Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 14 May 2001 (continued)

Portaferry Road/Comber Road Newtownards: Link Road


Mr Shannon

asked the Minister for Regional Development to confirm a start date for the link road between Portaferry Road and Comber Road in Newtownards.

(AQO 1463/00)

Mr Campbell:

As the Member will be aware, the proposed link road between the Portaferry Road and the Comber Road is phase one of the Newtonards southern relief road scheme. The scheme is not included in the Department's major works preparation pool, but it is currently being considered for inclusion in the 10-year forward planning schedule. I hope to announce details of that schedule later this year. At present I am unable to confirm a start date for phase one of the scheme.

Mr Shannon:

The response is not what we wished for. Will the Minister advise us about the road traffic surveys that have been carried out in the area over the past few months? They indicate that there is a large amount of traffic using that road junction, and the long queues of traffic each day confirm that. Would it not be appropriate to bring forward the link road in the light of the chronic congestion at the junction?

Mr Campbell:

I understand the concern, but I am not in a position to announce the commencement of the scheme. I understand the frustration felt in many areas, including the area in Strangford that the Member referred to and other areas for which schemes have been shelved because of lack of funds. I find it harder to understand how criticism can be levelled when there is an announcement for a scheme, and that seems to have occurred on some occasions. There is a case for this scheme, but that applies to many other schemes, and the limited resources available to me mean that we have to prioritise them.

The scheme is currently being considered for the forward planning schedule. I can advise the Member that phases 1 and 2, at present day prices, will cost in excess of £2·7 million.

Mr Taylor:

The Minister's reply will come as a great disappointment to the people of Newtownards and the surrounding district when he begins to talk about a 10-year programme. Ards cannot wait that long for this necessary link road. I ask the Minister to reconsider his answer. He must recall that five years ago this road was originally in the five-year programme and was then dropped by some of the direct rule Ministers in favour of the Newry bypass. We now ask our new devolved Minister to start giving priority to important towns such as Newtownards and to reinstate this road as a matter of priority.

Mr Campbell:

I thank the Member, and it is good to see him back in the Chamber. I have no difficulty in accepting that people want to see schemes put into place. Local representatives will campaign, pressurise, and lobby to get schemes put into place, and that is why they are elected. Some do so more consistently than others.

My job is to ensure that the maximum amount of resources is available to carry out the greatest number of schemes possible. Where demand exceeds resources then there has to be some prioritising. The 10-year forward planning schedule applies to all road schemes throughout Northern Ireland that are presently not in the major works preparation pool.

It was my immediate predecessor, Mr Peter Robinson, who put the major works preparation pool into place, which permitted us to get so many schemes so far advanced. I am endeavouring to further those schemes and to get additional resources so that we can put more schemes into the major works preparation pool and into the construction programme, so that they are completed as fast as humanly possible.

Mr McCarthy:

The Minister was speaking for so long that I thought I might not get the opportunity to put my question. I am absolutely disappointed at his response. This link road has been on the agenda for many's a year.

I thank the Minister for visiting Comber last week. Had we thought quickly enough, he might have visited this particular area then, because there was a one-way system operating in Court Street, and Newtownards was completely blocked off. He would have seen at first hand what we have to endure. I urge the Minister to go back to his officials. This is delaying the redevelopment of that part of Newtownards.

Mr Campbell:

I am happy to deal with all queries. I am trying to progress each of these schemes. The Member invited me to Comber, and I was happy to respond. I have been going to Comber on a regular basis for the past few weeks. It is easier to respond when I am invited than when I am not, but that is another issue. I will take on board the matter that the Member has raised, and I will go to my officials with it. However, I come back to the issue that cannot be avoided. If we have a significant number of road schemes - which we do - and we have a limited budget for those schemes, it is impossible to undertake all of them as quickly as the Members and I would like. Therefore we have to prioritise. I will speak to my officials, and I will inform the Member of the outcome of the deliberations.

3.15 pm

Antrim to Bleach Green Rail Link


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail (a) when the Antrim to Bleach Green rail link will be reopened and (b) what marketing strategy is being put in place by Translink to generate new rail traffic, particularly from the north-west.

(AQO 1438/00)

Mr Campbell:

Scheduled passenger services are due to start on the Antrim to Bleach Green railway line from Sunday 10 June 2001. That will significantly reduce the journey times to Belfast from stations on the Antrim to Londonderry line. For example, the journey from Coleraine to Belfast Central should take just one hour and 17 minutes, compared to the current shortest journey time via Knockmore of one hour and 45 minutes.

Translink has advised me that while it has an ongoing marketing programme for the promotion of the entire Northern Ireland railway network, a major marketing communications strategy is currently in progress specifically for the promotion of the Antrim to Bleach Green line. That strategy highlights such benefits as reduced journey times and increased levels of passenger comfort. It will include an introductory discounted fares promotion to stimulate usage of the new line. Translink has previously targeted areas such as the north-west of the Province with marketing initiatives, including two-for-one offers. It will continue to explore such opportunities now that we have enhanced journey times between Londonderry and Belfast.

Mr Dallat:

I thank the Minister for his answer and breathe a sigh of relief that this new service will be implemented at last. Does he agree that it is essential that a first-class, high-speed rail service between our two principal cities should be put in place at the earliest opportunity? Will he assure the House that his Department has briefed the Executive, London and Europe on the funding so that the Belfast to Derry line can become a critical part of an all-Ireland rail infrastructure, promoting commerce, tourism and a cleaner environment?

Mr Campbell:

There is no doubt that the reduction in commuting times that I referred to, for example the 28-minute reduction from Coleraine to Belfast Central, will be significant and will benefit commuters. Other Members and I will campaign for a steady increase in resources to make all commuting times more speedy and comfortable, whether from Londonderry to Belfast, or Belfast to Newry and thence to the Republic and Dublin.

There are resource implications. The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister ought to be in no doubt about the resources required. We received £105 million through the railways taskforce to upgrade the network over the next three years, but only after significant pressure was applied by me and by my predecessor.

I agree with the Member on the issues that he raises about Northern Ireland Railways. Any process that will lead to upgrading the service between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would have to be agreed upon between this Administration and the Administration in Dublin. I have no difficulty in promoting that.

Mr K Robinson:

The Minister has let several cats out of the bag that I shall follow up in future.

Does the Minister agree that it is time for the saga of the opening of Mossley West station to be brought to a successful conclusion? Will he ensure that the 80 newly created park-and-ride spaces there will be brought into operation as speedily as possible?

There has been investment of £815,000 in the station, with further investment of £150,000 on a pedestrian bridge at Mossley West and £7,000 worth of damage caused by vandalism. Will the Minister assure the House that the station will be included in Northern Ireland Railways's (NIR) timetable immediately and that it will be adequately served, particularly in the rush hour, by trains that are specially adapted for commuters?

Will he say if the station will be subject to a positive, proactive advertising campaign to ensure a successful launch of this long-awaited form of transport?

Mr Deputy Speaker:

You are developing an argument rather than asking a question.

Mr K Robinson:

With respect, the Minister knows about this subject and will, no doubt, have a great deal of information to provide.

Mr Campbell:

I am wondering which of the six questions I should start with.

The Member is correct when he says that I am aware of Mossley West. He is also aware of the replies that I have sent him in the past few days on this. There has been a series of difficulties with Mossley West, which Translink is trying to resolve.

I have encouraged Translink to be as flexible as possible, because the station is an asset to the people of his constituency and further afield, and we want to use it as quickly as possible. I will do what I can to help resolve the matter, and I have made Translink aware of that. The Member has written to me on several occasions about Mossley West, and I am determined to get the station operational as quickly as possible.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Members should ensure that their questions are concise and that they are questions rather than speeches.

Mr Ford:

I shall try to be more concise than the last Member who spoke. I remind the Minister that the people of Templepatrick and Muckamore will want a service when the Bleach Green line opens. If he is seeking to generate traffic he should certainly consider those two stations but consider increasing the rolling stock for the Knockmore to Antrim line to ensure that people will add to the traffic generated in Crumlin, Glenavy and Ballinderry.

Mr Campbell:

I sometimes feel that I am responding to a veritable wish list, but that is what my position brings with it. Over 200,000 passengers will benefit from reduced journey times in the first year after the Bleach Green line and station are opened. A station is also proposed for Templepatrick.

The other issues that the hon Member raised are matters that I want to discuss with Translink. They will be resolved gradually - they cannot be resolved today or next week - and must be resolved satisfactorily.

I am committed to trying to put in place a first-class railway system for as many people as possible. That is a clear commitment of which the £105 million over the next three years is a clear example. I hope to build on that for the future.

Hoax Bomb Warnings and Terrorist Attacks (Cost to Public Transport)


Mr Poots

asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail the cost to public transport of hoax bomb warnings and terrorist attacks.

(AQO 1431/00)

Bomb Threats on Railway Lines
(Financial Losses)


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister for Regional Development what financial losses have been incurred as a result of bomb threats on railway lines in Northern Ireland so far this year.

(AQO 1446/00)

Mr Campbell:

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will answer Questions 4 and 8 together.

NIR estimates that between January and March of this year some £500,000 worth of additional costs and revenue losses were incurred as a result of bombs and bomb threats on railway lines. Those costs will be met by my Department, which funds NIR's running cost deficit.

That means that there will be around £500,000 less to spend on worthwhile projects in Northern Ireland this year. The most recent disruptions in the current financial year will increase the losses from £500,000, but it is too soon to estimate by how much. The disruption in services also causes great inconvenience to passengers and creates difficulties for Northern Ireland Railways staff.

Mr Poots:

Does that figure include the cost of the petrol bomb attacks on buses throughout Belfast and other areas of the Province? What could have been provided by the Department for Regional Development if that extra money were available rather than it's being used up paying for hoax bombs?

Mr Campbell:

It might be useful if I briefly itemise how that £500,000 is made up. Approximately £250,000 is due to lost passenger revenue, mainly on the cross-border Enterprise service, and about £200,000 is incurred in bus substitution charges. A further £50,000 or thereabouts is included to cover staff overtime costs and lost revenue from freight crane hire.

I hope that the issue to which the Member referred in the latter part of his question will be addressed by every public representative in the Chamber and beyond. It is totally and utterly reprehensible that a service that provides for the whole community in Northern Ireland can be disrupted to the extent of £500,000 in the first few months of this year. I hope that every Member will condemn utterly such attacks.

Mr Neeson:

Every Member condemns the hypocritical activities of paramilitaries. Does the Minister agree that such activity can only damage the North/South tourism industry, which we want to see developed, particularly in the difficult circumstances of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis? Will those losses and damages affect the purchase of the second-hand rolling stock from the Gatwick line?

Mr Campbell:

There is no doubt that the inevitable result of those attacks will be a reduction in tourist revenue and in the number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt about that. I cannot comment upon whether the attacks are designed to achieve such an end, but that is the inevitable consequence. With regard to the amount and consequence of the £500,000 being diverted, the public service obligation which the Department for Regional Development paid to Northern Ireland Railways for 2001-02 was £12·5 million. The £500,000 would be in addition to that money and, therefore, would not affect the services to which he refers. However, if the attacks continue, that £500,000 will escalate in a few months' time. That is money that could be much more usefully applied to building and promoting existing services rather than jeopardising them, which may happen if the situation continues to escalate.

Mr Bradley:

With regard to railway closures, one is tempted to ask "When will they ever learn?" In the Newry area during the 30 years of futility we had to contend with weekly closures of the Dundalk to Newry railway line. So I understand the sentiments.

Therefore, will the Minister confirm that he will not be deterred by those deplorable acts? In his reply to Mr Dallat he confirmed that he was committed to the continual upgrading of the Dublin to Belfast rail link.

Does that also include his commitment to the upgrading of Newry railway station?

3.30 pm

Mr Campbell:

In answer to Mr Dallat - and I reiterate this to Mr Bradley - I want to upgrade all of the railway service in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, the £105 million allocated in the Budget six months ago provided for only the consolidation option - almost a misnomer - contained in the task force report. It does not enable me to upgrade all of the line. However, in future years I will be bidding for sufficient funding to enable me to begin a gradual upgrading of the line.

In the past the hon Member has raised the issue of Newry railway station, and I have no doubt that he will raise it again. I will undertake to pass his comments to Translink, who have operational responsibility for such matters.



Mr Deputy Speaker:

Question 2, in the name of Mr Dallat, has been withdrawn.

Planning Applications


Mr M Murphy

asked the Minister of the Environment to confirm that, where a planning application is deemed flawed, the applicant can re-apply without prejudice to the original application and to explain how a fresh application can be considered "without prejudice".

(AQO 1443/00)

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

Under planning law, an applicant is entitled to submit as many applications as he or she wishes for determination by my Department. Each application must be considered individually and on its own merits, taking account of existing regulations and policy guidelines, and in the light of any comments received. On this basis, all planning applications are considered "without prejudice", although regard would be given to any previous decisions for the same proposal and to any change in relevant considerations in the intervening period.

Mr M Murphy:

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he undertake positive initiatives to improve the weakness in planning applications for mobile masts? I refer particularly to the mast that is under dispute in Jerrettspass, Newry. Everyone wants to pass the buck. Will the Minister take account of the demands of the residents of the area in deciding his Department's future policy in dealing with such matters? Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Foster:

I am aware of problems concerning a mobile phone mast in the Jerrettspass area. I have met residents and public representatives on the issue, and my officials are in discussion with Crown Castle, the agents for the developer. It is a matter for Crown Castle to decide whether to submit fresh proposals. To date no proposals have been received.

In parallel, my officials are examining the feasibility of taking discontinuance proceedings, although a detailed planning case would be necessary to justify such action. I must emphasise that discontinuance may not be a practical option, and people should not have false hopes. I would also re-emphasise that my Department can only take enforcement action against unauthorised development. The mast in question received prior approval, and our very firm legal advice is that the Department has no grounds for challenging its validity.

Mr McGrady:

With reference to the telecommunications mast at Jerrettspass, I wish to place on record my thanks to the Minister for receiving the delegation of the residents, Newry and Mourne District Council and myself.

However, I am very disappointed with his reply concerning the lack of urgency in the consideration of the discontinuation notice. The history, as the Minister knows, is that incorrect co-ordinates were given for the siting of the mast and that initial approval was therefore misconceived and misdirected in public. The subsequent rejection was a contradiction of the first decision. Are we now in a situation where wrong planning decisions - whether administrative or policy based - cannot be corrected?

That seems to be what the Minister was saying. If that is the case, justice can be done only when the policy is changed. The residents were not able, under law, to make representations about the first application because it was wrongly addressed in the advertisements placed by the Department - not the applicant.

Mr Foster:

I assure the Member that I am not being lax - I can do only what I am allowed to do under law. I understand the people's feelings, because I met with residents, the Member and other public representatives.

The decision to grant the first prior approval application on 12 June 2000 was made taking account of all the relevant factors at that time, and the absence of objections, undoubtedly due to the wrong address being in the advertisement, was a relevant factor. The decision to refuse a subsequent prior approval application on 21 February 2001 took account of representations from objectors when the correct address was published.

Although the objectors were mainly concerned with health issues, many raised significant concerns about the visual amenity of the proposal. The representations on visual amenity persuaded the divisional planning office to take the view that, on balance, the proposal was detrimental to the area. The office decided that the proposal lacked any features that would allow it to be satisfactorily integrated into the local landscape.

I sincerely regret the Planning Service's failure to ensure that the original application was advertised with the correct address. It did not give local residents the opportunity to voice their concerns. I have asked for a full report on the case, with recommendations on the measures that could be taken to prevent a recurrence. I am moving as fast as I can on the matter, but, as I said in my previous answer, any discontinuance action will take some months to complete. In the meantime the Department has no powers to remove the mast or interfere with its operations.

Mr McFarland:

Where such masts are of concern on health grounds does the Department of the Environment consult with and take advice from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety?

Mr Foster:

The health issues that arise from telecommunications equipment are a matter for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and that Department's advice is taken into account when planning policy is framed. I must emphasise that responsibility for giving permission for the masts does not lie solely with the Planning Service; it is subject to other exigencies.

Following recent consultation, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety confirmed that it would not raise any further questions about health when the emissions from individual masts are within the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines. That decision is based on the fact that the level of exposure to radio frequency radiation from individual masts is a small fraction of the level permitted by the ICNIRP guidelines.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety plays a big role in the matter. The Department of the Environment looks at the aesthetics, the presentation and the erection of masts, but there are health issues that are not its responsibility.

Brownfield Sites (Definition)


Ms Hanna

asked the Minister of the Environment what definition of brownfield sites his Department uses.

(AQO 1467/00)

Mr Foster:

The definition of "brownfield" that refers to used by the Department of the Environment's Planning Service is sites in the built-up areas of settlements that have potential for development, and that includes previously developed land, undeveloped land and vacant buildings. That reflects the approach taken in the draft regional development strategy (RDS). I understand that the Department for Regional Development will consider a more precise definition of "brownfield" in the final RDS and when preparing the subsequent regional planning policy statement on housing and settlements. My Department will make an input to that process.

My Department supports the intention of the draft regional development strategy to increase the share of housing in existing urban areas to protect the green belt. However, I am also aware of residents' concerns that increasing development in existing urban areas should not result in unacceptable town cramming - that is vital. My officials will respond to the Department for Regional Development on those matters for the final regional development strategy, and the issues will also be taken into account when they are preparing further planning policy guidance on housing development in cities and towns.

Ms Hanna:

I am sure that the Minister shares my concern that regardless of whether gardens are included in the definition or there is an exact definition of "brownfield", it is difficult to quantify how much brownfield there is. We may need a more refined planning policy in that area, especially before there is more development on the Belfast metropolitan area plan.

Mr Foster:

I have been aware of the Member's concerns about parts of the city for some time, and I understand them. It is not currently feasible to accurately measure past performance on the share of housing in the existing urban area. Monitoring arrangements will be put in place to check progress. The Planning Service undertakes urban capacity studies as part of the preparation of development plans to assess the potential for an increased share of housing in urban areas. Housing lands supplied in the urban areas consist of undeveloped lands and brownfield and recycled land and buildings. The Department for Regional Development will provide more guidance in the forthcoming regional planning policy statement on housing in settlements. That will facilitate discussion on the appropriate classification to be used for the identification of brownfield sites.

Mr K Robinson:

I welcome the Minister's statement, and I draw his attention to three very successful sites on the Glenville Road, in Whiteabbey and at Bleach Green, where former mill sites and their dams have been used for modern housing. Does the Minister agree that it is better to encourage that approach rather than that of constant apartment and town house applications that swamp areas such as the nearby Jordanstown?

Mr Foster:

I know that the Member has concerns about his area. The potential of each urban site for housing would have to be assessed against all prevailing and relevant planning policies. In particular, the Department is concerned that increasing the share of future housing within existing urban areas should not give rise to town cramming - of which I believe the Member is fearful.

I am aware of concerns expressed about the redevelopment of housing in existing residential areas. However, high-density brownfield development must have a contribution to make towards protecting the green belt. I can assure the Chamber that, as far as the planning division is concerned, every application is examined on its own merits and under the requirements of the policies. Nothing is done without due consideration's being given to it.

The draft estimates for housing growth are high - an additional 160,000 dwellings are needed by 2015. That will put additional pressures on all areas, including brownfield and greenfield sites. I understand that the regional development strategy will provide housing growth indicators up to 2015 for district council areas. Those totals will be allocated to specific locations by the Planning Service through the development plan process and consultation with the public and district councils.

There is a big surge in demand for homes and development, but planners are aware of the concerns in different areas. In some parts of the country, people feel that there is not enough development, but others feel that far too many houses are being built. It is difficult to balance the situation.

Rivers Bann, Lagan and Foyle: Water Quality


Mr J Wilson

asked the Minister of the Environment if, pursuant to the recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, which singled out the Rivers Bann, Lagan and Foyle as needing remedial work to improve the water quality, he will undertake to implement its recommendations and to make a statement.

(AQO 1430/00)

Mr Foster:

The World Wildlife Fund Water and Wetland Index Report assesses water quality across Europe. It is mainly based on data provided by national environmental authorities. My Department's Environment and Heritage Service provided the data for Northern Ireland. The WWF's report expresses concerns about future compliance with the water quality objectives of the new EU Water Framework Directive as they become applicable. The report identifies, on a sample survey basis, water quality problems for the upper Bann and Lagan and, to a lesser extent, the Foyle. My Department is aware of those problems and is addressing them as part of wider plans to comply with the EU Directive. The Directive requires member states to have management plans in place for all river basin districts by 2008. Action plans must also be implemented to maintain or improve the water quality within all catchments. The overall objective is to attain what the Directive describes as good quality status for all waterways by 2015.

A key aspect of the Executive's Programme for Government is the protection and enhancement of the Northern Ireland environment. In that context I have secured significant additional resources to meet, among other things, Northern Ireland's EU obligations, including implementation of the various stages of the Water Framework Directive by the required dates. That will effectively meet the WWF's recommendations.

3.45 pm

Mr J Wilson:

Does the Minister agree that it is not good to read headlines announcing that some of Northern Ireland's rivers and lakes are among the most polluted in Europe? He mentioned three rivers - the Bann, the Foyle and the Lagan. The WWF report also singled out Lough Erne in his constituency, and Lough Neagh in mine.

Is he satisfied that the Environment and Heritage Service possesses sufficient sanctions that it can use against the Department for Regional Development's Water Service if that organisation does not achieve established standards within a reasonable time?

Mr Foster:

The Public Accounts Committee report on river pollution dealt largely with pre-devolution matters. It reflected the period when the environmental responsibilities of the old DOE were badly under- resourced. I am pleased to state that with the help of colleagues, and the support of the Environment Committee, I was able to secure additional resources that will allow a substantial increase in staffing. Nobody wants to see pollution of waters. We are all very much against it, but it is due to under-resourcing and understaffing.

The number of water quality unit staff will increase from 44 to 77 over the next two years due to the moneys that I have received. The number of people in the water policy team and environmental policy division has been increased by five. Twenty of the additional staff will be deployed to implement the EU Water Framework Directive.

Following a review, the extent of the river network that is monitored by the Environment and Heritage Service has more than doubled from 280 sites to 600 sites. That will enable 5,200 kilometres of river to be classified biologically and 4,200 kilometres to be classified chemically.

A fees and charges scheme will be introduced shortly to enable full recovery of the Department's costs in administering the discharge consent system. This is the line with the "polluter pays" principle. We must get on top of the issue, and the Directive will ensure that we do. I assure Mr Wilson that we are concerned about the matter. I am delighted that we are increasing our staff, because we will then have more resources to fight against the difficulties that we have had over the years.

Housing Developments: Retention of
Sport and Recreation Areas


Mr Shannon

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the steps he is taking to ensure that sport and recreation areas are retained within housing developments.

(AQO 1461/00)

Mr Foster:

Existing development plans and those currently under consideration by my Department provide for specific areas of existing open space, sport and recreation. Consideration of each individual planning application is informed by these plans. District councils, as the statutory providers of open spaces, are key consultees in the process.

My Department is currently consulting on two draft planning policy statements (PPS). They are PPS8: Open Space, Sport, and Recreation, and PPS7: Quality Residential Environments. The drafts set out proposals for the protection and provision of open space, and I expect publication of the final versions in the summer months. When finished, the policies will provide relevant contacts for the preparation of development plans and the consideration of planning applications.

Mr Shannon:

The Minister talked about the draft proposals, but will he tell us what changes may occur? Will those changes ensure that developers will pay for the recreation and sporting land that has been set aside? Will the drafts consider the possibility of developers providing and paying for football pitches or tennis courts for example? Will the draft proposals take into account those people who live close to football pitches or the recreational lands that have been set aside? Will the land be screened so that sport will not interfere with their quality of life?

Mr Foster:

We will be watching these issues very carefully. My Department has responsibility, under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, for formulating and co-ordinating policy to secure the orderly and persistent use of land, including open space.

However, responsibility for the direct provision of such open spaces rests with the local councils. At present, that matter is addressed through the development plan process whereby the Department and district councils agree the level of provision that is considered to be appropriate to that particular area.


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