Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 24 June 2002


Public Petition: Siting of Proposed Sewage Treatment Plant in Donaghadee

Public Petition: Reduction of Funding for Knockloughrim Primary School

Suspension of Standing Orders

Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill: First Stage

Education and Libraries Bill: First Stage

Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill: First Stage

Planning (Amendment) Bill: Second Stage

Health and Personal Social Services Bill: Consideration Stage

Oral Answers to Questions

Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development

Health and Personal Social Services Bill: Consideration Stage

Railway Safety Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Budget (No.2) Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Review of Public Administration

Report of the Ad Hoc Committee - Disqualification Legislation

First Report of the Northern Ireland Assembly Commission


The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Public Petition: 
Siting of Proposed Sewage Treatment Plant in Donaghadee


Mr Speaker:

Mrs Eileen Bell has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.

Mrs E Bell:

I beg leave to present to the Assembly a petition, signed by over 1,888 residents of Donaghadee, opposing the siting of the proposed sewage treatment plant in the carpet factory in Donaghadee.

Mrs E Bell moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Mr Speaker:

I will forward the petition to the Minister for Regional Development and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee for Regional Development.

Public Petition: 
Reduction of Funding for Knockloughrim Primary School


Mr Speaker:

Mr Armstrong has begged leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22.

Mr Armstrong:

I beg leave to present to the Assembly a petition signed by all the 72 parents whose children attend Knockloughrim Primary School in Magherafelt, opposing the reduction of funding to that school. The petition shows the serious impact that this reduction will have on staffing, class sizes and the general quality of education in the area. This has particular significance given the backdrop of a rural area already suffering from high levels of social deprivation.

Mr Armstrong moved forward and laid the petition on the Table.

Mr Speaker:

I will forward the petition to the Minister of Education and a copy to the Chairperson of the Committee for Education.

Suspension of Standing Orders


Resolved (with cross-community support):

That this Assembly suspends Standing Order 10(2) and Standing Order 10(3) for Monday 24 June 2002 — [The First Minister (Mr Trimble).]

Commissioner for Children and Young People Bill:
 First Stage


The Deputy First Minister (Mr Durkan):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 20/01] to provide for the appointment and functions of the Commissioner for Children and Young People for Northern Ireland; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill will be put on the list of pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.

Education and Libraries Bill: First Stage


The Minister of Education (Mr M McGuinness):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 21/01] to amend the law relating to education and libraries; and for connected purposes.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill will be put on the list of pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.

Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults Bill:
 First Stage


The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Ms de Brún):

I beg leave to lay before the Assembly a Bill [NIA 22/01] to make provision for the protection of children and vulnerable adults.

Bill passed First Stage and ordered to be printed.

Mr Speaker:

The Bill will be put on the list of pending business until a date for its Second Stage has been determined.

Planning (Amendment) Bill: 
Second Stage


The Minister of the Environment (Mr Nesbitt):

I beg to move

That the Second Stage of the Planning (Amendment) Bill (NIA 12/01) be agreed.

I am pleased to present the Bill to the Assembly. It is the first major piece of planning legislation since 1991. Therefore, I wish to make my position clear and to give clear direction on the way forward on these matters.

In March 1999, the Department of the Environment and the pre-devolution Ministers considered what should be done on planning. The Ministers made it clear that they wanted the matter to be left until there was devolution in Northern Ireland. Hence, we are here today.

On devolution, the Planning Service was underfunded, under pressure and underperforming. It was — and still is — the subject of much criticism from the public and from elected representatives. The Planning Service needed more resources, and it also needed a complete overhaul of its policies, processes and powers.

Since becoming Minister, I have viewed that as a matter of utmost importance. I wish to see a speedy and effective planning decision process for those who operate within the law. However, I also wish to see a speedy and effective sanction for those who flout the law. The Department has received resources. Early in 2001 we started to consider the Planning (Amendment) Bill. Since then, the Department has engaged with the Committee for the Environment to discuss the various proposals. The Committee has welcomed, and had already identified, many of the issues that we have taken forward in the Bill. However, it has expressed concern that some issues were not being addressed.

The first such issue was development without planning permission. The Committee expressed concern that there were no provisions in the Bill to make the commencement of development without planning permission unlawful. Since becoming Minister of the Environment and being involved in these issues, I have empathised with the Environment Committee’s wish to see that highly undesirable and unwelcome practice addressed.

My Department commissioned research from Queen’s University into the extent of the problem in other jurisdictions, and initial findings confirm my view that there is considerable merit in creating a new offence, as proposed by the Committee. That could be done by amending the Bill. However, several important issues and procedural matters must be considered before making such an amendment. I want constructive discussion with the Committee, but some questions need to be addressed. What will the new offences be? What fines and penalties should there be? To try to answer those questions, I sent a policy paper to the Committee earlier today.

If we were to create a new offence, the Executive would have to agree any proposed draft amendment. Above all, we would be creating a new offence in Northern Ireland law, and that would require the approval of the Secretary of State because creating a criminal offence in planning is a reserved matter. I have had preliminary discussions with the Secretary of State about this in principle, and I intend to consult him further if firm proposals come through.

The Committee was concerned that the maximum fine in a Magistrate’s Court for breaching planning legislation is an insufficient deterrent to those who flout the law. However, the Bill already provides for a significant increase in the fines that a Magistrate’s Court can impose — from the current maximum of £5,000 to a proposed maximum of £20,000 — which is in line with the position in Great Britain. The Bill also includes provisions to enable a case regarding general enforcement notices to be brought to trial before a Crown Court, where there would be no limit on the level of fine that could be imposed. Those significant measures should be welcomed.

However, I empathise with the Committee’s concerns and intend to consider further the level of fines that a Magistrate’s Court should be able to impose. Again, as a basis for discussion, I sent a detailed policy paper to the Committee on that today, too. After that discussion, I hope we will consider whether an appropriate amendment can be brought forward. As I said, the creation of a new offence must involve the Executive and the Secretary of State.

The Committee also expressed concern, which I must address, that there is no provision in the Bill to introduce third-party appeals. I am less sympathetic to the Committee’s concerns on this — it would not be judicious to proceed at this stage. I accept that the Committee, and many others here, support the introduction of third-party appeals. Many argue that it is a matter of natural justice. A developer or householder who does not get planning approval can appeal — whereas those who object to an approval have no right of appeal. There is, therefore, a matter of natural justice between the two sides.

12.15 pm

Much has been said in favour of third-party appeals. Members have argued that the lack of such a provision breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. That is not so, as has been amply shown by several recent Court of Appeal and House of Lords decisions. I am satisfied, on the basis of legal advice, that our planning processes, together with the availability of judicial review, comply with the European Convention, so there is no legal imperative to introduce third-party appeals.

In addition, the introduction of third-party appeals would represent a fundamental change to the planning process. Research carried out by Queen’s University suggests that they would be a new insertion into the legislative framework. That would cause serious difficulties for the planning process, particularly for its operational efficiency, which must be considered. There would probably be increased delays in making decisions; the delays are bad enough now. It would also result in uncertainty for people who wished to invest in Northern Ireland. More recent research by Queen’s has shown that several issues need to be considered, and policy objectives must be absolutely clear. There are many different ways in which third-party appeals could be introduced.

Mr Close said that, through the review of public administration, some authority might be devolved to local government. If decision-making powers and planning are to be devolved to local authorities, the Assembly would have to be concerned about the desirability of that when a third-party appeal would allow a decision go to the Planning Appeals Commission. I ask the Assembly to consider that. The potentially adverse implications of introducing third-party appeals must be carefully considered — not just the benefits that have been referred to often.

As with the other two matters that were raised by the Environment Committee, I want to discuss that with it. I have today sent a third paper to the Committee as the basis for further detailed discussion on third-party appeals. Those three papers show my genuine efforts over several weeks.

A motion is to be moved in the Assembly tomorrow to extend the Committee Stage of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill to 17 October 2002. During that period, I wish to have earnest discussion on those three issues, which the Environment Committee raised as being of particular concern.

No major decision on third-party appeals should be made without exposing the full range of options and consequences to full and detailed public consultation. Therefore, I propose to publish a detailed consultation paper on that important subject as soon as possible. Third-party appeals cannot, and should not, be dealt with in this Bill. Indeed, to attempt to do so might jeopardise the passage of the Bill in its entirety.

I turn to the wider context in which I have been dealing with the Planning (Amendment) Bill and the wider aspects that must be dealt with. I said that resources were needed. Additional resources have been secured — 103 new staff have been recruited and 50 more are to follow. New powers have been proposed in the Bill. It is one thing to have new powers, but to be truly effective, those powers need resources to deliver on the law. Therefore, I will be targeting further resources for enforcement matters.

We are also bringing forward new area plans, updating and revising policy planning statements, and modernising the planning process. The modernisation proposal was published in February, and a statement will be made later in the year. I emphasise that this is the most comprehensive review of planning processes in Northern Ireland since 1973.

I have made a substantial bid through the Executive programme funds to overhaul the IT systems of the Planning Service and move its IT provision into the best practice of the twenty-first century. If that bid is successful, it will move the Planning Service to the cutting edge of IT and produce a quantum leap in the way in which the service operates. Those elements represent a substantial programme of work to improve the operations and functions of the Planning Service, and they must not be forgotten in the context of the Bill.

There are 32 clauses and two schedules in the Bill. Clauses 1 to 14 propose a substantial strengthening of enforcement powers. For example, clause 1 proposes the introduction of a planning contravention notice. Clause 2 provides for a breach of condition notice. Clause 3 deals with the very important matter of injunctions, where the Department will have direct recourse to the courts to prevent breaches of regulations. That will speed up and strengthen the enforcement process. It is also planned to introduce increased fines for non-compliance with enforcement notices, stop notices and hazardous substances controls. Fines will range from £5,000 to £20,000. If the Bill is enacted, it will, for the first time, allow a Crown Court in Northern Ireland to impose an unlimited fine.

In addition to higher fines for contravention of listed building enforcement notices, there is to be a new provision for custodial sentences for those offences where a listed building is tampered with, by demolition or otherwise, of up to six months in the Magistrate’s Court or up to two years in a Crown Court. There will also be new powers of entry for the purposes of investigation of alleged breaches of planning control. The Bill will also allow enforcement notices to be withdrawn or varied.

Clauses 15 to 23 deal with controls over development. By way of example, there will be controls over the demolition of buildings. There will be new powers to decline to determine planning applications.

Moreover, clause 22 introduces a building preservation notice, a matter that has exercised the minds of those in the Chamber over the past weeks: it is commonly referred to as "spot-listing". A building can be spot-listed immediately and a full investigation carried out over the subsequent six months to determine if it is worthy of listing. That important provision will allow the Department to move quickly in circumstances where buildings are at risk and provide a breathing space where necessary. It is the very thing that Members were concerned about several weeks ago, and I said then that such a provision would be included in this Bill.

Clause 23 deals with the protection of trees. There are new enforcement powers to provide greater protection for trees that are subject to preservation orders. For example, there will be a new duty to replace such trees. I remind the Assembly that breaches of the requirements will be subject to the same level of fines as previously mentioned — up to £20,000. Should a case reach a higher court, there may be no limit on the amount of the fine. A new provision has been made to enable the Department to protect trees in conservation areas.

Clauses 24 to 32 of the Bill contain miscellaneous provisions. For example, there are measures to give primacy to development plans in the determination of planning applications. There are provisions for new powers for the Planning Appeals Commission to dismiss appeals in certain circumstances, and for the Department to extend its grant-aiding powers in respect of the built environment.

The provisions of the Bill will significantly improve the legislative framework under which the planning system operates. Importantly, the Bill will enhance the Department’s enforcement powers and will enable enforcement action to be taken more quickly and effectively.

Mr McGrady:

I suppose that I speak for most Members in welcoming the Bill. I thank the Minister for the detailed exposition of his intent and purpose, and his "empathies", as he called them, in his presentation of the Bill.

I have a sense of déjà vu about the Bill, in that in 1995 the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee held an inquiry into planning in Northern Ireland and, some two years later, issued a full report. However, it has taken a further five years for some of the report’s recommendations to see the light of day in this Bill. I am reminded of some of the evidence given to that Committee in the House of Commons.

The Minister referred to aspects of the Bill that are important to the ordinary citizen — if it is possible to identify an ordinary citizen nowadays. Although these are not in order of priority, the first was the matter of demolition. The Minister correctly said that recently there have been some "headbanging" examples of demolitions that should not have taken place. I refer not only to the Heaney residence, but to Oxford House, which I read about in the national press last week. That beautiful building and its surrounding mature trees were destroyed in an afternoon.

The Minister rightly spent some time describing the Department’s enhanced powers to prevent the demolition of those structures and buildings that should be retained and, perhaps, rehabilitated for posterity. He touched on the question of preservation of the surrounding environment — not just trees. I am not sure that he was convinced that the Bill gives him, the Department and the planners the ability to step in with the urgency and immediacy that are required.

I presume that, in order to do so, the Department will have to identify those buildings and environmental assets that will require either a prevention order or a preservation order. That will be an enormous task in itself because, very often, once a deed is done, it cannot be undone. Will the Department therefore conduct a survey of properties that should be preserved and attach an early warning signal to them that would enable enforcing orders and preservation orders to be triggered?

12.30 pm

The Minister said that he had empathy with that, but things are easier said than done. All Members have experienced the rapidity with which modern machinery can obliterate our heritage before anyone can keep a tab on it.

That brings me automatically to an anomaly in the planning law, which the Bill will address. It is the issue of the legalisation of actions taken before planning permission is granted — assuming that it is granted. There seems to be no justification for the continuation of that anomaly because there is a statutory requirement for six to eight weeks to elapse between the submission of applications and the granting of permission. Therefore the retrospective legality of taking action before planning permission is not a matter that we should continue.

One of the few measures that the Minister did not have empathy with was third-party appeals. It is an important provision, which is missing from the Bill. It is also missing from the consultative document on modernising planning processes. I do not know whether it is contained in the three documents that the Minister said have been issued to the Committee for the Environment today. I hope that those documents will be issued for wider consultation to enable others, who are not members of the Committee and who have an interest in such matters, to make their opinions known to the Department and the Minister before the introduction of the next planning Bill.

The Minister has set his mind against provision for third-party appeal — perhaps those words are too strong, but he has quoted liberally from as yet unpublished research by Queen’s University on the matter. However, the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee conducted an in-depth inquiry, and all the political parties and most of the district councils argued for the need for third-party appeals. Therefore it is a major issue that must be addressed, and it should have been addressed as a matter of considerable urgency by the Department. I cannot lay blame at the door of the Minister, who has been in office for only a few months, but I can blame the process. There was a body of opinion — [Interruption].

Mr McCartney:

Any reform is bound to make a change in the legislative arrangements for planning. Therefore to suggest that third-party appeals would make some change in the legislative arrangements is no argument at all.

Mr McGrady:

The hon Member has just referred to a matter that puzzles me, and it is one that I am about to come to. The Minister stated that he had little empathy for two aspects. First, that there is no legal imperative.

I do not understand the phrase "no legal imperative" — that simply means not doing anything about it. However, there is a community imperative to do it. The fact that there is no legal imperative means nothing, given that we are here to make the law. That is why that was a rather odd phrase to use; perhaps the Minister meant something different from what I picked up.

The Minister also said that another reason for not having third-party appeals was the possibility of delays; I did not quite catch his words. Third-party appeals are difficult, and I do not deny the difficulty of accommodating them. Many European countries, and, indeed, our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, have a third-party appeal process that does not unduly hamper the planning process. Individuals have a significant right to third-party appeals, so there is experience that we can learn from. The Minister can hear from several European countries, including the Republic of Ireland, about the matter. It must be addressed urgently.

The Minister also said that recent cases in the House of Lords and elsewhere show that human rights are not being infringed. I hope that he is right, but I also suggest that with the correct emphasis on human rights, it will not be long before someone challenges him on that. It would be better to deal with a messy legal situation involving human rights, third-party appeals and planning by emphatically pre-empting it in the legislation.

I know that many other Members wish to participate, so I shall quickly touch on two other matters. First, the legislation gives primacy to development plans when determining planning applications. A plan-led system could raise concerns that development plans will take precedence over policy, so it is essential to know in the development plans — which will be the criteria on which applications are adjudicated — that full consultation and the subsequent input of an agreed planning policy have taken place. The policy should be overriding, irrespective of what has been written in a plan, and a fairly in-depth consultation is needed to achieve that.

My second point deals with the problem that most Members, as public representatives, have had when dealing with planning matters, which is the lack of uniformity in applying planning policy. As we travel in our fair countryside we see glaring examples of that, and that brings planning into disrepute. A person who has been refused or denied some aspect of his planning application will immediately say "Ah, but what about?" That phrase is used so frequently. When travelling at the weekend, I noticed startling examples of where planning permission had been granted to undeserving private houses and of where the planning policy of one area should have been the policy of other areas but was not. Legislation is not necessary, but planning officers who deal with applications should be trained in interpretation.

Finally, I am surprised that mobile phone masts are not mentioned in the Bill. The Minister’s predecessor promised us that the legislation on this would be brought before the Assembly before the end of May.

We are now nearly at the end of June, and we are heading towards recess at the end of next week. This is one aspect of planning that agitates many in the community, whether they are users or non-users of mobile phones. Representations have been made by many bodies and people over the past few years, culminating in the promise of the Minister’s predecessor, Mr Sam Foster, that legislation would be brought to the House before the end of May. It is strange, therefore, that nothing has been mentioned about it in the Bill or anything else that I have read. Will the Minister tell us where that legislation is and what stage it is at? Given that this is one of the most emotive issues facing the community, will that legislation be resurrected, dusted down and brought before us?

In general, I welcome the legislation. Having voiced my criticisms and concerns, I hope the Minister will view them as constructive criticisms and expressions of concern in the public interest. I hope that those who are not on the Environment Committee, and those who are not in the House, will have ample opportunity to address the issues raised, or not raised, in the next planning Bill, which should follow fairly quickly, and in the three consultative documents put to the Environment Committee, details of which I tried to jot down as the Minister was speaking.

Mr M Murphy:

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the enforcement powers that address the matter of builders and developers breaching planning control. However, a major concern is that the fines are too light, particularly for large construction companies. I welcome the introduction of penalties for those involved in the demolishing of listed buildings.

As a member of the Environment Committee, I view the new powers enabling the Department to enforce the duty to replace trees that are subject to tree preservation orders (TPOs) as a progressive step. However, tree replacement should be made on a like-for-like basis — the size and species of the tree should be taken into consideration.

The issue of third-party appeals requires more consideration, and the adverse absence needs to be taken into account. The Committee’s concerns should be looked at in greater detail and should involve full public consultation. The Committee recognised that the procedure would affect the planning process. However, the procedure already operates in the Republic, and it seems to be working properly. Third parties here have no right of appeal under the present rules. Where planning practice is not to the satisfaction of the local population, it should be clarified for all concerned. District councillors are concerned that their views on third-party appeal issues should be heard and taken on board.

Mr McGrady mentioned mobile phone masts. There is no mention of proper development of planning policies on them, other than that full planning permission is required. That is not good enough. The local population is very concerned about the matter. I ask the Minister to readdress the problem. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McCarthy:

On behalf of my Alliance Colleagues, I give a general welcome to the Bill. For too long the planning system has failed to operate for the good of all the people of Northern Ireland. The updating of planning law is long overdue — it should have been one of the first acts of the devolved Government.

My Colleague David Ford has already been involved in detailed discussions in the Committee for the Environment on various aspects of the Bill. He and other Committee members have much work to do to improve the Bill and to ensure that it becomes the best possible Act to set the terms for planning in years to come.

12.45 pm

As this is the Second Stage, I wish to put a few questions to the Minister. I have no doubt that some of them will not be answered to our satisfaction this morning, but I ask him to consider them seriously. The Minister has spoken on the issues about which we have concerns, so perhaps he will take my comments on board.

First, the biggest gap in the Bill is the absence of a third-party appeal system. The Minister and other Members have spoken on that matter. It is simply not acceptable for an individual who is refused planning permission to have a right of appeal, while objectors to the granting of permission have no right of appeal, apart from an expensive and legalistic judicial review. We all know who benefits from that. I do not wish to allow a neighbour with a grudge, but no objective reason for his or her objection, to delay the granting of planning permission in every case. We must achieve a balance, as none exists at present. Surely it is possible to devise a form of words that will allow a right of appeal for objectors who have substantial backing. For example, we could measure support by requiring a significant proportion of a local council to support the objectors or by requiring a certain number of signatures. If third-party appeals are not to be included in the Bill, when does the Minister hope to introduce such an appeal system?

Stronger enforcement powers are necessary. The details of the clauses show how deficient the law is. However, clause 12, as described in the explanatory and financial memorandum, mentions only some marginal financial implications. What on earth is the point of stronger enforcement powers if the Department does not have the resources to make use of them?

The procedures for listed buildings are known to be archaic and cumbersome. We know what has happened recently in Belfast. We need a better system than the Minister standing in the street crying, "Shame!" as the bulldozers do their work. I welcome the proposals for building preservation notices and temporary listings in clause 22. I hope that the Committee will ensure that those powers are as robust as they are in other parts of the United Kingdom and in the Republic of Ireland.

One of the principal concerns that many citizens have on planning issues is the preservation of mature trees. That leads on to the need to protect growing trees and saplings and to the protection of woodland, which includes small copses and units, and the scrub, brush and wild flowers that grow under the trees.

Mr ONeill:

Does the Member agree that the legislation does not make it clear what would happen if a site were purchased, sold on, cleared by the second sale and sold on again, and possibly sold on for a fourth time before a development application were made? How does the Department propose to include in the legislation provision for checking up on the land, for deciding penalties for desecration and for imposing those penalties?

Mr McCarthy:

I thank the Member for drawing that to our attention. We agree with his comments. The Minister listened, and I am sure that he will answer the question appropriately.

Should there not be a presumption that all mature trees on a site for development will be preserved under a development plan until that development plan has been approved, rather than a presumption that anything that is not individually protected can be destroyed?

We must know more about the penalties and the requirements to plant replacement trees; otherwise there may be large financial benefits for people who cut down trees. That follows on from Mr ONeill’s remarks. Will the Minister tell us whether his proposals will protect undergrowth in woods, which is so important to wildlife?

The Alliance Party supports the Bill in principle and welcomes the Second Stage. I hope to see the Bill strengthened at Consideration Stage.

Mr Watson:

As a Member of the Committee for the Environment, I apologise for the absence of the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson, who had previous engagements. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill. Members of the Committee for the Environment look forward to discussing the clauses of the Bill at Committee Stage, so I will keep my comments relatively short.

The Minister will be aware that the Committee has already had several detailed presentations on the consultation exercise that preceded the Bill and on the draft Bill. There will be a further presentation and discussion on major policy issues this Thursday with departmental officials. This demonstrates the importance with which the Committee views the legislation — and, indeed, all legislation — and its clear determination to come to terms with the detail of some complex legislation. For too long, the outdated and ineffective planning laws in Northern Ireland have failed to reflect the demands of a modern developing society, and this has been coupled with inadequate resources, lack of co-ordination between the various agencies in the former Department of the Environment and a lack of political resolve to address the real issues.

One major problem, given that the Bill is long overdue, is that so much is expected of it. Planning law is not only concerned with what may be built, where and when, and ensuring that what is built conforms to the permission given, but is also about giving vital support to those charged with the conservation and preservation of our built heritage. The forthcoming presentation by departmental officials, which is to be based on recent research at Queen’s University, will focus on three important and relevant matters. The first is third-party appeals. For too long, the planning system has been biased — and I do not use that word lightly — in favour of developers, and those most affected are often left feeling helpless once a decision has been given. In previous presentations to the Committee, departmental officials have been anxious to explain the difficulties involved with the introduction of third-party appeals into the current planning system, and consequently their introduction into the Bill. The Committee appreciates fully that there may be difficulties, but members want to hear solutions. If third-party appeals work elsewhere, why can they not work in Northern Ireland?

Secondly, the Committee will wish to discuss fines with officials. The Bill will increase fines for those developers who commit the most serious breaches of planning law to a maximum of £20,000. From the outset, the Committee has questioned the inadequacy of fines, and it continues to do so. What kind of deterrent is a £20,000 fine to a developer who will make £1 million profit for breaching a planning law? The Department has told the Committee — and this has been reinforced by the Minister’s words today — that a new culture will ensure that more lawbreakers are taken to a higher court where unlimited fines, and even imprisonment, can be imposed. I have seen no evidence of that and cannot see how the Bill, as it is worded, will change radically the Department’s enforcement policy and practices.

The Committee will examine this aspect of the Bill very closely. It has been told that the new fines are the same as those in England and Wales and cannot be increased without the Secretary of State’s approval. Will the Minister tell us why fines are being introduced that will mean little to those making huge profits? Will he also tell us what representations regarding facts and statistics about planning law abuse he has made, or will make, to the Secretary of State?

Finally, departmental officials will discuss with the Committee the introduction of a new offence that will make it illegal to start development before planning permission is given, or even applied for. All too often, developers move to demolish a building or level a site without planning permission. That must be stopped, and the Bill is the opportunity to do something about it.

We have again heard from the Minister on this, but the Secretary of State must be pressed to give his approval. What representations has the Minister made, or will he make, to obtain that approval? Although the Committee believes that the legislation is long overdue and must progress with all speed, its members have already identified some concerns with the Bill. We will have to examine how those concerns have been or will be addressed.

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

When the Minister came before the Committee in March 2002, we discussed a proactive approach to co-operating with him to deal with no less than five Bills coming from his Department. At that time, the Minister agreed to forward policy memoranda on Bills to the Committee as early as possible, and the Committee pledged full co-operation with the Department, subject to being fully satisfied with the terms of the Bills. That is still the Committee’s intention. However, I can assure the Minister that the Committee will be both diligent and thorough in its consideration of the details in the Bill, as he would expect. If necessary, we will come back with amendments at Consideration Stage.

Ms Morrice:

Members are aware that this is a hugely important issue. Every MLA is aware of the local community's increasing frustration at how the planning process has operated in the past. The Bill is a vital change in updating that process. This is our opportunity to make our mark on something that affects every member of our community. We know that through the stack of letters on our desks.

Mr McCarthy said that the planning procedure to date has failed the local community. We agree; it must be changed, and it needs teeth. We welcome the Minister's attempts to do this, and we were very pleased to hear Mr Watson say on behalf of the Committee for the Environment that it will dedicate itself to scrutinising this and putting pressure on the Minister to ensure that the changes happen.

The most important thing in updating planning legislation is to change the culture of the legislation. Members have touched on that. We are talking about equality of opportunity; as Mr Watson said, planning legislation is in favour of the developers. Last week, I asked the Minister to detail the number of applications from developers that are successful on appeal; the number was extremely high. Nevertheless, the local community has absolutely no right of appeal. Why does the local community not have equal opportunity? This is about third-party appeal.

We do not at all accept that third-party appeal could bring unwanted delay. Development is progress, and progress should not be stopped short. However, if it is to the detriment of the desires of the local community, it is not valuable progress. The important thing is that equal opportunity be given to the developer and the local community in third-party appeal. Research is under way to consider how it may be introduced, but I fail to understand the reluctance I detect to third-party appeal. If it has been introduced elsewhere, why can that not be done here? I am tempted to say that it could even be introduced on a trial basis, but that would not work. We must accept that the local community needs a right to reply and a right to appeal. For example, in dealing with large development projects, environmental impact assessments are carried out. We ask the birds, bees, flowers and trees to see what effect it will have on them, but there is no community impact assessment to ensure that the neighbours and the local community are consulted in these stages of the development process.

That is an essential aspect of planning, and the Minister must take that on board. If the Environment Committee does not attempt to introduce amendments to allow for third-party appeal, we will do it ourselves. I assure the Minister that there will be a great deal of pressure, either from the Committee or from individual Members, to get provision for third-party appeals added to this legislation.

1.00 pm

Some Members have already mentioned demolition. We have all seen the effects of that, whether it is Ardmara in Bangor or Séamus Heaney's house. I have written to the Minister regarding properties in Demesne Road and Bangor Road in Holywood that are also at risk. We do not want to see the Minister on television again saying that it is a shame. There will be egg on his face at some stage if these demolitions keep occurring and nothing is done to change the legislation to prevent it from happening. The issue of demolition should be part of the planning application process so that developers cannot knock down buildings to ensure that planning permission goes through.

I welcome the increase in fines, although it will never be enough. Sometimes fines are drops in the ocean when they are increased by a couple of thousand pounds. I have a suggestion that might be useful. Some of the money raised from fines could go to voluntary environmental and heritage groups, such as Conservation Volunteers Northern Ireland, to bolster their highly valuable work. They alert us to what is going on, and their work should be rewarded in some way.

Spot-listing is one way of stopping demolition in advance. However, when the legislation was brought over here the reference to spot-listing was removed. Why was it taken out, and why can it not be slipped back in again? It should be a guaranteed factor in this legislation that the Minister can draw on to protect buildings.

I will draw my remarks to a close, as other Members want to speak. I turn finally to the principles of planning policy and the need to consult the local community and bring it on board. Play areas in large housing developments should be guaranteed. The Irish legislation guarantees that every hundredth house is converted into a crèche or something similar that recognises the value of children's play. We have estates such as Poleglass and Kilcooley with hundreds of families, and not one slide or one swing between them. That is a disgrace, and it must not happen again. Children's play areas must come high up on the agenda of any planning application for a large housing development.

There are examples of townscape character in the South. When you drive into a village you smile because of the colours and signage. Work has been done to make those villages aesthetically appealing to tourists, and that is important. We should remove the idea of town cramming and unsympathetic development. All that must be part and parcel of the culture of planning. In this devolved institution we have the ability to listen and react to the local community, and that is what it wants.

I put all my confidence in the Committee to ensure that the Minister, who is sympathetically disposed, will take those issues on board.

Mr McCartney:

The overwhelming majority of complaints to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman have related to planning. I therefore welcome this legislative attempt - belated as it is - to deal with some of the anomalies and ghastly gaps in planning law that have been the source of many of those complaints.

The Assembly is fortunate to have had such a thoughtful, practical and comprehensive contribution by Mr McGrady, who has a sense of reality about what can be done. I will develop some of the matters that he adumbrated.

Regardless of the difficulties, procedural or otherwise, that the introduction of third-party appeals may entail, most people affected by planning decisions have an overwhelming desire for that provision. Planning laws, like every other law, should be enacted for the benefit of those whom they affect; therefore, strong, clear and pressing considerations must be present before such a desire could be ignored in the legislation.

Suggestions have been made as to why third-party appeals should not form part of the legislation. The Minister's mind seems to be set against them, although we are to be treated to a consultation process before a final decision is made. It is surprising that detailed amendments by the Minister, or the suggestion of a consultation process, should take place now. Why were those matters not considered in detail long before the Second Stage? If changes were to be made, one would hope that every aspect would be considered in detail.

I will deal with the arguments against, and the merits of, third-party appeals. It is suggested that third-party appeals would interfere with the principles of existing legislation on such appeals and the planning process generally. Any reform or legislation to make improvements or to introduce benefits is bound to affect existing legislation; therefore, the argument that a necessary and much-sought-after reform should be objected to because it would change a system lacks merit.


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