Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 24 January 2000 (continued)
Ms Lewsley asked the Minister of the Environment if he will explore the potential expansion of the use of the existing incinerator at Duncrue, Belfast, to include the disposal of meat, bonemeal and tallow either separately or mixed with sewage sludge.
The Minister of the Environment (Mr Foster):
The incinerator at Duncrue Street, Belfast, is operated by the Water Service of the Department for Regional Development. It is being fully used for sewage sludge and has no spare capacity.
As the legislation states there has to be one type of incinerator to deal with the disposal of meat, bonemeal and tallow, will the Minister say whether there are any planning applications with his Department for such incinerators and, if there are, will he inform me of the areas involved? If any incinerators are to be sited in a residential area, will there be widespread consultation with the residents?
I am not aware of any immediate plans. The Water Service commissioned a new sewage sludge incinerator when sludge disposal at sea was prohibited. As I have said, the incinerator is fully utilised and has no spare capacity. However, I will ask the Minister for Regional Development to encourage the Water Service to examine the co-disposal of sludge with other wastes such as meat, bonemeal and tallow as it considers its future disposal needs.
Anyone who wishes to operate such an incinerator will require a pollution-control authorisation from my Department's Chief Industrial Pollution Inspector. He will have to be satisfied that the most appropriate techniques for pollution control are being used and that the environmental impact will be acceptable. There will have to be an environmental impact assessment.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Is the Minister aware that the future of such waste disposal lies with the incinerator and that Europe is moving towards that position? Will he tell us what applications the local offices have for incinerators across the Province? If permission is granted, will the Minister assure us that the incinerators will be up to the only standard that is permitted in Europe so that the stench that comes from them will not be evident to the people in the surrounding areas?
I cannot give wholesale assurances.
When the incinerators are being assessed every consideration that the Member has referred to will be taken into account. We are subject to EU standards, and we will comply with them. If we do not comply we will be subject to infraction from Europe.
District councils should investigate any foul smells from rendering plants as they could represent a public-health nuisance. I am aware of the stench that comes from some plants in the Province, and I am concerned about that. We will endeavour to dispose of the foul smells that affect the countryside.
Is the Minister aware of the present situation with regard to clinical waste? Are any of the present incinerators being used for clinical waste disposal, and are they up to European standards?
I am not aware of any, but I will provide a written reply.
Mr Wells asked the Minister of the Environment how he proposes to deal with the backlog in the preparation of area plans in order to achieve the target of having all plans updated and published by 2008.
The Department is currently looking at ways of streamlining the development plan process. I will consider if additional resources can be allocated to enable an acceleration of the programme. However, the Planning Service faces an increasing workload on development control, and much will depend on the overall budget available.
There was considerable interest in the Department in what my supplementary would be. Does the Minister accept that there is a great deal of concern over the fact that many of the area plans are well behind schedule? When the regional strategic framework eventually comes into force, the local plans, which are meant to dovetail into that strategy, will not be in place. Surely he must consider bringing in outside consultants to deal with these area plans, which will cover areas such as County Down where there is not one current local area plan in operation.
The area plan programme is set out in the Planning Service's current corporate and business plans. Several area plans are past or are nearing their end date, and there is a backlog in the up-to-date plans to be prepared to ensure that Northern Ireland is completely covered. The area plan process is long-drawn-out and, as set down in statute, requires extensive consultation. It is a time-consuming process and demanding on staff time. Consultants have been appointed to undertake a review of the process, and when it is finished, the Department will consider ways in which it could be streamlined. I am aware that the Member has a particular interest in the combined Banbridge and Newry and Mourne area plan, and I assure him that work is to commence on that plan in February.
Mrs I Robinson:
Can the Minister confirm that 16 major planning applications are currently with the Department for development within the green belt and that they would have a particular impact on the North Down and Strangford constituencies? Does he appreciate that the backlog of uncompleted urban area plans is detrimental to good planning policy?
My Department is indeed very much aware of the current backlog. I emphasise that our biggest problem arises from our being a service agency. The departmental running costs are colossal, and we need more money and more personnel to deal with that backlog.
Will the Minister ensure that future area plans will not prevent rural areas from being involved in regeneration programmes? Can he assure us that his Department will not be in conflict with other Departments that are trying hard to regenerate local communities, keep rural schools open and keep communities together?
My Department would never try to stifle any development plan or move from industry to stimulate the economy. Each plan, each area and each application is considered on its merits. Each is professionally assessed before the Department takes its decision.
Rev Dr William McCrea:
In answer to questions in the Environment Committee, the Minister and his officials said that several area plans would be exhausted by early 2000. Does the Minister agree that it is intolerable and disgraceful that the area plan for Magherafelt has been exhausted since 1996 - not 2000? Development, both private and industrial, is being stifled in the Magherafelt area because there is no appropriate, up-to-date plan. This is totally unacceptable, and I ask the Minister for a proper area plan.
The situation that Dr McCrea outlines was inherited by me in my Department. I am sure he appreciates that all this did not happen yesterday. I emphasise the need to provide more resources to enable the Planning Service to cope. The work is complex, but the present situation arises not from any want of getting into it and working at it. I assure the House that we shall continue to tackle the problems and try to create further drive to get rid of the backlog.
Mr J Kelly:
I want to copper-fasten what William McCrea said about the Magherafelt area plan. It is totally unacceptable that this plan has been out of date for so long. As was pointed out earlier, it has stifled development in the area, and it is also stifling urban regeneration and urban renewal. This matter, and particularly where it concerns Magherafelt, should be addressed as a matter of urgency, because we are the "hind teat" in this.
As I have said, we are very aware of this problem and do not wish it to last any longer than necessary.
Planning Control (Countryside Protection)
Mrs Carson asked the Minister of the Environment how he plans to co-ordinate planning control with protection of the countryside.
Mr Bradley asked the Minister of the Environment what his policy is towards rural applicants seeking permission to build a home in the locality where they were born.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take questions 3 and 11 together.
My Department acts within the planning policies set out in the publication 'A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland'. In addition, the draft regional strategic framework proposes a range of policies designed to sustain a living and working countryside. The policy and the regional strategic framework are matters on which the Department for Regional Development takes the lead.
There is no specific policy which allows people to build where they were born. However, planning permission may be granted for a house on the farm for a retiring farmer, or for the widow or widower of the farmer, to facilitate the orderly transfer or sale of the farm.
I thank the Minister for his reply.
I would like to draw the Minister's attention to the importance of that part of his departmental responsibilities that is to do with protecting the countryside. This is a very broad brief and closely related to planning. In common with many public representatives, I am baffled at times by the logic of planning decisions which do little either to protect the countryside or to enhance it. What can the Department do to protect the countryside, which is one of our greatest assets, from the indiscriminate expansion of housing developments, and does the Minister support the European concept of developing clusters of dwellings such as hamlets?
Whether or not to allow houses to be built in the countryside is something that causes great difficulty. There are lobbyists to protect the countryside and lobbyists in favour of building houses in it. My Department is not unaware of the difficulties.
Within the overall strategy is a wide range of specific planning policies. These deal with different types of developments: single houses in the open countryside, villages and rural settlements, ribboning, and so on. Overall, cognisance is taken of the need to protect the countryside, but we also have to deal with the present huge demand for houses there.
Mrs Carson has referred to hamlets. We do not oppose them; in fact, we welcome them. There is a hierarchy of settlements - the hamlet, the village, the town, the large town and the city. We seek at all times to provide for a vibrant rural community which will strike a balance between development in and protection of the countryside.
We used to enjoy challenging a Minister who came here from his 6,000-acre or 7,000-acre holding in England and laid down rural policies for us, but perhaps we will not get the chance to do that now.
We are talking about people versus places. I have talked before about the clearly defined rural applicant - the applicant who wants to live on the farm. Not all farms are 80 or 100 acres.
It could be a 30-acre farm, but if a father or mother wishes to give a site to a son or daughter in a rural area, we have to do something to accommodate them.
We are forcing migration on rural people. I know that the Minister is new to his post and probably has the same problems in Fermanagh that we have in South Down. This problem must be dealt with. Perhaps this is an opportune time, now that the Newry area plan, in my case, is coming into being. I will be making the strongest representations in that regard and seeking the Minister's support for rural applicants.
What the Member has said has not gone unnoticed. I am very much aware of this problem through my own experiences of building homes in the countryside in Fermanagh and understand what the Member has said. It can be a difficult issue, but we attempt to provide for retirement dwellings on farms when asked to do so. Different issues and different exigencies have to be taken into consideration, which can make things quite difficult. When permission to build is given, that suits the person applying, but not those who object. It is an extremely sticky wicket.
In the last financial year, 3,879 permissions were granted for single houses in the countryside. In the previous five years, a total of 15,533 permissions were granted for such houses. We endeavour to provide where we can, taking into account the issue of what we might term sustainable development. While we think and plan for the present, we must also do that for the future.
Sir John Gorman:
I have a question about D5 in the plan for the port of Belfast. I gather that a considerable development is planned in D5 between Belfast and Holywood. I have received several representations from my constituents about the possible environmental impact. One group of people was concerned about the impact on bird life. What is the Minister's attitude to that?
With regard to D5, a public inquiry has been held. The jury is out, and we await a report of the investigation. It would be extremely imprudent and entirely wrong for me to comment any further on this issue now.
The Minister spoke about ribboning. What constitutes ribboning along a country roadside and how many houses will he permit?
In my humble experience, as a district councillor in Fermanagh, ribboning has been an issue for a long time. People differ over what constitutes ribboning. As I understand it, ribboning starts where there are two houses together along a roadside and potential for a third. Two houses are acceptable, but with three, one is in trouble.
Rural planning varies across the Province, especially in policy and direction. Has the Minister any plans to give local authorities more planning powers, and especially rural planning powers? Does he intend to present proposals to look generally at planning throughout Northern Ireland?
These are early days. There is much talk of reorganising local government and quangos of what powers might be given to local government if that reorganisation occurs. That issue must be dealt with under the overall umbrella of the governance of Northern Ireland. As far as I am concerned, no decision has yet been made or mooted.
Mr J Kelly:
I know that these are early days, but perhaps the Minister can say whether he has given any consideration to the spreading of slurry and its effect on the countryside? Farmers have to get rid of slurry, but, particularly in built-up areas, it can cause distress for older people, especially those with respiratory problems. There is also the vexed question-
Order. It is not clear to me that the spreading of slurry is a planning problem.
Mr J Kelly:
It is an environmental problem.
It is an environmental problem, and I appeal to Members to ask questions that are supplementary to the question that is down. A very broad question on policy in the widest sense was asked, and that is not appropriate. I am not sure that this is to do with planning, but I will ask the Minister to respond if he wishes.
Mr J Kelly:
May I finish by asking about the pollution of waterways as a result of slurry spreading, which is also very detrimental to the environment.
Slurry-spreading has been a problem for a long time. The odour can be very offensive, and every precaution is taken to stifle this. We watch the pollution of waterways very closely. It is not acceptable to us. Some people, through a degree of irresponsibility, foul the waters in our areas, but we watch that very closely, and it does not go unnoticed.