Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 19 June 2001 (continued)

Regional Development

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Mr McGrady is absent -[Interruption]. Order. The House is entitled to hear the proceedings. Question 1 in the name of Mr McGrady will receive a written answer. Question 2 in the name of Ms Armitage has been transferred to the Department of the Environment and will receive a written answer.

Rural Road Network


Dr O'Hagan

asked the Minister for Regional Development whether he has any plans to increase investment in the rural road network.

(AQO 1604/00)

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):

I indicated in my replies to recent similar questions that I am conscious that existing levels of funding to maintain and improve the road network fall short of the requirements. I will be considering the scale of the infrastructure investment required on roads, including rural roads, as part of the work underway to develop a 10-year regional transportation strategy for Northern Ireland

The regional transportation strategy will consider ways of increasing investment in transport infrastructure and how any additional money might best be spent. I hope to be in a position to present my draft regional transportation strategy to the Committee for Regional Development this autumn. Until the strategy is in place I will continue to press for additional funds for the road network at every opportunity. In the meantime I assure the House that my Department will continue to make the best use of the resources currently available to develop and maintain the rural road network.

Dr O'Hagan:

I thank the Minister for his answer. I have written to him in relation to roads in Derrytrasna and Aghagallon in the Upper Bann constituency. One issue that was brought to my attention, along with every Member in the House who has been canvassing recently, was the state of rural roads. I am pleased with the Minister's answer. The rural network away from the main roads is particularly bad, and there are a lot of potholes. People in rural areas pay the same taxes as everyone else, and they are entitled to equal services. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Campbell:

I am concerned about the maintenance and improvement of the rural roads network. We will spend approximately £44 million in the current financial year on structural maintenance of all roads. Some of that will be on rural roads.

That figure compares favourably with last year's initial allocation of £39 million. The Roads Service and I have to constantly reappraise the need to improve the infrastructure of rural roads. The restrictive allocation of funding is a continual problem, which I know applies to other Departments as well. We will continue to keep that matter under review.

Mr McFarland:

In the light of the imminent appearance of the results of the Hayes review of acute hospitals, has the Minister had discussions with the review group? Will he undertake to improve the rural trunk road network, particularly in Tyrone and Fermanagh, so that ambulances can have rapid transit in those areas?

Mr Campbell:

I have not had direct correspondence with the Hayes review group, but I will endeavour to establish what level of communication took place between departmental officials and the group. I will inform the Member of the outcome.

The Member referred to roads in the west of the Province, particularly those in Tyrone and Fermanagh, and the accessibility of hospitals and essential services, something I am acutely aware of. Unfortunately, in the absence of additional funding, I will only be able to carry out works that have already been committed to in the present year. However, as a result of the hon Member's question, I will look at the issues arising in Tyrone and Fermanagh.

Mr R Hutchinson:

First, I congratulate the Minister for Regional Development on his outstanding victory in East Londonderry and wish him well for his time in Westminster.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Member is out of order. Will he please address the question?

Mr R Hutchinson:

I would be delighted to. A Northern Ireland Audit Office report has confirmed that expenditure in Northern Ireland on structural matters has consistently been inadequate. Has the Minister made bids to all possible funding sources to rectify that situation? In particular, was a bid made to the Executive programme funds?

Mr Campbell:

I thank the Member for his comments as well as for his question. As I said, my Department is constantly revising and analysing that issue to see where possible additional moneys can be accessed. I can respond positively. For example, I recently told the Assembly that I had put in a bid for additional funding maintenance in excess of £48 million for roads capital and for roads structural maintenance. I am pleased to report that bids for capital works worth £27 million were successful. Unfortunately, other bids, particularly for structural maintenance, were unsuccessful. I repeat that we will continue to work on that until we get sufficient resources for what the public and every Member of this House wants - the improvement of the infrastructure of our rural and urban roads.

Ballyclare Sewage Treatment Works


Mr J Wilson

asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail when the commencement of works will begin to enhance the treatment of waste water at Ballyclare sewage treatment works.

(AQO 1621/00)

Mr Campbell:

Several options have been identified for the provision of enhanced waste water treatment for the Ballyclare area. A detailed technical and economic appraisal of those options is nearing completion.

I propose to consult in the near future with local public representatives about those options. I then hope to be able to announce the way ahead in the next two to three months. Work is expected to commence in October 2002. It will take 18 months to complete and will cost around £5 million. The starting date is subject to the completion of all the various stages, including planning approval. Improvements costing £500,000 will be made to the sewerage system in Ballyclare at the same time.

Mr J Wilson:

That is very welcome news. In November 1996, Malcolm Moss advised a concerned resident that no future development in Ballyclare should proceed until the sewerage system had been enhanced. Bearing that in mind, will the Minister assure me that three extensive housing developments, one on the Doagh Road by Clauglin Developments, the Ballyclare village project and a development at Ballyeaston Road in Ballyclare, amounting to hundreds of houses, will not proceed? Will he advise the Planning Service not to continue until the Ballyclare sewage treatment works have been substantially enhanced?

Mr Campbell:

I hope that, given the timescale, any minor difficulties will be ironed out in the short term. I will need to look at the issue raised by the hon Member. I will, in consultation with the Planning Service and my Colleague Mr Foster, confer with the Member on the proposed developments that he mentioned to ensure that speedy completion of the works that I have mentioned does not stand in the way of development. However, the developments should not be held up interminably because of any problems that may be encountered because of my announcement.

Northern Ireland Railways


Mr Ford

asked the Minister for Regional Development to give an assessment as to whether the new Northern Ireland Railways timetable provides appropriate levels of service.

(AQO 1611/00)

Mr Campbell:

I consider that the new Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) timetable provides appropriate levels of service, bearing in mind the limited rolling stock currently available. Because of the reopening on 10 June of the direct rail link between Antrim and Belfast, the new timetable provides journey time reductions of over 30 minutes for travel between Belfast and Antrim and all stations north and west of Antrim.

Those reductions have also enabled Translink to use its available rolling stock to provide a better service on the Londonderry to Belfast line. For example, there are now nine scheduled services each way on weekdays, compared to seven northbound and six southbound prior to the reopening of the line.

Mr Ford:

There are clearly benefits in the new timetable for the northern part of the region and for those travelling from the Waterside to Antrim and on to Belfast. How can the Minister assess the value of the Knockmore line, as he plans to do over the next year, when the only morning train from Antrim to Belfast via Lisburn is timed to suit school students who must be in Lisburn before 7.30 and workers who must be in Belfast before 8.00? Is it realistic to base any assessment on such a timetable?

Mr Campbell:

As the Member knows, I am acutely aware of the problem. I received a number of deputations about the Antrim to Knockmore line and spoke to a number of people in the area before the decision to preserve the line for a further year was taken. I also spoke to people who were still lobbying when the announcement was made.

3.15 pm

So, if there is a section of rail line in Northern Ireland that I am aware of, it is the Antrim to Knockmore section. My difficulty is that Northern Ireland Railways told me that it was in the unenviable position of having to open a new line. It cost approximately £17 million to provide an efficient, effective service and increase and improve the level of service for the thousands of people who use that line. The line is now open. Unfortunately, the corollary of that was that the Antrim to Knockmore line could not be supplemented and built up to the same degree.

I was not prepared to contemplate the closure of the Antrim to Knockmore line, and I am still not prepared to contemplate it. I understand and accept the Member's point that the current reduced service is not the best way of measuring the effectiveness of any service beyond the 12-month extension. Unfortunately, it is the only method that we have. I hope that we will be able to look again at the Antrim to Knockmore line in the regional transportation strategy, and I view its continued usage with sympathy and support. I hope that we will be able to preserve it, but I cannot say more than that.

Mr Poots:

When the new rolling stock is brought in for other lines, does the Minister intend to use the existing rolling stock for the Antrim to Knockmore line? Will the rolling stock be used at more appropriate hours so that peak-period public transport could be provided for people who wish to use the line?

Mr Campbell:

I put forward similar propositions recently. Unfortunately, it will take approximately two years to acquire the new rolling stock. However, it is not as straightforward or as simple as preserving the line until new rolling stock becomes available and then transferring some of it to the Antrim to Knockmore line. We must also remember that there is a significant and substantial cost implication for preserving the line on safety grounds in the next three years or so. It will cost millions of pounds. The Member has raised the issue and I, as Minister, have already raised the issue in the Department. If it provides a possible source of preserving the line, I am open to looking at that.

Asbestos Water Mains


Mr Carrick

asked the Minister for Regional Development, pursuant to AQO 1204/00, to state the length of asbestos cement water mains by county area.

(AQO 1606/00)

Mr Campbell:

There are approximately 1,250 miles of asbestos cement water mains located throughout Northern Ireland. That represents less than 10% of the total length of water mains. There are 210 miles of asbestos cement water mains in Antrim; 50 miles in Armagh; 140 miles in Down; 130 miles in Fermanagh; 370 miles in Londonderry, and 350 miles in Tyrone.

Mr Carrick:

Undoubtedly the Minister will be aware of the degree of concern among environmentalists and the public regarding the health risk that asbestos cement water mains pose. Does he accept that during the repair of those mains there is a risk of water contamination by particles of asbestos falling into the water supply during the removal of the deficient sections? What safeguards have been implemented for the consumer, bearing in mind that engineers, recognising the health risk, are kitted out in special protective clothing when carrying out repairs?

Mr Campbell:

I am aware of concerns about asbestos in water mains. As a result, I have tried to obtain an assessment of the situation from the health professionals. In 1996, the World Health Organisation advised that since

"there is no consistent evidence that ingested asbestos is hazardous to health"

the position remains unchanged since a review in 1998.

I understand the Member's concern about the removal. The UK Water Research Centre carried out a review on the use of asbestos in the major European countries, the United States of America, Australia and Japan. It was found that most of those countries surveyed had stopped using asbestos cement pipes and that they had no plans to replace existing asbestos cement pipes, as these were not considered to present a health risk.

I am not in possession of information that indicates that there would be a substantial risk with the removal or replacement of those pipes. If I were, however, the position would be revised. The ongoing replacement of asbestos pipes will take some time to complete. At the moment, fewer than 10% of water mains are made of asbestos.

Sewage Treatment Works (Mid Ulster)


Mr Armstrong

asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail (a) how many sewage treatment works within the constituency of Mid Ulster are at full or excess capacity at this date and (b) his plans for resolving problem sites.

(AQO 1614/00)

Mr Campbell:

There are 27 waste water treatment works in the Mid Ulster constituency which serve population equivalents greater than 250. Four of these works, at Cookstown, Stewartstown, Sandholes and Magherafelt, operate in excess of their respective design capacities. A further seven works at Killeen, Coagh, Moneymore, Pomeroy, Clunto (Richardson), Creagh and Clady are approaching their respective design capacities. Work is already under way to upgrade the Killeen works, and that is due to be completed this autumn at a cost of approximately £600,000.

The Water Service plans to invest some £10 million in upgrading treatment facilities at eight works over the next five years, and investigations are being carried out into the options for upgrading the facilities at Pomeroy and Creagh. The largest project is the construction of a new treatment works at Cookstown. It is planned that that will commence in June 2002, take 18 months to complete and cost £5 million.

Mr Armstrong:

Does the Minister agree that the health of the people is most important and that a situation in which the sewerage provision is inadequate should not have arisen?

Mr Campbell:

I am aware of the problems with waste water treatment works across Northern Ireland as well as with those in Mid Ulster, which I outlined in some detail. My concern is reflected in my bids to try to upgrade the entire network, but again the difficulty is with the lack of resources. Two months ago I outlined possible ways of getting substantially increased capital funding diverted towards Water Service capital works schemes, and I am currently examining them.

I will continue to do that, and I will report to the House if and when we successfully obtain the funds.

Provision of Footpaths (Rural Areas)


Mr Dallat

asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the criteria applied in rural areas when considering the provision of footpaths.

(AQO 1629/00)

Mr Campbell:

Schemes to provide new and improved footways are considered by Roads Service for inclusion in minor roadworks programmes. Footways and other minor works proposals must compete for priority, given the limited funding that is available. In assessing the priority of footway schemes, consideration is given to a number of factors, including: pedestrian counts; traffic volumes; the potential for pedestrian and traffic growth; accident histories; environmental factors, such as the presence of schools, churches, et cetera; the practicality of constructing the schemes and the cost of the schemes and the availability of funds.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)

Mr Dallat:

Does the Minister agree that children at rural schools are at particular risk when there is a high volume of through traffic? Will he undertake to identify the high-risk areas, with a view to providing footpaths where the risk is clearly too high? The Portglenone to Randalstown road is one place where I see schoolchildren running the gauntlet of the traffic as I travel to and from this House.

Mr Campbell:

I am aware of the safety problems faced by rural schools in particular - probably more acutely in the winter, but also throughout the year. I will undertake to examine the specific instance that the Member has come across between his constituency and Parliament Buildings. I will respond in writing about that.

Mr Savage:

Does the Minister agree that in determining the criteria for the provision of footpaths in rural areas, consideration should also be given to cycle lanes in order to enhance the amenity value of the countryside? That would enhance the potential for rural tourism as part of the diversification of the rural economy.

Mr Campbell:

The short answer is "Yes", but the Member will expect a more substantial answer than that.

The charitable organisation Sustrans has been in constant communication with Roads Service in trying to establish suitable areas, most but not all of them rural, where cycle lanes could be provided. A number of cycle lanes have been established in recent days; I have opened two in the past six months. However, I look forward to any increased funding, whether from bids that I make or from Sustrans or any other source, that would enable me to respond favourably to the Member and to ensure that increased numbers of cycle paths are included where it is possible to construct footways.

Flying of Paramilitary Flags (Policy)


Mrs E Bell

asked the Minister for Regional Development to detail what steps have been taken to co-ordinate policy between his Department, the RUC and NIHE to prevent the flying of paramilitary flags, the defacing of tombstones and the painting of offensive murals; and to make a statement.

(AQO 1626/00)

Mr Campbell:

Problems associated with the flying of flags and emblems and with the painting of graffiti and murals are widespread across Northern Ireland. While my Department's property is often used for such purposes, many other properties are also affected, for example, properties belonging to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, district councils, Northern Ireland Electricity and British Telecom, as well as those of many private individuals.

On receipt of complaints about the flying of flags on Roads Service property, my Department will try to gauge community reaction to determine the likely success of any efforts that might be taken to remove flags. That is generally done through consultation with the RUC and/or local councillors or other public representatives in the area.

Mrs E Bell:

It is a difficult situation, and I know that the Minister is trying to deal with it as much as possible.

Given the increase in the number of flags, does the Minister agree that his Department should take the lead so that people in affected areas can be freed from fear and possible intimidation? The Minister said that his Department deals with complaints about flags and that they are in consultation with the affected communities. However, those communities often live in fear and are scared to get involved. This morning, in broad daylight, flags were being erected on the main road to Tullycarnet - the issue must be dealt with as soon as possible.

3.30 pm

Mr Campbell:

The Member knows the Department's policy on graffiti and the flying of flags on departmental property. It has been said many times that the Department will try to remove from its property any illegal flags and graffiti that are a danger to road users. In other instances, where there is no danger, in spite of there being no legislative requirement to do so, the Roads Service will seek to remove such material on the advice of the RUC and where there is strong local support. The problem is that often the removal of flags leads to the erection of more flags than there were before. That is why the Roads Service places great importance on local community support for the removal of flags. There is concern about the flying of flags in communities during a few weeks in the summer, but also about those areas where flags fly all year. Those flags are equally unacceptable.



Third-Party Planning Appeals


Mr Close

asked the Minister of the Environment if he has any plans to introduce third-party planning appeals.

(AQO 1617/00)

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):

I have no plans to introduce third-party planning appeals. I have examined the case for introducing such appeals before, but there are well-established procedures in the planning process that allow third parties to submit representations and objections. The introduction of third-party rights of appeal would add delay, cost and uncertainty to the planning process. I recognise, however, that that is an evolving area, and I have asked my officials to keep procedures and policy under review.

Mr Close:

I am grateful that the Minister is keeping the matter under review, however, I would like to be more specific. Consider a situation where a council is unanimous in its objection to or support for a development. Does the Minister agree that a council, made up of elected representatives, that unanimously objects to a departmental proposal should have a right to appeal rather than being dismissed out of hand as is currently the case?

Mr Foster:

I take the Member's important point on board. As I said, this is an evolving matter which we will continue to keep an eye on. The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 provides applicants with a right to appeal against a refusal of planning permission. There is no right of appeal for third parties, but they can make representations on planning applications. As I have said, such appeals would cause delays and uncertainty and add costs to the planning process. A third-party appeal system could also be vulnerable to abuse.

Mr McClarty:

Will the Minister outline the possible impact of a third-party right of appeal on the planning process?

Mr Foster:

My Department has estimated that the introduction of a third-party right of appeal could result in an additional 700 appeals a year, which is quite a number compared to approximately 350 appeals a year at present. That would cost upwards of £1 million a year. I am not sure that the system would be able to take such an increase at this time without more resources. It is a difficult issue.

Mr Poots:

I am very disappointed with the Minister's response on this occasion. He must get real on this issue. People are not satisfied with what is currently on offer. He mentions the planning problems experienced by people in business. What about the problems of the individuals whose human rights are being damaged by many large businesses that have trampled and abused the planning system for years? When are those peoples' rights going to be recognised?

Mr Foster:

Everyone is equal as far as we are concerned, whether their business is large or small. There is no discrimination - each planning application is taken on its own merits. I recognise that the Human Rights Act places increased emphasis on the protection of individual rights. The rights of third parties are well protected under the current planning system. However, as I said, this is an evolving area, and my Department is continuing to keep policy and procedures under very close review.

Coastal Forum


Mr Ford

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the cost of establishing a coastal forum.

(AQO 1610/00)

Mr B Hutchinson:

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. You have omitted question no 2.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

I shall not take points of order during ministerial Question Time.

Mr Foster:

I regret that I have only recently been able to write to the Member to provide the information that he sought in the supplementary question some time ago.

My officials have estimated that the direct staff costs of establishing and providing support for a coastal forum could well exceed £100,000 per annum. However, that figure takes no account of the senior staff time that my Department would have to devote to supporting the work of a coastal forum. Nor does it take account of the input that would be needed from other Departments, or of other probable costs such as expenditure on research, travel, and so forth. Therefore the true cost of establishing and supporting the work of a coastal forum is likely to be much higher.

As I made clear in responses to earlier questions, the additional resources made available in the Budget last year were not sufficient to enable my Department to establish and support a forum. I have said that I see some merit in the proposal. However, meeting my Department's commitments in the Programme for Government and the public service agreement must have first claim on resources.

Mr Ford:

I thank the Minister for the responses that I received last week to my questions of some months ago.

I accept his point that there is a cost attached to setting up a coastal forum. However, does he not agree that, in the absence of a coastal forum, senior staff time is likely to be taken up with dealing with those issues anyway? Given the importance of the issues that a coastal forum would deal with, and the cross- departmental themes involving the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department for Regional Development, is it not time that the Department submitted a bid under the Executive programme funds to ensure that the small amount of money that could be produced for overall benefits is committed in future spending rounds?

Mr Foster:

As I said, the additional resources made available in the Budget last year were not sufficient to enable my Department to establish and support a forum. I am very much aware of the concern that exists and will take that into consideration. I will continue to seek the necessary resources in the forthcoming spending round.

Moreover, in view of the potential cross-cutting nature of the role of such a body, any decision to establish a forum would also require agreement on the scope of its remit. Therefore I have written to Minister Rodgers and Minister Campbell, whose Departments would have the most direct interest in such a body, to seek their views on the merits of the proposal - subject to resources of course.

Mrs Carson:

Can the Minister assure us that he and his Department are really considering the establishment of a coastal forum?

Mr Foster:

I can assure Mrs Carson and the House that we are not taking this lightly, but we do not have the resources. I will continue to seek the necessary resources in the forthcoming spending round, but other priorities have taken precedence at this time. I can assure Members that it is not being taken lightly.

Biodiversity Strategy


Mr Neeson

asked the Minister of the Environment to detail progress made with proposals for a biodiversity strategy since their launch last October, and to outline the timetable for the adoption of the strategy.

(AQO 1618/00)

Mr Foster:

In line with the commitment in the Programme for Government, I intend to publish a Northern Ireland biodiversity strategy by the end of October 2001. In preparing the strategy, careful account will be taken of the 76 recommendations for action that I received last autumn from the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group. The group's recommendations have implications not only for Departments but also for other sectors and, indeed, for wider society in Northern Ireland. Many of them also call for action that would need to be sustained over the long term.

My officials have been discussing the recommendations with other relevant Departments. I expect to receive a first draft of the strategy in the next few weeks. In the meantime, my Department is drawing up plans for allocating the additional resources for biodiversity secured in the Budget last year.

Mr Neeson:

Can the Minister assure me that the proposals of the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group will not merely be taken into account, as he has recently been quoted as saying, but will in fact form the backbone - a very strong backbone - of that strategy? I would be concerned if attempts were made to water down their proposals.

Mr Foster:

I can assure the Member that there is no attempt at all to water down any proposals, and we will look at them specifically. I expect that the strategy being prepared will set out the broad approach to be followed in conserving biodiversity, and that more detailed implementation plans will subsequently be drawn up. I am grateful to the Northern Ireland Biodiversity Group for the sterling work it undertook, work which has done so much to advance preparation of an agreed biodiversity strategy. I am not yet in a position to say precisely how the group's recommendations will be reflected in the strategy. However, as I have already said, careful account is being taken of the group's report.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Mrs Eileen Bell has notified me that she will be absent and will receive a written answer to question 5.


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