Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 5 March 2001 (continued)
Saintfield Road (Belfast):
Mr M Robinson
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail his plans to relieve traffic congestion on the Saintfield Road approach to Belfast.
As I explained during the Adjournment debate on 3 October 2000, my Department is endeavouring to tackle this problem by several means.
First, we introduced Belfast's first quality bus corridor in late June 2000. Secondly, we intend providing a park-and-ride facility at Cairnshill. This is dependent on planning approval and the availability of the necessary land and resources. Finally, we are giving due consideration to the provision of a dedicated busway, a "superroute" between Cairnshill and the city centre. This is a potential long-term project and Translink, in conjunction with my Department, has commissioned consultants to evaluate the merits and environmental impacts of alternative alignments for the busway.
The thrust of each of these measures is towards developing alternative modes of transport. In this context consultants are due to be appointed shortly to carry out a study and help produce a Belfast metropolitan transport plan. This study will include proposals for the city centre and transport corridors, including the southern approaches, and it will be carried out in conjunction with the preparation of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan, which has recently commenced.
Mr M Robinson:
I thank the Minister for his response. Can he comment further on the likely time frame involved in alleviating the situation on the ground, given the fact that there are already more than 30,000 cars using this route on a weekly basis?
I assure the Member and the House that Roads Service is continuing to monitor and review traffic conditions on the Saintfield Road and to identify the nature and location of additional safety measures that might be employed along that important arterial route. Roads Service is also investigating other measures that can assist in dealing with the increasing level and volume of traffic on what is, I accept, a very busy and important arterial route into Belfast city centre. We are looking at a number of options and would be prepared to consider in the foreseeable future other choices that would materialise once the bus corridors and the other aspects that I have outlined have been operational for a time.
Roads (Hannahstown and Glenavy)
asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail any plans to upgrade the roads in the Hannahstown and Glenavy areas.
My Department's Roads Service has no current plans to upgrade roads in the Hannahstown and Glenavy areas, although consideration is being given to resurfacing the Upper Springfield Road and the A26 Moira Road between Glenavy and Ballinderry Upper within the next two years.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I want to draw attention to the Hannahstown area, particularly the hairpin bend down to the top of Hannahstown Hill and the repairs that are needed there due to the horrendous state of the road. Since last October I have been asking the Minister's Department for an answer to a letter I sent about this matter, and, despite numerous reminders, I have still had no reply.
How does the Minister's Department prioritise the resurfacing or upgrading of roads in the first place, and what consultation, if any, is there between you or your Department and the local community in considering their needs or priorities?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Minister, I advise you that you have only some 20 seconds to respond.
I will write to the hon Member, but I am aware of a recent protest in relation to the surface of the road. I will undertake to establish why there has not been a response to the Member's letter, if that is the case, and will write to the hon Member accordingly.
Mr B Hutchinson:
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I refer to Standing Order 19(7). Why does Ms Lewsley have to wait for a written answer? There were two questions earlier - one was a supplementary to John Fee's, and it definitely was not a supplementary question under that Standing Order.
The other was by Mrs Nelis in relation to question 4. Both were additional questions. If we continue to use this practice, other Members who are waiting will not have their questions answered. People have taken time to submit written questions for oral answer. We should respect that and not allow others to ask irrelevant questions.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I thank the Member for that point of order. Some Members use very imaginative methods to ask supplementary questions in order to get their point across. That point is noted.
Mr S Wilson:
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, surely if Members are asking questions, which, to use your own word, are "imaginative" to get their points across, it is your responsibility to decide whether the question is in order. By your own admission, it seems that you noticed a couple of questions that were not in order yet you permitted them.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
The questions were in order. When I said "imaginative ways" I was describing the means by which Members link their supplementary questions to the main question that has been asked. That is why the supplementaries were not out of order.
Planning: Multiple-Occupation Housing
asked the Minister of the Environment to detail planning restrictions on the approval of houses of multiple occupation to avoid causing destruction to local communities.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):
That is a complex area of planning law. Multiple occupancy is regarded as a house that is occupied by persons who do not form a single household. Permitted development currently allows up to six people, who may not be related, to share accommodation without having to submit a planning application. Student and nursing accommodation typically falls into that category, as do households in which groups of people in need of care live together. It is regarded as a material change of use when accommodation is subdivided into discrete living units, and in those circumstances planning permission is required. The main criterion against which such applications are judged is the exisitng amenity of the area.
It is not just the amenity of the area that concerns me. Is the Minister aware of the character change to a community that can occur when an overabundance of houses of multiple occupation is allowed? Does he agree that his Department has a responsibility to preserve a community's character? Whatever happened in the past, what plans does he have to ensure that it does not happen in the future?
I am aware of the problems that seem to be arising around the coastline insofar as apartment development is concerned, especially in seaside towns such as Newcastle. My Department is addressing the issue in two ways. The Department is finalising, after public consultation, a planning policy statement titled 'Quality Residential Developments'. That will provide a policy context against which proposals for housing development on greenfield lands and in existing urban areas can be considered, including the relationship with existing development.
The Department is also preparing for consultation supplementary planning guidance in the form of a development control advice note. That will give guidance specifically related to proposals for small-unit housing in existing residential areas. I hope to publish both documents in the spring. I understand that the Department for Regional Development will also prepare a regional planning policy statement titled 'Housing In Settlements', which will also provide guidance on the matter. I am aware of the problems that have arisen. We are sensitive to the issue and shall look at it where we can.
Buildings of Architectural
asked the Minister of the Environment to detail his policy on the preservation of buildings of architectural merit and historic interest that are not listed.
Policy on the preservation of unlisted buildings of architectural merit and historic interest is set out in my Department's planning policy statement 6, 'Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage', which was published in March 1999. A copy of that statement is available in the Assembly Library. It refers to buildings of architectural merit and historic interest situated in conservation areas, in areas of townscape or village character and in local landscape policy areas.
It also sets out policies for the control of new developments, demolition or advertisements in a conservation area. In particular, in conservation areas, the Department favours the retention of any building that positively contributions to the character or appearance of the area. The statement also includes a policy that encourages the sympathetic reuse and renovation of non-listed vernacular buildings in recognition of the importance of such buildings to our heritage and regional identity.
We are also considering proposals to strengthen enforcement powers in that area. Those proposals are being considered for inclusion in a Bill to amend planning legislation, which I hope to introduce in the Assembly in the next session. The Member will also be aware that my Department recently declared five new conservation areas in Belfast to protect existing buildings of character from unregulated demolition. Those were previously declared areas of townscape character in the 1990s.
I thank the Minister for his response, but does he not agree that there is a need to look at the whole question of listing buildings of historic and architectural merit? That applies not only to those buildings in the conservation areas but to those outside, bearing in mind the issues of the previous question, and to the number of large houses that are being demolished to make way for new apartment blocks.
The second survey of all historic buildings in Northern Ireland has been under way for almost four years. That comprehensive survey considers the interior, exterior and history of each building and evaluates it against the criteria for listing. We are aware of the situation that prevails at this time. My Department and I recognise that the demolition and redevelopment of some houses that are not listed can have a detrimental effect on the character and quality of existing residential environments. That is especially the case when large detached residences are demolished to make way for town houses and apartment blocks, and the housing density is significantly increased. The use of conservation areas to protect buildings is a developing policy. If that approach is successful in Belfast it could be used in other parts of Northern Ireland. Demolition is also one of the areas that is being considered for the forthcoming Bill.
Mr K Robinson:
Does the Minister agree that it is a matter of extreme urgency that townscapes be extended beyond the Belfast metropolitan area to take in places such as Carrickfergus where historic buildings are in danger of immediate demolition? Does the Minister also agree that the appearance of apartments and town houses in the Newtownabbey area represents a serious threat to the townscape character already there and that stronger provisions are needed urgently?
My officials in the Planning Service and in the Environment and Heritage Service work together to identify and delineate those areas. I am aware of the issues, and I encourage those who are concerned about their local built environment to take advantage of the opportunities being provided to comment on local plans. They can do that by writing to the relevant planning teams about locally treasured buildings and places. I am aware of the problems in the Newtownabbey area - Mr Robinson has referred them to me before. We take those concerns seriously and are looking into the issues. I am also aware of an application for development and listed building consent to demolish Governor's Place in Carrickfergus. Those applications were received on 22 December 2000, and they are at an early stage of consideration.
The Minister has dealt with part of my question, and several other Members have asked about similar concerns. Is the Minister aware that, as we speak, buildings of architectural merit in Portrush are being demolished systematically by speculators that need the ground for apartments? Does he agree that the policies that exist are totally inadequate to deal with the problem?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I advise the Member that, as he suggested, that question has already been put to the Minister and he has responded to those issues. The only difference is in the location. Does the Minister wish to respond or does he wish to move on?
I am aware of the situation to which the Member refers. We are concerned when such things happen, and we shall take it into consideration when we try to do something about it. I assure the Member that those matters do not go unnoticed.
Mr M Robinson
asked the Minister of the Environment to detail when he expects to introduce legislation governing the use of public and private hire taxis.
At present, I have no plans to amend the Road Traffic (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which governs the licensing of drivers of public and private hire taxis and their vehicles in Northern Ireland. In the longer term it would be valuable to bring the legislation up to date.
However, my bid for additional resources to do so in the 2001-02 Budget was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, I shall continue to consider how the situation might be addressed within my Department's existing resources and priorities.
I recently met representatives of the Belfast Public Hire Taxi Association, together with the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of the Assembly's Environment Committee. Although I am unable to hold out the prospect of early legislation on taxi licensing, I have asked my officials to do all that they can to address the taxi drivers' concerns under existing legislation.
My Deparment also sets the fares to be charged by public hire taxis in Belfast under by-laws. Shortly, I intend to propose amendments to the by-laws to increase those fares, which were last increased in 1996.
Mr M Robinson:
As the Minister will be aware, the existing legislation is some 50 years old and, as a result, is totally inadequate. What does the Minister intend to do about the legislation, as he will, I am sure, be aware that there have been instances in which individual taxi drivers have been persecuted, victimised and demonised? Does he agree that that is a totally inadequate situation?
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I ask Members and the Minister to be concise in their questions and answers.
After devolution, regulation of the taxi industry, including any proposals for fundamental changes, is now my Department's responsibility, as we are all aware. As I stated in my earlier answer, a wider review of the current legislation governing the taxi industry would be valuable.
However, my Department is also required to ensure that members of the public can travel without unnecessary risk. It must therefore be satisfied that licences are granted only to persons who meet the requirements of repute.
In determining repute, the Department takes account of convictions, as confirmed by the RUC Criminal Records Office, against a set of guidelines that categorise convictions as serious or minor. That is an important issue that we are looking into, and we must ensure that we safeguard the public.
In many ways, the Minister has responded to my question. We are all aware of the number of people who use their cars illegally, and the amount of distress that that causes. It causes much distress in my area.
Perhaps part of the problem is that people who should not be driving are being allowed to do so. I hope that when the Minister amends the legislation it addresses all criminal activity in the taxi industry.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
I shall move on because the Member has admitted that her question has been answered.
Can the Minister give an assurance that people with criminal convictions will not be eligible for taxi licences in the future?
I would be failing in my duty to protect the public if I were to allow those convicted of murder or serious sexual offences to be granted taxi licences. The criteria do not attempt to take account of the motives of ex-offenders, and I do not propose to change that policy. It is open to the courts, on appeal, to take into account all the circumstances of a case.
Animal Waste: Environmental Damage
asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the steps he is taking to reduce the risk of damage to the environment caused by animal waste.
I refer the Member to AQO 719/00, which I answered on 5 February 2001, as is recorded in the Official Report for that day. That answer set out in detail the arrangements to prevent and police pollution incidents, including those caused by farms.
My answer also set out the significant increase in the number of staff devoted to that work over recent years. It also described the further increases in staff planned from the additional resources that I obtained in the Budget for next year, together with additional regulatory receipts. Headquarters staff on pollution prevention and response will increase from three to nine, and the number of staff in the water quality unit of the Environment and Heritage Service will increase from 44 to 77.
I also plan to strengthen the statutory regime for controlling animal waste. The Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 enables my Department to make regulations to control the storage of slurry, silage and fuel oils on farms. The Order also gives my Department increased powers to serve works notices that require farmers to take remedial action to stop or prevent pollution. That is detailed because I have been asked to give detail.
The Environment and Heritage Service takes vigorous action against polluters, including the instigation of prosecution proceedings when the circumstances warrant it. For serious pollution incidents, including fish kills, prosecutions will be expected to follow if the perpetrators can be identified.
However, the 1999 Order cannot come into operation until a commencement Order has been made. That in turn must wait for other enabling Regulations that were the subject of recent public consultation. My Department expects to be able to bring the 1999 Order into operation in the next two months and to have the new Regulations in place later this year.
Agricultural waste, which generally includes animal waste, is not controlled waste under the Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. It is not, therefore, covered by the Northern Ireland waste management strategy that my Department published last March. However, we intend to bring agricultural waste under the controlled regime. My Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are working together to develop an agricultural waste strategy to be incorporated into the overall Northern Ireland waste management strategy at its first review in 2002.
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Mr Kane, there was a great deal of detail in that response. Do you require a supplementary question?
I accept some of the Minister's response, but I was speaking about the disposal of animal by-product waste at landfill sites and his Department's responsibility for possible human infection from material at those sites. The risk of BSE infection to humans from specified waste materials that are put into landfill sites - [Interruption].
Madam Deputy Speaker:
Was there a question?
I thank the Minister for his wide-ranging answer. Do his proposals to increase, in particular, the policing and regulation of farm sewage place greater pressure on farms while we ourselves do not revise our thinking on how we should deal with the problem?
Does the Minister agree that if he acted in concert with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, who expressed an interest this morning in renewable energy resources, the matter could be approached proactively? They could do that by encouraging the building of anaerobic digesters, which would both recycle farm sewage in an environmentally friendly way and produce energy from a renewable resource.
The Environment and Heritage Service is actively engaged in pollution prevention measures. Through co-operation with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Countryside Management Division, it helps to target farm assessments and assists in the preparation of codes of good agricultural practice. All farmers who are prosecuted for causing pollution are offered a free advisory visit by staff from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
My Department has no direct responsibility for the disposal of fallen animals or incinerated carcasses. However, my officials will stay in touch with their counterparts in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to ensure that the arrangements for the burial of carcasses or incinerated remains pose no risk of pollution to rivers or ground waters.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Animal by-products from slaughter, such as stomach and gut contents and blood, can be spread on land where that practice is considered beneficial to the soil. Regulations require landowners to notify district councils where "land spreading" takes place. To prevent environment contamination and animal health risks, that practice is subject to control under the animal by-products Regulations enforced by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Blood certified as being free from disease by veterinary officers at the time of slaughter poses no risk and is therefore exempt under the Regulations. All waste from abattoirs has been directed to suitable licensed and risk-assessed landfill sites because of foot-and-mouth disease, and advice has been issued to district councils.
asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the current situation in implementing area plans across Northern Ireland.
The Department's development plan programme, which is reviewed and rolled forward annually, is published in Planning Service's corporate and business plans.
The objective of the programme is to provide development plan coverage for all district council areas in Northern Ireland by 2005. The current position is as follows: area plans for the districts of Antrim, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Larne, Armagh, Ballymoney, Coleraine, Moyle, Derry, Limavady, Omagh, Strabane and Fermanagh were adopted and are being implemented; the Lisburn area plan is scheduled for adoption before the summer; the Cookstown area plan has been the subject of a public inquiry, and the report and recommendations of the Planning Appeals Commission are awaited, and draft development plans have been published for the Craigavon and Dungannon districts, and public inquiries will be held during 2001-02.
As the programme progresses, several plans, including some of those referred to, will need to be replaced. Therefore, a replacement programme is also under way. Replacement area plans are in preparation for the Newry and Mourne and Banbridge districts, the Ards and Down districts and the Magherafelt district. They are also being prepared for the six districts - Belfast, Carrickfergus, Castlereagh, Lisburn, Newtownabbey and north Down - that comprise the Belfast metropolitan area plan. Work is scheduled to begin during 2001-02 on replacement plans for the Coleraine, Ballymoney, Limavady, Moyle, Antrim, Ballymena and Larne districts. Work on the three remaining districts of Armagh, Omagh and Strabane to complete up-to-date area plan coverage is scheduled to begin in 2002-03.
The Member may now understand the danger of putting terms such as "detail the current situation" into his questions. Sometimes one gets what one asks for.
Does the Department of the Environment have adequate resources to ensure that area plans are properly implemented in Northern Ireland? Can the Minister tell the House the number of article 31 applications that are before planners in Northern Ireland at present? What impact will those applications have on the implementation of area plans across the Province?
I cannot tell the Member the number of article 31 applications that are with planners at present, but I shall provide him with a written reply. I am generally satisfied that the resources are available - so far as one can be absolute about anything- to my Department to meet the target date of 2005, subject to the normal consultation process. Although I recognise the pressures of statutory consultees, I expect that they will recognise the importance of area plans and allocate resources as necessary.
Mr A Doherty:
Does the Minister agree that the implementation of area plans across Northern Ireland may be complicated, if not compromised, by the uncertainty regarding future structures of local government and that that uncertainty should be removed as soon as possible?
That is an imponderable question. The area plans can run concurrently with whatever is decided in future under the public administration review. I cannot give the Member an answer to that. I cannot be absolute about it, but I can assure him that there is nothing wrong with working on the strategy at the moment.
Mr J Wilson:
Is the Minister satisfied that progress towards the goal of having all areas covered by 2005 is achievable?
I refer my Colleague to my earlier answer.
I am generally satisfied that the resources that my Department will need to meet the target date of 2005 - subject to the normal consultation process - are available. I cannot be absolute about it. We are working towards 2005.
Planning Applications (Kircubbin Area)
asked the Minister of the Environment to explain how two planning applications have been approved by the Planning Service while other applications have been deferred until the new Kircubbin sewage treatment works has been provided.
Several planning applications have been held pending a decision on the future development of the Kircubbin sewage treatment works. On 13 February 2001, Planning Service consulted Ards Borough Council with a preliminary opinion to approve two related applications. One of those related to the refurbishment of an existing building. Water Service had no objection to that development on the grounds that there would be no additional discharge.
The second proposal concerned apartment development, and the recommendation to approve was made in error. This error was discovered by Planning Service and did not result in a formal approval's being issued.
Water Service has recently advised that the design of the new sewage works for Kircubbin is at an advanced stage, and work is programmed to commence on site in autumn 2001, subject to planning permission. Although Water Service's position remains that no additional discharge can be accepted because of overloading of the existing works, it has stated that it will not oppose planning applications, provided developers are prepared to phase construction to coincide with the completion of the sewage works. In light of that information, planning applications that currently stand deferred by Ards Borough Council until the new Kircubbin sewage treatment works has been provided will now be considered.
Will the Minister acknowledge the very bitter concern of local applicants who have consistently been refused planning permission? There is currently a wait of up to five years until the new sewage treatment facility is provided. Along comes an application for apartments, which has just been mentioned, and - hey presto! - the decision from the planning people is "OK". There is no problem and no mention of sewerage. The local community is furious.
Will the Minister assure the Assembly that his Department will fulfil its obligations in relation to planning applications throughout Northern Ireland on a consistent, fair and equitable basis, and one that would not give rise to any kind of suspicions?
The Member used the word "suspicions". I do not accept that the planning people are inconsistent. I know that there are problems and difficulties, but I can assure the House that no planning application goes through without deep thought and rigorous assessment. I cannot accept what the Member has just said. I assure him that we view the situation in a pedantic and consistent way. We look at the infrastructures surrounding all applications, and each application is taken on its own particular merits.
I am curious to hear to which part of Kircubbin sewage treatment works Mr Roy Beggs wishes to refer.
Does the Minister agree that it would be environmentally irresponsible for Planning Service to continue to grant planning approval for all new developments, knowing that pollution of the environment would result if the sewage treatment works is already overloaded, as it is in parts of my constituency? Will he take into consideration the views of the Environment and Heritage Service on the ability of the local sewage treatment works to cope when he considers new planning applications that would potentially further overload the local capacity?
I can assure Mr Beggs that we take all those issues into consideration. We must ensure that the works are not overloaded and that the infrastructure is in place to take the development. I assure him that we shall not take the matter lightly.
Is the Minister aware that the planning schedule for Tuesday week will confirm that all four outstanding applications for Kircubbin will be lodged with Ards Borough Council and will all be coming forward for approval? Can he state why that has happened? Is it because of the controversy made known to Ards Borough Council by the people of the area, or is it because the Department has not been doing its job correctly?
I understand that four applications have been deferred by Ards Borough Council. My Department will now consider those as a matter of urgency. I wish to emphasise again that we do not take those matters lightly. I would not accept that in my Planning Service. It is not inconsistent; it does not operate in a willy-nilly way.
My Department is not able to review applications that have already been refused on the grounds that the sewage works was overloaded. However, there is nothing to prevent someone submitting a new application for consideration, where people may feel aggrieved. I assure the Member, and this House, that my Planning Service does not take issues lightly.
EU Landfill Directive
asked the Minister of the Environment to detail his plans to introduce legislation for the implementation of the European Union Landfill Directive.
The Landfill Directive aims to prevent or reduce as far as possible the negative effects on the environment, as well as any risk to human health, from the landfilling of wastes. A key feature of the Directive is the reduction of methane emissions from landfill sites. It imposes progressive targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste landfilled, eventually reducing to 35% of the 1995 baseline levels.
The target for achieving that reduction is 2020, provided that advantage is taken of the four-year derogation available under the Directive. The percentage reductions required by the Directive are built into the Northern Ireland waste management strategy that was published by the Department of the Environment in March 2000.
In consultation with other parts of the United Kingdom, my Department is considering options for ensuring that those targets are met in Northern Ireland. I hope to consult widely on those issues later this year.
The remainder of the Directive is concerned with achieving common standards for the design, operation and aftercare of landfill sites. I shall be consulting on the proposal for implementing those aspects of the Directive as soon as possible after the consultation on biodegradable municipal waste.
Plans to introduce legislation to implement the Directive must await the outcome of those consultations. The additional resources that I have obtained in the Budget for 2001-02 will, however, help progress. Those resources will enable me to meet the commitment in the Programme for Government to progressively eliminate the backlog in transposing and implementing EU Directives.
Mr Ford, you have 20 seconds to put your question, and the Minister will then be likely to have to write to you.
I am disappointed, Mr Speaker, to hear that there is no definite timescale for the legislation. I had hoped that the Minister could have been a little more specific. Is he satisfied with the current movement on targets towards recycling and reuse? Is he also aware of the major public concern over the incineration question, which also needs to be addressed?
I am afraid that the time for questions to the Ministers is up. I have not been in the Chair, but I observe that we have barely reached question 7. Without attributing that to anything in particular, I do feel that on productivity grounds, no particularly good use has been made of that time. I appeal to Members who have to take the Floor to be as concise as possible.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Are you referring to the responses by Ministers? That is what stretches out the time; that is where the problem lies.
As I said, I attribute my remarks to no one in particular. My remarks were meant as a caution to all Members who take the Floor.