Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 30 April 2001 (continued)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh an seans labhairt ar cheist phráinneach chaomhnú an tSléibhe Dhuibh in iarthar Bhéal Feirste. Tá súil agam go n-inseoidh an tAire dúinn i ndiaidh na díospóireachta seo go bhfuil rún aige deireadh a chur le cairéalacht cloch ansin. Ta an Sliabh Dubh agus cnoic Bhéal Feirste an-tábhachtach do mhuintir Bhéal Feirste.
Tá Béal Feirste suite idir abhantrach an Lagáin ar thaobh amháin agus cnoic Ard Mhic Neasca ar an taobh eile. Tá cnoic Bhéal Feirste ina slabhra ó chnoc Colin go cnoc Carnmoney, agus tá an Sliabh Dubh ina nasc thábhachtach sa slabhra sin.
Bheirim cuireadh anois don Aire siúil liom ar an Sliabh Dubh go bhfeiceann sé dó féin na gáibéil agus na beanna a dhéanann suas an cairéal.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the urgent need to conserve the Black Mountain. It is essential that the Assembly support the preservation of the Black Mountain and the Belfast hills. I invite the Minister of the Environment, Mr Foster, to visit the Black Mountain with me to see, at first hand, the gaping chasm and sheer cliffs that make up the quarry, and to understand why it is vital that his Department takes the necessary steps to end quarrying. I intend, in due course, to invite the Environment Committee to examine the important issue. I hope that today's discussion will be informative and signal a beginning of the end for quarrying on the Black Mountain and real moves towards preserving the Belfast hills.
The Black Mountain and the Belfast hills are central to the identity of Belfast. In common with many Irish cities, Belfast is changing. With that change it is losing its uniqueness. New developments which are central to regeneration are replacing older landmarks; Belfast risks losing its character. What remains unique to the city is its magnificent setting - a city rising up from the Lagan basin, and framed by the Belfast and Holywood hills. The Belfast hills form a chain stretching from Colin Mountain to Carnmoney Hill, and the Black Mountain is a vital link in that chain. These hills have watched Belfast grow. They have acted as a meeting place for the United Irishmen; the British Army occupied them; they have witnessed all our history. They have acted as a playground for generations, and they should be the common property of all our people.
The hills are a legacy that we have inherited, and it is our responsibility to conserve them for our children. That was recognised by the Planning Service as long ago as 1945 when, in planning proposals for the Belfast area, it recommended the preservation of the hills. Similar aspirations have been voiced in every subsequent Belfast planning document. However, the aspirations of the documents have never been fully realised. Developments are encroaching on to the hills, and significant quarrying is encouraged on the Black Mountain. Therefore, there is a need to implement legislation to end the quarrying and to save the hills.
Sinn Féin and I both welcome the establishment of the Belfast Hills Trust. We have called consistently for the setting up of a regional park across all the Belfast hills. Such a park, based on legislation, and fully funded, would be the best way of securing the long-term future of our hills.
Every year 500,000 tonnes of stone are removed from the Black Mountain. Two thousand five hundred tonnes are removed every day. Last year, the Minister stated that there was at least 20 years' worth of stone extraction left on the mountain. This projection comes after 12 years of quarrying. By the end of the timescale allowed in the planning permission, in 32 years at least 16 million tonnes will have been extracted.
Fuair muid na cnoic seo mar oidhreacht nádúrtha an dúchais, agus tá freagracht orainn anois iad a chaomhnú dár gcuid páistí.
I wonder, as do many other people who live close to the mountain, if there will be a mountain there at all in twenty years' time. I ask the Minister if this would be allowed to happen to any other landmark in any other constituency. Would the Minister allow the full-scale draining of the Fermanagh loughs, the destruction of the Giant's Causeway or the demolition of Navan Fort?
As well as the destruction of the mountain, local communities have to endure 25 large trucks making return journeys every day to and from the quarry. That is 50 journeys through a community with the highest level of road traffic accidents in the Six Counties. There are also reports of increased pollution, with dust blowing off the quarry into neighbouring communities.
To add insult to this the construction industry itself, which is the market for quarried stone, can use recycled aggregate. The industry is not dependent on stone quarry from the Black Mountain. While all this goes on, Belfast is losing a vital piece of our environmental heritage and gaining increased pollution and heavy traffic, borne, in the main, by the people of west Belfast.
The small number of jobs created on the site is not sustainable. Some day the stone will be gone, and with it the jobs. However, the number of jobs lost could be matched and added to by way of restoration work, conservation, education and tourism on the mountain. A single project by the community of the upper Springfield could create 45 jobs on the site immediately.
In March of this year, the Minister informed my office that the Department is taking no steps to end quarrying on the Black Mountain. This approach is short-sighted and wrong and undermines the current consultation on the Belfast metropolitan area plan. I am concerned that this plan will join the growing list of planning documents that have failed to safeguard the Black Mountain and the Belfast hills.
Ba chóir don Aire a bheartú ar cé acu ba mhaith leis bheith freagrach as an Sliabh Dubh a shábháil nó bheith ina fhear ar scrios a neamart é.
We need to move conservation from aspiration to action. We need the Department to implement legislation to conserve the Belfast hills. We need an immediate end to the quarrying, and we need to begin work to redress the damage done. Of course, there will be a cost for all this. However, the cost is justified, as it will save a valued asset for future generations.
The Minister and the Department have the ability to devise measures to safeguard the Black Mountain and the Belfast hills. As I said in Irish, he needs to decide if he will be remembered as the man who saved the Black Mountain or as someone who made a mountain into a molehill.
I urge the Minister to direct his Department to investigate ways to end the quarrying and to send a signal out today that he will act as a guardian of the environment.
In closing, let me bring you back to Navan Fort. In 1986, it too was threatened by quarrying. The then British Minister, Richard Needham, moved to save the site by invoking article 22 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, to overrule public inquiry commission findings concerning an application to extend quarrying at that site.
Ba mhaith liom an tAire ordú a thabhairt dá Roinn dóigh a fhiosrú le deireadh a chur leis an chairéalacht agus a chruthú go ndéanfaidh sé beart mar choimirceoir na timpeallachta.
As I am sure the Minister is a fair man, I ask him to come with me to the site to see for himself the damage that is being done. I ask him to use his power to save the Black Mountain and the Belfast hills, on behalf of the people of Belfast and this island. Go raibh mile maith agaibh.
Go raibh maith agat, a Leas Cheann Comhairle. Sadly, in our time, the Black Mountain area has come to be considered as perhaps the last resting place of several of the disappeared. The Black Mountain and the Belfast hills were anciently the borderline between the Dálaradia people and the ancient British Cruthin kingdom of Dálaradia. The historical and cultural legacy of Dálaradia, a legacy that belongs in equal measure to both our communities - for in essence they are the same community - was very much the product of a close interrelationship between all the peoples of the British Isles, using the term "British" in its most ancient form and sense.
Such an interrelationship is particularly evident in Dál Riada's rich literary output, a fact also noted by Seamus Heaney in the introduction to his translation of 'Buile Suibhne', when he said
"It is possible . to dwell upon Sweeney's easy sense of cultural affinity with both western Scotland and southern Ireland as exemplary for all men and women in contemporary Ulster."
Despite the exclusiveness with which many of our community have defensively surrounded their respective traditions of Britishness and Irishness, I take great encouragement from the efforts being made at the grassroots to explore the commonality of our historical and cultural heritage.
In particular I note the work undertaken by the Farset Youth and Community Project, which lies beneath the Black Mountain in the Upper Springfield Road area, and with which I have had a long association. Farset continues to involve young people from both sides of the divide in an exploration of their shared inheritance - the sacrifice at the Battle of the Somme, the story of the Titanic, the idealism of United Irishman, Jemmy Hope, the European dimension bequeathed to us by Columbanus, the preservation of Ulster Gaelic and Ulster Scots and many other equally significant facets.
Farset is appropriately sited on the Upper Springfield Road to explore this inheritance, not simply because the citizens of Belfast are the predominant inheritors of ancient Dálaradia and the Black Mountain interface, but because its location provides ample evidence of the continuity to which I have referred.
Within the project's catchment area flows the River Farset from which the project, and Belfast, takes its name. Close to the river once stood an old church, mentioned in a document of 1306 as the "Ecclesia Alba", or White Church. The place name for this old church, An tSeanchill, was first documented in the seventeenth century and has been anglicised as Shankill. The old church has long since gone, but as Richard S J Clarke has noted
"Its graveyard continued to be used for burial for succeeding generations, maintaining a tradition established perhaps a thousand years earlier."
When Alderman Hugh Smyth was Mayor of Belfast, I had the great privilege of accompanying him to the National Museum in Dublin to see three fragments from a ninth-century crozier found in the graveyard. These are perhaps the oldest fragments of a crozier ever found in the vicinity of the north of Ireland. Along with a bullaun stone also found in the graveyard and now mounted near to the door of the adjoining St Matthew's Church, we have evidence of pre-Norman ecclesiastical activity in Belfast.
Equally significant, the medieval parish of Shankill not only embraced the Falls as one of its native divisions but was also directly linked to the monastery at Bangor. A church document of 1615 lists the chapel of Cromoge, located within the parish of Shankill, as one of the six altarages or parochial chapels, belonging to the monastery of Bangor, where oblations might be presented and dues paid.
Tragically for all of us, to many people the words "Shankill" and "Falls" are now synonymous with a deep-rooted communal division, which some claim is unbridgeable. Just as both districts were once embraced in one parish, it is my earnest hope that a proper evaluation of our historical and cultural inheritance will reveal the full extent to which that inheritance has also been a shared one.
I am sad to report that the Farset International Hostel, formulated by Mr Jackie Hewitt of Farset, does not seem to be going ahead. That is a great loss, not only to the people of west Belfast but to the whole of Belfast and Northern Ireland. Something like that would have been a great adjunct to the development of the Black Mountain and the Belfast hills. I agree that this is an extremely important area.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
Thank you, Dr Adamson. I was afraid that you were straying a little bit, especially when you got to my constituency in Bangor, but I see the connection.
Both Mr Gerry Adams and Dr Ian Adamson have powerfully outlined the cultural, environmental and wider appeal and relevance of the Black Mountain to the citizens of Belfast and beyond. People, when they come to Belfast, often comment on the Belfast hills - Castlereagh, Cavehill and the Black Mountain. Given the natural asset that we enjoy, there is no more compelling environmental argument than to try to save the Black Mountain from further ravages. Both Ian Adamson and Gerry Adams would agree that, while we may articulate a view on the Floor of the Chamber today, it is the Aidan Creans, the Terry Enrights, the Tim Duffys and the late Eileen Fultons who have been in the vanguard in trying to enhance the natural environment, particularly in west Belfast, whether it is Colin Glen, the Black Mountain or the Bog Meadows.
The Minister's Department should be mindful of other developments on the natural landscape in west Belfast when it comes to directing funds and resources and developing a strategic approach to building the environment in west Belfast. A group is to be set up in the next 10 days to enhance the Colin Glen area and the Glen River's contribution to the environment of west Belfast. When that cross-community and cross-environmental group makes proposals, I trust that the Department and the Minister will hear what people say with regard to enhancing the environment in west Belfast.
Similarly, in the near future, the Environment and Heritage Service will publish a response to the Northern Ireland landscape character assessment series in which it talks about landscape character and the protection of the environment in Northern Ireland in general. I urge the Minister to respond positively to those recommendations.
This debate is primarily about the Black Mountain, and I want to ask the Minister about that. I have several questions. There are increasing concerns about the future of the Black Mountain and the future intentions of the quarry owners themselves. Gerry Adams correctly pointed out that the quarry owners recently indicated that there are 20 years' worth of basalt reserves yet to be quarried in the Black Mountain. I heard in 1992, when the then Minister of the Environment, Richard Needham, said that it was his understanding that at that time there were 20 years' worth of quarrying reserves. Mr Needham's civil servants at that time did not agree with the Minister. They indicated that there were only between eight and 15 years' reserves. Ten years later we are told - formally and on the record - that there are at least 20 years' reserves. The Minister confirmed that in a written answer to me in January 2000, when he indicated that the quarry operator, at present rates of extraction, understands that he has sufficient reserves to carry operations forward for at least 20 years.
If that were the only fact, it might be understandable. However, the plot thickens. Since then, the permanent secretary and the Minister have been asked for an assessment of the remaining mineral reserves in the quarry - an assessment that the quarry owners were undertaking. In September 2000, the Minister confirmed in writing that
"White Mountain Quarries Ltd has confirmed that its assessment of the remaining mineral reserves of the quarry is now almost complete, and it hopes to be in a position to let the Department have information on this within the next few weeks."
That was in September 2000. In January 2001, the Minister again wrote to me, apologising for not replying sooner. He said that his officials had had difficulty in contacting White Mountain Quarries. He added that the company was not prepared to release the information requested, as they regarded it as commercially sensitive. In 1992, the Government and the quarry owners said that they had at least 20 years' worth of reserves. In 2000, the quarry owners said that they had at least that. However, in 2001 the quarry owners are not prepared to release the information requested by the Government, as they regard it as commercially sensitive.
The people of west Belfast - especially those that I named earlier - ask a simple question. How is it that an assessment made 10 years ago stated that there were 20 years' worth of reserves? How is it that a similar assessment was made last year, and how is it that this year that company is no longer prepared to share what it says is commercially sensitive information?
This also raises a wider issue about who governs the North. A large quarry is having an immense environmental impact on west Belfast - all of it adverse. How is it that a private company that is granted planning permission by the state is not prepared to share information with the Government and the wider community that it was prepared to share earlier? Legitimate questions are being asked about the long-term prospects of the quarry. Is it not the case that - far from 20 years' worth - there are 30, 40 or more years' worth of reserves? In that context, Members can understand the concern about the long-term consequences for the mountain.
In responding to environmental need, not just in west Belfast and the Black Mountain - I also mentioned the Colin Glen proposals - it is also time for the Government to assert control over what White Mountain Quarries is doing, not just in respect of quarry reserves, where there is ambiguity, uncertainty and concern, but also in ensuring that the 19 conditions laid down when the quarry originally got planning permission in the early 1980s are strictly and fully enforced. The experience of 10 years ago was that planning conditions were routinely not enforced in respect of this quarry, particularly those relating to landscaping, planting of trees, the removal of plant from the front of the mountain and the damage to the top of the mountain.
I agree with Gerry Adams that the Government should assert authority over what is happening in the Black Mountain. Unless there is clarity about how many years' worth of reserves there is and how many more years of destruction there will be, the Social Development Committee would be advised to follow the model adopted by the Regional Development Committee in respect of the Port of Belfast and initiate a formal inquiry into what has happened to the Black Mountain over the last 20 years.
The purpose of that inquiry would be to mitigate the adverse impact of the quarrying to date; to further protect and develop the mountain as a civic amenity; to consider the closure of quarrying operations on the mountain as a matter of urgency; to review the history of planning enforcement conditions and how the situation has developed generally; to determine such other action as is deemed necessary, including moving the quarry to a more environmentally suitable site; and to explore European funding mechanisms to have the quarry closed down.
The Minister should respond, or be seen to respond, to those concerns, on which he has been on notice over the last year. If he does not, it is the intention of the SDLP and, I am sure, other parties to prevail upon the Social Development Committee to initiate an inquiry into how the situation arose and to call people to account for what has happened.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a leasCheann Comhairle. I support my Colleague Mr Adams's motion, which is timely and appropriate. I was going to say, tongue in cheek, that Dr Adamson stole all my lines. You are quite right, leasCheann Comhairle, when you say that he used poetic licence, but the Black Mountain is a very poetic place for Belfast people in particular and, I am sure, for those who come from beyond Belfast.
It has a special place in the lives of the people in Belfast, particularly those in west Belfast. For those of us who grew up in Belfast 60 years ago, a day out was on Cavehill or the Black Mountain. It is a place that has been well versed in song - the McPeakes sang about it in their song 'Belfast'. The words include "coming home to your Black Mountain, Cavehill and River Lagan". The Black Mountain is as much a part of Belfast as the River Lagan, Cavehill and the city hall. It is something special to the lives of people of Belfast.
As Belfast grew industrially and expanded socially, people had nowhere to escape to but to Cavehill or the Black Mountain. As Mr Adams said, all the industrialisation and quarrying over the years - uncontrolled quarrying, let me say - has despoiled and left an unsightly mark. I am sure that the Minister - a Fermanagh man, proud of the lakes and countryside of Fermanagh - would not want to see an amenity like the Black Mountain's being further despoiled for the sake of profit or more industrialisation. The Minister should remember that Belfast needs an attraction - it needs its Black Mountain. You can stand practically anywhere in Belfast and see it. You can see why it was called the Black Mountain. It has an image of darkness and beauty and a special appeal for the people of Belfast and beyond. We have the green Glens of Antrim, and I ask the Minister to ensure we have the Black Mountain for Belfast.
I congratulate Mr Adams for bringing this most important motion to the Assembly. Not in recent times, but certainly over many years, I have been involved in this subject. I had many meetings with Ministers going away back - Richard Needham's name has come up several times.
I put myself in the same bracket as Mr J Kelly, when it comes to my childhood. From Bellevue, and I am not talking about the zoo, across the upper Shankill and upper Springfield, the hills of Belfast are a place of great beauty and culture, steeped in the history of people of both traditions.
I recall asking Richard Needham to go onto the mountainside, which he did. He arrived in a helicopter. I remember his expressing great anger about the situation - some people might wonder whether it was genuine. He had a background in quarrying. The real sin here was not committed by him or by his people at that time, but long before that, when planning permission was given. I do not recall the name of the owner of White Mountain then - it was not the present owners. Planning permission was given to dig that quarry, and that was wrong from every point of view. It was morally wrong and wrong in terms of all people from both traditions.
Other things happened at that time, and I suppose there is no point in our going back in time and pointing fingers. Close to the mountains is the Monagh bypass, which is really a motorway. If you asked people or senior civil servants today why the Monagh bypass suddenly stopped at the mountainside - that is going back some years ago - many people would say that it is just as well, because the mountains are still there. However, there were plans to build a motorway cutting right through there and to save the hills all around it. That would have been a place of great beauty. I do not make the argument for motorways; I simply say that decisions were taken to build a motorway, and then all of a sudden it was stopped. It is difficult to find out precisely why that happened.
As Alex Attwood said, there was an inquiry in respect of the hills, but I have found it difficult, during my time as MP for West Belfast, to find out details of that original inquiry, which was buried. I did get some details, but they were not very helpful. I recall speaking on several occasions about this issue to the then Secretary of State, Sir Patrick Mayhew. He spoke once about the beauty of the Belfast hills from upper Springfield right across the upper Shankill, and he totally agreed with me that something could be done with the Belfast hills for the sake of the people.
It is important to remember that we are talking about west Belfast, north Belfast, Lagan Valley, south Antrim, all of Belfast; in fact, it is Northern Ireland that we are talking about. The hills are truly beautiful in terms of our cultural history, bird life and animal life. All the important points have already been made - my Colleague Alex Attwood covered the main ones. Where do we go from here? This is a shared inheritance, belonging to all of us. I believe that at one stage the Northern Ireland Office was toying with the idea of doing something about it. I think that they were considering whether it would be a good thing to do from a political standpoint, in terms of peace between two traditions. They were toying with it, but it never went any further than that.
Many organisations have been involved with the preservation of the mountainside, and Mr Attwood mentioned some of the people - Aidan Crean and Terry Enwright are very much to the fore in this. However, we are now concerned about the mental and physical health of all our people and about their environment.
The Minister is a very fair person, and I would like him to go to the mountainside some time with an MP, or with any of us - it does not matter with whom he goes; it is important that he goes - and that he and his people make an assessment, not just of west Belfast, but of all of the hills, and consider in what way they could be used for the good of all people.
I understand that to buy off White Mountain Quarries Ltd would cost a substantial amount of money, because planning permission was given to them - although very wrongfully given - and apparently to undo that would be very expensive. I made the point earlier that what could be done was being considered, and one of the ideas was to buy the mountain back for the people over a number of years using the funds that went to Making Belfast Work (MBW) - but not on a direct payment, because there is not enough money for that.
This is a devolved Assembly; it is about the health, welfare and environment of our people. I support the shared inheritance that has been spoken of. There should be an inquiry. The Assembly and the Executive should give whatever support is necessary - financial or legislative - to give the mountainside back to the people of Northern Ireland.
Gerry Adams put forward the motion with the focus on his constituents in West Belfast. However, the Black Mountain impinges on at least two other constituencies - East Antrim, and my constituency, Lagan Valley. My constituents are as worried about the destruction of the Black Mountain as are the people in West Belfast.
There are several key facts relating to conservation on the Black Mountain; some have already been mentioned. There has been quarrying with planning permission since the early 1980s. Overhead photographs and the profile of the mountain show the enormous environmental destruction that has occurred over that time. Taking into account the destruction that has happened in the last 20 years, how much more will occur in the next 20 years or more? As Gerry Adams and others mentioned, there are indications that at least 20 years' worth of reserves could still be gouged out of the mountain.
There are concerns that the Department of the Environment has not properly monitored the situation. There is evidence that the original planning conditions imposed in the 1980s were not monitored or enforced. In the 1990s the then Minister, Richard Needham, was required to intervene in order that the planning conditions could be introduced. Those included the need to plant trees in the front of the mountain to shield the site and to blend it in with the surrounding environment.
The community is rightly concerned that the original planning conditions have not been observed or enforced. To rectify the situation it is essential that the Assembly investigate how quarrying can be terminated. The Assembly must ensure that there is a maximum environmental restoration of the mountain and that there is adequate restoration of trees and plants in the area.
The Department of the Environment can take immediate action by adopting a comprehensive road cleansing policy in the area, and it could confirm that the optimum wheel-washing facilities are on site.
I acknowledge that there are employment repercussions. I ask the Minister if it would not be possible to relocate another basalt quarry and retain these jobs there. This matter should be referred to the Social Development Committee, and I support my Colleagues' request for an inquiry.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Gabh mo leithscéal, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Dúirt mo chara John Ó Ceallaigh, nuair a bhí sé ag caint, gurbh é clann McPeake a cheol an t-amhrán 'Béal Feirste' ach ba é Barnbrack a cheol an t-amhrán sin.
For the historical record my friend, John Kelly, credited the McPeake family with the song 'Belfast' it was, in fact, Barnbrack.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
I am grateful that the Member clarified that.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):
I welcome the debate for many reasons, none more than it gives me the opportunity to provide explanations. I am a conservationist, and I do not want to despoil any territory anywhere. Mr Adams referred to beauty spots in the Province such as Lough Erne. We are all proud of the Province, but we must not allow ourselves to become too sanctimonious.
The countryside has been pockmarked for 30 years by terrorist activity. It is to be regretted that we did not receive united condemnation of that fact at the time. We hope to rectify the utter destruction in our land. I want to assure everyone that I wish to conserve rather than to choose one area against another.
Although the title given to this Adjournment debate is "Conservation on the Black Mountain", it will be helpful if I begin my response by considering the Black Mountain in the context of the Belfast hills. Just before Easter I announced the publication by the Department of the Environment of the Northern Ireland Landscape Character Assessment 2000. On that occasion in Parliament Buildings I drew attention to the Belfast hills as being one of our most prominent and well-known landscape features and mentioned how they provided a magnificent backcloth to the city of Belfast. The report stated
"The basalt cliffs are a striking landmark .They have a wild, brutal, untamed character which contrasts with the familiar bustle of the city below."
The Department of the Environment recognises the importance of the Belfast hills, not only in providing a landscape setting for the north and west of the city, but also as a recreational resource of immense potential for all the people of Belfast and the visitors to Northern Ireland. I also recognise that many difficulties and challenges must be overcome if this potential is to be realised - not least the fact that the majority of land in the Belfast hills is privately owned farm land. The genuine concerns that landowners and farmers have regarding trespassing, vandalism and damage to property have to be addressed if we are to win the confidence of this important section of the local community.
I am conscious that pressure for Government action to protect the Belfast hills has been building for years. The zoning of the hills area as a regional park was proposed in the mid-1990s as a means of providing protection, public access and enjoyment. However, there was strong local opposition to this concept for the reasons that I have stated.
Pressure for action continued, and in 1998 a feasibility study on the Belfast hills was commissioned at the then Minister's request by the Department's Environment and Heritage Service on behalf of a consortium including the four local authorities for the hills and the charity Bryson House. This study identified continued lack of support, particularly from land owners, for the establishment of a regional park. Also it was felt that insufficient land was in public ownership to make the concept viable. The study instead recommended the setting up of a Belfast hills trust to provide a practical and integrated management mechanism for a smaller operational area of the hills running from the city limits to the back of the hills overlooking Belfast, Lisburn and Newtownabbey. This recommendation received widespread public support and much less opposition from local residents.
In 2000 the Department of the Environment established a working group which employed consultants to prepare a business plan for the proposed Belfast hills trust. The draft plan is now complete, but it is still awaiting final approval from some members of the working group. It will be presented shortly to potential funders in support of the case for the establishment of a Belfast hills trust.
The Black Mountain is seen as an important part of the Belfast hills. It has particular importance because of its visual prominence on the skyline and its closeness to a large population. I am fairly confident in saying that a strategic plan for its wide use would be a high priority for a hills trust. Such a trust would also be well placed to feed ideas and information on the sustainable management of the Belfast hills into the Belfast metropolitan area (BMA) plan process. The BMA plan will set out Government policy on development in the Belfast hills, including the Black Mountain. It will consider in detail the recreational potential of this area and how the Belfast hills should be protected and managed. I referred earlier to the challenge of reconciling the needs of farming with the aspirations of those who wish to use the hills for recreation. There are other legitimate activities taking place in the Belfast hills such as the quarry which has been referred to on the Black Mountain.
There is a long history of quarrying on the Black Mountain, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Growth for most of this period was intermittent, but it took off rapidly during the 1980s. In 1978 the Department of the Environment received a planning application from the current operators to develop 127 acres of the mountain area for quarrying and ancillary use. The application was approved in July 1979.
Further applications were received in the mid-1980s and granted in 1988.
I have no hesitation in accepting the invitation to visit the Black Mountain and the quarry area. My diary secretary will be in contact to organise that.
I cannot answer for all the Administrations that were here before me. I have been asked once or twice when the quarry will close. Dates have been suggested, but all I can say is that it will happen when the reserves are exhausted. It will depend on the production processes of the operator and will be dictated by demand, not by the Department of the Environment.
I am asked why the Department does not close the quarry. The Department could initiate discontinuance action under article 39 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. That, however, might involve significant compensation to the operators. The Department would also have to justify taking action against that quarrying operation and not against others.
I have been asked whether the Department will grant further permission on the site. Any application would have to be considered on its merits and against prevailing plans and policies. It would be improper for me to say in this forum how my Department might assess any application.
Through the planning process, my Department has imposed strict limits on the extent of quarrying. Those restrictions were reinforced by the 1985 planning application, which contained a proposal to forfeit part of the area approved for extraction in 1979, for the purpose of preserving the skyline. I assure Members that my Department closely monitors those area limits, and they have now been reached. In that context, the visual appearance of the quarry should not now change significantly. However, the quarry can be deepened, within the limits imposed. That will have limited - if any - visual impact from outside the quarry.
I have read in the press that it is in my power to stop quarrying on Black Mountain at a stroke: that is not so. I am sure that there will be relief that I do not possess such draconian powers. I have the power to discontinue planning permissions, but exercising that power involves a lengthy process, with no cast-iron guarantee of success. If successful, my Department would also have to pay significant compensation to the quarry owners for the closure of their business, and, ultimately, that bill would have to be met by the taxpayer. The operators have valid planning permission to quarry on the Black Mountain, subject to conditions and until reserves have been exhausted. My Department has no powers to dictate deadlines for completing those operations. There are 250 quarrying operations throughout the Province. Do we want to make life difficult for those quarries as well? They are a necessary contribution to the economy of our Province.
I emphasise that my Department has imposed stringent conditions on planning permissions to protect, as far as possible, the visual amenity of the Black Mountain. Through that process and through discussion with the quarry owner, significant tidying-up and landscaping work has been undertaken along the southern edge of the quarry, above the Upper Springfield Road. The improvements include the relocation of quarry stockpiles and waste tips, the grading and seeding of frontage embankments and the planting of trees and shrubs. As a result, a considerable visual improvement has been achieved.
My Department is also responsible for the control of dust emissions from quarries through the Industrial Pollution Control (Northern Ireland) Order 1997. I acknowledge that the operations of the Black Mountain quarry may, from time to time, cause dust and noise. I emphasise, however, that the quarry is regularly inspected by the Environment and Heritage Service to ensure that its operators are doing everything in their power to prevent dust and are meeting the conditions set out in the authorisation under the Order. Additionally, all complaints about dust are investigated within 24 hours of receipt.
The Department is committed to conserving and enhancing the environmental qualities of the Belfast hills, including the Black Mountain. I cannot turn the clock back to a pre-industrial Belfast, but I will use the powers and opportunities that I have to work for a better environment for local residents and visitors alike.
Adjourned at 5.04 pm.