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Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 18 December 2000 (continued)

Biodiversity: Coastal Forum


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail his plans to institute the coastal forum as recommended by the biodiversity working group.

(AQO 527/00)

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall take questions 1 and 8 together. I have no plans to set up a coastal forum. I am grateful for the substantially increased resources proposed for the Environment and Heritage Service in the Executive's recent draft Budget; they will help to implement EU Directives and to develop a biodiversity strategy. However, even these resources do not allow me to do everything that I wish, so I cannot establish and support a coastal forum at present. I agreed, in correspondence with Mr McGrady, that the Department could have supported such a forum only if all its bids had been successful. Subject to the agreement of other Ministers with responsibility for sea defences and infrastructure, however, I shall continue to keep the benefits of a coastal forum in mind for future budget rounds.

My Department will also continue to liaise with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which is responsible for sea defences, and the Department for Regional Development, which is responsible for road, water and sewerage infrastructure in coastal areas.

Mr Ford:

I suppose that I must thank the Minister for his response but I cannot thank him for its content. The report was published some months ago and the issue has been around for some time - one of his predecessors, Lord Dubs, promised action five or six years ago. I am disappointed that the Minister cannot provide any firm commitment. How much would it cost to establish a coastal forum and why is it such a problem for his Department in the Budget?

Mr Foster:

I cannot give details of the cost at present but I shall do so in a written answer. I understand that the previous direct rule Administration did give an undertaking to establish a coastal forum to advise on the development of a coastal zone strategy. However, as in so many areas of environmental protection and conservation, no additional resources were allocated at that time to fulfil the commitment. There is no point in making commitments if they cannot be backed up with resources - that is my problem.

Mr McGrady:

I note that the Minister's answer is definitive and that a forum will not be established. That is a great pity, and I ask the Minister to reconsider. A coastal forum involving environmentalists and representatives of district councils and tourism bodies need not cost a great deal of money. It could almost be provided for by the relevant district councils.

On one hand, there is great concern about the economic development of coastal areas, and on the other about their environmental protection. The Antrim and Down coasts are suffering terrible erosion. Some measures must be taken, otherwise there will have to be a retreat from the ravages of the sea. Can the Minister also take the matter up with the North/South Ministerial Council?

Mr Foster:

Coastal erosion is the responsibility of several Departments, not just mine. It is the duty of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development through its Rivers Agency to maintain sea defences. The Department for Regional Development's Roads Service is responsible for roads, water and sewerage infrastructure, including any affected by coastal erosion. We are not against the forum, but we lack the money at present.

The Northern Ireland biodiversity working group presented recommendations to me in October 2000 for a Northern Ireland biodiversity strategy. Those recommendations are being examined. I acknowledge the potential benefits of a coastal forum but I cannot agree to this or to any other recommendation unless the money is available. Despite what Mr McGrady says, it would cost money, and we do not have any at present. However, I shall continue to keep the benefits of a coastal forum in mind in future Budget bids.

Mr Shannon:

I am disappointed that a coastal forum cannot be established. In the Ards Peninsula in Strangford erosion has caused the loss of farming and leisure land. In the absence of a coastal forum, how does the Minister intend to tackle coastal erosion?

Mr Foster:

I shall liaise with the other Departments on the matter. I am aware of the problems of coastal erosion in Strangford and shall be meeting the Member next month to discuss them. I shall be better placed to answer his points at our discussion.

Conservation and Townscape Areas
(West Belfast)


Mr Maskey

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail his plans to designate (a) areas of townscape character and (b) conservation areas in west Belfast.

(AQO 486/00)

Mr Foster:

I have no immediate plans to designate any areas of townscape character or conservation areas in west Belfast. The Belfast urban area plan for 2001 did not identify any areas in west Belfast that met the criteria for designation as areas of townscape character or conservation areas.

However, I shall launch the Belfast metropolitan area plan in January 2001 and I intend that preparation of this plan will involve a widespread consultation exercise. That will offer the public the opportunity to make suggestions with regard to areas in the west of the city and throughout the Belfast metropolitan area that may merit special protection because of their heritage value.

It is not possible to anticipate how the outcome of that exercise will affect west Belfast or to make suggestions for designations. However, my Department will address any suggestions on their planning and heritage merits.

Proposed Belfast Metropolitan Area


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail what progress has been made in developing planning and structural policies for the proposed Belfast metropolitan area.

(AQO 512/00)

Mr Foster:

The statutory development planning framework for the Belfast metropolitan area is provided by several plans. These include the Belfast urban area plan and the Carrickfergus, Lisburn and Newtownabbey area plans. The North Down and Ards area plan covers the North Down Borough Council area, which falls into the Belfast metropolitan area.

I shall launch the Belfast metropolitan area plan shortly. It will provide a planning and policy framework for future development up to the year 2015. It will take account of the draft regional development strategy, any subsequent amendments made to the strategy as a result of scrutiny by the Executive Committee and all other relevant considerations.

The programme for the preparation of the plan involves the publication of an issues paper in autumn 2001, publication of a draft plan towards the end of 2002-03 and adoption of a final plan in 2004-05. I intend the plan to include widespread and inclusive consultation, involving councils, business and community interests and the public.

The intention of the issues approach is to hear the public's views on future development in order to assist the Department to develop planning proposals and policies. The action plan has been made possible by the Executive's allocating the resources needed to assemble the Belfast metropolitan plan. This is very good news. It was announced in the 1999 Agenda for Government and confirmed in the Programme for Government and in the draft Budget.

Mr Neeson:

I am pleased that widespread consultation will be part of the process. Does the Minister recognise that there will be a need for interdepartmental co-operation to devise the necessary structures? Does the Minister also recognise that the present processes are causing uncertainty because of the ambivalent approach to the status of the local area plans?

3.45 pm

Mr Foster:

I assure the Member that everything will be given due consideration and that nothing will be taken lightly. It is a very important matter. If there is a policy void or if some area plans reach their end dates before the adoption of the Belfast metropolitan plan, current development plans provide detailed location and planning policies for the relevant parts of the Belfast metropolitan area.

Some of the plans will reach their end date before the publication of the Belfast metropolitan area plan. The plan for north Down and Ards reached its end date in 1995; the Belfast urban area plan, Carrickfergus area plan and Lisburn area plan, which is yet to be adopted, will reach their end dates in 2001; the Newtownabbey area plan will reach its end date in 2005. Nevertheless, these will be material considerations in all decisions. The plan recognised that there are strong local identities, and it will seek to give expression to this diversity.

Mr K Robinson:

Does the Minister agree that adopting alternative sustainable forms of metropolitan transport, an effective railway system, for example, would be a major advance in solving the traffic congestion and pollution problems of the Belfast metropolitan area? Will the Minister and his Colleague the Minister for Regional Development co-ordinate their Departments' policies to achieve that?

Mr Foster:

We shall co-operate wherever possible.

Mr P Robinson:

Is the Minister aware of the judgement in the English High Court on the case of Alconbury et al? What implications does that have on the metropolitan plans and on the other plans, particularly the procedure for objectors? It concerns the implications that the Human Rights Act 1998 will have on the planning system in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister considered that? Has he received papers on it, and will he make a statement on it?

Mr Foster:

I have been aware of the human rights issue for some time, and a paper has been presented to the Executive Committee. It is a complex area of law. Although the Executive are fully committed to complying with the Human Rights Act 1998, I am concerned about the implications for orderly administration. Therefore I have drawn the matter to the Executive's attention, and it will be considered at the earliest opportunity.

I am also aware of the High Court's judgement. It ruled that the "call in" procedures in the planning process in England and Wales and the decision making role of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions were incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. The planning process in Northern Ireland, including the independent Planning Appeals Commission, is different from the planning system in England and Wales in several respects.

The Department of the Environment will carefully examine the judgement to see if it has any implications for Northern Ireland, and all aspects will be taken into consideration. The Department of the Environment has been aware of this issue for some time, and a paper has been sent to the Executive Committee for its earliest consideration.

Department: Cost of Consultancy


Mr McLaughlin

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will (a) ensure that best value is achieved in the use of private consultancy firms by the Department and (b) detail how much has been spent in each of the last five years on consultancy; and if he will make a statement.

(AQO 530/00)

Mr Foster:

The overriding objective in deciding whether to use private consultancy firms is value for money. Criteria taken into account when deciding to employ consultants include consideration of the expertise, skills or experience required and whether those are already available in the Department of the Environment. Consideration is also given to identifying new approaches or to introducing different perspectives. A full business case is required when a consultancy is expected to cost more than £10,000. Cases where consultancy contracts cost more than £20,000 are publicly advertised and contracts over £50,000 must be referred to me.

The Department of the Environment did not exist in its current form before devolution, and I cannot give a definitive answer on matters that pre-date devolution and for which the direct rule Administration was responsible. However, expenditure on consultancy since December 1999, when I took up office, is £709,602.

Mr McLaughlin:

Does the Minister agree that such external resources should only be applied if they are less expensive and more efficient than in-house capacities and expertise? What measures has he taken to reduce dependency on such expensive external resources?

Mr Foster:

We seek best value at all times in our daily lives. The Department subjects all significant expenditure on consultants to a formal economic appraisal. Larger contracts are referred to the Department of Finance and Personnel. An annual report on consultancy expenditure is also prepared. The proposed public service agreements will contain targets that will be used to ensure that departmental expenditure is value for money. We seek that continually.

Mr Beggs:

Does the Minister accept that placing all consultancy in the Department would be extremely expensive, as it would be impossible for the Department to maintain a body of people who were the experts in all subjects?

Mr Foster:

We always seek expertise in the Department, and we have a great deal of it, but we do not have all the expertise. However, we try to ensure that we get best value for money at all times.

Climate Change


Ms Hanna:

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the measures he has in place to raise public awareness of climate change.

(AQO 518/00)

Mr Foster:

I laid the United Kingdom climate change programme before the Assembly on 17 November. The draft programme had been the subject of two rounds of public consultation, first in November 1998 and then in March 2000. Copies of the March 2000 draft programme were distributed to Members, district councils and the industrial, business and voluntary sectors; they were also advertised in the local press.

One of the objectives of the consultation process and the subsequent publication of the programme was to raise awareness of climate change. The Department of the Environment is commissioning a scoping study for the implications of climate change in conjunction with the Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER). The study will be followed by more detailed research to identify specific measures for raising public awareness. One of the study's key aims is to consider the current and desirable levels of public awareness of climate change. The results of the study will be available by mid-2001 and the main findings will be publicised then.

Ms Hanna:

I have seen the consultation documents. Has a date been proposed to reconvene discussions on the implementation of the Kyoto protocol? If public awareness is not raised, politicians will not be lobbied to make people aware of the urgency of reconvening the discussion.

Mr Foster:

I am not aware of a particular date and I cannot fully answer the question but I shall give the Member a written reply.

Safeway Development (Bangor):
Planning Application


Mr McCarthy

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will explain the delay in processing the planning application for the Safeway development in Bangor town centre.

(AQO 511/00)

Mr Foster:

The Department of the Environment received the application for full planning permission on 29 December 1999. The proposal involved building shops, including a coffee shop, crèche, financial services offices and associated car parking, petrol filling station and kiosk, and associated highways works. A previous outline planning application for a proposed food store, petrol filling station, and modifications to an existing car park on this site was granted permission on 21 November 1996.

The difficulties with the application principally concern car parking provision in the proposal. These matters have not yet been dealt with to the satisfaction of the Department for Regional Development's Roads Service.

Consultation with the Roads Service on this application is not yet complete. Consultants acting on behalf of the applicant have provided the Roads Service with further information, and that is being assessed. Beyond these concerns, there are no planning issues to be resolved.

Mr McCarthy:

Although Bangor is not in my constituency, this may benefit some of my constituents. Does the Minister agree that since there is so much controversy surrounding out-of-town shopping centres, it is incumbent on the Planning Service to do all that it can to help town centre retail developments? Does he agree that it would be scandalous if his Department were to refuse the application or to delay a positive decision unnecessarily?

Mr Foster:

We are very much aware of the importance of town centre shopping. The Planning Service is not holding the process up; the Department for Regional Development and the roads problem are responsible.

The applicant has yet to answer several questions on the impact that the proposals will have on the surrounding roads. These include the operation of a Castle Street/Castle Park Avenue signalised junction and Abbey Street/Dufferin Avenue roundabout. Consultants acting on behalf of the applicant have provided the Roads Service with further information, and that is being assessed.

Mr P Robinson:

Does the Minister agree that although the Member for Strangford is undoubtedly content that his constituents who have businesses in that area should lose out to developments elsewhere, the developers in those areas should meet the criteria set down by the Roads Service and that it should not lower its criteria to meet the developers?

Mr Foster:

I accept the Member's point. There are policies, remits and parameters, and we must preserve them or we shall create precedents.

Environmental Protection Agencies


Mr Beggs

asked the Minister of the Environment to confirm whether the environmental protection agencies are independent bodies, next steps agencies or part of a Civil Service Department.

(AQO 523/00)

Mr Foster:

Environment protection in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the Environment and Heritage Service, an agency in my Department. The equivalent body for England and Wales is the Environment Agency, and for Scotland it is the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. Both are non-departmental public bodies outside the Government. The Environment and Heritage Service is also responsible for the conservation of the natural heritage and the built heritage.

In Great Britain responsibility for the natural heritage lies with English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage. All are non- departmental public bodies outside Government.

Responsibility for the built heritage in England falls to English Heritage, a non-departmental body outside Government. The built heritage in Wales is the responsibility of Welsh Historic Monuments, and in Scotland it is that of Historic Scotland. These are agencies in the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Executive respectively.

Mr Beggs:

Will the Minister agree to examine carefully the advantages of an environment protection body in Northern Ireland's being an independent body outside Government, as in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr Foster:

There are no plans at present to establish an environment protection agency for Northern Ireland. I am satisfied that the present arrangements for environment protection and heritage conservation work effectively. This will be enhanced by the use of additional resources that my ministerial Colleague Mark Durkan has allowed me to retain from receipts from new regulatory activities. I am not yet convinced that the apparent independence from Government that a non-departmental public body might enjoy would bring any material benefits to improving environmental protection. There are benefits in having environmental regulation under the direct control of a Minister accountable to the Assembly. It remains to be seen if the terms of reference for the review of public administration planned in the Programme for Government will include agencies such the Environment and Heritage Service.

Local Authorities: Accounts


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister of the Environment if he will ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General will be given full access to the accounts of local authorities.

(AQO 517/00)

Mr Foster:

The audit responsibilities of the Comptroller and Auditor General are ultimately a matter for the Assembly. The public expects those responsible for handling public money to be held fully accountable for the use of that money. Public audit is an essential element of that accountability.

The Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 provides for the accounts of district councils being audited by a local government auditor appointed by my Department. The Comptroller and Auditor General has therefore no responsibility for the auditing of local authority accounts. However, he does audit my Department's payments to district councils. Local government auditors have full access to the accounts of local authorities.

4.00 pm

Mr Dallat:

As we have been discussing the Budget, does the Minister agree that we should scrutinise all public spending? Will he consider in his review extending the functions of the public auditor to include local authority accounts?

Mr Foster:

I agree, without hesitation, that all public administration and expenditure should be given the closest scrutiny. The Programme for Government contained a commitment to review public administration. That may change many things, and we are not yet sure what will happen. The review will include local government.

The principles of public audit are very important. The Public Audit Forum identifies three fundamental principles that underpin public audit:

"the independence of public sector auditors from the organisations being audited; the wide scope of public audit, that is covering the audit of financial statements, regularity (or legality), propriety (or probity) and value for money; and the ability of public auditors to make the results of their audits available to the public and to democratically elected representatives".

Audit must be open and transparent.


Budget (2001-02)


Debate resumed on amendments to motion:

That this Assembly approves the programme of expenditure proposals for 2001-02 as set out in the Budget laid before the Assembly on 12 December 2000. - [The Minister of Finance and Personnel]

Which amendments were:

At the end, add

"subject to a reduction of expenditure, as necessary, on the following spending areas -

North/South Body: Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights

North/South Body: Languages

North/South Body: Waterways Ireland

North/South Body: Trade and Business Development

North/South Body: Special EU Programmes

North/South Body: Food Safety Promotion

Tourism Company

North/South Ministerial Council Secretariat

Civic Forum -

in order to reduce the increase in the regional rate from 8% to the current level of inflation". - [Mr Dodds]

At the end, add

"subject to a reduction of expenditure, as necessary, in the Executive programme funds to reduce the increase in the regional rate from 8% to the current level of inflation." - [Mr Maskey]

Mr McGrady:

Many of the contributions this morning revealed a sense of newness and achievement at the presentation of a new Budget. Members called it the first independent Budget for Northern Ireland in thirty years. That is an overstatement: "independent" could be interpreted as meaning open-ended, but a budget is never open-ended. A budget is restricted, as any businessman or housewife will tell you, and is circumscribed by the amount of money available. In this case, income is restricted to the block grant and, to a lesser degree, the regional rate. No one gets everything, and priorities must be identified.

I listened with great interest to Members' demands and their often justifiable criticism of the lack of provision for this, that or the other. No one proposed that taxes should be increased or other revenues sought to provide for those worthy endeavours. An increase across the board of 7·8% - or 5% in real spending terms - is no mean achievement.

The spread of funding across various actions illustrates the importance to Ministers of collegiality. Equally importantly, the Minister of Finance and Personnel has fully consulted the Assembly Committees and has made a significant response to their concerns where he could. He also made changes after consultation with the wider community. However, no budget can give everything to everybody; there is always a limit, and in this case the limit is the amount of money available. Obviously, some items have been highlighted, and quite rightly so. We have all welcomed the commitment to the student support review, particularly for those students whose parents are on low incomes. This clearly demonstrated a commitment to listen to the responses received after consultation from the recipients and the students' unions. A greater partnership than the Executive is at work. There is a partnership between the Executive, the Assembly, the community and the vested interest in the community. That greater partnership is the most significant, and it is often overlooked although it has achieved a great deal in a very short time.

We may be committed to various causes, but our primary concern is of course our constituents and our constituency. This morning's commitment to a general debate was very significant - although some were sidetracked into particulars. Nevertheless, the debate ranged widely and was very welcome.

There are some matters in the Budget that I wish to speak about. Much has been said about deprivation, and there are many mechanisms for dealing with it. One of the greatest problems is the imprecision of the indices of deprivation, which can allow the relative wealth of a surrounding area to cloak severe deprivation. The Minister has told us that these indices are being studied much more closely in order to provide more precise targeting in future.

A thread that unites all the parties in this Government is the democratic desire to address the urgent social problems in all our communities. Our discussions on the Budget in recent months - ministerial statements, draft Budgets and monetary funding discussions on how policies should be applied - have brought to light some alarming revelations of what took place during 30 years of direct rule. In all Departments there is an enormously worrying and sometimes frightening shortfall in the development of our social services and in the maintenance and improvement of our infrastructure.

It is not very glamorous to talk about roads, but past underinvestment has left them in a shocking state. Unfortunately, we shall be unable to fix them in one or even two budgets. Some of our sewerage and water systems are in the same horrendous state. They are totally antiquated. These facts were kept hidden from us - and I say that advisedly: they were kept hidden from us for years.

We can now compare the per capita spending on health and education in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland, and it is obvious that there is a shortfall there too. Although the Minister cannot do it in this Budget, I urge him to amend the Barnett formula. Several Members called it the formula that dictates our revenue. During those negotiations, which I hope will take place in 2001, he should identify and quantify that shortfall and ask for it.

In the short term - five to 10 years - it is not possible for our community to finance what has been denied effective funding for the past 30 years. We simply cannot do that without going into the figures. If I am correct, we shall continue to fall further behind in the competition for an infrastructure that can support industry and in the competition for a social programme that will improve our educational and medical facilities.

Although several issues must be tackled urgently, for the moment I would like to digress into an industry that is very rarely spoken of, mainly because it affects only two constituencies, South Down and North Down. It is the fishing industry. A further reduction in the total allowable catch for the ensuing season of 2001 was recently announced. Most people probably did not read that. Some might have asked themselves what it means. It means that our fishing industry is on the verge of collapse. That is not a melodramatic statement. Every major whitefish species has been cut dramatically - from 44% to 27%, and now to 10%. Ironically, the only species the total allowable catch of which has increased is herring, at 40% and over. People no longer fish for herring. It is a dead industry. Those who could fish for herring in the past can no longer do so. The nets are not right and the boats are not right. Therefore it is not a panacea.

I have spoken to fishermen in my constituency. Many have received only three weeks' wages since last August and they often fall outside the social security net. This is because they go to sea and may catch nothing; they have been working, but working for nought. The budget of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must be rescheduled in the coming months to deal with this serious matter. I shall leave the question of the funding required in other areas to other Members.

I am surprised that there have been so few amendments. Only two questions have been raised in the entire Budget. That is very heartening for everyone - especially for the Minister responsible. One would have expected hundreds of amendments. We have only two. This shows that every party in the House - whether part of the Executive or not, whether pro-agreement or anti-agreement - is fairly content with the proposed Budget. That augurs well for the future.

The amendment to withdraw funding from the North/ South bodies is transparently political and has very little to do with finances. The Assembly will treat it as such. I do not say that it is not a serious proposition - it is. It is the means by which the agreement could be destroyed. The intention behind the amendment was not to amend the Budget to get extra funds; the intention was to destroy one of the bedrock provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

This is not a serious financial amendment, yet it is the only one from a major anti-agreement party. That is quite miraculous and I am very pleased about it. The other amendment concerning the regional rate increase of 8% was expected. Everyone would like the rates to be reduced and to pay less in taxes. However, no one will decide where the money will come from.


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