Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 1 July 2002 (continued)

Planning and Development in the
Immediate Environs of the Stormont Estate


Dr Adamson:

I apologise for my absence when this debate was scheduled before. Owing to extraordinary political circumstances, I had to be in another place.

I declare an interest as president of the Belfast Civic Trust and as a member of Belfast City Council's planning committee.

My objective is the protection of the built and natural environment of the Stormont estate and its immediate environs. Even the most cursory glance at an Ordnance Survey map of the area shows that Massey Avenue extends from Parkway, through the gates of the Stormont estate, and all the way up to the Carson memorial, where it intersects with Prince of Wales Avenue, the great ceremonial entrance to Parliament Buildings.

4.45 pm

Named after the famous Ulsterman, Sir William Ferguson Massey, who was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1912 until 1925, Massey Avenue is the principal working entrance to the Stormont estate. The whole of Massey Avenue is, therefore, part of the concept of the Stormont estate and is intrinsic to that concept, as The Mall in London is intrinsic to the design and concept of Buckingham Palace and as the Avenue des Champs Elysées is intrinsic to the design and concept of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

By no stretch of the imagination, therefore, can Massey Avenue be described as just another street in Belfast's suburbia. It is one of the great ceremonial entrances to the Assembly and Parliament Buildings. It is the principal road used by the vast majority of people who work in Stormont and by the many people from all over the world who visit Parliament Buildings. Earlier today I met a delegation from Guatemala who had come by Massey Avenue to see Stormont. It is an integral part of Northern Ireland plc, on display to the whole world. The Queen came here on her Jubilee, and President Clinton came too. Many dignitaries continue to visit.

Massey Avenue is a remarkable and long-established townscape. As part of the approach to Stormont, it is unique, and, like the Stormont estate itself, demands unique treatment.

Madam Deputy Speaker and fellow Assembly Members, we have a duty and a responsibility, entrusted to us by the people, to protect this place. We do not discharge that trust for selfish reasons, because this place is part of the heritage of all our people. The dignity and self-respect of the Northern Ireland people is bound up with Massey Avenue. It belongs to all of us, individually and equally.

To belittle Stormont and its surrounding environment is effectively to insult all the people of Northern Ireland whose place this is. That is not just an abstract idea or even an ideal. The grounds of Stormont are a much-used public park, open to all and well-used by the people for the people. We have the honour to be its custodians. The responsibility for protecting the built and natural environment of Stormont and its approach routes should not be delegated to others. It is something we should control directly, and over which we should have special vigilance.

I am, therefore, very sorry and aggrieved to report to the House that a developer plans to build a block of apartments at the very gates of Parliament Buildings. That idea is simply horrendous, and it should, and must, be stopped. A four-storey block of flats, finished in red brick, is planned for the rear of the bank building at Stormont's gates in Massey Avenue. That bank building is well known to Members. It is finished in the same Portland stone as Parliament Buildings; it is consonant with the design of Stormont. It is within the curtilage, the arc, of the grand entrance gates of Stormont, and yet a developer plans to erect to its rear a blot on our landscape - yet another apartment block in a city already awash with them.

I am grateful for the Minister's presence today. I refer him to policy QD1 of Planning Policy Statement 7, 'Quality in New Residential Development'. It states that

"Planning permission will only be granted for new residential development where it is demonstrated that the proposal will create a quality and sustainable residential environment.

The design and layout of residential development should be based on an overall design concept that draws on the positive aspects of the character and appearance of the surrounding area.

In established residential areas proposals for housing developments will not be permitted where they would result in unacceptable damage to the local character, environmental quality or residential amenity of these areas."

Planning permission was refused for a one-storey dwelling to the rear of 32 Massey Avenue, yet the Environment and Heritage Service offered no objection to a four-storey block of flats to the rear of 33 Massey Avenue.

Where is the consistency? It is hard to explain, and hard for me to accept, which is why the supervision and protection of the built and natural environment of the Stormont estate must be a matter for the Assembly Commission, over which the House would exercise direct control.

Were it not for the vigorous campaign of the Massey Avenue residents to oppose the block of flats, with 168 of 170 residents writing individually to object to the scheme, the developer would have been unopposed. The Massey Avenue residents have put the Assembly to shame in protecting our environment and in discharging our trust to the Northern Ireland people. Without any resources, power or authority, they have striven against the simple profit motive of a developer.

Belfast City Council's planning committee has rejected the developer's proposal. It was a democratic voice on the matter, which raises the wider problem of the planning process. There does not seem to be mandatory democratic input at any stage. The council's planning committee, under our present regime, is merely advisory.

If we were to raise the planning process issue, the stock reply would be that it must wait for the local government and public administration review, which is why I am concentrating on the built and natural environment of the Stormont estate and its environs. It is an urgent matter, hence the Adjournment debate. It must be acted on now, not kicked into touch. If the Assembly cannot act to protect its built and natural environment, what can it do?

I remind the House of a phrase on the home page of the Assembly's web site, which states that the Northern Ireland Assembly was established as part of the Belfast Agreement and meets in Parliament Buildings. The Assembly is the prime source of authority for all devolved responsibilities and has full legislative and executive authority. It is time to assert that authority.

The proposed block of flats is deeply out of character with the Massey Avenue townscape. However, in the context of Parliament Buildings and the Stormont estate, it is much worse. I ask the Minister to review the situation. The only way in which he can act convincingly is to introduce immediate legislation to create a Stormont designated area, within which the Assembly Commission is the sole planning and regulating authority, which would give the Assembly control of its environment.

A precedent exists for such legislation. In 1933, SRO 25 was introduced under the Planning and Housing (Northern Ireland) Act 1931, which created a similar cordon sanitaire, called in those days the "Stormont Prescribed Area". That made the Minister of Finance the planning authority for a district that extended down Massey Avenue as far as the Castlehill Road. It is an extremely and eminently sensible move, and I commend it to the Minister and to the House.

Mr K Robinson:

I should like to pick up on a point about the planning process that my Colleague Dr Adamson raised but did not develop.

Many Members have felt for some time that the planning process in Northern Ireland is fatally flawed because there is no democratic input at any stage. However, that is not the case in England, where there is significant democratic input. The council planning committees here have no such power, and it is interesting to note that the one democratic forum to which the proposed scheme was presented rejected it. The Assembly has been established for three years, and it is reasonable for many of us to ask when something will be done about planning. I appreciate why Dr Adamson restricted his debate to the built and natural environment in the environs of the Stormont estate.

There is an immediate crisis.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

May I remind the Member that an Adjournment debate requires all Members to refer to the subject, which is, as he has suggested, planning and development in the immediate environs of the Stormont estate. I ask the Member to restrict his contribution to that subject.

Mr K Robinson:

Thank you for that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am coming closer to my point.

If we cannot do something about our own backyard, what can we do? Dr Adamson's tabling the debate was timely, and many Members agree on this subject, no matter what side of the House they come from. Indeed, this Massey Avenue business has become a test case for the Assembly's legislative virility and self-confidence. Dr Adamson rightly anticipated that if he had raised the sorry mess that the planning process has become, the ministerial response might have been to draw down the blinds and say that a public administration review is already under way and that it would be improper for the Department to act on a case before its findings were known.

In fact, the reverse is true. It would be highly improper for the Assembly not to act before the review has been completed; an answer given too late is no answer at all. The process may be delayed until it reaches the point at which there can be no impact, and the answer might as well have been "No".

It is understandable that many civil servants would have difficulty in adjusting to the new regime after 30 years of direct rule, but withdrawal symptoms are no excuse for the kind of inaction that we have witnessed over Massey Avenue. I cannot understand how any environment and heritage service worth its name could permit the building of a block of flats behind a listed building, such as the bank, which forms an integral part of the estate's entrance gate complex. That decision is bizarre when one learns that planning permission, which has already been mentioned, was refused for a one-storey dwelling at the rear of 32 Massey Avenue, while there were no objections to a block of flats behind number 33. How can that be? Such inconsistencies are simply unacceptable.

It is well known that the interest of any property developer is private profit: that is his or her concern, but it is not that of the House or of the Environment and Heritage Service. That organisation does not exist to mediate and judge; it exists to protect our built and natural environment. It has failed to do that by not raising objections to this proposed blot on the landscape.

Massey Avenue is a long-established, mature and historic townscape. For example, the house closest to the gate, 'Storbrooke', was the home of the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Sir Basil Brooke, later Viscount Brookeborough, from 1934 to 1943. It then became the home of Sir Harry Mulholland, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament from 1943 until his death in 1971. This is an important part of our shared heritage. It would therefore be outrageous to the whole community to build a block of flats directly beside it. It would despoil part of the history of all the people of Northern Ireland. It should and must be stopped.

On 10 June, the Minister spoke of the need to evaluate

"historic landscape and townscape with a view to identifying local landscape policy areas and local policies for the protection and management of change." -[Official Report, Hansard, Bound Volume 16, page 393].

The Minister spoke of the need to protect historic buildings. I hope that the protection afforded to Massey Avenue, the gate complex of Stormont, Parliament Buildings and the historic houses in Massey Avenue itself will be greater than that which was given to the Seamus Heaney house, over which the Minister was rightly, and justifiably, angry.

5.00 pm

The Minister also spoke of the need to preserve a

"pattern of streets, properties and spaces" - [Official Report, Vol 16, No 9, p395].

I call on him to reaffirm that protection for this most sensitive, showpiece site for Northern Ireland. If we cannot protect the built and natural environment of Stormont and its main approach road, the Assembly can protect nothing, and we deserve to be judged as people who had power to take action, but who did nothing to protect our heritage for future generations.

I have grave worries about the answers the Minister gave to the written question AQW 4112/01 on 20 June 2002. He told me that of the planning applications by property developers before the Planning Appeals Commission in the last two years, 70 were successful and only 15 unsuccessful. That represents an attractive success rate for developers and an easy win situation that must be very satisfying for them. They can afford to pay for top legal experts, planning consultants, architects and so on, while residents groups usually scrape around for the means with which to mount an objection. That uneven playing field can no longer be tolerated. It is our duty to protect this most sensitive of environments for present and future generations.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Dr Paisley, do you have a point of order?

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

No, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

You have not indicated, as yet, that you want to be on the list to speak. I was due to call Mr Peter Robinson, MP.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I am sorry.

Mr P Robinson:

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak and will be brief so that my good Friend, Dr Paisley, can have the opportunity, as an east Belfast man, to have a say too.

I congratulate my Colleague from East Belfast, Dr Adamson, on raising this matter. All Assembly Members for the area were approached by the residents and share his concerns about the proposal and the attitude of the Planning Service to it. Even if the proposed development were not in the environs of Parliament Buildings, this would be an unsuitable application to permit in a residential area of this type and character. The Planning Service is following strange precedents in these matters. The fact has already been remarked upon that a much less offensive application was turned down, rightly, by the Planning Service, yet it finds this kind of proposal acceptable.

My concern is that the Assembly may have contributed, in some way, to the situation. I straddle both sides of the argument, being the Minister for Regional Development. I raised a concern in the regional development strategy about setting targets for the number of properties to be built on brownfield sites. That always requires the planners to increase the number of units they can get in inner-city areas, so town cramming starts, and there are applications and approvals for such developments. If the planners are to follow this line of giving approval to apartment blocks in what are clearly quality residential areas, it is very unsatisfactory.

The Minister has been savaged by his own Colleagues, and I come to his rescue as he has just taken over the position and will be wanting to stamp his authority on his Department. Here is an excellent opportunity for the Minister to show his officials who is boss in the Department of the Environment. I hope that he will rush back, call in his officials and say, "This is not on. You really do have to catch yourselves on. This is not an acceptable application."

I trust that the debate that Dr Adamson has launched will bring to the Minister's attention Members' serious concerns about what could set a precedent not only for east Belfast, but for the entire city. Attractive residential areas will lose their character because of the intrusion of apartment blocks. Once one is permitted in the back garden of one house, what is the case for refusing it in the back garden of another?

Sir Reg Empey:

I thank Dr Adamson for bringing the debate to the House. With regard to the hon Member for East Belfast's comments, I fear that the Minister of the Environment may not have the opportunity to stamp his authority on this application. It has gone to the Planning Appeals Commission for a non-determination appeal. That may well mean that, rather than the Minister, an unaccountable group, such as the Planning Appeals Commission, will take the decision. Therein lies part of the difficulty.

When the application was made, residents were notified. Out of, I think, 193 people who were contacted, all but one opposed the application. That one person happened to be in the estate agency business. All too often, inappropriate developments are permitted. This is one such inappropriate development. To build a block of red-brick apartments behind a Portland stone building, in an area where the houses are all detached and residential, undoubtedly sets a precedent. It is inconsistent with good practice, as the apartments would be built in proximity to a listed building. I fail to understand the Environment and Heritage Service's response to the application. It effectively agrees to it in whatever form it has been submitted - whether that be for three, six or 12 apartments.

I do not understand how we can allow a red-brick apartment block to be built behind a listed Portland stone building. However, the most important issue is that the development would be out of character with the area. As Minister Robinson has just said, this is an area of high-quality individual family dwellings. There is not a single, solitary apartment block in the area, but if that development is permitted, there will be plenty. We see examples of that situation on King's Road as a result of the Planning Appeals Commission's overruling the Department's Planning Service by defeating its appeal and permitting the application. Now, every back garden on that road is one form or another of backland development. The application paid no attention to access or roads issues. The developers did not even apply the normal sight lines to the applications.

There is all but universal opposition to the application. Elected representatives and, more importantly, residents object to it. I ask the Minister to sit back and consider the application, because of the precedent that it will set. If approved, it would be impossible to prevent further applications, and the entire area's character would change dramatically. If the development is allowed to proceed, there will be no case for preventing others from building in people's back gardens.

I am indebted to my Colleague for raising this, and I apologise for not being here for his speech. Nevertheless, I want to express my view that in the ongoing review of planning processes and, I hope, in future administrative and legislative changes that the Minister may wish to consider, issues surrounding this should be dealt with. The developer has gone for an appeal on the grounds of non-determination, which will be heard by the Planning Appeals Commission, and that will be that. That is not a satisfactory or democratic situation. Accountability in those circumstances is flawed, and I hope that the Assembly will rectify that in due course. I sincerely hope that Planning Service will take on board the views of the representatives and the people.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

I am against this development. It is interesting that all the democratic input into this matter is completely opposed to this. The council, the MLAs from East Belfast, and the Member of Parliament for East Belfast are all opposed to it. We also have one lesser figure, the Member of the European Parliament for this area, who is opposed to it. We have all this democratic input, and what happens? It is overridden, rejected and trampled on.

However, the case is more interesting because a lesser application, which would not have offended the environment as much, was originally rejected, and this application, which drives a coach-and-four through planning rules, is going to be accepted. I do not know what the Minister's powers are, but he has an obligation to listen to, and take heed of, the democratic input. Also, he has a responsibility to the site itself - this Building, which belongs to all the people of Northern Ireland, and the environmental setting of this Building.

I agree fully with Sir Reg Empey. In east Belfast we are cursed with this type of development. A whole volume of planning permissions have been given for this "back of the garden" development. Where I live, we now have it in roads that were not afflicted with it before. We should be able to persuade the Minister to do something about this.

Unfortunately, he could not do anything about a house that was demolished. The history of the people should be preserved, even though I may not like who lived in the house, or what his views were. For historic reasons, that house should have been saved. That is why I lent my aid to preserve the house of Sir Edward Carson in Dublin, and I would do the same again. If Sir Edward Carson had not been a Unionist, but had been prominent on the Nationalist side, I would have taken the same position because of the history. The Minister came out into the open, wearing the armour of a shining knight, to preserve that house, and he should now do something to preserve this Building and the democratic input. He should help his Colleagues and myself, and no doubt he may even invite me back to his own constituency when he is electioneering in the future. The Minister can do something for us - so please do it. By doing it he will be helping this area and all the people living in it.

5.15 pm

Mr Hamilton:

I agree with Minister Peter Robinson's general point about building apartments in unsuitable locations and their being out of character with surrounding properties. I also agree with Sir Reg Empey's view that permission given for one set of apartments often results in a mushroom effect. That can be seen by anyone who goes to Donaghadee in my council area and looks at what is happening there after permission was given for one set of apartments to be built.

As mentioned by Mr Ken Robinson, the protection of the built and natural environment of the Stormont estate is a test for the Assembly. On the one hand there is the Assembly, the democratic voice of all the people of Northern Ireland, and on the other there is an anonymous set of planners, topped by the Planning Appeals Commission, the unelected vestiges of a direct rule Administration strangely out of keeping with the new post-Good Friday Agreement world. Yet, it all remains at least until public administration is reformed at the end of 2003 after the next Assembly elections.

In many ways, it is offensive to the dignity of the Assembly and ultimately to the people of Northern Ireland that, simply because we have not decreed otherwise, the unelected planning edifice remains in all its direct rule glory, unaccountable for its actions to anyone. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.

In the planning application to build a four-storey block of apartments at the very gates of Stormont itself, we have what amounts to a gauntlet thrown down by unelected planners to the elected democratic rights of the Assembly to protect the built and natural environment of Parliament Buildings. That is our bounden duty to the people of Northern Ireland who elected us.

Thornley, the architect who designed the very Building we are debating within, also designed the bank. The bank is a listed building and is finished in the same Portland stone as Parliament Buildings. It is part of the surroundings of the great Massey Avenue entrance gates to this Building and is clearly part of Thornley's landscape concept for the whole site, recently so eloquently displayed on a BBC aerial perspective programme. The bank garden is an integral part of the inter-related group of protected badger setts stretching from within the grounds of Stormont itself to halfway down Massey Avenue. Incredibly, despite all of this, the Environment and Heritage Service can offer no objection to a developer, whose sole motive is private profit, building a four-storey block of red-brick apartments slap up against the bank. Those apartments would be clearly visible from this Building, the area around Carson's statue and the residential properties that are not in character with an apartment development.

The House must ask serious questions about what on earth the Environment and Heritage Service thinks it is here to do. In the eyes of most reasonable people, it is not doing what it should be doing. So that the House is under no illusions that these are only my layman's opinions of the Environment and Heritage Service, let me inform Members that the opinions were expressed forcibly in a letter from the eminent architect, Prof James Stevens Curl.

Prof Curl expressed them in a letter to the Planning Appeals Commission on 23 July. He was the architectural editor of the survey of London and is the author of several standard works on architecture, including the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. He is a liveryman of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute and a former fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and has held chairs at two British universities. He should know.

His language was strong. He said that it was incredible that the Environment and Heritage Service had concluded that there were no grounds to revise its advice to the Planning Service in relation to the proposed development at Massey Avenue. He called the proposals dismal and the designs feeble. He spoke of the weaknesses of the design of the proposed four-storey block of flats.

He also said that to judge from the Department's attitude, it would appear that nobody in the Department had taken the trouble to look at the site from the all-important avenue leading from Massey Avenue to the roundabout at Carson's statue, or, if someone had looked, that that person had failed to understand the effect that the proposed development would have. That will all be given an airing before the Planning Appeals Commission, but that is not the point.

Like many Members, I am gravely disturbed that every planning application in north Down - the area adjacent to Stormont - that has been decided in the last six months has gone in favour of the developer. Surely even the law of averages implies that something is wrong, or that something must be examined quickly.

The Assembly must send a clear and unambiguous signal to developers that it will not tolerate the destruction of our built and natural environment any longer. We need to grasp the nettle of legislation if the Environment and Heritage Service is failing to protect even our own built and natural environment in this Building and estate.

The Environment and Heritage Service wrongly located the entrance to the badger sett, and had to revise it after residents' protests. That has had the effect of pushing the proposed tower block to within a few feet of the fence of the Stormont estate. It would entail the demolition of a protected specimen tree listed on the Environment and Heritage Service's map as number 17. The tree goes under the name of Populus canadensis hybrid. The Minister was threatening developers last week with limitless fines and prison sentences over the same sort of trees. Perhaps he needs to act in this landmark case.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):

I am conscious that when one speaks, one normally refers to the Opposition opposite. Those seats are empty. I see someone in the Gallery standing up and looking down to see if anyone is in the Opposition seats. I am mindful of the last day on which I sat in the House, when a Member said that although he was behind me, he would still say what he had to say. Every Member who spoke today was seated behind me or to my right, but not on the Opposition Benches in front of me.

I thank Peter Robinson for his kind words of concern as regards my Colleagues' comments to me, and for his advice on the basis that I am new to the post of Minister of the Environment. I will have to hotfoot it regularly between the Minister for Regional Development's office and mine on the seventh floor of Clarence Court to seek advice on the matter. We look forward to those exchanges. Do I detect a smile from the Opposition at the back?

I welcome the opportunity to discuss these important issues. I share many of the concerns and views expressed today. I have tried to express those concerns in public statements, interviews and, above all, in comments in the Assembly. I am committed to those views: to the protection of the environment, whether natural or built heritage; to the proper application of planning procedures; and to the rigorous application of enforcement and appropriate fines against those who do not adhere to those procedures. That goes without saying.

For almost 30 years, the Stormont estate was the sole preserve of direct rule Ministers and, dare I say it, civil servants. The grounds are now under the control of the accommodation office, and the Building is under the control of the Assembly Commission. Therefore, everyone in the Administration and the Assembly has a particular responsibility to preserve and enhance, even from a historical and political context, the estate. In his opening address, Dr Adamson referred to that:

"We have a duty . to protect this place."

He also mentioned that the gate at Massey Avenue is the principal entrance to the grounds and that it is intrinsic to the concept of the Stormont estate. He compared it to The Mall and Buckingham Palace, and I empathise with that view. We must be conscious not only of this Building, but the surrounding estate. We must plan for and manage the Stormont estate and all our responsibilities in Northern Ireland. However, we must always act within the law. We can do only the best we can - no more or less.

My role, and that of my Department, is clear: it is to regulate within the law. I can do so only with the long-term consent of the Assembly and the Executive. We operate under the aegis of this body, which requires us to have a partnership in order to understand what needs to be done. Time is also required.

I presented the Planning (Amendment) Bill last week, and much has been said to me about what I need to do. This afternoon some Members have said what I should do. Can I do it? Not if the law does not permit me to. I can act only within the law. Number 33 Massey Avenue is at the heart of the matter. That shows how the planning process should work. The developers presented proposals that eventually came before the council. I think that Dr Paisley referred to the council and elected bodies. It is said that the planning committee of Belfast City Council deferred the application for this development on 3 August 2000 to allow the applicant to submit a revised scheme. That is important. A revised scheme for fewer apartments was submitted.

5.30 pm

The badger sett - dare I say it? - also became part of the process. That led to a further reduction in the number of apartments to be built. In their response to the Department of the Environment, council officials said that they were considering the revision of planning applications. However, when officials were considering the revised scheme, the developer submitted his application directly to the Planning Appeals Commission on 17 May. The decision will be made by the commission; it is out of my hands.

Dr Adamson and other Members asked about consistency in planning matters. They asked why the Department did not grant permission for one additional development at 32 Massey Avenue but permitted several at 33 Massey Avenue. A single development at 32 Massey Avenue was refused because it is a restricted site; that means that development would have had an adverse effect on the adjoining properties. The Department must act within the law. However, 33 Massey Avenue is a substantial site. It is set in mature grounds, and development would not have any direct impact on the adjoining residential properties.

Dr Adamson said that it was time for the Assembly to assert its authority in planning matters. However, the case in question has gone to the Planning Appeals Commission. That is the law, and the Assembly cannot exercise authority on the matter. One may wish to exercise authority and one may wish that the Assembly would wish to change the operation of planning appeals and the Planning Appeals Commission, but that is not possible. Authority does not lie with the Assembly; it lies with the Planning Appeals Commission.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley:

What will the Minister's officials recommend to the Planning Appeals Commission? Will they fight the outcome?

Mr Nesbitt:

I will come to that. That reminds me of what Mr Robinson said - my party Colleague, not my ministerial Colleague. It is wonderful to have Colleagues all around: a Robinson to the right of us, a Robinson to the left of us; into the valley of - but let us get back to business, as the hour is late.

Ken Robinson asked when the Department was going to do something about planning. I am endeavouring to do something about it, and that can be seen from last week's debate on the Planning (Amendment) Bill. Those Members who spoke today, but who were not present for that debate, should read Hansard and they will realise what I am trying to do about planning.

Peter Robinson said that building a block of flats behind a listed building simply could not happen. He said that it would not suit the character of the area when compared with 32 Massey Avenue. It is an attractive residential area, and it would lose its character. I have written "savaged by his Colleagues", but I wonder why I did that? Anyway, that is neither here nor there.

Planning policy on listed buildings states that development proposals

"will normally only be considered appropriate where all the following criteria are met: (a) the detailed design respects the listed building in terms of scale, height, massing and alignment; (b) the works proposed make use of traditional or sympathetic building materials and techniques which respect those found on the building and; (c) the nature of the use proposed respects the character of the setting of the building."

That refers to the development affecting the setting of listed buildings, and that is reasonably clear. My departmental officials have assured me that the plans subscribe to those criteria. Those are the policy guidelines that we have to deal with.

Ken Robinson said that 70 appeals to the Planning Appeals Commission were successful, and 15 were unsuccessful. He said that it is easy for developers to go the Planning Appeals Commission because they get their way more often than not. He said that that could no longer be tolerated, but it will take time to do something about it. I am not unsympathetic to ensuring that the responsibility for aspects of development is within elected arenas.

I understand the arguments. However, it is easy to say that it can no longer be tolerated and something must be done immediately; it is more difficult than that. Sir Reg Empey, when talking about planning appeals, said something appropriate. He quoted Mr Peter Robinson as saying that I should put my stamp of approval on the matter and that I should tell my officials what the position is. However, as he said, I cannot do that because the case has gone to the Planning Appeals Commission.

The chronology of the case is as follows: on 17 May, the Planning Appeals Commission wrote to the Department saying that the case had been appealed under article 33 of the 1991 Order. I received a briefing on 31 May for a debate on 5 June, and that is when I became aware of the issue, but it had already gone to the Planning Appeals Commission. Therefore I am afraid that I cannot put my stamp on it.

Dr Paisley asked what officials advised the Planning Appeals Commission. They advised the commission, in line with the policy, that at the moment the application would be approved.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I do not wish to cut the Minister off in his prime, but I advise him that the debate has only two or three minutes left to run.

Mr Nesbitt:

I shall not respond to the full thrust of your statement, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am almost finished.

Several Members:

Hear, hear.

Mr Nesbitt:

I hear, "Hear, hear." from all around.

To conclude, Dr Paisley asked me to do something about the situation. Planning is not perceived as a wonderful thing in Northern Ireland. As I have mentioned previously, economist John Simpson said in the 'Belfast Telegraph' some weeks ago that everyone has something to say about the planning process, just as everyone has something to say about the weather - but at least on some days the weather is good.

Individuals in the Planning Service are doing their level best. They have resource constraints, and they are under increasing demands by those seeking planning approval. However, I assure Dr Paisley that I intend to do something about planning.

Adjourned at 5.42 pm

<< Prev


25 June 2002 / Menu / 2 July 2002