Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 26 February 2002
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received notice from the Minister for Regional Development that he wishes to make a statement on wastewater treatment works.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr P Robinson):
Thank you for the opportunity to make a statement on the siting of the new wastewater treatment works for north Down and Ards.
I am aware of the concerns in the local communities of north Down and Ards about the siting of the project. Many public representatives have raised the matter with me, and I have answered many questions in the Assembly. The subject is of considerable interest to Members and the general population in north Down and Ards, and it is important that I advise the Assembly of my decision. I thought it more appropriate to give Members an opportunity to comment, rather than simply sneak out a statement.
No one can dispute the need for a wastewater treatment works. Many Members and, indeed, the public may be surprised to know that at present wastewater from Bangor, Donaghadee and Millisle is largely untreated. It is simply pumped out to sea after what Water Service engineers describe as coarse screening. I shall not go into too many details of what that involves — I will leave it to hon Members’ imaginations.
This method has been the traditional way of disposing of wastewater from coastal towns throughout the UK for the past 100 years and is in line with a report prepared by a Royal Commission in 1912. Everyone will agree that it is not acceptable in the twenty-first century. The public rightly expects us to do all we can to protect the environment and our beaches. That means that we must effectively treat wastewater before we discharge it to the sea.
We must also have regard to the European Union Directive on wastewater treatment. That Directive was transposed into our local law by the Urban wastewater Treatment Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995. Those Regulations oblige us to provide treatment for all wastewater discharges. The Environment and Heritage Service determines the discharge standard.
We should have provided the required treatment at Bangor and Donaghadee by 31 December 2000. We have until 31 December 2005 to provide it at Millisle. We are thus in breach of the Regulations and the Directive. We are already at risk of infraction proceedings by the European Union, in relation not only to Bangor but also to many other towns in Northern Ireland. That sorry position is the direct result of many years of underfunding of water and sewerage services by previous Administrations. I make no apology for having to say that, but we are paying a heavy price for years of neglect.
I will want to come back at a later date on how we might best meet the huge investment needs — in the order of £3 billion over a 20-year period — that we are facing. In fairness to the Water Service, it has been seeking for the best part of the past 10 years to prepare for the requirements of the EU Directive.
The original proposal was for Bangor to be served by a new wastewater treatment works located close to the present sea outfall near Groomsport. Three possible sites were initially identified, and planning approval was obtained for one of the sites. However, the scheme was being progressed by way of a private finance initiative, and the transfer of planning approval to a private operator, together with the land acquisition process, meant that the proposal was likely to be subject to a public inquiry. After further evaluation against planning and environmental criteria, it was apparent that the site selection process that was followed was insufficiently detailed to support the proposal.
Therefore a decision was taken to return to a clean sheet of paper and start all over again. Consulting engineers were appointed in December 1997. They were asked to consider alternative strategies for wastewater treatment in the whole north Down and Ards area. They were also asked to identify and assess possible locations for the treatment facilities.
The consultants’ appraisal study report was made public in March 1999. It recommended that the best strategic option was a single treatment works to serve Bangor, Donaghadee and Millisle. The works was to have the flexibility to accommodate wastewater from part, or all, of Newtownards at a future date.
The recommendation was audited by an independent firm of GB-based consulting engineers who are acknowledged leaders in the public health field. Their audit confirmed that the provision of a single treatment works for the north Down and Ards area was the best option.
Fourteen possible sites were initially identified for the new works, including two of the three original sites close to Groomsport. Four were shortlisted, using detailed technical and environmental sifting criteria. Following further rigorous assessment, the two most suitable sites were identified. One is on the outskirts of Donaghadee, adjacent to the carpet factory. The other is halfway between Donaghadee and Newtownards, at Dead Man’s Island.
Detailed assessments have been made of the environmental impact that the proposed works would have on each site. The assessments have identified measures to mitigate those impacts. The Water Service recognises all too well the public’s negative image of wastewater treatment works. They are almost universally considered to be noisy, smelly and best avoided. That image is unfortunate. It is largely based on the public’s experience of older works, which are often overloaded. Modern works are designed to be good neighbours and to not cause a nuisance.
The Water Service has taken forward the selection and evaluation process in an open and informative way. Consultation has included meetings with, and presentations to, Ards Borough Council and North Down Borough Council; presentations to local Assembly Members; information leaflets issued to all local public representatives and delivered to all households within a two-kilometre radius of the two proposed sites; written consultations with a wide range of both statutory and non-statutory bodies; and meetings with, and presentations to, local interest groups.
My predecessor, Gregory Campbell, was anxious that there should be an awareness of what a truly modern wastewater treatment works looks like and how it operates. Last February he led a delegation of local public representatives, council officials and the press to visit two modern wastewater treatment works at Eastbourne and Little Hampton in Sussex. I understand that all were impressed by how a well-designed modern treatment works can be a good neighbour to the community and not cause any nuisance.
He also invited both councils to take part in a working group to review the site selection and appraisal procedure used by the Water Service and its consultants. The councils accepted the invitation, and the working group met on several occasions. Unfortunately, there was no agreement on how the review should be carried out, and it was not possible to reach any conclusions.
Since resuming ministerial office in October, I have been aware of the need to make progress on this matter, given the pressures that we are facing. I visited the two preferred sites and considered all the reports and appraisals that had been prepared on where the new works should be sited. Those included a detailed comparison of the merits of the two shortlisted sites. That comparator report recommended clearly that the site adjacent to the carpet factory was the more suitable, taking account of all environmental, technical and economic issues.
I am satisfied that the evaluation of the sites has been carried out in a comprehensive, impartial and professional manner. I am also fully satisfied that all relevant issues have been considered and evaluated. In addition, I have borne in mind the representations made by elected representatives and members of the local community about the siting of the works.
I have been particularly conscious of the strong representations from Ards Borough Council that the wastewater from Bangor should be treated in North Down Borough Council’s area and not transferred to the Ards area for treatment. I cannot accept that argument. It is not in line with past and current practice in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. There can be no justification, on technical or other grounds, for basing wastewater treatment on local government or Assembly constituency boundaries. A decision on the siting of any works must be made on the basis of environmental, technical and economic factors, taking account of the drainage needs of the area.
The two preferred sites are in Ards Borough Council’s area. They are also both in the North Down constituency, but I am not giving that as a reason for their selection. Having considered all the issues and the recommendation of the chief executive and board of the Water Service, I have decided that the new works should be located adjacent to the Donaghadee carpet factory.
Considerable care has been put into the design of the new works to take account of the concerns of local residents about its impact on their neighbourhood. A leaflet, which is available to Assembly Members, gives an illustration of the works and describes what will be involved in the project. It demonstrates the high quality design and care that will go into the construction of the works, which will be housed in an enclosed building. It will be designed to a high architectural standard and use the most modern technology available to minimise odour and noise levels. Sensitive landscaping will further enhance the appearance of the site. It is estimated that it will cost £35 million to build the new works and about £1·6 million to run it each year. Pumping stations will have to be built at Donaghadee, Millisle and Briggs Rock near Groomsport and will be mainly underground. The treated effluent will be discharged into the sea off Briggs Rock.
I referred earlier to the investment needs of the Water Service. The sum of £35 million is a very significant amount of money, and if we are to finance this from public expenditure, many other pressing projects will have to be deferred. We are, therefore, investigating whether it will be possible to use private finance to build and operate this and other new wastewater treatment works. However, it is likely to be some time before we can reach a decision on that. We will have to obtain planning approval from the Planning Service before we can start, and we expect to submit the planning application during April. The site is in private ownership, and initial land acquisition procedures will commence in the near future.
The planning approval, land acquisition and project procurement procedure will be complex and lengthy. Subject to satisfactory progress on all those fronts, I expect construction work to commence in 2005. It will take two years to build the new works.
In conclusion, I wish to stress that this decision was taken only after a lengthy and in-depth investigation and evaluation of options. Extensive consultation also took place with local public representatives, district councils and local residents. I am satisfied that the site selected is the most suitable. The new works will protect and enhance the marine environment. The site will benefit the local communities and make the entire area more attractive for tourists. It will also cater for new investment and growth in the area. Not least, it will enable us to meet our statutory obligations for wastewater treatment. The new works represent a significant investment in the area and reinforce my commitment to upgrading wastewater treatment facilities throughout Northern Ireland. They provide the public with the level of services and facilities that they rightly expect.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr A Maginness):
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive and thorough statement. I welcome his decision on the establishment of a wastewater works in north Down. As Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development, I cannot express a view on the site, which the Minister has chosen after considerable advice and consultation. However, I welcome the Department’s attempt to remedy the continuing breach of the European Directive and the Regulations that govern wastewater treatment.
The Minister will present an application to the planning authorities in April. Can he tell the House whether that application will be subject to a public inquiry, or will it simply go through the ordinary planning process? In addition, I express my concern, which I presume is shared by the Committee, at the unavailability of the £35 million to finance the project. Can the Minister tell the House whether a private finance initiative or other private initiative has been found to fund the project?
Mr P Robinson:
The Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development is right to point to a general deficit in funding for water services. That is a matter that has exercised my officials considerably. A series of proposals to draw in private finance, which we wish to share with the Chairperson and the Committee, are at an advanced stage. Those proposals will assist us with our legal commitments through the European Union. The majority of sites that face infraction proceedings in the United Kingdom are in Northern Ireland, which is a matter of some concern. However, the Member will accept that, in many ways, it is the United Kingdom Government’s problem that the matter is on their own doorstep. It is because they did not provide the finance that we are facing the infraction proceedings.
The Member also raised the issue of the merits of a particular site. If the hon Gentleman wants to spend the next week or two reading about the site selection process in more detail, I will allow him to tear away from me the reading that I have had to do in the past few weeks. I hope that he will enjoy it more than I did. He will see that it was a most robust consideration, which took into account all the possible factors.
Planning will be a matter for the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service. It will determine whether a public inquiry is necessary. The Department for Regional Development will be happy to defend its case at a public hearing. We believe that the evidence is there to support the decision that the Department has reached.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development (Mr McFarland):
I wish to express some concern. The Chairperson of the Regional Development Committee and I were kindly given advance copies of the Minister’s statement last night. However, a copy had not been placed in my pigeonhole until about 10 minutes before the debate began. It is my understanding that statements should be available one hour before a debate begins.
Minister Campbell took the Committee for Regional Development to England to visit state-of-the-art wastewater treatment works. On the Committee’s return, there were discussions about the works, and my understanding was that additional sites in the area of Dead Man’s Island were being examined, because there was concern about, and opposition to, the carpet factory site in Donaghadee. How have we returned so rapidly to the carpet factory site when there was so much local feeling about it? Has there been consultation with local people, because the map and the photograph are not accurate? A housing development now comes out just to the right of the carpet factory. The wonderful map shows no housing anywhere near the factory site, and that is a great concern.
Will the Minister give his assurance that the state-of-the-art wastewater treatment works will not be the same as the private finance wastewater treatment works in Holywood, which has as strong an odour emanating from it as the previous treatment works had. The new works was supposed to prevent those odours. We could be heading for another problem if the wastewater treatment works is constructed in a built-up area beside houses and gives off as strong an odour as the treatment works in Holywood does.
Mr P Robinson:
The last question asked by the Member was also answered by him. My Colleague Gregory Campbell took a delegation to see what a modern state-of-the-art wastewater treatment works can do, and how it can live with the local community. The Eastbourne wastewater treatment works is sited in a tourist area on the coast, but visitors to the area have to ask what it is, because there is no other signal, such as an odour, to indicate that it is a wastewater treatment works.
It may take quite a long time to answer the question of site selection procedure, but it is important for everyone that I do so. In the Department’s deliberations on where the wastewater treatment works should be sited, the potential catchment area had to be considered. That then became the search area, which was sizeable. Various parts of that area were sifted for planning criteria. For example, if a certain part was in an area of outstanding natural beauty, a special scientific area, an industrially zoned area or an urban area, it was sifted out. Another sifting took place in relation to height, and any area that was over 50 metres OD (ordnance datum) was taken out. That still left a large area, and a further sifting exercise took place, which reduced the potential location to 14 sites. Those sites were then examined individually and a matrix was constructed for scoring purposes. That process reduced the potential location to four sites. A more detailed investigation examined the full impact on each of those sites. A scoring mechanism was again employed, which reduced it to two sites.
I have reviewed the decision taken by the direct rule Minister with regard to the information that he would have had available to him, and I would not do anything differently. I am not saying that to wash my hands of the matter, but at that point devolution took place and the decision had to be made between Dead Man’s Island and the carpet factory site. That was the choice.
Both sites are in the Ards Borough Council area, and both are in the North Down constituency. I suspect that I shall be attacked by North Down Assembly Members and by Members who have responsibilities outside of the House as members of Ards Borough Council. That will come as a double whammy rather than save me from attack.
On nearly every heading on which the investigation took place between the two sites that were left during devolution, the carpet factory proved the better site. I ask the hon Member to look at the drawing of Donaghadee and tell me which factor has the greatest adverse impact on the environment and the local community. Given the existing features, there is no doubt that the carpet factory is more detrimental to the environment than the site that we propose to put there instead. As far as housing is concerned, I visited both the sites. The Dead Man’s Island site and its surrounds would have affected more houses directly and would have also affected jobs.
We shall never obtain the ideal site for a wastewater treatment works, as, by its nature, people are turned off by the proposition. However, the community needs a wastewater treatment works. If we do not start the process immediately, we shall almost certainly face infraction proceedings, as we are already outside the time limit. Those are the facts. Given the choice that was available, I have chosen on the basis of professional opinion.
Although I welcome the necessary investment in infrastructure, £35 million is a substantial amount of money. Is the Minister aware of the deep- seated concern and high degree of consternation that has been generated? That concern is felt especially by those who live in Donaghadee, as well as by those on Ards Borough Council, of which I am a member, as are two other Members in the Chamber.
In the light of the announcement, and the very real concern that it has generated, is the Minister prepared to meet a deputation from Ards Borough Council, or, better still, to meet with the council, at his earliest convenience, so that outstanding matters of concern can be further examined and fully explored?
The Minister would not be welcome.
Mr P Robinson:
We can see the rationality of some Ards Borough Council members in the Chamber.
I am aware of the main concern of people in Donaghadee and, indeed, of the council, as was my predecessor, who met with Ards Borough Council on the issue. I am happy to receive a deputation from the council, to go over the selection proceedings and to make my expert advisers available. Moreover, if Donaghadee has a residents’ group, I am happy to offer it the same advantage as some council officials and Members have had, by letting the group see what a modern wastewater treatment works is like. The residents’ group would then be better informed, even if it is only about the planning application case that it may wish to put forward. However, at least it will be better informed about what we are talking about, rather than having to judge it against other wastewater treatment works in the Province. I am happy to take those issues on board.
Even though I do not agree with the council’s approach, I understand the suggestion that wastewater treatment works should conform to local government boundaries. However, that is not a factor, and, with the review of administration, the North Down constituency and Ards Borough Council could even find themselves in the one area. Therefore, the issue would no longer be a problem for local government.
The bottom line is that the factors that led to the decision are of a professional nature, taking into account environmental, topographical and all other issues relating to planning. Those factors, rather than local government administrative boundaries, must be the key to a judgement on which site is appropriate.
Mrs E Bell:
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement. Far from attacking him, credit should be given to him and his predecessor for expediting this complex and sensitive process, which has taken some years.
The statement is almost as long as the process it outlines. Mr McFarland rightly said that the issue must be examined carefully. I would like to be objective about the matter, and, in a way, the Minister has pre-empted my question. The glossy leaflet is wonderful, but the Minister knows as well as I do that residents will not be taken in by it. They will be very concerned. Has the decision been made known to the residents directly affected? If not, when and how will it be made public? Many residents will be keen to obtain specific reasons for the decision. That would help in the subsequent planning process, because residents may seek a public inquiry. Although we are glad that the decision has been made, we are concerned that from the residents’ subjective viewpoint, it may not be the right one.
Mr P Robinson:
I warmly welcome Mrs Bell’s opening remarks. I assure her that the purpose of the leaflet is not to deceive residents — it is to inform them. It is being widely distributed, and briefings are taking place so that full information is available to the local press. There will be a display in Donaghadee. Ards Borough Council has been asked to make premises available, but I do not know whether it has agreed yet. The Alliance Party Member for Strangford states that the council does not want residents to be informed, but I hope that the council will consider it important that residents be informed on these issues and will allow its facilities to be used.
I welcome the announcement as a major step towards eliminating sewage pollution from the environment.
I note the Minister’s commitment to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities in paragraph 32 of the statement and his concern, in paragraph 6, about infraction proceedings by the EU in relation to many other towns in Northern Ireland. I note the comment in paragraph 15 on wastewater treatment works being designated as good neighbours and not causing a nuisance. Why then does the Minister continue to renege on the promised upgrading of the Newcastle treatment works? It has a direct impact on our tourist economy due to sea-water pollution and odour, which affect residents and tourists.
Mr P Robinson:
Mr ONeill is tempting me to go beyond the statement. However, I know that you, Mr Speaker, would call me to order if I were to do so. I am content to meet with the hon Member at any time. If he wants to bring a deputation, we can deal with the matter in more detail. Today’s business, Members will agree, must focus on the North Down/Ards treatment works.
I join in the happiness expressed by Mrs Bell that we have an announcement at last. That will give some happiness to people in the Donaghadee area. However, I suspect that that is where their happiness will end.
I will deal with Mr McFarland’s point. Why was an out-of-date map included in the leaflet? Why was Dead Man’s Island not picked? It is sparsely populated compared with the much more congested Donaghadee area. Given that a large amount of growth is expected in the Newtownards area — approximately 7,000 houses are to be built in the next 10 years — and that more sewage will be pumped from there, why was a site at the far side of the peninsula chosen rather than Dead Man’s Island, which is closer to the centre of Newtownards? Unlike one of the Members for Strangford, I prefer that the fullest information be provided to the residents of Donaghadee. Can the Minister say what consultations his Department intends to arrange to explain to those residents what is being proposed for the town?
Mr P Robinson:
The hon Member will see from the documentation that careful consideration was given to the sieving and scoring processes used to choose between the two sites. We used the best Ordnance Survey map available. Unless the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland updates its map, I cannot take the matter further. I visited the site, and anyone who visits it will see that choosing Dead Man’s Island would have had a much greater impact on residents and jobs.
The hon Member should not get the impression that the wastewater treatment works will be a bad neighbour. I do not know if he was part of the delegation that went to Eastbourne, but, if not, he might like to accompany some Donaghadee residents on the next visit. He will see how the treatment works fits into the area and that it is a good neighbour to those who live in houses in the Eastbourne catchment area.
When all the issues that must be considered for wastewater treatment works were considered for Dead Man’s Island and the site at the carpet factory, the latter emerged as the better site. I am not technically capable of making that sort of choice myself. I must rely on the experts available to me. They are not from the Water Service but are consultants with the relevant expertise. Their work was quality assured by GB experts who are the leaders in the field and who looked at the sites too. I cannot second guess people with experience and expertise in this.
If the hon Member is looking for more reading material, I can get him further and better particulars, and I can see he is enthusiastic about that. However, when he reads that material from a professional point of view, he will reach the same conclusion that I did. No site will be popular, and we made the right choice between the two available on technical and economic grounds.
It is good that a comprehensive works to cover the three towns has been proposed. How constructive was the dialogue or consultation with Ards and North Down Borough Councils? It is crucial that councils be closely involved in any consultation process, particularly one that deals with the site of a wastewater treatment works. The Minister must agree that in my area Omagh District Council worked constructively with the Department to choose the optimum site.
Mr P Robinson:
I suspect that I am not the first Minister to find that it is not always possible to get agreement between people with differing views. I can demonstrate that by saying that representatives from both Ards and North Down Councils went to Eastbourne. There was some unanimity in that each lot felt that the scheme was excellent and would have little impact on the other council’s area.
Unlike others, I do not welcome the Minister’s statement. This is a disaster for Donaghadee and the Ards Borough Council area. The diagram shows that the building works will be an absolute disaster; a carbuncle on the road beside the carpet factory and an absolute mess in a tourist area.
The Minister and others have welcomed the proposal in defiance of Ards Borough Council, of which I am a member, and which said, time and time again, that the area was not a proper site for a treatment works. The smaller diagram shows that the building of a pumping station has also been proposed. Long before the Minister became involved in this work, the people of Donaghadee and Ards borough fought tooth and nail to prevent the erection of any building adjacent to the marina in Donaghadee. They were totally and absolutely opposed to that.
I fully support the efforts of local Ministers. However, in this case the local Minister has got it wrong. He has not listened to Ards Borough Council. He has not listened to the community in Donaghadee. Ards Borough Council went to considerable expense to employ consultants to consider the 14 sites that he referred to in the document. The council was clearly critical of the sites which were proposed by the Department for Regional Development. Did the Minister consider Ards Borough Council’s consultants’ report when he was making his decision?
Mr P Robinson:
Those last comments star among the most irrational. I ask any Member who has the diagram to which the hon Gentleman refers in front of him to look at what is proposed in it. The Member suggests that the wastewater treatment works proposed for Donaghadee will be an eyesore. Any person with an eye in his head will see that what is unsightly is not the wastewater treatment works, but the existing carpet factory. I have not heard anything from the Member about that. He turns reality on its head when he suggests that the works will be a carbuncle. Much of the building will be screened by banks and landscaping.
I take more account of what the people of Donaghadee say about the site-specific issues than I do of the approach taken by the hon Gentleman, who suggests that we should work within local government boundaries and that Ards Borough Council should not have a wastewater treatment works within its area. There is no rational reason for proceeding in that way. Millisle and Donaghadee, which will be served by the works, are both in Ards Borough Council’s area. North Down is a geographical area, but it is the topographical, environmental and drainage features of the whole catchment area that must be taken into account, not local government boundaries.
I suggest to the Member that if Ards Borough Council’s attitude is that it is wrong to have any Water Service provision coming from outside its area, there will not be much coming out of its water taps. According to the hon Gentleman, Ards Borough Council does not want wastewater from the Bangor area, but it is quite happy to get water from other parts of County Down, and that shows that declaring Unilateral declaration of independance (UDI) in Ards is not the answer.
This is not a decision that people in Donaghadee will welcome. However, the choice that arose when I entered office was between two sites, both of which are in Ards Borough Council’s area. I challenge the hon Gentleman to say whether, if Donaghadee is the wrong site, Dead Man’s Island is the right one? He says it is not. The Member therefore says that there should be no wastewater treatment works and that we should be at risk of infraction proceedings.
The conundrum is this: do we need a wastewater treatment works? The answer from everybody is clearly "Yes". Where will it be situated? The choice was between two sites, both of which were in the Ards Borough Council area. Professional advisers were unanimously, on almost every point of consideration, in favour of the site adjacent to the carpet factory at Donaghadee. People in Donaghadee may not like that answer, but their concerns will be considerably reduced if they fully realise what a modern, state-of-the-art, up-to-date wastewater treatment works means and how it performs as a good neighbour.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You are aware that I had indicated as an MLA for North Down, one of the affected areas, and as the former Member of Parliament for six years for North Down my intention of speaking. One of your Clerks informed me that you applied the convention that if a Member is not here when the Minister makes his statement he or she will be denied the opportunity to speak. I recognise the Minister’s difficulties and that the Nimby factor must be propitiated. Nevertheless, it has not helped to get people to support what has happened and has fed the conspiracist theory that seems to be endemic here that I received absolutely no notification — and I believe that is the situation of many other Members from North Down — of this statement’s being made.
Order. The Member has raised a point of order.
I have not finished.
The Member has raised a point of order, and I will respond to the point of order, not to any politics that may be around in regard to it.
The position is this: for some time past, Members came in after Ministers had made their statements, asked to ask questions, not actually knowing what the Minister had said in the statement because they frequently had not read it; not knowing earlier questions that had been asked of Ministers. When they got their question they frequently walked out afterwards, not waiting to hear what anybody else had said. This was disrespectful to Ministers, disrespectful to the House and was regarded as unacceptable.
It was discussed on several occasions at the Business Committee, and the decision made by the Business Committee was as follows: that it would invite the Speaker to consider that those Members who were not present for the whole of a statement should not take priority over Members who were present for the whole of a statement. Members who were not present for any part of a statement should not be called to ask a question in regard to that statement. That I announced to the House before it was implemented, and I have attempted to implement it properly as the will of the House.
In regard to this statement may I say that from 8.30 this morning the advice that the statement was to be made was being scrolled on the monitors. The Minister requested that from 10.00 this morning the statement be put in the pigeonholes, and that was done. Of course, I accept that those Members who have chosen not to be represented on the Business Committee may not know that the Minister had advised the Business Committee last week that he wished to make a statement. However, I must say that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it. If one choses not to be present and chooses not to have representation at a Business Committee meeting, then one must accept that there will be some things that one may not be aware of as quickly as other Members. The fact is that the Minister was on his feet for some time; it was not the briefest of statements. Any Member who had come in at any point during the statement would have had an opportunity to ask a question.
If the Member is inviting me to treat one Member or some Members differently from other Members, then I am afraid it will fall on a deaf ear, because I am not prepared to treat any Members of this House differently from how I treat other Members. I will do my best to be as equal as I can to all — and as fair as I can to all.
In his point of order, the Member has made another point to the Minister, and it is for the Minister to decide whether he wishes to address that; not in the question here, because this was a point of order not a question on the statement, but it is for the Minister to decide how to handle what has clearly been a prickly and difficult question.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek clarification. My understanding is that if a Minister is to make a statement, it should be in Members’ pigeonholes one hour beforehand. I understand you to say it is half an hour. Is that the rule?
No, it is not half an hour. The position is that Ministers are requested to make statements available to the House as soon as is possible for them — and not after the time when they stand up to speak in the House. Some Ministers have made them available an hour before, some half an hour before, and some at the time of the statement. Some errant Ministers have even been found to do it after they speak, but that has quickly been addressed because it is a breach of Standing Orders. Some Ministers have made statements available longer in advance, but the requirements of Standing Orders are that they be made available not later than the time when the Minister stands up to speak. As far as I can understand and see, that was entirely fulfilled, both by the Minister in his request and by the staff who executed the request. I trust that that clarifies the matter for Members.
Mr P Robinson:
We have now left the issue, but I am happy to meet with and hear the concerns of the Member for North Down.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr P Robinson):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Railway Safety Bill (NIA Bill 3/01) be agreed.
Legislation governing the railways goes back to the 1840s, and much of the legislation still in force today was in place by 1871. Although there have been additions, amendments and repeals, the basic legislation remains Victorian, both in content and concept. Its primary focus is on operation and not on safety. It is concerned mainly with the licensing and empowerment of railway operations. Railway legislation in Northern Ireland was recognised as outdated, but, for many years, the introduction of replacement legislation was not deemed of sufficiently high priority to attract the resources necessary to address it. Presumably it was felt that as railways were under the control of a responsible public sector body they would be operated in a safe manner, irrespective of the legislation’s shortcomings. In general, railways in Northern Ireland have had a good safety record. However, following three minor incidents in Northern Ireland in 1998, Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) commissioned a report on rail safety — the A D Little review. A key recommendation of the report, issued in March 2000, was that the legislation should be updated to meet the needs of twenty-first century rail travel in Northern Ireland.
Major rail traffic accidents in England, namely those at Southall, Paddington and, more recently, Hatfield, significantly contributed to a heightened public awareness of rail safety issues. Therefore, I decided to introduce new safety-focused legislation in Northern Ireland.
My objective is to provide a legislative basis for modern, safe travel by railways. The Bill will accomplish that primarily by applying existing health and safety at work legislation to railway operations. It will also introduce new powers to approve new infrastructure and rolling stock, to limit speeds and loads and to improve control over private crossings of railway lines.
Access to general powers in the Health and Safety at Work (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 will also allow us to give effect to future EC Directives that relate to railway safety. Members will be aware that NIR is in the process of ordering 23 new trains, on the assumption that under that legislation the operational safety of that rolling stock must be approved by the Department for Regional Development before it can be introduced to services.
The application of the health and safety at work legislation will introduce the safety case regime for railways, following the Great Britain model. A safety case is a formal written document that includes information on the operator’s activities, organisation, safety management systems and safety measures. The control of railway safety in Great Britain has been criticised. However, no criticism has been directed at the safety case concept. All have related to the failure to implement the system properly. Many critics suggested that such failures were due in part to the fragmented nature of the railway industry in Great Britain. I assure Members that I have no plans to change the integrated nature of our much smaller industry.
The development of a safety case will be heavily dependent on risk assessment, which will identify areas of concern and importance and allow for the provision of detailed information on the extent of identified risks, their quantification and how they will be managed. Risk assessment will also determine any exemptions that may be granted; for example, to heritage operators on the basis of a clear statement of the risks that they face and how they will deal with them.
My officials will work closely with their counterparts in HM Railway Inspectorate (HMRI), which is an agency of the Health and Safety Executive in Great Britain, and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland. I am glad to report that we have reached an agreement with the Health and Safety Executive whereby the experts in HMRI will act as agents of my Department to ensure that each risk assessment and safety case receives full and independent scrutiny before approval.
At present, the authorities in the Republic of Ireland work in adherence to the same nineteenth century legislation we observe. They are also introducing new railway safety legislation. To facilitate existing cross- border services, my Department is co-operating with the Department of Public Enterprise in Dublin to ensure that legislation in both jurisdictions is compatible. We must be satisfied with the safety of their trains that operate on our track and vice versa.
The Bill will also provide for my Department to make a series of Regulations to deal with private crossings, safety critical works, the approval of works, plant and equipment and safety cases. I intend to introduce most of those Regulations following public consultation as soon as possible after the Bill becomes law. However, the safety case Regulations will require railway operators to prepare, and obtain acceptance of, a detailed safety case before being allowed to operate, or, in most cases, to continue to operate.
The timing of the introduction of the Regulations must be agreed with Northern Ireland Railways (NIR). It will have a great deal of work to do on the preparation of audited safety cases for all its activities and operations. I assure Members that the Department will continue to urge NIR to complete that work as quickly as is necessary, to deal with the serious issues.
The Bill is largely technical, and its provisions are uncontroversial. My officials have met regularly with NIR, which will be directly affected by the legislation, and which has welcomed the proposals. Meetings have also been held with representatives of heritage operators, who come under the scope of the legislation.
The Bill will not result in substantial costs for NIR. Railway running costs will increase marginally, and, under the current subsidy arrangements, my Department will bear those costs out of resources allocated to it by the Assembly.
In addition to regular consultation with NIR and other local railway operators during the preparation of the Bill, my Department carried out a full public consultation. Last summer, some 600 organisations, interest groups and individuals were consulted. There were relatively few responses — 27 in total — and fewer than half of the comments raised substantive issues.
As a result of the consultation exercise, and at the request of NIR, I made one change to the Bill to improve safety at private crossings of railway lines. Schedule 1, which deals with signs and barriers at private crossings, has been added to the Bill.
In general, those who responded welcomed the Bill, and I trust that it will receive a similarly warm response from Members.