection of trees in conservation areas.

I am taking a personal interest in this important work. I have already held the first of what will become regular meetings throughout the city concerning the Belfast metropolitan area plan, which will cover six district council areas. It is being driven forward to the tightest possible timescale. This will be an inclusive process involving extensive public consultation. It will also provide opportunity for increasing locational policy coverage and offering increased protection for those areas of a townscape character that are vulnerable to pressure from developers.

Mr Speaker:

I must ask the Minister to bring his remarks to a close.

Mr Foster:

The debate has been valuable in informing me of the matters of concern to Members at the outset of this process. It is a critical time, when we must look to the future of our capital city, of which we are very proud.

Adjourned at 4.23 pm.

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