Northern Ireland Assembly
23 January 2001
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Members will note that we have a new Clerk at Table today. Mr André Gagnon is Deputy Principal Clerk of the Canadian Parliament, and he is here today to assist with the training of our Clerks. As Members will know, it is traditional, when a senior Clerk visits another Parliament on duty, that he or she is invited to assist at Table. I am delighted to have the help of such a distinguished Commonwealth colleague.
As no amendments have been tabled, I propose, by leave of the Assembly, to group the seven clauses of the Bill, followed by the three schedules and the long title.
Clauses 1 to 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedules 1 to 3 agreed to.
Long title agreed to.
The Bill stands referred to the Speaker.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of the Environment to note the enactment of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and calls for equivalent protection to be extended to areas of special scientific interest in Northern Ireland.
In moving the motion, I think it would be worthwhile to explain how this came to be the subject of the debate. It is a perfect example of how the system – the devolved Assembly, the legislative procedure, and the lobbying process — is operating.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)
In November last year, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) wrote to its 10,000 members asking them to write to their Assembly Members and voice their concerns about the loss of our rich natural heritage. They are calling on us, as Assembly Members, to do something to update the law in Northern Ireland, which is 15 years out of date.
The RSPB and other environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, Conservation Volunteers and the World Wildlife Fund, have been working on this issue for some time. They have been campaigning and lobbying to get the law passed because they are concerned about the neglect of the wildlife and habitats in our countryside.
Wildlife, so familiar to us in recent times, is now in steep decline and is in danger of disappearing. I am not exaggerating. Can anyone remember the last time they saw a hare running through the fields? The common corncrake is no longer a regular breeding bird in Northern Ireland. Wetlands, peatlands and bogs are being lost at an alarming rate. The wildlife that depends on those areas, such as the lapwing, the curlew and the oystercatcher, is also being lost. These birds frequented our shores and were a delight to our eyes, but they have declined by 50% over the last dozen years.
We share this small piece of land on the outskirts of the European continent with a wealth of birds, plants, and animals, many of which are quite rare and of international importance. However, I contend that we have not shared it fairly. Inch by inch and acre by acre, modern agriculture and built development are slowly encroaching on our most cherished natural resource. They are eating at its core and leaving behind a sprawling mess of concrete, tarmac and apartment blocks. Is that the legacy we want to leave to our children? I think not. Without proper protection, a walk in our countryside could become a faded sepia-tone memory, like a steam train ride, donkeys on the beach, or blackberry picking.
We still have an awful lot to be proud of. However, the need to protect what is left has never been greater than at the moment. Under the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, our most important wildlife sites have been designated as areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs).
If you mention ASSIs to the uninitiated, they tend to think of people dressed in moon clothes picking up specimens and looking at them, but scientific interest is actually about botany, habitat, wildlife, birds, bees, plants and flora.
There are approximately 179 designated ASSIs in Northern Ireland. They represent approximately 6% of the countryside. I understand that this is relatively low compared to England and Wales, although perhaps not Scotland. The potential for increasing the number of designated sites in Northern Ireland is huge, because we have so much to be proud of. Designation provides fundamental protection for what are definitely internationally important sites. Strangford Lough and Lough Neagh are two well-known examples.
However, designation alone is not enough. Sites are vulnerable, and, in fact, the greatest threat is neglect. Neglect is a serious problem, but sites are also threatened by the development of land and changes in how land is used. In England and Wales it was recognised that the protection of these sites had to be respected, and following a period of consultation, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 was passed there in November last year.
The motion calls specifically for equivalent measures to be extended to Northern Ireland. This is important, because it would mean that a number of measures, which have not yet managed to make the parliamentary passage across the Irish Sea, will be included. I want to go into some detail of the measures in what is known as the CROW Act (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) that we would like to have extended to Northern Ireland.
Nature conservation orders, for example, which were never introduced in Northern Ireland, could be used as emergency measures to stop sites being damaged. Another very important element is third-party damage — damage to the area by outsiders — and I am sure we all know of examples of this.
One very interesting element of the CROW Act is the duty of care. This is about all public bodies — health, education, housing and so on — having a duty of care to regard and respect to ASSIs. It is vital that the Act be introduced here, and greater use should be made of positive management agreements, which is about doing something proactive to protect these sites. It could be anything — and there are certainly a great number of ideas out there — from providing litter bins and dog-litter bins to the protection of flora and fauna.
Another important measure is the ability to manage land outside and adjacent to the designated area, ensuring that it does not harm the site in any way. There is also a duty to further the conservation of these sites and their biodiversity.
In November this was the message that the RSPB asked its members to relate to their elected representatives. I started receiving letters from my constituents at the beginning of December. I would like to quote from a few of those letters. I will not name the writers, but they are obviously residents of Bangor, Donaghadee and Holywood. One person says
"Since coming here to live 13 years ago, we have both found that Northern Ireland wildlife — particularly its bird population — a constant source of delight. We ask you to press for time to be made in the Assembly’s legislative timetable for a measure which would continue to afford the wildlife here the protection it merits."
Another person writes
"As one of the Assembly Members for North Down, you will be well aware of the deep concern felt by many people in this area at the creeping development which is eating more and more into the Northern Ireland countryside"
That is a very important point raised by one of my constituents — the erosion of the green belt. Another very interesting point was this:
"Such a measure would not be contentious and would at least show the outside world that politicians on all sides of the Assembly can at least agree on one thing that will benefit all sections of the community. The quality of our countryside is one thing we are all agreed upon and a better protected environment would be a big selling point to the outside firms coming into the area."
Finally, I have a letter from a former biology teacher at Regent House, Mrs Pat Heatley, who said she used to take secondary school pupils to Ballymacormick Point to look at specimens in the rock pools. The rock pools are now virtually sanded over because the groynes have been misplaced and the sand has built up. Mrs Heatley is very disappointed at what has been happening and is calling for help. These letters speak for themselves and show just how much pressure is on us to do something about the matter.
Not being an expert on the subject, I wrote to the Environment Committee asking them to explore the situation. Eventually — after the Christmas break and with more letters coming in —I decided that the best option would be to put a motion to the Assembly. This is a devolved matter and it is a specific legislative request entirely within the competence of the House. The motion was prepared and sent to the Assembly’s Business Office at the start of last week. Meanwhile, I wrote to my constituents letting them know to watch out for the motion coming to the Floor of the House within four to six weeks. It was a surprise to all of us to learn that within seven days of this motion being put it was introduced and appears at the top of the agenda today.
This is an example of how the system is working. One of my correspondents said simply
"I realise that the recently announced legislative programme for the Assembly will keep MLAs extremely busy. I wish you luck in your part in the normalisation of political life in Northern Ireland."
That is exactly what we are doing today — taking part in the normalisation of political life in Northern Ireland. The system works; long live the system.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
After calling the Chairperson of the Environment Committee I shall have to consider how we should spend the rest of the morning in view of the large number of Members who wish to participate in this important debate.
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Rev Dr William McCrea):
I thank Jane Morrice and her Colleague for bringing the motion before the House. The Women’s Coalition has no members on my Committee, where the issue is being dealt with. Therefore I am delighted that they have brought the matter to the attention of the House. I will try, in the short time available to me, to inform the House of the progress already made on this important issue by the Committee. The debate is proof that the environment is viewed as an increasingly important topic by the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives. In the past, many of these important issues seem to have been buried under direct rule. Today we have an opportunity to debate them openly and to demand that action be taken.
The debate will not only highlight problems in the environment, but it will seek to press the Minister and his Department into action. Under the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985, the Department of the Environment is required to declare as an area of special scientific interest (ASSI) any stretch of land that requires special protection because of its flora, fauna or physical features. However, in practice ASSI declaration is confined to those sites with the highest degree of scientific value. To date, 179 ASSIs have been declared in Northern Ireland. As Jane Morrice said, these cover more than 6% of the total land area of the Province.
Although most ASSIs have remained in good condition following declaration, the Department of the Environment acknowledged to my Committee, in a letter dated 11 December 2000, that there are a number of weaknesses in the present ASSI legislation. It acknowledged that improvements are needed to ensure that sites are adequately protected to satisfy EC Directives and to enable expenditure to be targeted to achieve conservation benefits. Unfortunately, the weaknesses in the legislation have been identified for some considerable time. The fact that we are operating under out-of-date legislation causes us concern, and that situation must change.
I have a reliable report, issued by BirdLife International, which states that many of Northern Ireland’s ASSIs have been damaged or neglected. It draws attention to some key concerns that it has identified — the need for legislation to strengthen the site safeguard system; the need for urgent progress towards the monitoring and management of sites, including restoration; and the need for additional resources to address these issues.
The enactment of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act provides a range of measures that will enhance and protect the sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) in England and Wales. Unfortunately, the Act does not apply to Northern Ireland; it only applies to England and Wales. Therein lie some of the difficulties. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act imposes a statutory duty on public bodies to manage SSSIs in England and Wales to conserve and enhance their value. It gives English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales the power to impose management schemes on owners of SSSIs. They can enforce them, as opposed to simply preventing damaging operations. There will be more serious and wide-ranging penalties for damaging SSSIs.
Given the CROW Act in England and Wales, the Department of the Environment’s stated concern and the recommendation to approve ASSI legislation presented to the Government by a Northern Ireland biodiversity group in October 2000, the Department has informed our Committee that it is considering options to strengthen existing ASSI legislation.
It is unacceptable that we have fallen behind the rest of the UK, and I have no doubt that through the debate we will draw the Minister’s attention to the urgent and necessary legislation that is needed. The Minister has said that he wishes to consult widely on any proposal for change in legislation with representatives of farmers, landowners, fish interests, voluntary conservation bodies, recreation and tourist bodies, district councils, et cetera.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Mr McCrea, will you be bringing your remarks to an end shortly?
Rev Dr William McCrea:
Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I ask the Minister not to lengthen the period of consultation. We need to bring our legislation into line with the rest of the UK.
Finally, despite a 14% increase in the Department’s overall budget for 2001-02 and a 27% increase for the Environment and Heritage Service, the specific bid for £3·6 million for important work on environmental programmes such as landscape protection and nature conservation was not met in the Budget. I trust that the Minister will press for this need — and the finances necessary to make a difference — to be met by the Administration.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Ms Hanna):
I support the motion. Areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) are of vital importance to us for a number of reasons and deserve stringent legislation to protect them from destruction or neglect.
Northern Ireland is just beginning to develop its potential as a tourist destination. It is important to preserve the natural and environmental resource of our landscape so as to promote a beautiful place to visit. We must see our landscape, habitats and wildlife as assets to tourism and our unspoilt countryside as a marketable resource. For ourselves, it is important to be able to enjoy the unique surroundings that we are lucky enough to have virtually on our doorstep.
An Ulster marketing survey in 1997 showed that 60% of the population regarded the quality of the countryside as one of the most important aspects of the quality of life in Northern Ireland. It is a shame, then, that these ASSIs have been damaged, intentionally or through neglect. We have the opportunity to give these sites the legislative protection they urgently need before irreparable damage is done. Biodiversity can be lost very quickly, and cannot be recreated.
The sites were designated, as has already been said, under 1985 legislation. With the passing of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 across the water, our laws have fallen even further behind. We should be striving to meet EC Directive standards and, where possible, surpass them.
I would like to highlight a few points that are worthy of serious consideration. The management of these sites must involve a range of partnerships — all those who have an interest in the protection of the environment. The Minister of the Environment has said that he will consult widely with farmers’ representatives, landowners, recreation and tourism bodies and district councils. I hope that this spirit of partnership will be a common thread through all issues concerning the management of these sites.
I am also concerned that any site’s condition should be systematically monitored, so that far more data can be gathered about the sites — particularly for poorly known species. More surveys should be conducted of habitats such as rivers, unimproved grasslands, and the coast.
Finally, it is important that any legislation we introduce has swift and robust enforcement procedures when damage does occur. We need suitable deterrents for those who would recklessly endanger valuable habitats.
Naturally the measures outlined — management of ASSIs, further surveys and data collection, enforcement and legislation — will need greater resources than has previously been the case. I hope that the Minister will heed the concerns expressed inside and outside the Chamber, and will make the protection of our natural heritage a priority for his Department.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
The timetable for this debate is roughly two hours, including the speech by the Minister and the winding-up speech by Ms Morrice. Therefore five minutes will be set aside for each of the other 16 Members.
I welcome the debate, but I must ask Members not to welcome too effusively the proposals that have been brought forward in the rest of the UK.
I want to paint a little bit of the background to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which came onto the statute books on 30 November 2000 for England and Wales. The Act was a direct result of Michael Meacher’s declaration on 8 March 1999 of new Labour’s commitment to give people greater freedom to explore the countryside. Without more precise information to the public this Act could turn out to be a trespasser’s charter. The Labour Government are hailing the right to roam as a democratisation of the countryside. However, they have to accept that the rights of the many must not prejudice the rights of the few.
The Countryside Agency in England and the Countryside Council for Wales, which have responsibility for implementing the Act, admit that a massive education programme is required to understand it. The agencies also have what they call "the minor problem of funding". The Countryside and Rights of Way Act includes protection for ASSIs and areas of outstanding natural beauty, with tough penalties for owners or occupiers damaging the sites. Some related problems were resolved during the Act’s passage at Westminster. For example, tougher action will be taken against the use of illegal vehicles such as quad bikes in the countryside. That is a problem that is occurring here. Landowners were pleased that they were no longer liable for accidents involving natural land features.
Unfortunately many issues remain unresolved, including the definition and enforcement of trespass, the definition of the terms "moor", "heathland", "down", "mountain" and also the problem of communication about the Act and enforcement of the Act. The issues of wardening and policing the Act remain to be sorted out too, and there is also the big problem of funding.
The Labour Government have been so eager to implement one of their manifesto promises that the Act in GB has become law with incomplete research, misunderstandings and without any thought as to the minutiae of how to make it work. It is not enough for the proposers of the motion — and we are all keen to preserve our countryside — to ask the Minister of the Environment to note parts of the enactment covering ASSIs. Positive management and tougher penalties mentioned in the Act are adequate, but in Northern Ireland we need to ensure that Environment and Heritage Service personnel will be deployed in sufficient numbers to inspect sites on a systematic basis to ensure the protection of these sites. It is no use designating sites without some form of policing and protection.
In Northern Ireland, we have the opportunity to avoid the mistakes that have been made in England and Wales before we put anything on our statute books. I await with interest the Department of the Environment’s proposals and consultation with other bodies. The Assembly can then decide if those proposals are competent for the protection of our areas of outstanding natural beauty and special scientific interest. We can then take the appropriate action to make firm legislation to preserve our threatened sites.
Mr M Murphy:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I would like to see the legislation brought up to date. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill should be given priority in order to bring the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 up to date.
In south Down, you will find the eastern Mournes, Murlough, Carlingford, Rostrevor woods, the Quoile and Strangford. There are many instances of these sites being damaged, or suffering neglect due to the lack of more positive measures for their protection. As they are so important to our present and future enjoyment of wildlife and the environment and for the tourist industry, I urge all Members to support the motion and ask that legislation be brought up to the same standard as that in the rest of Ireland.
The Burren area in County Clare, for example, is recognised worldwide as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The wildlife there — and the whole area — are protected under that Government’s legislation.
If one wanders around our very important sites, one can see that wildlife has been reduced to an appalling standard. As the proposer said, the hare has totally disappeared from the scene, together with a lot of other wildlife.
Finally, the old song asked "Where have all the flowers gone?" I ask "Where has all the wildlife gone?" Go raibh míle maith agat.
I support the motion and commend Jane Morrice for bringing it forward. I also commend the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and its members for the extremely effective lobbying operation, which has been carried out on many of us. I knew, from Eileen Bell, how many letters were being sent out in North Down, as I am sure you did also, Mr Deputy Speaker. I can assure Jane Morrice and you that a similar number have been issued to Members in South Antrim. I hope they have received a positive response from the six of us.
It has already been said that we, in Northern Ireland, are dependent on legislation dating from 1985. We are not only 15 years behind; we are rather more than a legislative cycle behind. This is because the 1985 legislation, which applied to us, was already out of date by the standards of the English and Welsh legislation before the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) last year. There is a serious need to ensure that we update that legislation. I do not care whether Mick Murphy wants the legislation to be to the same standard as the rest of Ireland or if other Members want it to be to the same standard as the rest of the UK. It is time that Northern Ireland’s environment was protected to the highest standards in Europe.
The problems have been well highlighted. I would like to look at the responsibilities of the Department and the opportunities it now has. Prior to devolution, the DOE was the "Department of Everything". That meant that it was the department of polluters like the Roads Service and Water Service, as well as those who policed that pollution. We now have a great opportunity within the new structure because although small in terms of budget and staffing, the Department of the Environment is very significant in terms of its impact on policy across all the other Departments, and on the future of the people and the environment of Northern Ireland.
The Department must take its responsibility seriously and take the lead on, for example, the biodiversity strategy. Related issues include ASSIs, which are the topic of this debate, and planning policies, in relation to which the Department needs to be more proactive on environmental issues. The conservation of individual species is another important issue, and reference was made earlier to the corncrake and the Irish hare. The case of the corncrake is a classic example of a matter on which the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) has finally got its act together. The EHS, in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and organisations such as the RSPB, took action just in time to preside over the last surviving corncrakes on the mainland of Northern Ireland. The number of corncrakes has been reduced to a small population in Donegal with, perhaps, a few survivors on Rathlin Island, if we are lucky.
Members will be astounded, as was the Environment Committee, to learn that, although the Irish hare is a protected species, the EHS still licenses the catching of hares for coursing. Coursing is now "supposedly" welfare friendly — I deliberately enclose the word "supposedly" in quotation marks — and the hares are chased by muzzled greyhounds. The hares are still injured by the hounds and captured in a way that must create a degree of trauma, which casts great doubt over whether they will be able to breed in future, even when released back into the wild. The Department has, so far, failed to explain its position to the Committee, and it must do so.
This year a bizarre situation arose in which hares, which had been caught on Rathlin Island, were not allowed to be released back to the island, because the EHS were not sure which two hares came from Rathlin. Therefore biodiversity on Rathlin Island is suffering because licensing is being permitted by the DOE. The Department should have a clear focus on its duties in the field of biodiversity, but there has been a considerable degree of confusion in its behaviour. Meanwhile, some designated ASSIs are being lost and, in many cases, damaged. In addition, new designations, which were being made quite speedily some years ago, are now taking much longer.
No doubt, the Minister, within his brief prepared by the Civil Service, will have answers to some of these points. He will tell us about the shortage of staff, the need to upgrade the legislation, his hope that there will be movement in the next year or two, and the additional resources, which he has obtained from the Department of Finance and Personnel. Will he do something radical and dynamic — will he tear up that brief? Will he stand up and give us a real commitment to instituting consultation? The papers will soon be ready for consultation. Will he get on with that process and make a commitment that, as soon as the consultation is complete, there will be legislation immediately? Will he go to the Executive and tell them that biodiversity is important and that his Department has to take the lead on that? And will he come back to the Assembly with legislation, rather than a mere promise, at the earliest possible date?
Mr C Wilson:
I support most of the comments made by Ms Morrice. I am going to focus specifically on the north Down and Strangford Lough areas. Ms Morrice referred justly to some of the difficulties that exist in her area of north Down. At the recent launch of the ‘North Down and Ards Area Consultation Document 2015’, a senior planning officer described Strangford Lough and the Ards Peninsula as "the undiscovered jewel". He highlighted the potential for the future development of tourism in the area for those who have not yet discovered the beauty of Strangford Lough. He went on to say that they had to take great care when looking at the future development of the area to avoid killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
When elected Members were invited to comment upon the consultation process I took the opportunity to say that while the goose may be still alive, it has certainly been well plucked and continues to be denuded on a daily basis. The sad fact is that the consultation document for north Down and Ards is really a nonsense. From Portaferry to Donaghadee, from Portaferry to Greyabbey and to Newtownards, and from Comber down to Strangford village itself, wholesale and uncontrolled development is at this moment destroying the beauty of the Strangford area. I see little sense in designating areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) or areas of outstanding scenic beauty in Northern Ireland at the moment. Despite the current consultation process which allows elected representatives to plan the protection of our environment, disgraceful planning decisions are being made in many areas.
It amounts to wholesale destruction of the environment, under the authority and with the permission of the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service. Again, the fact that large housing schemes are currently being approved from Portaferry up the entire length and on both sides of the peninsula makes a nonsense of the consultation process. The single largest development of any area in Northern Ireland is under way in the village of Ballyhalbert. It will provide 1,300 dwellings.
How are the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service and Roads Service going to protect the very delicate nature and balance of the environment in Stranford Lough, if they continue to allow self-certification by builders? This problem is giving rise to the wholesale conversion of caravan parks to large-scale housing developments throughout the Province. This is totally out of kilter with the aims of the consultation process and will destroy any opportunity we have to protect the environment.
This is not a matter of personal interest. I am not saying "We need more housing, but not in my backyard." I want proper thought given to development, and decisions to be taken that will have the least impact on the environment; decisions that will be sustainable.
In addition to our problem of a delicate roads infrastructure which cannot deal with this increase, we face the difficulty of raw sewage being pumped out onto the beaches. Because of the increase in development, sewage is issuing from Donaghadee and towns along that part of the coast and polluting the waters of Strangford Lough and the sea in areas like Greyabbey.
There should be a moratorium on major housing schemes, particularly in the Strangford area, until consultation has taken place and the Planning Service has taken on board the very real concerns of the residents of north Down and the Strangford area.
I will support any motion seeking to press for the enhancement and protection of our countryside where many people enjoy leisure time. Where areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs) are properly managed in agreement with landowners, the designation is a very appropriate way in which to manage our natural heritage.
In my constituency of East Londonderry, various areas are designated ASSIs — Magilligan, the Bann estuary, Lough Foyle and Banagher Glen are examples. The Department of the Environment has worked with the landowners in these areas to develop a management plan or to purchase, as appropriate, certain portions of land. These areas are of great importance to wildlife, and none more so than the area nearest to my home, Banagher Glen, which is one of the oldest naturally regenerated woodlands in the whole of Ireland. The site is virtually unusable for farming and is inaccessible.
The designation of Banagher Glen as an ASSI did not impact greatly on the landowners, and they were happy to participate in the scheme. My only proviso concerns access. Over the years the Department of the Environment and other Government agencies have dragged their feet in giving the public access to Banagher Glen. I speak of an area that I know well, and there are probably many other such areas around the Province where the same applies. Therefore, I ask that before any privately owned land is designated as an ASSI, Government agencies promote, encourage and strengthen these designations.
Are landowners protected if someone proceeds onto their land, which is either a designated ASSI or provides access to an ASSI? If someone is injured, are the landowners or their insurers responsible for any claims? Will the Department of the Environment legislate to ensure that injured persons are covered by the Department or by some authority or scheme? Under any new legislation landowners must be protected from any liability for damages claimed by someone who is injured on their property. Under a management agreement landowners must be adequately compensated for their land, and they should receive proper recompense for loss of income.
We must also have adequate controls on third-party issues relating to damage caused by people who enjoy these ASSIs and who may even police them. Some form of compensation for damage must be written into any proposed legislation.
The questions I have raised must be properly answered before I can give wholehearted support to further legislation to protect ASSIs. I appreciate fully the wealth of plant life and wildlife in these areas, and most of the points made by the proposer are sound and rational. If my points can be adequately addressed, I will welcome such legislation.
Mr J Wilson:
Although I will not be able to support the motion, and I will outline my reasons, I support much of the sentiment behind it. I commend the Women’s Coalition for tabling the motion for it is time we debated environmental protection and it is time to stop the rot.
We are being invited to consider an Act of Parliament whose application is confined to England and Wales. We can and will make our own decisions on whether we replicate any of it with legislation in Northern Ireland.
I believe firmly that we need to do much more to protect the rural environment and the wildlife habitat, but I also believe that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act should not be cloned for this process.
It is a deeply flawed piece of legislation, and it received a mixed reception in rural areas. It had a stormy passage through Parliament before the Government’s urban majority forced it through. One of its main flaws was to put the two rather different and vexed issues of access to the countryside and protection of the countryside together in the same legislation. The framers of the Bill failed to understand how stewardship of the countryside — a largely voluntary and unrewarded activity — works.
Northern Ireland’s land ownership structure is different from England’s. Moreover, the proportion of cultivated land is higher here, although that could be reduced gradually in a way that could help farmers diversify and contribute to repairing some of the extensive damage already done to our wildlife habitat.
While the Department of the Environment has guidelines and regulations that appear to protect the natural environment, those are honoured much more in the breach than in the observance. While environmental protection standards in the rest of the UK are undemanding compared with those of many of our European neighbours, the situation is even more lax in Northern Ireland. Visitors to Northern Ireland who have an interest in these matters are frequently appalled by what is permitted.
I was told recently that more planning applications for new single rural dwellings are given in Northern Ireland each year than in the whole of England. If this is true, it is no wonder that our countryside is disappearing so rapidly. With ASSIs, it appears that exceptions are the rule. Environmentally damaging activities occur frequently, with little or no redress.
The Planning Service lives in fear of what appear to be battalions of sharp lawyers retained by developers to bully the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). The problem stems from a presumption in favour of development. That lies at the heart of the regulations.
If we are serious about protecting our environment then I urge the Minister, as a matter of urgency, to revise the planning regulations so that the balance tilts heavily towards the conservation of wildlife habitat and away from what appears to be almost indiscriminate development.
Tourism is an industry that should have considerable growth potential in Northern Ireland. If we continue in this way there will be no untarnished landscape left for tourists to enjoy.
Members know that I am considerably interested in angling. While improving the habitat for fish in our river system falls outside the scope of the debate, the issue also requires urgent and serious consideration if we are to address environmental issues properly.
Monumentally bad decisions by the Planning Service during direct rule have done serious damage to our countryside. I say "monumentally" because I could show examples of bad planning monuments in the countryside where I live. They are not tourist attractions. A carbon copy of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 will not bring about the change needed. However, change there must be, as the Minister, Mr Foster, knows. I appeal to him not to consider the Countryside and Rights of Way Act as a solution to Northern Ireland’s problems and seek to implement it here.