Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern ireland assembly

Monday 21 May 2007

Assembly Business

New Assembly Member: Mr Alastair Ross

Acoustics and Heating in the Chamber

Private Members’ Business
Processing of Planning Applications
Affordable Housing Crisis
Vacant Properties

The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Assembly Business

Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the main business of the day begins, I wish to raise a very serious matter. Can the Sinn Féin Minister for Regional Development be asked to appear before the House to explain whether he is in breach of the ministerial Pledge of Office following the directives that he has sent out within his Department in an attempt to do away with the political and British identity of the state of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom? There are many other insults to British identity, and to people of British identity, in this Province. If that is how that Minister is going to operate, he should appear before the House and explain himself. I believe that he is in breach of the ministerial code.

Mr Speaker: That is not a point of order. However, if the Member wishes to table a motion to debate the matter, he may do so.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Mr Speaker, is it possible for a report to be given to the House about an alleged incident that occurred here on 12 March at 10.00 am? Apparently, an effort was made to set fire to a boiler room in the House. Can you also report to the House on any other minor incidents that appear to have breached security, including an attempt to destroy a washroom? Are you aware if anyone is under suspicion of those crimes? Is any effort being made by the police to arrest people for those crimes? Do you believe that someone with a security pass to this Building is suspected of those crimes? Perhaps you will report to the House at your earliest convenience.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Member for raising his concerns. The incident, and how it was reported, was rather sensationalised by some newspapers. My officials have discussed the matter, and it is an issue of serious concern. However, Members will appreciate that a police investigation is ongoing, which limits me from saying much more than that.

However, when the police investigation has finished, I will certainly be happy to bring a fuller report to the House.

New Assembly Member: Mr Alastair Ross

Mr Speaker: I have been informed by the Chief Electoral Officer that Mr Alastair Ross has been returned as a Member for the East Antrim constituency to fill the vacancy that resulted from the death of Mr George Dawson. I invite Mr Ross to take his seat by signing the Roll of Members.

The following Member signed the Roll of Membership:

Ross, Alastair                               Unionist

Mr Speaker: I am satisfied that the Member has signed the Roll and entered his designation. Mr Alastair Ross has now taken his seat.

Acoustics and Heating in the Chamber

Mr Speaker: Last Monday, Mr Danny Kennedy raised a point of order about the acoustics and the heating in the Chamber. I am very aware that those two issues have been raised by many Members on several occasions. There has been discussion on how those two matters, and some others that concern the Chamber, might be resolved. The Assembly Commission hopes to find a long-term solution to the problem. Hopefully, whatever work is necessary for the House will be carried out over the summer recess.

Private Members’ Business

Processing of Planning Applications

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind up. All other Members will have five minutes.

Mr Gallagher: I beg to move

That this Assembly regards as unacceptable the length of time taken for both the processing of planning applications and the determination of planning appeals, and calls upon the Minister of the Environment to take immediate steps to clear the backlog and also to introduce more efficiency and transparency within the planning process.

I am sure that everyone here is opposed to unrestricted development, be it in urban or rural areas. The motion is not about Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14); indeed, I know of nobody who wants a bungalow blitz. Instead, it is about the planning system as it currently functions.

Development should take place in a way that protects the quality of our environment, meets the needs of the community and encourages a sustainable and successful economy. Those members of the public who have had to deal with planning hold the widespread view that they are getting a poor service. Last year’s annual report from the Ombudsman’s Office stated that it received more complaints about planning than about all other Departments and agencies combined. More recently, the Semple Report on affordable housing was critical of planners, and it called for reform. Even more recently, last month the Construction Employers Federation stated that a priority for the Assembly must be to improve the planning system.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of the Environ­ment, who is responsible for planning, is present this morning. However, the motion is not a criticism of the staff who work in the Planning Service. Direct rule Ministers, in the main, ignored the way in which the planning system was not equipped to cope with the volume of applications, and they refused to make available the necessary resources to achieve that.

It can take more than two years for a planning application to go through the process, which is completely unacceptable.

It is not only applications for planning permission that are delayed. The timescale to renew area plans has slipped, which has implications for economic development and the housing market. The Construction Employers Federation and other organisations consider that the absence of full and up-to-date area plans has serious implications for us, potentially inhibiting our response to social, economic and environmental needs and not allowing us to take full advantage of the development opportunities of the peace dividend. That slippage also impacts on our meeting the rising demand for housing, with implications for affordability and the ability of first-time buyers to access the property ladder.

The escalation in house prices reflects the strong demand for housing, but planning delays contribute to rising prices. The motion asks the Department of the Environment to take steps now to speed up the planning process and to remove some of the bureaucracy and the lack of transparency that so frustrates people who use the planning system.

The hallmark of the administration of a successful planning system is a trust, based on public confidence, that all planning decisions are reached in a fair, consistent and transparent way. That is particularly important in Northern Ireland, which is one of the few places that does not have a third-party right of appeal.

The planning system, as it currently operates, is particularly burdensome for some sections of the community. For married couples with young families, who purchase a site and then face delay and uncertainty while they live in expensive rented accommodation, the planning system is a bureaucratic maze, where it is often impossible to get answers to requests for information.

In the business community, in all the main towns in Northern Ireland, retailers must respond quickly to the challenges that face them, not least from the large multinationals. The business world simply cannot afford to stand still, and the way in which businesses are treated is not acceptable. For example, the owner of a business in east Belfast wanted to submit a planning application and was told not to do so because the planners would not be able to deal with it.

Grant aid is available for the regeneration of town centres. However, offers of grant aid are time limited, with the result that, in some cases, planning delays put the grant aid in jeopardy. Several such instances in Dungannon have been brought to my attention.

Northern Ireland has a unique opportunity to build economic success on political progress. It is important that developments in one of our key industries, tourism, are not thwarted by an underperforming planning system. I am aware, as I am sure that other Members are, of plans to develop hotels at different locations across Northern Ireland, from the east coast westwards into Fermanagh, that are stalled in planning offices. Hotel developers need assurances that their enterprises, which also concern job opportunities, will be dealt with in a reasonable time frame. Some hoteliers’ plans have been —

Mr Burnside: Will the Member give way?

Mr Gallagher: No, I will not give way; I am using all my allocated time to contribute to the debate.

Some hoteliers’ plans have been in the system for years.

12.15 pm

I shall give an example of the duplication and unnecessary bureaucracy in planning that, in my view, can easily be weeded out. Take a replacement house, renovation scheme or new single dwelling in the countryside. An application is made to the planners and, if all goes well, planning approval is issued. With approval secured, the owner commences work and applies to Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) for connection to the electricity supply. As Members know, such electrical work in rural areas can cost upwards of £3,000 or £4,000, and the applicant must pay a hefty deposit at that stage.

It is then the turn of NIE to apply for planning permission for a way leave, and the entire process starts over again and drags on for another year or more. There is no reason why consultation with NIE should not be carried out at the initial stage of the process, in the same way that bodies such as the Environment and Heritage Service and Roads Service are consulted. That simple change would make the process much easier and quicker for everyone involved.

Families in which one member has a disability face a really hard struggle if their homes need a small extension. Providing that approval has been granted from a council’s building control department, an extension of less than 73 sq m does not need planning permission. However, a certificate of lawfulness, as it is known, is required, so an application must be made to the Planning Service, which means another delay. There is probably a good reason why a certificate of lawfulness is required, but it should not be difficult for senior personnel in the Planning Service to find a convenient and user-friendly way of issuing the certificate.

Improvements to the transparency of the planning system are required; in that regard, something can be learned from planning offices across the border. For example, in County Donegal, applicants can log on to a website and, at the click of a button, access information from the planning office. Objectors, applicants and members of the public have ready access to the details of any application.

Furthermore, at the time an application is made, all applicants know that a decision will be issued within a specified time frame. As a general rule, decisions are made within 12 weeks. It is also worth noting that the planning fee for a single dwelling in the Republic of Ireland is €64. That is significantly less than £550, which I understand to be the minimum planning fee for a single dwelling here.

Most Members are aware of long delays with the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). Last year, the Commission received around 2,500 appeals, and determinations currently take 12 months to be issued. The PAC is independent of the Department of the Environment; it is within the remit of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). The PAC must be required to operate within a reasonable time frame.

All these matters lie at the heart of the motion: clearing the backlog, updating area plans and urgently implementing procedures that ensure more efficiency and transparency. As I have said, the motion is in no way a criticism of the people who work in the Planning Service; rather, it is a call for better procedures and adequate resources. I urge all Members to support the motion.

Mr Weir: At the outset, I welcome the motion and indicate my party’s intention to support it.

For anyone who has been involved with the planning process, there is no doubt that it is one area where direct rule Ministers have left somewhat of a mess — that is acknowledged by everyone. Planning is therefore one area where devolution has been strongly welcomed. I look forward to the remarks of my hon Friend from Fermanagh and South Tyrone in her contribution to the debate.

In highlighting the problems with the planning process — and it is right that we should — it is important that this debate does not end up being a general rant that everything in the system, or in Northern Ireland, is wrong.

We must recognise that Northern Ireland has been left with the results of years of neglect from direct rule Ministers. Although reforming the planning system is a priority, it is important that the Assembly takes sufficient time to ensure that the right solutions are achieved. Indeed, Members must ensure that the solutions that we apply do not end up frustrating the objectives that we set.

I am glad that the proposer of the motion, Mr Gallagher, stated that he is not passing the blame onto planning officers. It is important to realise that, particularly in certain areas, there has been such a large volume of applications that, with the best will in the world, it has been difficult for planning officers to cope. Mr Gallagher referred to PPS 14. Undoubtedly, in the run-up to the introduction of PPS 14, the expectation that it was to be implemented resulted in a flood of applications that overwhelmed the system.

It is important that we look constructively at the planning system to determine where common ground can be found. Unfortunately, at times, planning has tended to operate in a silo and not in a manner that allowed proper Executive consideration of the problems. Therefore, the entire Executive must tackle the problem, to which there are two elements.

The first element is PPS 14. PPS 14 has created a large problem, both in the flood of applications that it generated and in the fact that many people saw applications submitted before its introduction as their last chance to gain planning permission. That assumption has meant that many of those whose applications were rejected are going through the planning appeals system. Due to the slightly artificial division that the Planning Service was subjected to in 1998-99, PPS 14 falls under the remit of the Department for Regional Development — I hasten to add that it is the Department for Regional Development for Northern Ireland. It is therefore important that we get joined-up solutions. A resolution to the issues surrounding PPS 14 would help the entire planning system.

The second element lies in the different approaches that the Planning Service and the Housing Executive take to replacement dwellings. A closer working relationship must be developed. For example, sometimes when the Housing Executive has designated a house as being unfit for human habitation, the Planning Service refuses permission for a replacement dwelling on the grounds that the original house is suitable for habitation. That situation shows no joined-up thinking.

It must be also recognised that different pressures exist in different areas of the system, particularly where there are acute problems. At last week’s meeting of the Committee for the Environment, I welcomed the Minister’s confirmation that there will be a special examination of Craigavon planning office, where there seems to be an acute problem, and that additional staff will be employed.

Where there have been changes to the planning system, particularly on procedural matters, they have not necessarily impacted fairly across the board. For example, last year, much criticism was made of the changes to the arrangements for office and site meetings. In part, those changes were driven by the sheer volume of applications and the desire to get applications moving more quickly. However, that level of over­whelming pressure did not arise in north Down, meaning that what was a good solution for Downpatrick, Omagh or Fermanagh was not necessary in north Down. Such differences must be borne in mind.

The Assembly must take its time in its consideration of the planning system. The arrangements for third-party appeals must be weighed up carefully. Although it is important that people have the right to object to decisions, we must avoid a situation whereby vexatious third-party appeals gum up the system. Obviously, if the aim is to create a much more efficient system that operates without delays, there is a severe danger that vexatious third-party appeals will generate additional delays.

Similarly, we must be careful that, in ensuring that the planning system has proper transparency, there is no tension between that transparency and efficiency. Although transparency is important, it should not be at the cost of efficiency. Many of us would argue for the greater involvement of local accountability in the decision-making process, but we must recognise that that could create delays as well.

I look forward to the remainder of the debate. Planning is an important issue. I support the motion.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I welcome and support the motion. I have taken on board the comments of those Members who have already spoken.

The backlog in planning applications has stemmed from the new area plans and the introduction of PPS 14. The subsequent panic and increase in the number of new applications between December 2005 and 16 March 2006 doubled the workload of Planning Service staff, putting them under severe pressure.

For example, in the Planning Service’s Craigavon office, which covers Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon, and Newry and Mourne, 5,753 applications were outstanding, taking an average of 52 weeks to process. The service originally took 12 weeks. Within a month of the introduction of PPS 14, there was a 10% loss of staff in Craigavon — mostly to the private sector, I might add. In what other service would you pay an average of £550 to £600 up front and wait up to 18 months for a decision? That is not acceptable.

PPS 14 was ill thought out and has failed to understand the needs of rural communities. It ignores the traditional rural settlement pattern and does not understand social and cultural traditions such as the sense of identity, kinship and close family connection in rural communities. People from rural communities have a right to live in rural areas and a right to demand that Government policy should support sustainable development.

In rural communities, family connections and the sense of belonging provide a support network that contributes to the alleviation of many of the social problems that are more prevalent in urban settings. The Department has not taken into account the negative impact of its policy on the long-term sustainability of rural communities. There is a clear attempt to impose a British model of rural living on rural communities in Ireland, where their nature, history and structure are very different. Rural communities in England, Scotland and Wales have been seriously damaged by the implementation of a policy of forcing rural people to live in urban centres, which has resulted in most village services becoming unsustainable and, ultimately, has led to their closure.

The Planning Service’s Craigavon office, which covers four districts, has established a new divisional support team of up to nine people. I hope that that will help to restore some stability and confidence. To ensure the effectiveness of the new team, regular monitoring will be essential. The amount of time taken to process applications is of major concern, particularly in the Armagh and Newry and Mourne districts, where it takes up to 52 weeks to process an application. The lack of consistency in the Planning Service’s approach to applications is also an issue.

My party supports the motion. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Gardiner: I support the motion. A lack of engagement with the public is one of the key criticisms of the Planning Service. That was made only too clear when, pleading pressure of work, the Planning Service cancelled site meetings with local councillors. This removed at a stroke the one element of democratic input into the planning process. It reflected badly on the Planning Service, showing that it has deeply undemocratic instincts, and was deeply resented by public representatives.

The review of public administration will change the operation of planning in Northern Ireland, but it has to be said that the precise future shape of planning remains unclear. It is now unlikely that we will have only seven super-councils, since all but one of the main parties in the Assembly are opposed to that. We will have 15 or 11 councils. The operation of these new councils as planning authorities may be in doubt. The official view is that only with seven councils will those councils be large enough to act as planning authorities. Of course, the official view may be wrong. It may have more to do with pushing a seven-council agenda than with the realities of planning. Even if we have a greater number of councils under the new system, surely a group of councils could act as a planning authority.

I mention all of this because the past and future shape of planning in the Province will impact on the responsiveness of the Planning Service. There will be almost universal agreement across the Chamber that planning has been slow and deeply disengaged from the public.

12.30 pm

Mr McCarthy: Does the Member agree that Planning Service delays throughout Northern Ireland are causing more and more people to go ahead with plans and developments anyway and then seek retrospective planning permission? That can be to the detriment of neighbouring properties.

Mr Gardiner: The planning delays that people experience are unacceptable. Nowhere is that more true than on my own home turf of Craigavon. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet some people who were interested in commercial developments in the Craigavon area. I was told by the lady chief planner that it would take at least six to nine months before such developments would even be considered. That is totally unacceptable. I have drawn the matter to the attention of Ministers, and I am confident that the new Minister will take action. She has experience of such issues in her own constituency in Enniskillen.

Time, as they say, is money. Planning delays are deeply damaging to the cash flow of construction firms, and we have to remember that construction firms are among the biggest employers in the Province. I want to extend the original idea: time is money, and money is jobs. However, we must keep a watchful eye on unrestricted development. As a committed environmentalist, I believe that strongly.

In the village of Waringstown in my constituency, I have encountered what I can only describe as gross inefficiency and demonstrable neglect on the part of the Planning Service. A developer removed what remained of a sixth century rath — from the time of St Patrick — that was in the middle of the village near the grange, one of the most historic sites in the area. That act of vandalism was not prevented by the Planning Service. It could therefore reasonably be said that the Planning Service fell down on two fronts: it held up legitimate development, and it did not prevent one of the worst examples in living memory of the vandalism of a historic site by a developer.

I am not in the business of being unreasonable. Apart from being a major employer, the construction industry has done much to improve the quality of life and the urban landscape of the Province. The construction industry is being unreasonably restrained by planning delays. That is serious because it impacts on the economy. The housing shortage has pushed property prices up to such a degree that the property market is in danger of overheating. Planning delays and a lack of building land are two important factors in that; another is the alarmingly slow process of the revision of area plans. It all amounts to bad management of the planning system. Whatever system this Assembly devises —

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mrs Long: I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s debate, and I declare that I am a member of Belfast City Council’s town planning committee.

This is not a debate on PPS 14, and planning delays are not solely a rural phenomenon. We have to ensure that our Planning Service is robust, open and accountable. The processes should be efficient and simple to use. However, I do not necessarily believe that that means that outcomes should always be changed, and I do not believe that Members would seek a relaxation of standards. They would certainly not seek a relaxation of standards when representing their constituents as objectors in other fora. Objections are part of the process.

We have to consider delays at source when developing our area plans, in which there are unacceptable lag times. There is no overlap; instead, there are huge gaps while new plans are developed — despite the fact that the time limit of 15 years for each plan is rapidly expiring. Belfast is a classic example. In 2001, the Belfast urban area plan expired; now, in 2007, we are just about to go into the public inquiry phase of the replacement for that urban area plan. Within that gap in the policy framework, speculative applications increase. The pressure on the Planning Service is therefore much greater. To avoid a glut of speculative applications, we should focus on having good robust policy in place.

Policy frameworks must be implemented robustly, so that the grounds on which planners take decisions are clear to everyone — objectors, developers and local elected representatives who play a part in the process. There should be no inbuilt delays during which people bicker about matters that are clear policy noes.

Members need to deal with the fast-tracking of applications that are economically sensitive. Reference has been made to the issues that surround affordable housing, but the impact on the economy when larger applications are caught up in the same queue as applications for small single-storey rear extensions is equally important. There is merit in having the ability to fast-track those applications, but only within planning policy guidance. Just because an application is economically beneficial does not mean that its planning merits, environmental or social, should be simply discounted. It is important that we do not go down that route.

There is clearly an issue with the recruitment and retention of staff in the Planning Service that needs to be addressed. Anyone who regularly deals with local planning headquarters knows that planners are getting younger as senior and experienced members quit the Planning Service to work in the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland or Wales or in the private sector in Northern Ireland. Members need to address staff retention and morale in the Planning Service if we are to get high quality decisions made by experienced planners.

While the planners and the Department have responsibilities, there is also a responsibility on local councillors — and I speak as a councillor — not to introduce unnecessary delays into the system by holding spurious meetings about applications where, while it is known that there is no prospect of a change of opinion, the opportunity to influence voters is huge. If we politicians take individual responsibility for our actions in that respect, we could fast-track quite a number of applications. Developers also have a responsibility to read policy frameworks, to be aware of what is and is not acceptable and to try in that context to produce plans that meet the basic planning policy guidance. Very many applications —

Mrs D Kelly: Will the Member give way?

Mrs Long: I shall not as I am drawing near to the end of my allotted time.

Developers must read the policy and make applications that are consistent. Many applications are in the system for a long time in Belfast because people are in negotiation with the Planning Service about a submitted application that constitutes overdevelopment. I do not want such applications to be simply pushed through as approvals, although I will make reference to that in my final comments.

I would like to see all decisions taken quickly, in a way that does not reduce standards but increases efficiency in the process. Good plans that are consistent with planning policy and meet all the requirements should be quickly approved. Poor plans that are inconsistent with policy should be quickly refused. That does not mean that environmental concerns on our built heritage should be overlooked, but rather they should ensure no unnecessary delay. In addition to the Planning Service, developers and local councillors also have a responsibility.

Mr Wells: I must declare an interest in this issue: I trained as a planner, and some of the staff that are suffering pain in various divisional offices are people who went through Queen’s University with me many years ago —

Mr Weir: The pain started early, then.

Mr Wells: It was not before the Boer War, although it feels like it.

Members need to put the issue into perspective and look at it from the angle of a hard-pressed employee of the Planning Service. I am glad that Mr Gallagher did not take the opportunity to criticise the staff, as I do not believe that they are to blame for the current situation.

Two offices that I deal with provide an example of the current problem: in Craigavon it can take between 18 months and two years for an application to be processed, whereas in Downpatrick the timescale is just three or four months. Why have applications in Downpatrick that were submitted in December that have been approved already, whereas an application in Craigavon may take two years to be approved? The reason is volume: the difference between the two offices is a huge backlog of speculative applications for single dwellings clogging up the system in Craigavon, while in Down district such applications are out of the system, leaving only those for extensions, hospitals, roads or schools.

The reason for the current problems is the considerable stress that the Planning Service is under. Applications were running at three and four times normal levels during 2005-06, so it is no wonder that planners are having difficulty meeting their targets.

In some divisional offices the average age of a case officer is 27, which is far too young for the complex nature of the job. Their average age is so low because a large number of more experienced planners are being siphoned off to private practice or to offices in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Is it any wonder that there are difficulties? The average case officer in Craigavon handles more than double the number of applications that their equivalent in England or in the Republic of Ireland does. Therefore the problem must be examined in that context.

The figures for the Planning Appeals Commission are quite frightening. In 1994-95, it received 608 appeals; in 1995-96, it received 1,100 appeals; last year, it received 2,600; and this year it is on course to receive 3,000 appeals. There has been a fivefold increase in the number of appeals but only a 10% increase in the number of commissioners; their number has increased by just four. Is it therefore any wonder that the system is under enormous stress? Members must also take that into consideration.

It is a fact of life that many important planning applications are drowning in a sea of bungalows. It is a bit rich of the SDLP to complain about the planners, given that it was the party that encouraged the trend. Until the issue of single dwellings in the countryside can be resolved, applications for them will always be predominant. The Planning Appeals Commission has told me that 81% of the appeals that it receives concern single dwellings in the countryside.

The situation in Northern Ireland as regards normal planning — planning that does not involve single dwellings — is fine, with applications being processed quickly. However, once the factor of speculative applications for single dwellings is added, the whole issue becomes complicated. I would like some hon Members to accompany me to Craigavon to see the sheer weight of numbers of such applications and the difficulties that staff there have to deal with.

I welcome Mrs Long’s comments about councillors’ responsibilities. Until recently, some councillors in Northern Ireland were holding three, four, and perhaps five, site meetings on an individual planning application when they knew full well that it did not have a pup’s chance of getting through. They were just trying to show constituents that they were being active so that they could get their votes.

Mrs D Kelly: Does the Member agree that on many occasions at such site meetings applicants were able to point to another site that had been approved, that did not require a site meeting and that was not in keeping with planning policy? How were elected representatives supposed to explain that?

Mr Wells: Unfortunately, the view expressed by planning officials at that stage would have been that a bad decision had been made and that that would not be repeated. I have come across that situation many times.

The other problem lies with agents. In South Down, agents are submitting scores of speculative planning applications that are being dumped into the planning office. The agents do not answer requests for information or further detail; they leave their client high and dry and then go to their local councillor and ask him to sort things out. That problem will continue until agents in Northern Ireland develop a professional attitude.

Therefore the issue is not black and white; it has many shades of grey. Ultimately, however, staff are doing an excellent job in difficult circumstances.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr McKay, and I remind Members that this is his maiden speech.

Mr McKay: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Sinn Féin fully supports the motion and thanks Mr Gallagher for moving it. The Executive and the Assembly are responsible for ensuring that the Planning Service provides a service, as its name suggests. Having to wait more than two years to have a planning application for a house processed is not good service.

The planning process is supposed to be completed within 12 weeks. In Banbridge, Newry and Mourne, and Armagh, average processing times are over 12 months. That is totally unacceptable. Being unable to speak to, or contact, case managers and planning officials, and not having phone calls returned, whether the caller is a member of the public or an elected representative, is not reflective of a good service.

Let us not beat about the bush: the Planning Service is in crisis and has resorted to downgrading customer service in order to lessen an overbearing workload. The result is that applicants are no longer entitled to site meetings, and, in some cases, office meetings, to try to overturn a Planning Service decision.

Sinn Féin believes that the Planning Service needs to be overhauled. Its decisions need to be more transparent, understandable and accountable. We do not need a planning bureaucracy in which the opinions of local people and elected representatives are discarded.

In my North Antrim constituency, well over 30,000 people signed a petition against the mining of lignite; indeed, all political parties were united in opposing that proposal. However, the Planning Service unveiled a draft area plan that still left the door open for opencast mining in the area.

A review of planning policy must take into account such environmental concerns as well as the need to protect rural communities and services. Protecting the environment must be a core objective of any comprehensive rural planning policy.

12.45 pm

Sinn Féin fully supports the implementation of measures that deal effectively with sewerage provision for one-off housing. We want to encourage the environmental footprint of houses to be as small as possible, and, to that end, we wish to see geothermal heating systems and solar and wind energy used to maximum effect. Planning applications for one-off rural houses that incorporate those systems should be encouraged.

Sinn Féin believes that a fundamental change in the planning process is needed. Currently, planning permission is granted for a piece of land regardless of ownership — the permission rests with the site, not the individual. Permission should be granted to an individual under specific criteria: he or she should be the only person who can take the development forward through the building process, and that should be followed by an occupancy agreement. The planning process should be based on set criteria.

Sinn Féin also proposes a restriction on the number of planning permissions granted for one-off houses in the countryside to any one individual. Rural planning should support people who wish to build a home in a community, not those who just wish to live in a big house in the country. The issue of speculation must be addressed, as it is having a negative effect on rural communities.

As my colleague Cathal Boylan said, we welcome the establishment of divisional support teams to provide assistance in dealing with the planning backlog, and we hope that that will help to address the problem. However, the two major problems of service delivery and planning policy remain. Both these areas must be changed radically if the public are to regain confidence in the Planning Service. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Donaldson: I congratulate Mrs Foster on her appointment as Minister of the Environment; I am delighted that she has been appointed to that post. I have been following with interest the articulation of her green credentials — which goes against the grain, at times, for those of us who look to another colour. Blue is the colour for me after Saturday’s game.

I welcome this debate and thank the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone for proposing the motion. It is an important issue and, although I recognise the difficulties that the Planning Service has in dealing with the current large volume of applications, it must be addressed. I therefore have no difficulty in supporting the terms of Mr Gallagher’s motion.

We must, however, recognise that the solution is not a simple matter of issuing a ministerial edict. There are long-term issues that must be addressed, not least the staffing arrangements in the various divisional planning offices. My good friend the Member for South Down Mr Wells, my other colleagues and other Members have mentioned recruitment difficulties and the fact that the private sector can offer much more attractive terms to experienced planning officers, which makes staff retention difficult.

However, there are clearly disparities between offices. In my constituency, I deal with the divisional planning offices in both Downpatrick and Craigavon. I recognise that Craigavon has a larger volume of applications to deal with, but it is unfair that my constituents who live in Lisburn can get an application dealt with much more quickly than my constituents who live in Dromore in the Banbridge area. That issue must be examined.

There is also an issue in regard to the larger applications that come before the Planning Service. I had the experience of an application in my constituency that was submitted by Coca-Cola for the relocation of its premises from Lambeg to Knockmore Hill. I must commend the Planning Service for the efficient manner in which it dealt with that application. From beginning to end, it took only six months to process what was a major application, deal with all the issues and issue an approval.

If that standard could be emulated in other major planning applications, it would send out a positive message from Northern Ireland plc. To attract investment to Northern Ireland, and to improve the economy, we must convey that we will not allow bureaucracy to impede the facilitation of investors. Of course, we acknowledge that due process must be followed and planning policy considered and applied fully.

The other side of the coin should be considered also. Dobbies Garden Centres, a large Scottish company that has developed garden centres across the United Kingdom, submitted a planning application for a new garden centre in my constituency. Its experience of the planning system in Northern Ireland stands in stark contrast to its experience in other parts of the United Kingdom. For example, last week, it received planning approval for a new garden centre in Southport. From submitting the application to getting the approval took eight weeks.

In Northern Ireland, its current application for a site adjacent to the M1 at Lisburn has been in the planning system for almost two years. Dobbies has opened a large number of garden centres in Scotland, England and Wales, and nowhere else has it experienced such delays as in Northern Ireland. After all, it is merely seeking planning permission for a garden centre. A disparity exists, as some applications pass through the system relatively quickly, while others take much longer.

I am sure that there may have been factors that have complicated the process for Dobbies, but I simply hold up its experiences as an example of the improvements that must be made to deal with larger planning applications.

I welcome the debate. I know that the Minister will take on board what has been said and that the Planning Service will do its best to respond positively to the constructive criticism.

Mr Armstrong: It may surprise Members to learn that I have a degree of sympathy with the Planning Service. It is trying to operate a system that was developed in a piecemeal fashion during the 30-odd years of the Troubles when planning policy was, understandably, well down the Government’s list of priorities.

The planning system is in crisis. During the long years of the Troubles, the Planning Service was able to cope well with the number of applications that it received. That is hardly surprising: Northern Ireland was seen as a depressed region of the United Kingdom in which business confidence was low. People were leaving our shores to build lives elsewhere, and house prices were relatively depressed compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.

However, due, in part, to the increased confidence in the future of Northern Ireland after the ceasefires and the Belfast Agreement, there was unprecedented growth in the number of planning applications. We are experiencing a rise in immigration, as people return to Northern Ireland and others come here in search of new and better lives.

The Planning Service was unprepared for the huge increase in its workload. If it is to keep pace with developments, it requires massive investment in resources and manpower. When it held the Environment portfolio in the previous Assembly, the UUP did its best to remedy the situation. However, as the Minister of the Environment is sure to find out, the Planning Service requires a massive investment to even stand still, let alone tackle the backlog of applications.

Northern Ireland is facing a housing crisis. Property prices have escalated at a frightening rate and show no sign of stopping. Although that may be good news for existing homeowners, it is a nightmare for those who are seeking a foothold on the property ladder, particularly first-time buyers and young couples.

Many factors are contributing to the situation, including the fact that people are living longer, getting married later in life, and choosing to live alone. Also, homes must be found for those who have come to Northern Ireland in search of better lives.

Those factors, which all affect today’s housing market in Northern Ireland, did not have the same impact even 10 years ago. I have not even mentioned the disastrous impact that the direct rule Administration policy of PPS 14 had on development in the countryside and on rural life — a way of life that is subject to enough major pressures without having to contend with ill-conceived policy.

If the Minister is to put the words of the motion into effect, it will be not be enough for her to say that she requires additional resources, which, of course, her Executive partners would have to agree. It may well be the case that additional resources are required, but the Minister must ensure that existing resources are deployed with maximum efficiency. If Northern Ireland is to prosper, it must have an effective and efficient planning service. In delivering outcomes, the service must not only be fair, but must be seen to be fair. The Minister has a job on her hands, and I wish her well with it.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I pay tribute to my colleague Mr Gallagher for his comprehensive overview of planning policy and the delays in the Planning Appeals Commission. I note Mr Weir’s valid point about replacement dwellings. I have encountered a ludicrous case where the Housing Executive has deemed a property unfit for habitation, but the irrationality of planning policy — or of interpretation, I should say — has resulted in one agency determining the structure unfit, and therefore fit for replacement, yet another insisting that the property be incorporated into a new-build project. Were I developing that house, I would have grave concerns about the future well-being of the property.

I had thought long and hard about the contribution I would make today but, on Thursday evening, I received an email that said it all. It was from the parents of a child with autism. They have given me permission to read their correspondence in today’s debate. It reads as follows:

“Patsy, as you will recall, we spoke recently at the coffee morning held by Autism NI at Magherafelt District Council offices, and you had also helped earlier in respect of the above application. It was lodged in September 2006 with PAC, when we were told it would take about 9 months to be heard. Then, a couple of months back, we were told it would be August. Now we are being told it could be 2008.

As you may remember, we are applying to build because of our son Conor, who has autism. We accepted we would have to wait on the appeal being heard, but to keep on seeing it being pushed further and further out means we are losing the chance for this to have an impact on his life. Research has shown that any intervention to help a child with autism, is most beneficial if it occurs before he is 10. We originally made this application when Conor was 6, as it stands he will be 9 when it is heard, so that even if it were successful, he would be at least 11 before we would have built.

Patsy, as you are now chair of the Planning Committee at The Assembly, we would be very grateful for any help you could give in respect of having our appeal heard, whilst it could still make a difference to our son’s life. We understand there is a procedure to follow, but surely one that takes 3 years is not feasible. Many thanks for your involvement.”

The family needs a house that will allow Conor to attend the school that is most suited to his needs and simultaneously avail of the extended family network for support. I say to Mr Wells that this is one of the genuine cases, not involving speculators but decent people from the rural community who just want to live where they were reared with the extensive support that is available to them.

Mr Wells: Will the Member give way?

Mr McGlone: I am sorry; I cannot. My time is nearly up.

The real irony is that the senior planning officer involved with the case was going to recommend that the application be approved. However, because the application concerned the needs of a young child, it got bogged down in the bureaucratic interpretation of a group meeting, where common sense was lost. Thereafter, a refusal was issued.

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The cost of the resulting appeal must also be taken into account, because the planning consultant must be paid. However, that family’s case is not exceptional. They have given me permission to highlight it here today to provide an example of real, human issues that affect good, decent people who simply want to get on with their lives.

Today’s debate is necessary because of unsuitable planning policies, unnecessary delays and inadequate resources. I know of 80 vacancies in the Planning Service. Perhaps the Assembly should examine the pay structure and working conditions there, because experienced planning officials are leaving. I cannot fault them for doing so, but they are needed to process planning applications and to deal with the delays and inefficiencies that clearly exist.

However, as a consequence of such delays, jobs are being lost, house prices are rising at a ferocious rate and, more importantly, the needs of people such as young Conor are being lost sight of. There must be a major shake-up and review in the Planning Service, and some of the policies of PPS 14 —

Mr Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

Mr McGlone: OK. Thank you.

Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Leascheann Comhairle.

This afternoon’s debate is important. It is crucial that Members send a message from the Chamber that there must be a change in planning policy and its structures. On several occasions we have seen that the Planning Service is a bureaucratic system that acts as a quango, with little or no consultation with councillors or elected Members. That is unfortunate and means that planners impose area plans with little or no consultation. Often barristers fight out the details, but the people affected are not involved, nor are the needs of the area considered. The area plan, therefore, is not acceptable to the community, which does not perceive its implementation as relevant.

Members have also seen area plans being completely distorted under new planning legislation. Unfortunately, when Lord Rooker was here, he drove a horse and carriage through all the legislation and left us with no planning strategy whatsoever. He dismissed advice, even from his officials, on how to deal with planning. He was another bureaucrat who came over to tell people how to design their houses, where to build them and where to live.

Most disappointing are the lack of consultation in rural areas and the fact that the backlog is building up. A simple planning system could be introduced. Currently, planning applications are being submitted for building on perfectly good, mature, derelict sites with surrounding trees and various other advantages. However, because the existing building is derelict and no longer recognised as a house, and particularly since the introduction of PPS 14, planning permission is refused, without any consideration.

The planners can issue several deferments. If an application goes before a council, there can be only one deferment. However, when the application goes back to the planners, they state that certain changes are required. When the applicant complies, the planners impose more conditions, and that process is repeated again and again.

I am dealing with a case in Pomeroy that has been going on for two years. The Department has issued eight deferments. On eight occasions, the applicant has completely changed the type of the house to accommodate the planners’ requests. Yet he is still being told that if he does not meet certain conditions, the entire application will be refused. The applicant has incurred massive costs because of the architectural consultants involved at different stages. The application has been unnecessarily delayed for two years and the house completely changed from what he originally wanted. There must be some means of dealing with such cases. A straight line of information must come from the planners to applicants about what is required to meet their demands.

Members know that the worst backlog of applications is in Craigavon, where the same person who held back applications and caused a backlog in Omagh, Cookstown, Dungannon and all over the place is now based. That particular lady deliberately holds up and blocks applications, because she does not believe that any planning permission should be granted in rural areas. Rather than removing the planning legislation, it may be necessary to remove the personnel who create the blockages. There must be a new approach to planning, one that involves and consults people. No one wants bad planning.

I have heard from the residents of an area where building took place to modify a cement works at an industrial site that is situated in the middle of their housing estate. A year after that building started, those modifications have been completely finished, yet it has emerged that no planning permission was ever issued for the site. The planners say that they cannot do anything to stop the developers: the developers proceed without planning permission at their own risk. That situation has become more and more common.

Enforcement has, therefore, been a problem. Objectors are not being listened to, and planners will not enforce the legislation. There is enough legislation to allow planners to deal with such situations. The problem with PPS 14 is that a situation has developed in which refusal of planning permission in rural areas has created a backlog in applications and increased demand for housing in urban areas because people cannot find anywhere else to live. It is important that the Assembly urges the Environment Minister to resolve the issue of PPS 14 and move the process to a new position. Existing planning legislation must also be enforced.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I welcome the debate that has been brought to the Floor by Mr Gallagher. It is a worthwhile debate on an issue that the Assembly must get to grips with and must also encourage the Minister to get to grips with. Planning rests at the heart of the community’s ability to make economic progress. Too often, as other Members have mentioned, planning delays have affected business and private opportunities.

I agree with Mr Gallagher’s opening comment that no one wants to see bungalow blight across the countryside. Of course, for the record, I had better point out that no one wants to see two-storey house blight across the countryside either. People want to see a planning process that allows for sustained and appropriate development. The regulations that were in place prior to PPS 14 did allow for that. Unfortunately, due to scaremongering, an unfair policy was introduced by the Secretary of State’s Department which was uncalled for and caused a great deal of injustice.

Planning has slowed down. Some people wrongly assume that that is due to there being too many planning applications in the process. That is not the sole reason. Too few people recognise how many objections to legitimate planning applications there are, and they also slow the process down. A wrong attitude exists that an acceptable planning objection must be supported by at least 1,000 people. That is not the case. Planning Service officials listen to a good objection when they hear one. They do not need 1,000 people to tell them that an objection is a good, sound one. Likewise, if there is a good, sound reason to grant planning approval, they will not need 1,000 people to tell them that either.

The most frustrating aspect of the planning system, which I believe the Member for Lagan Valley Mr Donaldson referred to when he talked about business opportunities in his constituency — in particular, Coca Cola — is that most businesspeople who require the Planning Service see their opportunity being slowed down by the planning process. I can mention numerous such projects in my constituency, such as that of a new tourism facility at the Giant’s Causeway; a new golf facility at Bushmills; and the restoration of Galgorm Castle. Those projects received widespread support from the councils and the community. Unfortunately, two of those cases have been slowed down by five years, and the other by six years, while the developers wait to be allowed a proper hearing and to be given either an approval or a refusal. Those delays are not acceptable. There must be a fast track for applications that have significant business or tourism qualities. A central unit deals with large projects. I hope that the Minister will go to that unit of her Department and press it to be more proactive, to take on board such cases and expedite them in a way that allows for quick decisions.

Not everyone will want approval to be given to a planning application; nor will everyone want approval to be refused. However, people want to be given an answer. They are entitled to that. The sooner that people are given an answer, the better, because then they can start to make plans and move on.

However, what frustrates most people is the lengthy gestation period, during which applicants are told that they “possibly” or “perhaps” will be granted planning permission. That is not the fault of the Department of the Environment or the Planning Service per se. The fault lies with the Planning Service’s fear of taking a decision. I hope that it will be encouraged to take decisions. Under local Ministers, the necessary leader­ship is in place to take those decisions to make headway with planning applications, thus allowing business to flourish.

The planning applications under discussion are significant applications that have implications for business and for the betterment of Northern Ireland. The Planning Service should be encouraged not to delay them, so that applicants will not be frustrated. If that happens, our economy will make progress. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to the points that were raised about the central unit in the DOE that deals with large projects.

Mr Speaker: Before I call Mr Burnside, I remind the House that it is his maiden speech. I ask Members to respect that.

Mr Burnside: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Having served at Westminster, I do not mind whether there are any interventions. I shall accept them.

I support the main thrust of the motion. To sum it up, the motion is designed to make planning faster, more efficient and more transparent, and we are all in favour of that.

I congratulate the Minister on her position — I never thought that I would see her in a unionist/Sinn Féin Executive. I wish to put one or two items on her agenda for her early days in the job. The UK as a whole has one of the worst planning systems in the world. Without hiring any new consultants, the Minister could consider international examples of much more efficient planning systems for rural development, such as the commune system in France and the Swiss system. I highlight rural development, because I do not mean planning systems for new airports, although the French and Swiss are also better at planning for those. If the aim is to radically speed up the planning system in Northern Ireland, the Minister should look at some international examples of planning systems.

The second point that I wish to put on the Minister’s agenda for consideration comes from personal experience.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that France, especially when it comes to major projects, adopts a steamroller approach to planning? Any local objections are simply overridden. Is the Member suggesting that we should do that in Northern Ireland?

Mr Burnside: No, I would not go that far. I shall give an example of slow development at UK airports, such as Heathrow, of which I have some experience. The UK lost out badly there. It will take 20 years to build terminal 5 at Heathrow, yet it would take five years to build an equivalent terminal in France. That is bad for the UK generally. There must be consultation — we do not want to take a steamroller approach.

My second point is that, more than 130 years ago — after the famine and before the Irish Land Acts came into force — many more people than are now doing so were living in small rural settlements. By small rural settlements, I mean settlements of one or two farms. As I have said, that was before the Irish Land Acts, after which landlords sold farms to tenant farmers. My family were tenant farmers in Secon in Ballymoney who then bought the land.

The small rural settlements were wiped out, and that is when countryside life started to disappear. Therefore we ended up with farms owned by former tenants. I hope that in the new environmentally friendly world in which we now live, and given the many grants, incentives and subsidies that are being given to environmental development, the Minister will ask her Department to look at those old settlements — where they were and where gaps exist in the countryside — to see from where financial benefits could possibly be obtained.

I applied to do up an old building on my farm and, in turn, three labourers’ cottages. The roof of the building had come down and there were cattle in the shed. There are many examples of such properties around the Province. I said that I would do it up in its original form, but my planning application was turned down. With due respect to the large population of people in Northern Ireland who live in bungalows, if I had applied to build a bungalow, I would probably have received my planning permission. One must be very careful when talking about bungalows in Northern Ireland. Those who canvass here realise that many votes can be lost by being anti-bungalow.

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The Minister’s Department should review the incentives, benefits and criteria that apply to old buildings in the countryside. I do not mean just the great buildings and old houses that belonged to the gentry; the sites of old settlements could be considered for environmentally friendly development, and incentives, benefits and grants made available. Members should learn from the past. The process must be speeded up and made more transparent and efficient, but, in doing so, Members must consider the countryside and how to get people back into it. I do not mean bungalow development; I mean local communities and villages. If Members look around their local townlands, they will see where the old settlements were. That is the right sort of development for the Province.

Those are two items for the Minister’s agenda, and I am sure that she will consider them efficiently, effectively and transparently.

Mrs D Kelly: I congratulate the Minister of the Environment, who has a wealth of experience in rural Fermanagh, on her appointment. I am sure that there are many issues being raised today that she is well acquainted with from her former life as a councillor.

Some years ago, Craigavon Borough Council expressed concern to the divisional manager of the Planning Service about the backlog of planning applications awaiting decision. We were assured that there was no issue of staff resources. Other Craigavon councillors will support me in that recollection.

Members have heard much about PPS 14, which has had a huge impact on the planning backlog. It is good to hear Sinn Féin acting as a team in relation to PPS 14 on this occasion, considering that a former, and I emphasise “former”, Member of this House initially supported it.

Neither I nor my party will take lectures from the Member for South Down Mr Wells. Even his own party will not take lectures from him. In the Transitional Assembly, one of his colleagues said that every party should have a Mr Wells. I am not sure about that — he is on his own on environmental issues, and housing in particular.

As a former occupational therapist, I make a special plea to the Minister, as she considers planning process reform, for a fast-track approach to disabled persons’ facilities. Members heard my colleague Mr McGlone highlight a particular case. Unfortunately, it is not an isolated one. Members could all give examples of people who are waiting, or in some cases have passed on. Not only must they go through the rigour of the planning process, but there is also an unacceptable delay in housing grant approval.

I recognise that problems with the planning process cannot be resolved solely by the Minister of the Environment. She and the Minister for Regional Development have interdependent responsibility for PPS 14, and I look forward to an early elimination of that iniquitous policy. The planning process also relies heavily on regional development strategy and housing growth indicators. Overall, the planning process depends on many other factors, not just staff and resources. I am glad that Members have been unanimous in not criticising staff, but recognise the pressures that they find themselves under.

Nonetheless, the planning process is far too unwieldy. It is not fit for purpose or fit for Northern Ireland. Members have mentioned objections and objectors, and it is interesting that the Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley has received more complaints relating to the planning process, applications and decision-making than all of the other Departments combined. That highlights the need for third-party appeals to be heard at an early stage, which the SDLP has supported.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on that and look to examples of practice elsewhere, including the Republic of Ireland, where if a decision has not been made within a specified time frame, and there are no adverse comments, it is deemed to be approved.

The onus is on people to submit their objections at an early stage in order that third-party appeals can be heard.

People want to know what politics has to do with them. Planning is not just about where we live; it is also about where we work, eat and play. The community in Northern Ireland has the huge expectation that this Assembly will make a difference to their lives. Indeed, the Department of the Environment could make a considerable impact if the planning process were reformed speedily.

Mr S Wilson: I congratulate the Minister on her appointment, and I look forward to working with her Department to ensure that we have an efficient planning process. As Members have pointed out, such efficiency is important if we are to realise the economic growth that Northern Ireland requires. Planning policy and good planning decisions lie at the heart of driving the economy. Without them, the construction, manufacturing and tourism industries will find that they cannot advance.

Some Members have also stated that there are huge deficiencies in the planning system. Several reasons have been given for those. They have been blamed on agents, on architects submitting shady plans and on the nature of the plans themselves — are they clear enough, are they too prescriptive, or should they be a bit more vague? The Minister is getting all sorts of advice about the matter, some of which is contradictory — some people want more consultation and others want less.

Mr Kennedy: What do you want?

Mr S Wilson: I will come to that in a moment; I am sure that the Member will be very interested to hear what I want.

Many reasons, including staffing, have been given for the deficiencies. Planning delays fall into two categories, the first of which concerns major planning applications. The biggest problem lies with those. For example, in my East Antrim constituency, plans for a marina in Larne have been with the planners for nearly five years; a proposal to extend Glenarm quarry, which will retain about 100 jobs, has been in the planning system for over two years; and a major tourist proposal for Magheramorne quarry, which could have a significant impact on the whole of Northern Ireland and fits in with all the sustainable development requirements, has been with the planners for over a year, and there is no indication of what the outcome will be.

We need to consider staffing first. Some Members have already pointed out the number of staffing vacancies. We are losing staff to the private sector and to the Irish Republic. Indeed, many staff are leaving as a result of the uncertainty that the review of public administration has brought because they do not know where they might be located. They are now seeking certainty by going to other jobs. Therefore a range of issues, including pay and conditions, giving certainty to staff and reducing the overload of work, must be addressed.

The second category involves consultations. They have not been mentioned much this morning, but I have tabled questions about them in another place. The delay in planning applications often rests with those with whom the planners have to consult. On average, the Environment and Heritage Service takes between six and eight months to respond to a consultation; Roads Service takes an average of three months; and Water Service takes an average of two. All those response times are outside the limit that has been laid down for dealing with the entire application. The Minister needs to address that. If, as I suspect, some of those consultees simply believe that the Planning Service will have to wait for them to respond, perhaps we should lay down rules declaring that if they do not respond within a certain time, we will assume that they have no response to make. They might be geed up a wee bit when they realise that their views will be ignored if there is unnecessary delay in responding to a planning application.

A role that has not yet been mentioned is that of the Planning Service management board. Councillors were pilloried — sometimes quite rightly — for sending applications to the management board simply to show voters that they were doing something. A strict filter system has been established. However, when an application is sent to the management board, the board may take a long time to respond. Recently, I dealt with a case in Belfast in which the management board took four months to write back, saying that it could do nothing with the application because it fell outside its remit. How long would it have taken the board to respond had the application fallen within its remit? The role of the management board must be addressed.

Those are just two of the issues that the Minister should take up.

Mr B Wilson: No Member will disagree with the aims of the motion. The present backlog of planning applications is unacceptable. However, we must examine why it came about and how it might be resolved. Most importantly, we must ensure that any action taken will not lead to deterioration in the service provided.

There is no quick fix to the problem. Some of the measures proposed to resolve it would significantly reduce the quality of service. For example, the previous attempt to speed up planning applications resulted in the virtual abolition of site meetings and the introduction of severe restrictions on referrals to the Planning Service management board. Although that might have helped to speed up applications, it significantly reduced the level of accountability, local input and democratic control.

The backlog of applications, and the time that it takes for PAC referrals, are important issues that highlight the serious problems within the Planning Service. In particular, the service finds it difficult to retain experienced staff. In information that we received on the Planning Service, Members were told that forty-something to 26. That does not suggest the high degree of experience required to deal with more complex issues, particularly appeals to the PAC.

Recently, there has been a tendency for newly trained staff to leave the Planning Service after two or three years to take up higher-paid jobs in the private sector or in public bodies, especially councils in the Irish Republic. As a result of that loss of experience, new entrants are required to take on more responsibility without the guidance of experienced staff.

That lack of experience will inevitably lead to delays in the processing of applications and to an increase in the number of mistakes made. For example, the north Down section should have a complement of six officers, but, at present, there are only two. Two officers have resigned in the past month. That is unacceptable, and if allowed to continue, it will, inevitably, lead to a backlog. Mr Gallagher has not suggested how the retention of staff might be addressed. At present, morale in the Planning Service is low: perhaps we should consider a review of salary levels and conditions of service.

We must also ask why the backlog has arisen. There is no substantial backlog of routine cases in north Down or in other urban council areas — although there is a backlog of more complex cases. The problem seems to lie in more rural council areas, particularly in those west of the Bann. It is clear that, prior to the introduction of PPS 14, there was a massive increase in the number of applications for single dwellings in some council areas. In the Fermanagh and Dungannon council areas, almost 1,000 applications for single dwellings were submitted in the three months before the introduction of PPS 14 in 2006. That contrasts with five such applications in north Down. Such an increase in applications made a backlog inevitable. No system could cope with an increase on that scale.

That backlog in applications is reducing, and will continue to do so. In the same three months of this year, applications in the Dungannon and Fermanagh council areas dropped to 223 and 216 respectively, a fall of 76%. Overall, the total number of applications for single dwellings has fallen from 6,400 to 2,500, a drop of 61%.

That fall in applications should help to take some pressure off the planners and enable them to reduce the backlog further. Latest figures show that that trend is now established. The backlog is very slowly being reduced.

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Furthermore, the pressure on planners could be relieved by increasing the number of areas in which development is permitted and by reducing the number of applications for minor extensions. However, relaxation of the level of scrutiny of applications must be resisted, together with the temptation to “nod them through” only to improve figures, or because of political pressure. High standards of scrutiny must be retained, and that requires experienced and well-motivated staff. That experience cannot be achieved overnight.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I am delighted to be here and to take part in the debate, and I congratulate the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on securing it. Many Members hold strong views on the issue and wanted to speak in the debate. I welcome the opportunity to provide some explanation of the current situation and to set out, as far as possible, how I intend to move forward.

First, I echo the wishes of Members for an effective and efficient planning system in Northern Ireland. As some Members said, it is essential to the future of our economy and to the provision of our infrastructure, our employment, our homes and our transport networks. Moreover, it is pivotal to the stimulation of regeneration and the promotion of sustainable development.

I welcome the positive comments made by Members with regard to the staff in the divisional offices; I know that it will be of some comfort to staff. I acknowledge that our current system does not function as well as it should, largely due to the significant challenges that it has faced in recent years. There has been an unprecedented escalation in the workload. The number of applications rose by more than 60% between 2000 and 2006. There have been a growing number of planning appeals, an ever-increasing level of public participation in the planning process, and resource difficulties, arising from an increasing level of professional staff turnover. We have heard much mention of that in the debate.

However, not all of the problems are on the supply side. Delays are frequently caused by the submission of poor-quality or inappropriate applications, for which applicants and agents must bear responsibility. All of those pressures have come at a time when the public expect — and demand — improvements in service delivery.

Although those difficulties are, largely, outside the control of the Planning Service, the current level of service is not what is wanted. In an effort to address that, the service has, in recent years, been committed to, and actively engaged in, a major reform and modernisation programme. Already, that has brought about significant legislative reform, streamlining of the development plan process, refinement of the arrangements for consulting councils — and I shall say more on that anon — and the implementation of new procedures to quality-assure applications on receipt.

Applications with potentially significant economic or social benefits for Northern Ireland have also benefited from a sharper focus. A new strategic projects and design unit has been working closely with the Strategic Investment Board and with Government Departments to ensure that infrastructure projects in the investment strategy for Northern Ireland are managed efficiently through the planning process. One example of that is the new South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen.

Significant private-sector projects are also being processed as quickly as possible, particularly when there has been productive pre-application engagement. My hon Friend Jeffrey Donaldson mentioned Coca-Cola in Lambeg; the Ikea proposal is another example.

In addition to the modernisation programme, the service has recently completed an extensive recruitment and promotion drive to fill a significant number of vacancies for planners across the organisation. Furthermore, as my Friend Peter Weir from North Down mentioned, the Planning Service has created a divisional support team to address workload pressures on the development control side, particularly the backlog of applications already in the system. Initially, that team of 10 is based in the Craigavon division, and I am happy to tell Members, especially those who have dealings with that division, that it will have a breadth of experience and will not consist only of junior planners.

On top of that, a number of key projects in the modernisation programme are due to be completed over the remainder of this business year. Most notable will be the implementation of the Electronic Planning Information for Citizens project (e-PIC) — a comprehensive information and computing technology solution that will enable the agency to deliver a more effective, efficient and transparent service. The e-PIC project will deliver new and improved ways for the community to access the information and services of the Planning Service through electronic channels as well as an improved, faster and better-quality service. The system will provide a portal for the online submission of planning applications and will allow partners of the Planning Service access and input to the information that they need to make decisions or be involved in the decision-making. The e-PIC project will provide an up-to-date planning policy and area plan coverage. I believe that that will deal with the issue raised by the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Gallagher who moved the motion and has made comparisons with the practice in the Republic of Ireland. The new e-PIC system is intended to allow people to manage their planning applications as they go through the system.

The impact of these reform measures will only be realised in the longer term. There is much work to be done to bring about a planning system that fully meets our needs and expectations. However there are already positive signs. Significantly, the number of decisions issued by the agency during the last business year, over 28,000 in total, exceeded the number of applications coming in by 5%. It is also significant that the live caseload has dropped by over 3,500 applications.

The motion also suggests that the system lacks transparency; I have difficulty in accepting that. The Planning Service has operated an open-file policy since 2001 — anyone can call into a planning office to see the contents of a file, and many people do. The agency also fulfils its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000; indeed it is the biggest provider of information in the Department of the Environment. Legislative reforms enacted last year have enhanced this openness through measures such as the removal of Crown immunity from planning control and by making provision for strengthening community involvement in development proposals. The implementation of the e-PIC system later this year will open up the system even further, facilitating the delivery of a completely electronic planning process.

On the matter of planning appeals, not an area for which I have responsibility, I understand that the Planning Appeals Commission has experienced an expansion in workload over recent years, which has not been directly matched by a corresponding increase in resources. The commission has implemented a number of measures aimed at improving efficiency and effectiveness, and this has been reflected in an increase in output of over 200% between 2002-03 and 2006-07. However, in spite of the considerable success of the combination of measures introduced, the benefits continue to be overtaken by the dramatic rise in incoming appeals. The Commission’s need for resources continues to be closely monitored by OFMDFM, which is responsible for it.

I turn now to some of the specific issues that have been raised by Members in this debate. Mr Gallagher, who moved the motion, mentioned cases in which the Planning Service failed to deal quickly enough with applications dependent on grant aid — delays that put the grant aid in jeopardy. In future, the Planning Service will work to prioritise applications where grant aid may be jeopardised by delay. Special arrangements are also in place in divisional offices to ensure that economically significant applications do not get stuck in the backlog.

Mr Gallagher also raised the issue of electricity consent applications. I am meeting with the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment this week to discuss planning issues and single consent regimes for large energy schemes. However, the current legislation defines what falls into the category of development and what is permitted development not requiring express planning permission. Under current legislation, an NIE line to a dwelling requires planning permission. That has to be applied for separately in a planning application that is normally submitted by NIE after the householder makes an application for the dwelling.

There is, of course, no reason why one application cannot be submitted by the householder after the route of the line has been agreed with NIE. More generally, I wish to consider what opportunities there may be to widen the scope of the current permitted development legislation so that we can perhaps find some way to deal with that issue.

Mr Gallagher also raised the matter of third-party rights of appeal, as did Peter Weir and Dolores Kelly. There are many pros and cons with third-party rights of appeal. The pros include equity and natural justice; on the downside, there are the associated costs and the impact on businesses. Potentially, third-party rights of appeal could affect the efficiency of the process and make it slower than it is at present. I will consider very carefully with colleagues the impact that third-party-appeal arrangements would have on the system and where the balance of advantage lies. I also expect that third-party appeals will be an issue that will be addressed by the review of environmental governance team, which is due to report to me at the end of May 2007. That report will, no doubt, come before the Assembly in due course.

Mr Weir referred to the lack of joined-up thinking in relation to replacement dwellings. As Members know, the policy associated with that falls under PPS 14. I do not have responsibility for that; it is part of the Minister for Regional Development’s portfolio. However, I am sure that it will come before this House sooner rather than later, and that there will be an opportunity to discuss the matter then.

Mr Boylan mentioned the Craigavon planning process, and I hope that I have been able to address some of his concerns with regard to the team that is going in there to offer support.

Mr Gardiner talked about delays in the planning process affecting the supply of housing land, leading to a shortage of social and affordable housing. The recent report by Sir John Semple on affordable housing confirms that planning is only one of the factors — and I know that Mr Gardiner will recognise that — that impacts on the housing supply. My Department has agreed to participate in an interdepartmental working group, led by the Department for Social Development, to follow up on the recommendations in Sir John Semple’s report, including the use of article 40 agreements, and to critically examine what planning can do in relation to that. That said, developers are to be encouraged to submit better-quality applications — a theme that has run through this debate — accompanied by all the necessary information and to engage in pre-application discussions, particularly for larger housing schemes.

1.45 pm

Mr Gardiner referred to consultation with councils, a point also picked up by Mr Molloy. Indeed, local councils have been greatly frustrated by the way in which that has gone forward. Revised guidance was issued to councils in November 2006, following work by a joint working party involving the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Planning Service. Over recent months, terms of reference for the formal review of the arrangements envisaged by Lord Rooker have been drawn up by the Planning Service and agreed with NILGA. It is expected that a consultant will be appointed shortly and that the review process will take three months to complete from the date of appointment. The review will involve consultation with stakeholders, including NILGA, council officers, council members, Planning Service staff and applicants.

I understand that Mr Gardiner is in correspondence with my Department about the Waringstown issue, and I am sure that I will be speaking to him about that in due course.

Naomi Long raised the issue of staff retention and the need to keep up staff morale. That is very important. I hope that the message goes out from this Chamber today that this debate is about process and not about Planning Service staff, who are trying to deal with inordinate levels of work. I welcome her comments about councillors, developers and agents not introducing any more unnecessary delays to the system. Mrs Long also made the point that she did not want to see a reduction in the standard of decisions being taken forward.

Naomi Long complained about the Belfast metropolitan area plan. I agree wholeheartedly with her. My officials have been working on that, and — [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. Several conversations are taking place in the Chamber. I remind the House that it is vital that we observe protocol when any Member is speaking.

Mrs Foster: Thank you for that protection, Mr Speaker; I did not even notice.

Discussions on the Belfast metropolitan area plan have taken place with colleagues in jurisdictions that have experienced similar difficulties. I intend to publish a consultation document on the issue in the autumn.

Jim Wells referred to the amount of stress that the Planning Service is under. He also spoke about the speculative nature of applications for single dwellings and the role that agents sometimes play.

Mr McKay talked about a Planning Service that is in crisis. I do not agree, but I realise that issues need to be addressed. Hopefully, the new devolved Administration, along with the Member’s participation on the Environment Committee, will mean that those issues can be addressed.

Mr Donaldson spoke about long-term issues, such as staffing. He also mentioned specific issues such as the Lambeg decision, for which he was full of praise, and another decision for which he was not full of praise. I know that he intends to write to me about the latter.

Mr Armstrong had sympathy for the planners, and he also indicated rightly that many factors — not just the planning problems — contributed to the housing difficulties.

Mr McGlone, the Chairman of the Committee for the Environment, spoke passionately about a child with autism. I would like to inform him and his colleague Mrs Kelly that I am considering a fast track for facilities for disabled people. Indeed, I have encountered that often in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I do not want to see genuine cases of need being left in a backlog and not being dealt with.

Mr Molloy had concerns about consultation, and I hope that my comments about the council consultation have dealt with those.

Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned three specific cases. I am fully aware of the issues that surround those three matters, and I will advise him and other Members on those in due course.

After having a go at me politically, Mr Burnside said that the UK as a whole has the worst planning system. Coming from a unionist politician I find that rather strange, but there it is. Scotland actually has quite a good planning system, and I know that representatives of my Planning Service will visit Scotland in the near future to speak to planners to learn about how they have dealt with matters there. Mr Burnside also mentioned that the Ulster Unionist Party wanted to go back to before the 1880s — I hope that that is not the headline that comes out of this debate.

Mr S Wilson: They might have some seats then.

Mrs Foster: That is true. I am pleased to announce that the policy for refurbishment rests with the Department for Regional Development, and I am sure that the Member will be happy to take the matter up with the Minister there.

As I said, Dolores Kelly mentioned disabled-facilities grants, and I will hopefully be able to develop that. She recognised that PPS 14, the regional development strategy and other matters do not rest within the remit of my Department. She also mentioned third-party appeals.

The system in the Republic of Ireland will be considered; however, it is significantly different from that which exists in Northern Ireland. It has some attractive aspects. For example, there is a legal obligation to decide on applications within a specific period. However, it also has significant downsides, such as the potential for poorer quality decisions to be made given that there is a less flexible approach to consultation. I will consider all of that further in the context of having a wider look at other regions.

Sammy Wilson spoke about good planning decisions and how they lie at the heart of the economy. He also mentioned consultation. I am happy to announce that the chief executives of the Planning Service and the Environment and Heritage Service have been working very closely on consultation, and they will continue to do so. A service level agreement was signed with EHS in March of this year, providing for a current target timescale of 30 working days for a consultation response in 75% of cases. The aim is to work together to reach a progressive reduction to 15 days in 75% of cases.

Moreover, work is continuing on the streamlining of administrative arrangements to ensure that planning consultations are properly focused and targeted, and that the potential for delays is minimised.

Brian Wilson mentioned the lack of experience of planners, and other staffing difficulties.

This has been a wide-ranging debate, and I shall take much from it. Now that devolution is here, I hope that my Department can be more responsive not only to Members on the Floor of the Assembly, but also to the Environment Committee.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Gallagher: I acknowledge the Minister’s comprehensive response to the issues that were raised during the debate. That detailed coverage has left my task of winding up the debate pretty easy.

A unanimous view has been expressed in the Chamber that, with the Planning Service in its present state, there are long delays, which are unacceptable. The Minister indicated that she intends to set in train actions that will address some of those matters fairly quickly.

I welcome the comments of Brian Wilson, who rightly pointed out the importance of Planning Service staff morale and of not doing anything to decrease it. It has been generally acknowledged that the role of staff is currently particularly difficult, and that their workload is very heavy. As with any organisation, we must understand that there are human beings at the heart of the Planning Service. I was careful, in moving the motion, not to apportion blame and to make it clear that the motion was not concerned with criticising the people who work in the planning system.

Mr P Ramsey: Does the Member agree that one way to deal with this matter is to work on non-contentious matters? During suspension of the Assembly, much good work has taken place at council level. Derry City Council, in conjunction with local planners, is examining a method of addressing non-contentious matters on a weekly basis. In the presence of the Minister I hope that there will be no regulatory, bureaucratic or procedural objections to the council’s initiative, which could assist planners in the processing of applications.

Mr Gallagher: I thank the Member for that intervention.

The Minister made some other comments that made the debate worthwhile, including outlining her intention to examine the exasperating delays in the Planning Service that are endangering the time limits for those who wish to avail of grant aid. That is a welcome development, and she expressed her intention to meet the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment about that matter. That is encouraging, as are her comments about facilities for the disabled. I also welcome her comments on the point that I raised about cutting bureaucracy. I welcome the forthcoming meeting with NIE on that matter. I hope that that will lead to some progress, and that it will allay the fears of the public.

As a result of the debate, problems have been recognised. Sammy Wilson asked what I intended to do about the problems, but the motion does not require any particular intention from the Assembly other than to examine the matter in detail. In light of the contributions of Members, and of the Minister, this has been a very worthwhile debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly regards as unacceptable the length of time taken for both the processing of planning applications and the determination of planning appeals, and calls upon the Minister of the Environment to take immediate steps to clear the backlog and also to introduce more efficiency and transparency within the planning process.

Affordable Housing Crisis

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion has 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes each. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes for the winding-up speech.

Mr Shannon: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the affordable housing crisis, and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to co-ordinate urgently with the Housing Executive, Housing Associations, and all other relevant bodies, to release and set aside land for new build projects and to report back to this Assembly with the strategy and timescale that is finalised.

‘The Guardian’ newspaper saies tha Norlin Airlan bes the property hotspot o’ Europe. This bes the crux o’ the affordable hoosin issue. Hames ir far tae dear fer ordnar fowkquhan pit langside the wages oan the mainlan’.Developers pour ootbaag amounts o’ money fae their bottomless pockets. The hoosin’ authorities hae naewhere neir eneuch hooses an’ flats tae fill the gap. Sim’thing hes tae bae done aboot this an’ done richt noo.

‘The Guardian’ newspaper, in citing Northern Ireland as being the UK’s property hot spot, does it a disservice — it is the property hot spot of Europe. That is the crux of the affordable housing crisis. Homes are far too expensive for average people in Northern Ireland, where wages are lower than on the mainland. Developers shell out endless amounts of money from their bottomless pockets. Housing authorities have nowhere near the amount of houses or flats to fill the gap. Something must be done about the matter immediately.

We are faced with a situation whereby a trained professional, who could once have moved into a two-bedroom house in a nice area, can now afford only a flat, at best, until he or she marries another trained professional. Only then, using both wages, can they buy a house, but they must do so with a 90% mortgage, spending nearly 60% of their wage packets on the mortgage. Very few people can afford to do that. That is why, at this time last year, I tabled a motion in my local council expressing severe concern at the housing crisis that had developed in the Ards. That crisis is mirrored across the Province, which every Member will speak about.

Figures available from last June show that people deemed in priority need of a home in the Ards area increased to almost 1,400. The number of people in housing stress increased from 750 to 800. Those are only some of the increases that have occurred. I have been contacted by some constituents who have over 180 points and still cannot get housing. The list of those in priority need in the Ards continues to grow at an alarming rate. The number of people on the waiting list for homes right across the Ards Borough Council area has increased by between 15% and 20% in the last year and shows no signs whatsoever of slowing down.

There must be a push for land to be set aside in the Province for social housing. The budget for the housing associations must be increased so that they can build the much-needed homes as a matter of urgency. The Department for Social Development must take dramatic steps to ensure that that happens right away.

At present, in Ards — not in Strangford — only two housing associations are building dwellings: Corinthian Housing Association and Habinteg Housing Association, which are building a total of approximately 20 to 25 properties. With respect, however, the housing associations are only picking at the edges of the need. Over 2,000 people are in priority need of housing in the Ards area at present.

David Hanson spoke of undertaking a trawl of Government Departments with surplus land. He stated that with a devolved Assembly would come the ability to use that land to provide affordable housing through private-sector development and social housing. The Housing Executive owns the land bank. It must be released to the housing associations to enable them to do the job that so desperately needs to be done.

2.00 pm

Now is the time to work in strong partnership with housing associations and other bodies. The housing crisis will get worse before it gets better.

The average house price in Newtownards has risen to £190,000, and in many areas across the Province that figure is greater. As a result, more young couples will be forced to turn to the Housing Executive for a home or leave areas completely and take their families and skills to places that are coping better with the housing problem.

It should be the Assembly’s wish that our young people should stay in Northern Ireland and not be forced from their home nation due to inadequate planning at higher levels. Why should they stay in the Province and just scrape through when they can get houses more cheaply in most areas in England, where wages are also slightly higher? That question will soon be answered to the detriment of the Province. Young people will find that there is no point in staying here, and they will leave.

The current projected build for Northern Ireland is 1,500 homes, and that does not start to answer people’s needs. A dedicated planning strategy is needed between the Housing Executive and the housing associations, and it must be put into place urgently. Land must be released and built on as a matter of necessity, not piecemeal, like a bone thrown out to satisfy short-term needs.

Too many people in my area are living in unacceptably cramped conditions; families are being split up and children are being farmed out to grandparents due to inadequate accommodation. How can families survive when they are torn apart unnecessarily? There is land to be used, and it must be released.

The Assembly has a duty to ensure the best for the people of the Province, and part of that duty involves housing. That is not to say that the Assembly is responsible for ensuring that every person lives in a five-bedroom house with a swimming pool; it merely highlights the fact that people deserve the right to be able to pay their rent or mortgage and live in accommodation that satisfies their, and their family’s, basic needs. The Department for Social Development must facilitate that right by managing strategically the assembly and disposal of surplus public land for affordable housing — not providing it to developers for the highest price. Releasing land, in itself, will not ensure that that happens, but full co-operation between housing associations and the Housing Executive will, most definitely, begin the process.

The issues raised in the debate on the processing of planning applications are relevant to this debate; they are concerning, and changes to the planning process must be made urgently. The Department of the Environment, its planning policies, and planning system, can do much to improve the situation, particularly since Members have just discovered that the land a house is built on is worth approximately 50% of the total value of the entire property.

There are many reasons for making changes to the planning process, which would take too long to go into now. However, I will outline some of them. Delay in processing planning applications means that there is a huge backlog of potential houses lying on a desk in some office. As a result, developers can bump up the prices a little bit, because people have no real freedom of choice.

There has been no review of area plans to ensure that social housing needs have been incorporated. Such a review has been carried out on the mainland, through the local development framework system. That is already showing advantages, as stricter planning controls are being waived in relation to social and affordable housing. I urge the Minister to look at that issue.

Most developers automatically build accommodation for the high-earning sectors, and few want to take on the less glitzy and less profitable area of affordable housing. That difficulty can be combated by a simple method whereby planners would encourage the development of affordable housing by making it more attractive, and by the Department for Social Development possibly mitigating the cost of such developments by inflicting charges on those who do not provide cheaper housing where it is needed. Developers would still make enough money on properties to prosper. The theory is catered for in article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, which should be used to greater effect.

The planning restrictions in PPS 8, PPS 12, and PPS 14 discourage local authorities from setting aside land specifically for social housing. However, that must be done, and the Department should be able to set aside areas to be used beneficially for cheaper housing. As more new and affordable housing is developed, the crisis in the housing market should lessen.

Planning permission for sites must go hand in hand with the availability of affordable housing. Where the Housing Executive has stated that affordable housing is needed in an area, planning permission should be refused in that area until such housing is made available. I am not talking about killing free enterprise and development by using the Planning Service as a sword. However, I want to encourage developers to remember, in some small way, that affordable housing is essential and achievable.

I have told the story about a developer in Strangford who refused to sell houses to an overseas businessman and kept them for first-time buyers instead. The businessman was made an offer for ten houses from a person who wanted to buy them and rent them out, but he refused it because he wanted to keep the property for first-time buyers in his area. He made an individual decision and demonstrated that this can be done. That is an example of what should happen. If we truly want to grow and develop and keep our young skills and talents here, that should be a precedent for the rest for the Province.

I will outline some other methods of easing the crisis. The Living Over The Shop (LOTS) scheme, of which there are only a few pilot schemes across the Province, could be a way of making some properties available. Grant-aided housing renovation systems are available for houses that are falling apart. They are designed to encourage the owners to do their houses up and then rent them out or, indeed, sell them. The co-ownership threshold must be raised in line with the price of houses, and the threshold for other duties such as stamp duty should also be increased.

The crisis is undoubtedly serious, but it is not a hopeless situation. There are many ways of addressing it, and other Members will no doubt have more ideas for resolving it. The burden and the responsibility of finding a solution lie in the hands of the Assembly and the Minister for Social Development. We must not settle until a strategic plan is in place and is shown to be effective.

Accountability is the key in our newly devolved Government. Housing associations, planners and developers need to be aware that it is necessary to solve this problem by all means possible.

Mrs Long: I beg to move the following amendment: After “projects” insert

“, to consider increasing the put-back rate on existing redevelopment areas,”

First of all, I want to thank the Member for Strangford Mr Shannon for raising this today, because it is a very serious issue for all of our constituents. Whether they are rural or urban, young or old, constituents will suffer from the shortage of affordable housing.

The statistics that the Member quoted are reflected in almost every constituency. We have seen sharp increases in the length of waiting lists and the number of homeless cases. Those lists increasingly contain people who would have been able to make their own way in the world five or ten years ago. They would not have been looking for social housing at all, but they can no longer afford to make their own way, because they are being priced out of the market.

Young people are struggling to get a foothold on the property ladder. We have anecdotal evidence of people being offered 50- and 60-year mortgages. That is not a loan; that is a life sentence. One would be need to be 18 or 19 in order to avail of a 50-year mortgage with any reasonable prospect of paying it back during one’s working life. It is difficult to contemplate how anyone could take on such a debt, particularly when the sums involved are so considerable.

Older people are also being affected. The assumption is that once someone gets on the property ladder, everything will be fine, but that is not true. Those who have special housing needs because their circumstances have changed due to disability or age, or because they have suffered a relationship breakdown, find themselves in extremely difficult circumstances. They are often forced into homelessness, through no fault of their own, because they cannot afford to maintain their standard of living. The net result is that more people feel unable to purchase properties or to avail of the private rental market.

I agree with the motion stating that part of the solution lies with new sites being brought forward by the Department for Social Development, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and housing associations. I am sure that we all recognise that if the problem of affordable housing is to be fully addressed, it will require the active engagement of the private sector. That would be valuable, not only in terms of delivery, but in terms of enhancing social integration and mobility so that we have a range of different housing on every site, and people have the freedom to choose where they are going to live.

In the amendment, however, I am highlighting cases where there has been redevelopment by agencies whose remit is included in the original motion, and low put-back rates have been achieved. I do not believe that the amendment detracts from the main motion.

Many areas, particularly urban areas, have undergone and are still undergoing redevelopment. Unfit housing has been demolished, and new and improved housing is put back in its place. That is a welcome development. My family home was one of those affected, and I was relieved to see that that was happening in my constituency.

However, I am concerned that the number of houses that the housing associations are putting back on those sites is often two or three times less than the number of houses that were demolished. Thus, there is a significant loss of housing in those urban areas, with a put-back rate of somewhere between 30% and 60%.

I accept entirely that, in many urban areas, one-for-one replacement is not possible because the houses that are being replaced are often too small to meet modern family needs. Moreover, new developments must also include a selection of housing for people with special needs and disabilities, and those plots tend to be slightly larger than the average plot. Such housing provision is welcome. However, we must examine the rate of put back on those sites, because it affects local communities. I will discuss that issue in more detail shortly.

This situation has arisen because, for several years, housing lists were either static or declining, particularly in urban areas, as people migrated outwards from the city centre. Thus, the demand for intensive development in city areas was relieved for a time. However, that trend has reversed, and waiting lists are now growing dramatically, particularly in my constituency of East Belfast. It seems bizarre that where there were once 300 houses, there are now only 50 or 60 houses. That is a cause of great concern for those of us who deal with homelessness issues and for people living in those areas who are unable to find a place for themselves and their families.

Mr S Wilson: Does the Member agree that it is even worse that suburban design is being introduced in inner-city areas at a time when attempts are being made to increase the number of properties within the city footprint?

Mrs Long: I agree absolutely, and I shall addresss that issue shortly.

I want, briefly, to highlight three effects of the current trend. The first is clear: a reduction in the amount of social and affordable housing in those neighbourhoods and its impact. Secondly, there has been a negative impact on local communities as regards access to services, schools, churches and so on. Other Members have mentioned depopulation in rural areas and the need for vibrant local rural communities, and that is also true for urban areas. Local urban communities have been decimated by redevelopment and often find it very difficult to coalesce again around the services available to them. In some cases, the services that drew people to the area have been lost in the hiatus between the start of redevelopment and its completion. That has had negative effects for many parts of Belfast, and inner east Belfast in particular.

The Member for East Antrim Mr Wilson raised the issue of built form, and the environmental impact on our cities must be considered when dealing with planning issues. Traditionally, dense development occurs in urbanised areas, because the infrastructure there can best cope with such development. In urban areas, local services are accessible on foot, rather than by car, and public transport is more readily available. Therefore, there is a certain logic to having dense development in urban areas, and that is largely reflected in private developments in those areas.

However, the amount of social housing in urban areas is less than would normally be expected. In order to acquire additional sites to address the housing need, developers of social housing are often forced to compete with private developers for sites in suburban areas. As those sites are very expensive and the developments must be able to “wash their face” financially, a form of town cramming occurs in suburban areas. Developers try to maximise the number of units on suburban sites because the development has to tick over financially, but the same densification does not occur in areas that could sustain that development.

A further negative effect is the enhancement of the social precipice argument. Social housing stands out from the housing around it, so that in areas where the private housing is mostly terraced, social housing will generally not be. Similarly, in areas where the private housing is mostly semi-detached or detached, social housing will not be.

It almost increases the notion that there is some kind of social precipice between social housing and other housing, which is a destructive force in society.

2.15 pm

That is an important issue, but it is also important to touch on issues around the right to buy. That scheme has been beneficial in allowing people to move into the housing market. It is an excellent opportunity for sitting tenants to get a start. However, the build rates have not matched the sale rates. For that reason, the stock has been depleted. That is another issue that the relevant agencies must consider.

In moving the amendment, I hope that I have not cut across the thread of the original motion and that it will not force a Division. I am simply asking that the agencies consider the additional aspect of how redevelopment of urban areas is handled to ensure that not only are more sites released, but that they are used to best effect. That will ensure that those people suffering from the housing crisis in our constituencies can be rehoused as soon as possible in good quality public housing.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Fry McCann.

Mr F McCann: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.

Mr S Wilson: Too many fries! [Laughter.]

Mr F McCann: I know that, Sammy; you must have put him up to that. [Laughter.]

I congratulate the Minister for Social Development on her appointment. I also congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your election as Speaker of this Chamber.

I agree with the motion and the amendment; they go well together. However, there are points that have not yet been covered in the debate. The motion goes straight to the heart of the housing crisis. It calls on those who have the primary responsibility to build and provide social housing to come together and provide a co-ordinated approach to take us out of the crisis. The proposer of the motion must be congratulated for bringing it to the House for debate. However, the motion is a bit presumptuous in that it presumes that those who have overseen this crisis, and who are partly responsible for it, are capable of taking us out of it.

Immediate steps can be taken to assist the process of making housing more affordable. As Mr Shannon said, the release of land is one. The freeing-up of vacant property is another step, which I will deal with in another motion to be debated later. Another action would be to ensure that social building schemes are delivered on time and on programme. We must set a target of building at least 3,000 social homes a year — double the target set for the past year, and five times that which has been set for the next year.

I understand that just over 600 new starts are planned for the next year. That will certainly not impact on this current crisis, especially when the number of people presenting as homeless is around 20,000 a year. That needs to be seriously reviewed, and acted on, by the Minister.

Let us consider how well the state provided for the social or affordable housing sector in 2006-07. These figures come from the Housing Executive, although there is a discrepancy between them and those of the Department for Social Development (DSD). Belfast got the bulk of the 1,032 dwellings built, with 65 separate schemes building 408 houses. At last week’s meeting of the Social Development Committee, we were told that 1,500 houses were being built. I will not dwell on the 468 houses that seem to have been lost somewhere in the process, however.

In 2006-07, in the Omagh District Council area, the number of new houses built was zero. It was the same for Cookstown, Magherafelt, Moyle, Down, Limavady and Larne. Coleraine fared a little better, with three houses, and Strabane had a good year, with nine houses. That makes for grim reading.

Sinn Féin has for some time been calling for the discussion on social and affordable housing to be widened to include more than the usual suspects. We should involve Shelter, the Housing Rights Service, the Simon Community, Travellers’ representatives, those representing the disability sector and the construction sector — everyone with an interest in housing.

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

The discussion should be time-framed and tasked to come up with a strategy that can take forward the development of mixed tenure and sustainable communities, which, after all, is one of the Government’s priorities. We also await the publication of a statutory report on homelessness, put together by many sectors. That report would have provided a new beginning in dealing with homelessness, but it has been delayed for several years, trapped in various Departments, meaning that some of the information is now outdated.

Such delays must become a thing of the past. We must build a new structure with which to develop a strategy that will bring about the new beginning in social and affordable housing that we all want. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Cobain: When, this autumn, the Assembly discusses the Budget for the incoming financial year, it will be interesting to note how many Members vote to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland has the opportunity to live in decent affordable homes, irrespective of the pressure that our parties may put on us. The aim of building affordable homes for all is achievable: all we need, as Assembly Members, is the desire to make it happen.

It would be remiss of me not to thank Sir John Semple for his excellent work on this issue in the past year. The report of his review was refreshing, packed as it was with innovative ideas, and he succeeded in moving the subject of affordable homes far up the political agenda.

The concerns surrounding the issue of affordable homes are well documented. All the experts in the housing field insist that we must build between 2,000 and 2,500 homes in the social-housing sector over a sustained period in order to address increasing levels of homelessness, waiting lists and general housing stress. There are clear links between poor housing and incidences of ill-health and poverty. In the past five years, we have been unable to meet the build target of 2,000 homes a year, and our overall record in the provision of affordable homes is a disgrace.

With that in mind, the Executive’s intention to build 600 new homes reflects less than one third of what is needed. To its credit, the Department for Social Development has submitted a financial case for more resources to meet housing need. Surprisingly, however, DSD has been unable to convince the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP).

The decision taken by DFP must be set against the background of Sir John Semple’s contention, stated in his report, that housing is the key to countering poverty. The DFP officials concerned should take time to examine some of the housing indicators, which might allow them to grasp the enormity of the housing problem that we face. For their information, over 30,000 households are on the Housing Executive’s waiting list for homes in the social housing sector. Almost 20,000 households are in urgent need or experiencing housing stress, while more than 20,000 households are currently presenting as homeless.

In this era of joined-up Government, DFP may wish to read the recently published anti-poverty strategy in which the Government made a commitment that by 2010, every child, young person and pensioner will be living in a decent, safe and warm home. In the light of the housing programme that has been proposed, how will that commitment be met?

The provision of a comprehensive plan for affordable homes is a complex issue, simply because it cuts across several Departments. The prerequisites for tackling housing need are the provision of sufficient financial resources, robust legislation, sufficient land and a proper planning environment.

I shall use my remaining time to highlight several key issues that must be addressed. The first requirement is to impress on the Executive that anything short of 2,000 new homes each year over the lifetime of this Assembly’s mandate is unacceptable. A comprehensive register of all surplus public land must be established, regularly monitored and updated.

The Housing Executive should consider a more proactive vesting policy. A programme of de-zoning unused industrial land, making it available for housing might be a better option. Allowing the release of land by the Housing Executive at less than market value, with all the proper safeguards in place, would facilitate the provision of affordable homes.

Planning Policy Statement 12 must be revisited and must include affordable homes. Several Departments have responsibility for a large bank of publicly owned land, which must be made available in sufficient quantities and locations to be used for housing.

In the current climate, in which land values increase every week, steps have to be taken to discourage developers from holding on to land as a profit-making exercise. We need to examine the time frames between the granting of planning permissions and the beginning of construction on sites.

Many other innovative ideas should be brought to bear. However, unless we as an Assembly are prepared to place at the top of the political agenda the need to provide affordable homes for all our people, and unless we are prepared to provide sufficient resources to meet the challenges, all our words and debates will be seen for what they are — meaningless.

Mr Burns: We are facing a huge and growing crisis in housing affordability in Northern Ireland. The blunt truth is that only a select few can now afford to cope with the demands that come with the purchase of a house. To argue continually for so-called affordable housing is to mask the underlying issues. Northern Ireland requires a massive change in attitude in all aspects of house purchases. All housing must have a social element that is based on meeting the fundamental needs of the family and the individual. The upward spiral of housing costs has destroyed that objective for a growing number of people; affordability has been ruled out for the vast majority of the population.

In my constituency of South Antrim, in the Glengormley area, for example, it is commonplace to see queues of people outside estate agents. When a couple wishes to buy, both families are involved — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and friends all do a stint, queuing for four or five days just to place a deposit on a house.

Nine years ago, I was a first-time buyer. My wife and I bought our first house for £62,000 with a repayment mortgage of £330 a month. That was just about manageable. However, I was talking to a friend at the weekend and he told me about his son, who has just purchased a house for £207,000. On an interest-only mortgage, he is paying £950 a month. His father is distressed, because he fears that, if the housing bubble bursts, his son will be left desperately in debt.

Would renting a property not be a more sensible option for a young person in such a situation? After all, that £950 to pay for the interest-only mortgage does not include numerous other expenses that we all face — food, fuel, insurance, petrol, car tax and maintenance, and so on. First-time buyers who are paying such a huge sum for the privilege of simply securing the mortgage dare not even consider the possibility of taking a holiday or changing the car — if they even can afford to run one. Having a family will also place huge financial stress on young people caught in this vicious trap.

There are alternatives, but they will involve changing cultural attitudes towards house purchases. It is unfortunate that a stigma is still linked to the rental sector, as opposed to the private sector. That stigma is totally unjustified and is harmful to society. However, the stigma exists and the Assembly must tackle it. We have to get the message across that people’s quality of life could be dramatically enhanced by the development of a proper rental sector. In most parts of mainland Europe, and across Scandinavia in particular, the practice of renting high-quality social housing, in both the private sector and the public sector, is the norm.

Sir John Semple, who carried out a review of housing affordability in 2006, recommended that 2,500 social and affordable houses be built each year. I support those recommendations and hope that the Executive will implement them. The motion is that this Assembly expresses serious concern about the affordable housing crisis. This can only be tackled —

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.

I call Mr Alastair Ross. As Mr Ross will be making his maiden speech, he should not be interrupted.

2.30 pm

Mr Ross: It is a privilege to deliver my maiden speech in this Assembly, albeit under the worst possible circumstances. It would be remiss of me not to mention my friend and colleague George Dawson, a man with whom I worked very closely for years, and for whom I had the greatest admiration and respect.

George was an outstanding orator who articulated the unionist message with clarity and conviction. He worked tirelessly for his constituents in East Antrim, and, from the vast amount of tributes that have flooded in from across the community since his death, the high esteem and regard that George was held in is clear. It is not difficult to see why George was such a popular and likeable man. He devoted much of his time to politics and to his work in the business community, with various Christian organisations and as grand master of the Independent Orange Order. However, faith and family always came first for George.

George will be sadly missed as a DUP representative on these Benches, as a unionist, a businessman and as a friend, but most of all he shall be missed as a father, a husband and a brother. As I make my maiden speech, my thoughts are with his family and those who loved and knew him best.

Despite the tragic circumstances in which I have come into this Assembly, I am honoured to represent the constituency of East Antrim. I look forward to the challenges ahead and will seek to continue the high level of service and representation that the people of East Antrim deserve.

The motion deals with a topic that will resonate with people throughout the Province, particularly those on long waiting lists for social housing or who have found themselves homeless. It is particularly relevant to people of my age who are trying to get a house and move out of the family home for the first time. Many young people, young couples and people on low incomes are finding it increasingly difficult to buy houses as prices rise across the country, with many first-time buyers finding that they simply cannot afford to get on the property ladder. Indeed, for many people struggling to find a property, it must seem as if the first few rungs of the property ladder have fallen off altogether.

We must ensure that there are new housing developments that integrate units of affordable housing for social renting and home ownership. The fact that it is more difficult than ever to buy a house means that there is more pressure on social housing than ever before, and people who could have afforded to buy their own houses five or 10 years ago can no longer do so and have to apply for social housing.

Even couples earning two relatively good salaries cannot get into the housing market, with single people in particular being marginalised and excluded from housing. Older people can find themselves trapped in homes that they are struggling to manage financially, but they cannot afford to move somewhere smaller. With such a strain on the availability of social housing, the danger is that many people will find themselves homeless and will need to look to hostel or emergency accommodation as a short-term solution, or enter the private-rented sector while waiting to be allocated a house.

Due to the squeeze on first-time buyers, the rental sector is booming, with investors buying houses to rent — houses that first-time buyers cannot afford to buy. With many young people now choosing to rent, homeless people and those waiting on housing lists find themselves particularly vulnerable, as they often cannot afford to meet the upfront costs associated with moving into private rented accommodation. Those living on income support find it difficult enough to pay the bills without the added pressure of finding additional money for the escalating cost of renting. Therefore, the lack of social housing has a huge knock-on effect on the housing market as a whole: it pushes up the demand for the private-rental sector, which in turn invites more buy-to-let investors into the market. Indeed, it is a vicious circle.

The housing market needs to take those who are trying to get a home on a low income into consideration, as well as the rich investors. There are a number of options that this Assembly could consider: co-ownership schemes; extended mortgages; specific affordable houses in new housing schemes. It is not just a case of building new houses. The housing market should be looked at as a whole, and in particular the problem of affordable housing. First-time buyers and low-income families are being squeezed out of the housing market.

The Planning Service has an important role to play in making land available for affordable housing, the zoning of land and the granting of planning permission. However, it is important to consider other items such as the cost of housing land, particularly smaller sites. Land-banking, the length of time that planning permission is granted for, the number of vacant houses, and the cost of sites are important factors in the overall problem.

If we really want to tackle the issue of affordable housing in Northern Ireland, all interest groups must work together to ensure that affordable homes and social houses are built. I support the motion, and I hope that the Minister for Social Development will tackle the issue urgently.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mrs Claire McGill to speak. I remind Members that this will be Mrs McGill’s maiden speech and should be heard uninterrupted.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

I congratulate you on your appointment, Mr Deputy Speaker, and wish you well. I congratulate Ms Ritchie on becoming Minister for Social Development. I wish her well also.

I welcome the motion. I have voiced my concerns to the local press on the lack of affordable housing in Strabane; however, the situation in many areas in West Tyrone is equally grim. The increasing lack of affordable housing, and the adverse financial and social impact that it is having on a growing number of families, urban and rural — and I emphasise the word “rural” — is reaching crisis point. The situation will continue to deteriorate unless steps are taken to tackle the problem.

Property speculation, the growth of the buy-to-let market and PPS 14 are causing the cost of homes to spiral out of the reach of many people, particularly young first-time buyers. The lack of affordable housing is being exacerbated by under-provision of social housing and the private rented sector, which does not always provide good value for money.

The private rented sector is a source of housing for many people in West Tyrone. However, that presents major financial hardship for those who rely on social security benefits and low wages. Rents in the private sector have risen, and one of the biggest problems facing tenants in receipt of housing benefit is their struggle to pay rent. It is not unusual for such tenants to have to find an extra £20 a week from social security benefits to bridge the gap. Consequently, they can be forced to neglect other bills — even spending less on food and fuel — in order to pay their rent. More social housing is needed.

I am an MLA for West Tyrone, which is a rural constituency, and PPS 14 has made an already very difficult situation — as far as housing is concerned — almost impossible. I want to highlight the connection between the policy and its knock-on effect on affordable housing. One of the respondents to research carried out by Advice NI, published in its report, ‘Affordable Homes: Impacts of restricted access to affordable housing across tenure groups’, said:

“People, especially first time buyers and young families are finding themselves having to leave the rural areas due to the ever increasing house prices.”

Where do people who cannot get houses in rural areas go? Statistics can be quoted, and figures can be examined, but where do they go, where do they take their families, and what are the practical implications for them?

I refer again to the Advice NI report. It states:

“Policymakers with responsibility for housing and planning need to acknowledge the strong sense of attachment to place and community in rural areas and the need to provide viable rural housing options within this context.”

I was very glad to hear one Member say that this is a cross-departmental issue. I made some notes to that effect earlier, and I would welcome the Department for Regional Development, the Department for Social Development, and the Department of the Environment working together on that matter.

I wish to mention one other example from my constituency, which concerns a young mother of two who rents a housing association home in a rural area. She wants to buy her house, but she cannot do so because the housing association’s rules prevent it. Such situations must be addressed. She wants to stay in her own area, which is close to her elderly parents, and she wants to continue to send her children to the local rural school.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Jonathan Craig, who will be making his maiden speech. I remind Members that it is the convention that such speeches be heard uninterrupted.

Mr Craig: I support Mr Shannon’s motion. One of the biggest issues facing our citizens, not only in my constituency of Lagan Valley but throughout Northern Ireland, is the total lack of affordable housing. As a member of Lisburn City Council for the past six years, I am all too aware of the serious problems that face young people, young families, people with disabilities and the elderly, who urgently need affordable social housing.

The waiting list illustrates the massive problem that faces every part of society in Northern Ireland. There are 35,000 people on the housing waiting list, 19,000 of whom are deemed to be in housing stress. That is a clear indication of housing needs. There are 7,500 people who have no homes at all.

There are many reasons for the crisis in affordable housing, but the total lack of a new-build programme for social housing must account for some of the problem. Funding for the new-build programme for the incoming year currently amounts to £90 million. That will deliver only 622 new houses, which is well short of the Department’s public service agreement target of 1,500. Not only will that target not be met, which will exacerbate the ever growing crisis, but Sir John Semple’s report states that that figure should be increased to more than 2,000 to try to keep pace with the urgent demand. On a worrying note, if the Department cannot deliver 1,500 homes, how can it expect to deliver the 2,000 homes that are so desperately needed?

It is not all doom and gloom. In my constituency, I have seen the council, the Housing Executive, housing associations and the local community working together to deliver new-build projects that make a difference for many of those people who are on the waiting list. In recent years, we in Lagan Valley have, together with the Ulidia Housing Association, been able to deliver 175 new homes in the Ballymacash area. Lisburn City Council has identified other pieces of land that will deliver an additional 150 new homes that are much needed in the Lisburn area.

Although such new-build projects represent only a drop in the ocean in tackling Northern Ireland’s housing crisis, they demonstrate that when councils, the Housing Executive and housing associations work with local communities, they can identify land and build houses, which will relieve the hassle and heartbreak for those families who are looking for homes.

When agencies work together they prove that they can deliver affordable housing. The way forward is therefore clear. There is an urgent need for joined-up government, with all relevant bodies working together so that additional land can be released for new-build projects. I call on the new Minister for Social Development to address the crisis that is affecting all our community.

Mr B McCrea: I notice that this is the first time in a while that Mr Deputy Speaker has not said that this is a maiden speech, so if any Members have been waiting patiently to join in, now is their chance. [Laughter.] I just thought that we might liven things up.

Not so long ago, Northern Ireland was considered a cheap place to live. Despite having below average wages and above average prices for staples such as food, the low cost of housing rendered it overall a relatively cheap place to live. However, that cannot be said today. Ten years ago, the average price of a house was £42,000; today, it is £153,000: house prices have trebled in the past 10 years. My colleague from Lagan Valley spoke about the serious housing issues there: the average price of a house in Lagan Valley is a staggering £235,000. It is no wonder that last year’s Ulster Bank PMI Report said that two thirds of first-time buyers were unable to finance a deposit. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ report on the United Kingdom states that couples with two incomes need to put aside 81·2% of their wages in order to pay the deposit and the stamp duty. In Northern Ireland the situation is even more serious. In 2006, the Nationwide Building Society stated that property prices in Northern Ireland rose by 44%. It is staggering — and I use the word staggering repeatedly because the young people of this country are staggering under the burden of trying to get onto the property ladder.

2.45 pm

Northern Ireland used to export 20,000 people a year. Now, more and more people are returning. That is a good thing, but it puts more pressure on our housing stock. Members who are familiar with the Belfast metropolitan area plan will know that 60,000 homes are planned in the next 10 years — but we have identified land for only 20,000. Where are we to put the additional houses? Those factors put pressure on social housing schemes. Many homeowners, having seen the huge inflation in house prices, choose to sell and attempt to move back into the social housing market, which reduces the number of houses that might be occupied by younger couples.

The solution is in our hands. It is not good enough to say that somebody ought to do something: we are the people who ought to do something, but it is not certain what that something should be. If we were to intervene to buy more land to build more houses, inflation would increase and house prices would rise. On the other hand, going for higher-density building creates the slums of tomorrow.

If we knock down all the factories, there will be no jobs to which those people can go. Sanmina-SCI Enclosure Systems Ltd in my constituency will put 300 people out of work in a month’s time. Its site is worth £27 million. We all share concerns about this issue, but I warn that it is complicated and requires proper deliberation and discussion. I am sure that the Minister will reflect on the comments made in the House, and I wish her well in coming back with a comprehensive solution to this vexing situation.

Mr P Ramsey: I congratulate Margaret Ritchie on becoming Minister. She is well up to the task, and I wish her well in the role.

Mr Shannon’s motion is a very good one. Affordable housing is one of the most crucial issues facing us, and I agree with the terminology that he used: we are indeed in crisis.

The Minister’s first function was to visit a social-housing apartment scheme. I welcome that choice and believe that the issue will be the crux of Ms Ritchie’s work this year. She has given commitment and priority to securing much more money than is currently available for social housing.

I will speak to the amendment briefly. The reason for redeveloping homes and entire areas is because they are unfit and no longer suited to the needs of modern society. In the context of understanding “increasing the put-back rate”, the SDLP does not consider redevelopment to have been given priority. There has been bad practice in development schemes so often in the past. We want to see services, play areas and green belts. More importantly, we want all schemes, whether social or private, to be child friendly.

Mrs Long: Will the Member give way?

Mr P Ramsey: I am sorry, Naomi, but I have only five minutes to get through this speech.

The SDLP believes that there is a cloud over the motion because of the amendment, which is not helpful.

Housing-price inflation in Northern Ireland is alarming. Starting homes in my constituency cost in the region of £200,000. That is not as much as in Lagan Valley, but it is an awful price nevertheless. John Semple’s report defined affordable housing as follows:

“Affordable housing should be related to ability to pay. Affordable housing costs should not exceed 35% of gross household income.”

Given the current cost of houses, it is difficult to see how most people on average salaries can afford to purchase a house without significant economic stress. If inflation of house prices is not significantly reduced, it is difficult to see how affordable housing can be an attainable goal across Northern Ireland. The local housing market is not working efficiently, and is affected by a range of negative social and economic impacts. The economic stress caused by rising house prices, coupled with rising interest rates, is having an extremely detrimental impact on family life in Northern Ireland.

One issue concerns me, and I wish to raise it with the Minister. Housing associations across Northern Ireland can purchase single dwellings. There was good reason for that becoming the case, but, unfortunately, housing associations are now competing with the first-time buyer, and the market is being inflated. As a matter of urgency, we should review that situation. It was probably a mechanism to use money that was in the system in the absence of a rebuild programme.

The recent UNICEF report, ‘Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries’, placed the UK at the bottom of the league of the 21 richest countries in the world. The UK fared worst when it came to family and peer relationships, and the report attributed that to the fact that families in the UK spend less time together than families do in other countries. That is hardly surprising, given the time that parents are forced to spend working and commuting to meet the single main expense — costly housing. We have always had a proud tradition of prioritising family life, and it is the duty of all elected representatives to ensure that family life is protected and nurtured in the North of Ireland.

In addition to the social impact, over-inflated house prices can have a negative impact on industrial competitiveness. Naturally, when people are forced to pay over-inflated prices for housing, they need and demand higher wages. The rise in house prices takes money out of the local economy, because consumer spending is reduced. What disposable income is left for working people with a £200,000 mortgage, and what impact does that have on communities and local businesses? People are exposed to enormous economic risk. The fundamental value of a standard three-bedroom semi is probably somewhere between £60,000 and £70,000, yet the market price is about £200,000, and in some areas higher. What happens —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Time, please.

Mr Newton: I join other Members in congratulating the Minister on her appointment, and I wish her well. I support the motion, but first I want to take issue with Basil McCrea, who treated Members to a masterclass on economics. I remind him that Northern Ireland was never a cheap place to live. Although some items may have been cheaper, the high cost of energy, food and other items made Northern Ireland a dearer place to live in many ways.

I support the motion and congratulate its proposer. A motion on affordable housing is timely, as it is a matter of great concern for all public representatives in Northern Ireland. There is synergy between this motion and the next, and it is difficult to address one without straying into the territory of the other. I am sure that all Assembly Members are faced daily with constituents coming into their offices to talk about being unable to get onto the property ladder or to obtain public-sector housing. Those who want to establish their independence by setting up home with a partner face a huge problem.

In my East Belfast constituency, the escalation of house prices far exceeds the ability of any young person or couple to save for a deposit, and their salaries cannot match the mortgage requirements. Not too long ago, when mortgage advisers calculated a person’s ability to repay a mortgage, they multiplied the salary by two and a half or three to indicate how much he or she could afford to pay. There is no chance that that will ever be the case again. Recently, a young professional came to my office and told me that if she wanted to buy a modest two-bedroom apartment, she would have to pay eight times her salary. That is not sustainable in the long term.

Sir John Semple’s informative ‘Review into Affordable Housing: Interim Report’ has been mentioned; in it, he quoted this definition of affordability:

“securing some given standard of housing or different standards at a price or rent which doe not impose, in the eyes of some third party (usually Government) an unreasonable burden on household incomes”.

As mortgages are linked to the ability to pay, there is no prospect of affordable housing for many, particularly the young. Some households will never be able to afford private housing. Therefore, as prices escalate, the demand for public-sector housing grows.

3.00 pm

All of East Belfast’s elected representatives have raised the issue of housing demand and supply with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

There are approximately 1,100 applications for public-sector housing, affecting 5,000 people. Those people live in housing that is inadequate, overcrowded, of a poor standard or in a state of disrepair. Within three years from 2006, 557 houses will be built. That will not deal with the housing waiting list in east Belfast. The solution lies in planning, in control of the private-landlord sector and in access to home ownership.

Mr O’Loan: The Semple Report made around 80 recommendations. I have no doubt that they are being carefully sifted by the Department for Social Development and will lead to a serious plan being drawn up to deal with the issue. I want to refer to an aspect of the housing problem that the Semple Report has not addressed or made any specific recommendations about. The issue is that of tourist areas, which are attractive to buyers and developers of second homes, town houses and apartments.

The village of Cushendall on the north Antrim coast provides a telling example. The crux of the problem is that property is no longer affordable to members of the local community who want to live in the area where they grew up. The average house price in the mid-Glens has increased by at least 75% in the past year. That is not a fanciful figure or an exaggeration. One practically derelict two-bedroom house in Cushendall is on the market and heading for a price of over £300,000. Apartments in the area are being sold for over £300,000. Former Housing Executive properties, if they come on the market at all, are fetching £250,000. Members will be aware that stamp duty of 3% clicks in at those prices. How can local people, especially young couples who are trying to get a foot on the housing ladder, compete in such a market? The fact is that they cannot.

As well as serious personal implications, there are major social implications. The fate of Portballintrae, which has been mentioned, is well known: the ordinary population has almost entirely disappeared, replaced by weekend and summer visitors who generally bring their groceries from a Tesco supermarket in Belfast. Cushendall, and places like it, do not want to go the same way. Numbers in local schools have fallen and will continue to fall. Local sports clubs — particularly the successful GAA club — wonder for how long they will have a future. Club members fear that soon there will not be any young people to join them.

In the winter months, the area will become desolate, because there will be no thriving businesses and no local people living there full time. A special rural ethos is in serious danger of being lost. I have no doubt that most Members of the House are familiar with the area and know just how special it is.

This is an example of market failure. The market is providing outcomes that simply do not match social needs. As I said, the Semple Report does not deal with that special case. I ask the Minister to give it particular consideration.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Ms Anna Lo. This will be Ms Lo’s maiden speech. I remind Members that they should allow her to speak uninterrupted.

Ms Lo: I welcome the debate and support both the motion and the amendment. In my constituency of South Belfast, I frequently hear of people’s problems, particularly those of young couples who are not able to get onto the first rung of the property ladder because of huge increases in house prices in the area. They cannot get social housing either, because of the long waiting lists that other Members have mentioned.

The lack of public housing pushes up demand for privately rented accommodation. That subsequently encourages more investors to exploit the market. People often pay exorbitant rent for substandard accommodation. Homelessness, as Members have mentioned, has also become an increasing problem in recent years.

I urge the Minister for Social Development to adopt urgently the Semple Review’s many valid recommend-ations. The need for those recommendations to be implemented has been well evidenced by the Housing Executive’s recent report, ‘The Northern Ireland Housing Market: Review and Perspectives 2007-2010’, and the voluntary sector’s qualitative research on affordable homes. All those reports point to a serious affordability problem throughout Northern Ireland, particularly for first-time buyers.

One recommendation from the Semple Review is for the social-housing programme to be doubled to 2,000 houses a year for five years in order to address the current housing shortage. However, I understand that DSD has a budget to build only 612 houses this year. The Department must therefore bid for extra resources from DFP in June in order to meet its target of 1,600 new social houses to be built in this financial year.

DSD must consider other issues that the review raised. Those include a more flexible planning policy, strategic regeneration activities, the de-zoning of housing land that has been withheld for speculative purposes, extending access to home ownership, and registration of all landlords in order to improve control and quality in the privately rented sector.

Empty properties must be put back on the market urgently. The Semple Report sets a target of bringing 9,500 empty houses back into the housing stock in the next five years. One reason for empty properties is the restriction that is placed on where people feel that they can live safely. The housing crisis cannot be meaningfully divorced from the levels of segregation in housing. Some 90% of Northern Ireland’s population live in an area that is more than 90% “single community”.

In many urban areas, rows of derelict houses and overcrowded houses are set just a few hundred metres apart. Those houses are a product of our segregation. It is formally legal, however, for the Housing Executive to allow people to choose to live in Protestant-only or Catholic-only areas. There would be a massive public outcry were a housing authority in England to allow people to choose to live in white-only or black-only areas.

I ask the proposer of the motion, as a Member from a governing party, to pledge to abolish state-sponsored segregation and to introduce proposals on how to tackle it. Ending segregated housing is an essential part of ending the housing crisis.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): First, I welcome you to your position in this new Assembly, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also thank Members for their good wishes.

The debate on affordable housing is most welcome, and it is one in which I have a particular interest. Helping to deliver affordable housing is one of my top priorities. The fact that the Assembly is debating the issue so soon after restoration tells me that it is also one of the Assembly’s top priorities, and I am glad of that.

It is an issue that resonates not only with the Assembly and local councils but with many people throughout Northern Ireland. To encapsulate the problem, it is one of long waiting lists, with many people living in areas of housing stress. Young people also find it difficult to buy houses themselves or to get onto the first rung of the property ladder.

If we are to deliver successfully, not only is action by me required, but action is also required by my Executive colleagues and the Assembly — we must all row together in the same direction.

I recognise that Members — particularly those on the Committee for Social Development — have their own ideas on affordable housing. That is why I welcome the contributions to the debate and will reflect on all of them.

Affordable housing is important for a decent quality of life. Housing impacts on social, economic, environmental and health well-being. However, in recent years, Northern Ireland has experienced unprecedented increases in house values. Although there has been an element of catching up, the rises have now exceeded all expectations. In the past year, prices increased by 37% — more than three times the rate in the South. The average house price in the North is now more than £200,000.

That may be good news for existing homeowners, but it is financially crippling for first-time buyers. They are being squeezed out of the market. Young people find it ever harder to get onto the property ladder, and that is why their numbers are falling. In 2001, 60% of buyers were first time. Last year, it was just 33%. Such an overheated market appears unsustainable.

Nonetheless, investors are still keen to buy up private property and land. That pushes prices up and impacts on the availability of land for social housing. As many Members have already said, there are worrying reports of land-banking, with some speculators holding back on the development of land to push prices up further. That causes real problems for housing associations — with land values doubling in the past 18 months. Often, land costs now account for almost 50% of the cost of a newly built house.

Direct rule failed to find the funding to meet these new circumstances. Members should be in no doubt — I inherited a woefully inadequate budget. With the help, support and endorsement of my Executive colleagues — which I hope that I have — I am determined to redress that situation. The result is that this year, as things stand, there is funding to build approximately 611 new social houses — short even of the direct rule target of 1,500 new-build social houses per year. At the same time, the number of people in housing stress is rising.

Against that background, Sir John Semple was commissioned to undertake an independent review into affordable housing in Northern Ireland. His report makes some points clear. First, there is no quick fix. Market forces are powerful and not easy to abate. Secondly, there is a lot that can and should be done by the entire Government together and by all my colleagues working in the Executive together. That is why the recommendations do not just address the Department for Social Development; action is also needed by the Department of the Environment to speed up the planning process; action is needed by the Department for Regional Development to revise housing growth indicators; and funding is needed from the Executive for a new-build social housing development programme.

Currently, I am considering Sir John Semple’s ‘Review into Affordable Housing Final Report’. Its recommendations make sense to me — at least, the majority of them, as I will explain later — and I want to take them forward. They will not solve the problem overnight — nothing could in these difficult circumstances. However, over time, they will make a difference. Having said that, I do not pretend that I agree with every recommendation. For example, in the past, I have made clear my difficulties with PPS 14 — and I cannot pretend to support it now.

It would be wrong to think that the Department has been considering the way forward based only on the Semple Report. Other important initiatives are already under way.

3.15 pm

The advance land purchase initiative was introduced to help housing associations to secure land for new-build housing development schemes. So far, land has been acquired to facilitate the building of 618 homes. In fact, the Housing Executive has earmarked land to the value of approximately £76 million to be transferred to housing associations to service the development programme over the next five years.

The north-east quarter regeneration scheme at Royal Avenue will include provision for affordable housing units in the heart of Belfast. The developer will fund these, meaning that those people not in a position to afford the current high cost of apartments will be able to enjoy the benefits of city-centre living. I will soon publish proposals for the regeneration of the north-west quarter of the city centre, including the open spaces at Browns Square and Carrick Hill.

Meanwhile, an advisory panel, comprising political, community and statutory representatives, is overseeing the production of a draft master plan for the redevelopment of the former Crumlin Road jail and Girdwood Army barracks. I do not want to prejudice the panel’s deliberations, but, clearly, there is an opportunity for significant social affordable housing there. I look forward to the quick delivery of its master plan.

The urban regeneration company, Ilex, Derry City Council and my Department have drawn up master plans for three sites in Derry. Plans for the regeneration of the former Ministry of Defence land at Clooney offer the possibility of providing affordable housing alongside other educational, sport and leisure facilities. My Department is transferring surplus lands at two sites in the greater Shantallow area to local housing associations for the provision of new social housing.

Outside Belfast and Derry, my Department is engaged in, or will shortly commence, master-planning work for several major, mixed-use development schemes. In all of those, the Department will consider carefully the role that affordable social housing can play.

These initiatives are all important, but I am not for one minute pretending that they are enough. I want to go further, but building new social housing requires new money. To be blunt, Mr Deputy Speaker: give me the money and I will build the houses.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Ms Ritchie: To put it simply, that is my position. I have not resiled from that view since I became Minister for Social Development. I want to get moving quickly.

I have asked my officials to audit the land held by the Department for Social Development and to assess how it could be used to relieve the housing crisis. That is just a first step. We must audit whether, and how, public land held by other Departments could be used.

I am keen to learn from the South. That is why I am arranging to go to Dublin to see how they have made use of land swaps and other measures.

I am determined to begin work immediately to initiate short, medium and long-term solutions to the growing housing affordability problem. Although my Department has the main responsibility for housing policy, the Semple Review contains a considerable number of cross-cutting recommendations that address the affordability question. Many of the commitments and targets fall outside my Department’s remit. Given the cross-departmental nature of the recommendations, at this Thursday’s Executive meeting, I will propose the establishment of an interdepartmental group, or task force, that would be responsible for responding to the review’s recommendations.

As Minister for Social Development, I propose to chair that group. I want to invite senior officials from the Department for Regional Development, the Department of the Environment, the Department of Finance and Personnel, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to join the group alongside officials from my Department.

I envisage that the interdepartmental group would consider the Semple Review’s recommendations in greater detail and focus its efforts on progressing those that are acceptable.

It would also seek to develop programmes that have links with organisations outside central Government and establish the much-needed partnership approach to tackling affordability.

I also intend to set up an expert panel, comprising academics and other relevant experts from the housing arena, to provide specialist advice to that interdepart-mental group so that we can be sure that we are getting it right. Helping to deliver housing affordability is a massive challenge, because market forces are not easily tamed. However, with firm action, and, I stress, proper funding, there is much that we can and must do without plunging existing owners into the dangers of negative equity.

The proposer of the motion, Jim Shannon, referred to article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, and the Semple Report recommends that developers should set aside 20% of development schemes for affordable social housing. That is a developer contribution that should be enforced through Planning Policy Statement 12: ‘Housing in Settlements’, and I will advance that recommendation via the Semple Report. I know what the Member refers to, because the draft Ards and Down area plan 2015 was published before PPS 12 and did not take account of that. There was some difficulty about the initial public inquiry, and the reconvened public inquiry reflected that fact. However, I assure the Member that I will look into the matter.

Naomi Long referred to the low put-back rate in housing schemes. I urge caution on that matter. Associations can only build —

Mr McNarry: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Ritchie: No, I will not give way. I have only a few minutes left, and I would rather continue.

Associations can only build social housing where they are supported by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Space standards are higher in modern housing units, and the ‘Housing Association Guide’, which sets standards for the provision of housing accommodation, has set targets for density. That should address the point that Naomi raised.

When the Northern Ireland Housing Executive cannot support need to the extent that will enable density targets to be addressed, associations will consider the development of co-ownership housing in order to increase density. There are also planning requirements for open space — quality space standards — which impact on housing density.

Naomi also raised the house sales scheme. The Semple Report recommends that a fresh look be taken at the —

Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will you clarify whether it is normal procedure in the Chamber to refer to other Members by their first or Christian names?

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is not normal procedure, but it is up to the individual Member. There is nothing against it.

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Member for raising the issue. I do not wish to be discourteous to any Member.

The Semple Report recommends that a fresh look be taken at the house sales scheme. I am fully aware that there are concerns about the scheme, which was last reviewed in October 2004. I take careful note of the Member’s views, and I will re-examine the issue.

Mr Cobain raised the issue of surplus land. I will write to ministerial colleagues to ask them to identify surplus land in the ownership of their respective ministries, or agencies sponsored by their Departments, and to release that land through the clearing-house arrangements of the Valuation and Lands Agency. I will also consider surplus military sites to assess their suitability for social and affordable housing.

Mr Cobain and Mr McCann raised the issue of targets for new-build housing. The target for new social starts in the current year is 1,500. I freely admit that I am unhappy about that target. Were I given the money, I would build more social housing. I make that remark in the House in order for it to be on the record. The current budget will not support that number, but I will enter a bid with the Department of Finance and Personnel in the normal way, against competing priorities. I hope that my ministerial colleagues will support that bid. That is the issue: give me the money, and I will build the houses.

I welcome Alastair Ross to the Chamber. In his maiden speech, he asked what steps are being taken to help first-time homebuyers in Northern Ireland. Several initiatives have been introduced, such as the co-ownership scheme. It was assessed and reviewed last October, and I want to re-examine some issues in relation to that.

Mrs McGill raised the matter of cross-departmental issues. I readily acknowledge that there are many of those. As I said earlier, I shall present a paper to the Executive this Thursday that will tackle cross-cutting recommendations by establishing a ministerial review committee or task force to respond to those pressing issues in the Semple Review, particularly matters of housing affordability and the social housing development programme.

Mrs McGill further referred to house sales by the rural housing associations. Housing associations sell houses on the same basis as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. If the Member will give me the details of the case in her constituency, I shall look into the matter and respond.

My colleague Mr Ramsey brought forward an issue concerning housing associations. Suffice to say, housing associations are able to purchase single dwellings, and the Department for Social Development has a fast-track system to assist them in doing so. Associations might indeed find themselves in competition with other buyers, but the Department will support associations where value for money is apparent. However, my Department cannot support cases without regard to cost. I shall therefore discuss the matter further with Mr Ramsey, if that is appropriate.

My colleague Declan O’Loan raised the issue of second homes in rural, coastal areas, particularly in tourist areas. That area is difficult for me as Minister for Social Development, since I have no remit to interfere in the private housing sector, where individuals have a civil right to purchase where they choose. Moreover, any tax on second homes is an issue for the Treasury. However, I shall discuss the matter with Mr O’Loan at his convenience.

Robin Newton raised the issue of housing problems in east Belfast. Representations about that have already been made to me, and I have agreed to visit the area, when my diary permits, to see the problems at first hand.

As I said earlier, no quick fix will solve the problem overnight. However, together, as an Assembly and an Executive, a Minister and the Social Development Committee, we can make that difference. I look forward to that.

Put simply, I must reiterate that if my Department were given the money, we should be only too happy to build houses. There is a severe housing crisis throughout the North of Ireland. Many people are in housing stress, and many are on waiting lists for allocation of a property by the Housing Executive or by a housing association on the basis of need and according to the common selection scheme. Many young people are in crisis because they cannot obtain a first house, due to low income and the improvement in local living standards mentioned by Mr Newton.

I want to be able to address those issues. Members also referred to the matter of high rent in the private sector. Those are issues for a ministerial review team. I should be very happy to take that forward with the Executive’s approval, but I must wait until Thursday for that.

I thank Members for their contributions, and I look forward to working with every Member on this vexatious issue.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you, Minister. I wish you well in the task ahead.

3.30 pm

Mrs Long: I welcome the comments of the new Minister for Social Development and her interest in affordable housing, as demonstrated by the fact that her first public engagement was to visit a social housing site. I also wish to assure the Minister that ‘Naomi’ is one of the nicer things people call me, and I will not object to it. [Laughter.]

I also welcome the institution of an interdepartmental group to take this issue forward because it has implications for a number of Departments, not least because of funding. Mr Cobain and others, including Fra McCann, rightly highlighted that the budget for the Department for Social Development was inadequate, and that it required more resources. That is correct and — given the social and financial implications of poor housing on people’s mental and physical health, on their ability to be economically active and productive in the workplace, and on social and family breakdown — it is a worthwhile investment.

Mr Burns, a Member for South Antrim, mentioned the stigma attached to rental and social housing, and that there needs to be societal change. I agree, and believe that by integrating social, affordable and private development in single developments, many of those barriers can be tackled, especially if the styles of the different developments are comparable.

The DUP Member for East Antrim Mr Ross mentioned that young professionals and single persons can be marginalised. It is true that those who are working often find it hard to get private rental accommodation, as landlords see them as a riskier source of income compared with those who receive housing benefit.

Claire McGill mentioned the review of housing benefit levels and suggested that they should rise so that people are not forced to spend their benefits on meeting that housing gap. I agree that that is an issue that requires attention. My biggest fear is that unscrupulous landlords will drive up rents artificially, with little tangible benefit to tenants from the inflated rents, albeit that they have the surety of their rent being paid. That issue needs to be handled carefully, so as not to exacerbate inflation.

I will deal with concerns expressed specifically about the amendment. Basil McCrea suggested that denser housing equates in some way with slum living. That is nonsense. One only needs to look at the city-centre apartments in private development areas, which attract a premium, to see that that is not the case. What makes the quality of a housing development good or bad is not the floor space of the individual properties, but the amenities and services that are provided to it. If a development is of high quality and suitable, and given the large proportion of the housing list that is made up of single people, it seems acceptable that some of those properties may be slightly smaller, while slightly larger properties should be available to accommodate families and others, with social services available. The best should be available to all. However, I do not advocate that we simply cram people in.

Mr Ramsey expressed concern about the put-back rate. I assure him that I simply ask for it to be considered along with the other options. I do not suggest that it is a straightforward issue and that it should be escalated; rather that we need to ensure that the density of development reflects the character of the local area. I conceded that it is neither possible, nor desirable, that there should be a one-for-one put-back rate in streets such as the one that I grew up in, where there were 37 to 40 terraced houses that would not be considered large enough for current needs. However, when the put-back rate is reduced to 25%, it is wise, at least, to review the situation and work out why that is the case. We need decent, open-space standards in those developments. However, many people with those standards are deprived of services and connectivity in their communities — often in suburban housing estates, many of which are around the edges of my own constituency. Open space does not necessarily equate with quality development. It has to be well-used and well-managed open space that is available and actively used. That requires a certain critical mass of the local community and, in my experience, the lack of critical mass in some communities — even the urban ones with very few services available to them — has led to the further depletion of available resources.

I do not simply ask Members to increase the put-back rate, but to consider it in the overall mix. A comprehensive review should examine all aspects of the question. I hope that Members will not divide the House on the amendment.

Mr Shannon: I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. I congratulate the Minister as well. She indicated that affordable housing is her number-one priority — I am glad to hear that. She also said that if she is given the money she will do the job. I thought that she was going to start building on the day that she was photographed wearing a hard hat and holding a spade.

I am happy to accept the amendment. It complements the motion, and Mrs Long said clearly that the idea is to include the consideration of increasing the put-back rate in the process. If that is the intention we shall have achieved a brave bit. She cited a case where 300 houses had been replaced by 50. That is perhaps an extreme example; however, it underlines the fact that it is important to build as many houses as possible in order to maintain the density in the area and to take maximum advantage of a redevelopment. For instance, these days most people do not want a big garden, although some do. My colleague Sammy Wilson loves working in his garden on a Saturday and tending the strawberries and raspberries.

Mr McCann referred to new build in Belfast and in rural communities. That is an important issue. Much of the new build has taken place in Belfast — that is where the Minister was pictured. However, I look forward to the day when she will come to Strangford to mark the start of building in that part of the country. There have been only 25 new houses built in the Strangford area in the last 18 months — a rate of 16 a year. There is an obvious imbalance if that is compared with a new build of 600.

Fred Cobain mentioned affordable housing and commended Sir John Semple’s report. He also pointed out that housing is part of the anti-poverty strategy. It is to be hoped that when, as the Minister for Social Development stated, all of the other Departments involved — DRD, DOE, DFP, DEL and OFMDFM — come together, all of the issues can be addressed.

Members referred many times to the social element. Housing need in Strangford is extreme, but every Member will have an example from his or her own constituency, and I accept that. One of our new colleagues Mr Ross spoke for the first time in the Chamber; however, he also spoke as a first-time buyer, and that gives him knowledge of the difficulties that people face today.

The need for social housing was raised frequently. Mrs McGill mentioned rural properties and private rental properties. That raises an issue that has not been touched on in the debate — private housing and private rentals. Rents are rising dramatically. In Newtownards, a two-bedroom or three-bedroom house costs upwards of £500 a month. Housing benefit does not go that far, so that issue must be addressed.

Mr O’Dowd: Does the Member agree that if the millions of pounds paid out in housing benefit to private landlords were circulated through the system back to the Housing Executive and then into DSD, the money problems that the Minister faces would be less acute?

Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his intervention and endorse his comments. Clearly, if the rented accommodation in my area and all other areas were taken together, it would amount to a multitide of money, compared to the present position.

Mr Craig mentioned 600 new houses. They are not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the need for new housing. Sir John Semple said that 2,000 homes are required, so it is obvious that 600 will not address that. In her response, the Minister outlined some of the areas that she intends to take on board with regard to setting land aside. However, she did not indicate how much money will be available for social housing this year. I accept that the more money that is available, the more houses can be built.

Mr McNarry: On the question of the Budget, does the Member agree that the Minister said four times today that if her Department got the money, houses would be built, and that in saying so she was admitting that without any money from the Brown package, from selling military sites, from selling off land belonging to the Department for Social Development, she really cannot build any new houses for affordable housing and her hands are tied? That is her problem. Regardless of any platitudes made today or any task force set up, unless the money is made available, from Brown in particular, she can do nothing. Where is this money from Brown? When are we getting it?

Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for his intervention.

The Minister has said, I think on four occasions, that if she were given the money, she would do the job. That has not changed; the situation is exactly the same. She also said that she has a certain amount of money for the Department for Social Development within the Budget, and she is going to do that. She has made this issue her number one priority. She has stated that in the Chamber, and Members will be keen to see that the job is done.

Basil McCrea mentioned the fact that couples with two incomes would need to put aside 81·2% of their wages for a deposit and stamp duty.

Pat Ramsey said that if the mortgage is the biggest part of a couple’s financial commitment, it impacts on the whole family.

My colleague Robin Newton outlined the increasing gap between wage earnings and house prices. That has been the issue for every Member who has spoken today.

Mr O’Loan referred to property prices on the north coast — one of the reasons for that is that people are buying second homes there. That illustrates the point because the ordinary person who lives there cannot buy, and that is obviously a concern for Members.

The Minister replied very clearly about what she intends to do. She referred to land that has been earmarked for the next two years. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I look forward to the issue of social housing being addressed by the Department for Social Development and the Executive as well.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to article 40 of The Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. As we will be wearing our different hats I am aware of how that issue will be addressed. I am glad to hear that commitment because Strangford will not lose out on that particular proposal, and that is good news.

The Minister’s commitment to the redevelopment areas and the redevelopment plans is encouraging. She spoke a lot about Belfast, the north coast and north Antrim. I am sure that the Minister will visit Strangford sometime.

It worries me that there are 19,000 people on the priority housing list in the Province. Of those, 2,000 are in Strangford where there have been only 16 new builds in the last 12 months. Considering that, and the fact that 2,000 are needed, the need in Strangford exceeds that of other parts of the Province. The Minister should consider that.

I realise that the Minister for Social Development has a social conscience, and I believe that she will give a commitment to social housing. Members look forward to her carrying out the commitments that she has made today, and we will be keeping an eye on that.

Thank you very much.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses serious concerns about the affordable housing crisis, and calls upon the Minister for Social Development to co-ordinate urgently with the Housing Executive, Housing Associations, and all other relevant bodies, to release and set aside land for new build projects, to consider increasing the put-back rate on existing redevelopment areas, and to report back to this Assembly with the strategy and timescale that is finalised.

Vacant Properties

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The Member moving the motion will have 10 minutes and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

3.45 pm

Mr F McCann: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes that some 36,000 homes lie empty across Northern Ireland; calls upon the Minister for Social Development to take immediate steps to tackle the scandal of vacant properties; and recognises that this could go a long way to deal with the serious crisis which exists in the provision of social and affordable housing, highlighted by the Semple recommendations.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

For the second time today, a motion has come before the House that addresses the housing crisis that we face across the North of Ireland. We can discuss serious problems such as the supply of social housing, the problems of planning and of land supply, of creating an affordable sector, or of the housing selection scheme — the list is endless. However, one problem that often escapes attention is that of empty dwellings — homes left vacant, often for many years. Many homes are left empty so that they can accumulate as much value as possible before the owners sell them for huge profits. It has been estimated that more than 30% of all empty properties fall into that category.

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

In 1991, more than 31,000 homes lay empty; in 1996, the figure was more than 33,000; in 2006, the total stood at 38,000 — those are the most recent figures. That is a scandal, but it is not a new phenomenon. Those figures have been in the public domain for many years and are issued by the Department for Social Development’s statistics branch on a quarterly basis. Sinn Féin has raised this matter several times with various Ministers, and I have no doubt that other parties have done likewise, but our words have fallen on deaf ears.

We raised the matter in the Chamber during a debate of the Transitional Assembly, but now we need to act. We have a local Minister and a new Executive; we now need the political will to respond to the scandal of 38,000 homes that are lying empty while thousands of people are homeless or trapped on waiting lists. However, that problem is not untypical of the way that the housing sector has been organised in recent years. As I speak, 4,898 houses stand empty in the greater Belfast area. Some of those houses have been empty for years, others are in various states of disrepair, while others could accommodate tenants right away.

South Belfast has the highest number of vacant dwellings, with 2,350; north Belfast has 1,200 empty properties; there are 810 in east Belfast; and 520 empty dwellings in west Belfast. In Lisburn, 1,460 dwellings are empty; in Derry, the total is 1,800. Right across the state, there are batches of empty homes while we are in the midst of a crisis in housing supply. Would that be tolerated anywhere else?

The Minister must take urgent action to ensure that vacant dwellings are brought into the general housing stream. Can Members imagine what impact the availability of 38,000 dwellings would have on the housing crisis? In a short space of time, they would help to overcome the lack of supply in the social rented sector and help to kick-start an affordable sector; they would go a long way towards eradicating the present waiting list and would allow us to start to deal with the growing problem of homelessness.

Empty properties create huge social problems: they are a danger; they are magnets for antisocial behaviour and vandalism. How many Members have had to phone the housing section of their local council or the Housing Executive to have a house blocked up because they cannot find out the identity of the owner? How many times have Members phoned the Fire and Rescue Service because someone has set fire to an empty house? Often, that same dwelling has lain empty for so long that it has fallen into disrepair and affects the houses on either side. The owners cannot be traced or simply ignore any approaches made to them. How many times have Members had to go to a vacant house that is being used by antisocial elements to torture local residents or which is being used as a drug den by the local supplier to peddle death to our young people? What image do so many empty dwellings send to the public — that an area is on its way down; a picture of dereliction; an area not to enter?

In my constituency, I continuously push for empty houses to be brought back into use. I have seen houses being so heavily vandalised in a few short days that demolition seems to be the only answer. That leaves its mark on communities, and I stress to the housing authorities that speedy action is essential in the battle against dereliction.

Sinn Féin believes that measures are needed to bring empty dwellings back into use. That may not be easy, but it should not stop us from making a start.

This issue was identified in the recommendations of the Semple Review into social and affordable housing. No house in public ownership should lie empty for more than three months. Those homes should be refurbished and brought back into use for tenants. That should be a priority for the Executive, and such a commitment would make a huge impact on the crisis in affordable housing.

Sinn Féin believes that the use of compulsory purchase orders should be seriously considered as a way forward when derelict property and properties that are vacant for 12 months or more could be used for social or affordable housing. A fair and transparent appeals procedure should be put in place to deal with any objections.

Furthermore, Sinn Féin believes that other penalties should be implemented. The rateable value of the house should increase if the owners refuse to comply with any order that is issued by the housing authorities. Such penalties may quickly change the attitudes of the owners of those vacant properties. It is essential that the Assembly send out a warning that whatever action is required, it will be taken to bring those dwellings back into use. That is owed to the many thousands of people who are in hostels, sleeping on the streets, or in priority need of housing. I ask Members to support the motion.

Go raibh maith agat.

Mr S Wilson: I welcome the motion in the name of — I think he is called “Fry” McCann. I think he, like myself, has eaten too many of those.

I welcome not only the content of the motion, but its tone. I am glad to see that, as a member of Belfast City Council — perhaps after being subjected to the presence of the DUP — Mr McCann is a bit more progressive than some of his country cousins.

I am sure that if the Minister for Regional Development had written the motion, it would have been different. It would have read: “This Assembly notes that some 36,000 houses lie empty across here.” The notion that Northern Ireland should be called “here” is ridiculous. I suppose that the Republic of Ireland must be called “there”. Members on this side of the House are afraid to say “Hear, hear” when they hear something from the other side with which they agree in case the other side thinks that they are supporting the Minister for Regional Development’s stance. The public has laughed at that ridiculous situation.

I can imagine someone phoning the Department for Regional Development to ask: “Is the Minister there?” — to which an official would answer: “No. He is here.” The caller might ask: “Can I speak to him?” — to which the official would reply: “No, he is not here.” The caller might then say: “But you told me a minute ago that he was there.” The official would reply: “No. I said he was here, but he is not here.” [Laughter.]

Mr O’Dowd: On a point of order, I always find the Member’s contributions to debates very amusing, and this is no exception. Although I am more than happy to listen to it, is it relevant to the debate?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Wilson, you must return to the motion.

Mr S Wilson: I will, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, I can only conclude that any member of the public who engaged in the conversation that I have outlined would have the right to think that the Minister’s staff were not all there — whether or not they are not all here. Laughable as that may be —

Mr D Bradley: Will Mr Wilson accept that what he has just said is neither here nor there? [Laughter.]

Mr S Wilson: I accept that it is neither here nor there. I hope that the Deputy Speaker will accept that it is neither here nor there. However, I hope that I have made my point. I am glad to see that at least some Members of Sinn Féin have got past the ridiculous politically correct nonsense that one cannot refer to Northern Ireland, the very country in which they want to take part in ruling. The second reason that I am happy —

Mr O’Dowd: Will the Member give way?

Mr S Wilson: I have only five minutes. However, I will give way — why not?

Mr O’Dowd: It was actually the Business Office that changed the terminology of the motion, not our Member.

Mr S Wilson: So it is neither here nor there to him either. The second reason that I am happy to see the motion is that Sinn Féin — who were for so long responsible for creating so many vacant homes through the long terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland — is now in the position of putting houses into use for their proper function, instead of wrecking them. The DUP takes some credit for that.

I shall make two further points. First, in the public sector, as the proposer of the motion said, there are far too many houses that are lying vacant. Those homes lie vacant because of delays in pushing through orders to fix them. In some cases they are held for decanting purposes when major renovation schemes take place, although Members can cite examples of houses held for decanting that have never been used. However, if it is pointed out to the Housing Executive or housing associations that a house is vacant and has not been used for a year, they reply that the house is being held for decanting purposes. That is nonsense. There should be a stricture on housing associations and the Housing Executive to ensure that any of their properties left vacant for more than three months are brought back into use. If a house becomes vacant and needs work, that work should be carried out quickly and not held up until a larger contract is available.

There is the ludicrous position in the private sector of people buying houses to hold — not to let — and those houses are sold six months later for an inflated capital value. The Minister of Finance and Personnel could address that issue by demanding that rates are paid on houses whether they are occupied or not. That may force the owners to bring houses back into use because they would face a financial penalty if they did not.

There is the matter of houses held for grant-aid purposes while applications for grants to improve them are processed by the Housing Executive. We must ensure that those cases are dealt with quickly and not held over for long periods. There are several measures that could be taken, and I trust that the Minister will address the issue so that the problem can be overcome.

The Deputy Speaker: I call Mr Basil McCrea, and, while it is neither here nor there, I ask him to stick to the motion.

Mr B McCrea: Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for the direction. I would have been in danger of being wrong-footed. I thought that the Assembly was going to have a bit of fun and games, but Mr Wilson has taken us off in a completely different direction, and I feel quite inadequate to follow him. However, I will do my best.

I say a very loud “hear, hear” to the motion. Vacant property is a serious issue. In Dromore, where I am opening my office, there is a house nearby that has trees growing out of it. That cannot be right.

Mr Weir: That is the Green Party.

Mr B McCrea: That is the Green Party. [Laughter.] No one can say that the Assembly does not have a green policy.

In the centre of Lisburn, there is a string of eight retail properties opposite the museum that are not occupied because people are looking at the capital valuation they can accumulate on a month-by-month basis. I heard what Mr Wilson said, and if it is possible to make a 44% rate of return on a property on a year-on-year basis, we are all wasting our time. Frankly, as far as the proposer is concerned, it makes no difference whether one can get rates at 50%, or if something is clawed back; 44% cannot be beaten anywhere else.

To return to the motion, I believe that the issue can be split into two parts: what is going on in the private sector, which has been mentioned, and what is happening in the public sector. Lisburn, as the proposer of the motion said, has 133 vacant properties, which is 3·2% of the total housing stock. However, when I asked the Housing Executive what the problem was, I came across two issues. The first is a schemes-related contract. I was not sure what that meant, but I am told that it is important to the Housing Executive. The second issue is let for improvement. Organisations, so I am told, cannot run at 100% efficiency and some vacant properties are needed to allow for renovations and people moving in and out. However, it is disingenuous to say that there are 36,000 empty homes available. The survey of the Housing Executive domestic vacant rate —

Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: Of course. Since we are being so friendly, I might as well.

Mr F McCann: The Member raises a valid point. However, Sammy Wilson referred to decanting, but there will be only one or two houses used for decanting as a scheme is carried through, so that does not make much of an impact. Lisburn has approximately 1,400 houses lying empty, and that is an indictment on the housing services for not bringing them back into play in the general housing market, especially with the number of people waiting to be rehoused.

4.00 pm

Mr B McCrea: I am grateful to the Member for his clarification of that point, which we both agree on.

The Housing Executive’s review of domestic vacant property shows that 32% of vacant houses were classified as unfit and 14% were defective. Therefore, around 50% were useful. The rates review survey found that of the properties thought to be vacant, 21% were occupied, 30% were awaiting another tenant, 24% were derelict and 7% were being modernised. That brings to mind the quote: “Lies, damned lies and statistics”.

I agree with the sentiment behind the motion, and I think that there will be general agreement that derelict property is a disgrace and ought to be dealt with. Dealing with it in a simplistic manner, however, is not the answer. We need to understand fully what is going on and find a satisfactory solution, and I am sure that the Minister for Social Development will take these points on board.

Mr A Maginness: I thank the Member for West Belfast Mr Fra McCann for moving the motion. It is an important motion that draws attention to a serious problem for the community.

The number of vacant houses quoted in the motion is 36,000, which is 5·4% of housing stock. In England, 3% of the housing stock is vacant, so there is a significant difference between here and there. There must be compelling reasons for that difference, and it is important that we discover what they are.

If the Minister and the Department for Social Development find creative ways of making vacant properties serviceable, we could achieve a sizeable increase in the public housing stock in a few years. That would make a significant dent in the waiting lists.

If vacant housing were reduced to 3%, in line with England, we would increase our housing stock by approximately 16,000. That would be a tremendous achievement and, combined with new-builds, could successfully address much of our housing need. It would go a long way to addressing the urgent housing need of 17,000, which is currently outstanding.

The Semple Report clearly outlines that a carrot-and-stick approach must be used. It is wrong for people to hoard and bank property in order to make a killing. It is important that penalties be imposed on those who attempt to do that. One possibility is a rating system that levies rates on vacant domestic properties. Semple goes to the extent of saying that, after a year, a 200% tax liability could be imposed. That would dramatically emphasise to the property owners who are deliberately allowing their properties to remain vacant that they should either rent or sell the properties to those who need them.

So there has to be a mixture of stick and carrot. As far as the carrot is concerned, it is important to provide incentives for those who own derelict properties to put them to good use again, such as the introduction of a generous grants system. Indeed, the properties could be vested and sold at a discount rate to first-time buyers, who could then take advantage of a generous grant regime to return those properties to proper habitable use.

It is important to be innovative in approaching the problem, and I hope that the Minister will encourage those who are advising her within her Department to think of innovative schemes that can come on-stream soon. That would assist in alleviating the tremendous housing need problems in many areas. I encourage the Minister to think carefully and to act quickly.

Dr Farry: Like others, I commend the Members who tabled the motion for bringing this important issue before the Assembly.

We have already heard about the 36,000 empty properties in Northern Ireland, roughly one in 20, or 5%, of the available housing stock. That situation is simply not sustainable. It shows a failure in the housing market, and it must be addressed.

Mr Maginness has already referred to the rating system and the financial incentives and penalties that could encourage people who possess empty properties to put them to much better use. I would go one step further and suggest that the Assembly consider asking the Chancellor for the power to either eliminate or reduce VAT on renovations — another proposal that was mentioned in the Semple Report. In particular, people who own big old properties that they have difficulty using would be encouraged to turn them into apartments, rather than simply knock them down and build new apartments in their place. That would protect many historic buildings, especially in the greater Belfast area.

The issue on which I want to focus has not yet been addressed today — residential segregation. Like any form of arbitrary division between people, residential segregation creates major distortions. In very crude terms, the basic problem is one of vacant properties in so-called Protestant areas and housing pressures and long waiting lists in some so-called Catholic areas. Often those areas are no more than a few hundred metres apart, but territorial considerations are clearly getting in the way of addressing the housing need.

That problem carries significant costs, a point that was first addressed by Dr Jeremy Harbison in his research for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in advance of the consultation on ‘A Shared Future’ in 2002. It will inevitably be addressed in the research that OFMDFM has commissioned from Deloitte & Touche LLP, and which this Assembly is currently awaiting.

A range of measures must be put in place to address this problem. First, we must tackle the “them versus us” mindset that creates competition over territory and resources. We must tackle the notion that territory can be marked out as Protestant or Catholic, and we must ensure that housing is provided on the basis of need, not on the basis of an applicant’s religion.

Although there is clearly a problem with public attitudes, there is also a problem with the housing authorities that get caught up in this territorial issue. My colleague Anna Lo has already referred to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s policy of effectively accepting that people can, by right, have single-identity housing. We are so conditioned to accept the historical divisions in this country that we have all too readily accepted that people have a right to live in a Protestant area or Catholic area. However, there would be an international outcry if we applied that approach to race and talked about white, black or Asian areas. Indeed, segregating housing on the basis of religion would be deemed illegal in any other country in the world.

Much more emphasis must be placed on mixed housing. Having been critical of the Housing Executive, I shall be generous and recognise that it is making major strides in that area with a number of pilot projects. Those initiatives must be developed much further and are supported by the Alliance Party.

We must also protect people who live in mixed housing areas. When intimidation has arisen in the past, there has been the novel notion of punishing the victim — forcing the victim to relocate, rather than tackling the perpetrator. That approach must change, and we must provide security for those people who wish to mix together.

Fundamentally, there is a major challenge for the Assembly to address the divisions in society. If, four years from now, we have not done that, the Assembly will have failed. We must note that, since the ceasefires in 1994, more peace walls have been built in Belfast keeping people apart and dividing housing areas. The challenge of tackling division touches on all public policy areas, not least that of housing. Tackling division is one way of addressing the issue of vacancies. I accept that tackling division is a multifaceted problem, but it is crucial that the Assembly gives proper recognition to how segregation creates costs across society.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Lord Browne. As this will be Lord Browne’s maiden speech, he will not be interrupted.

Lord Browne: This motion and the motion in the name of my colleague Mr Shannon debated before it adequately reflect the real and unquestionable housing crisis in Northern Ireland. As homeowners, we all appreciate the rapid rise in property prices and the difficulty that younger people face in attempting to make that initial step onto the property ladder. More importantly, as public representatives, we are all acutely aware of the challenges in providing social housing: the level of waiting lists, the lack of new builds and the state of the existing housing stock.

As stated by Mr McCann in the text of the motion and in his remarks, Sir John Semple’s report into the provision of affordable housing is a crucially important document. It offers many ways in which tangible gains could be accrued from a host of policy shifts and initiatives from the Department for Social Development. I therefore welcome the public remarks made by the Minister, Ms Ritchie, that Sir John’s report is at the top of her desk. I wish the Minister all the very best in her new post.

At the heart of the motion lies Sir John’s suggestion that potentially up to 36,000 vacant dwellings could be refurbished to a liveable standard. It seems to be an obvious, efficient and effective method of adding to the available housing stock, providing homes already serviced by infrastructure and facilities. At the same time, it will revitalise communities that currently lie dormant, besmirched by a lack of social investment and underfunding. Many pockets in my constituency of East Belfast would benefit if the resources for such a scheme could be found.

As the Minister said, developers are all too often outbidding the Department in the purchase of land in areas of social deprivation that are crying out for social housing. As a result, scores of luxury turnkey apartments are being built on land that would otherwise have provided homes for those most in need. Although such apartments arguably add to an area, with price tags of over £200,000, they are firmly out of the reach of families and individuals, who have little or no other housing options. Private housing provision certainly has its place. However, the Department for Social Development must have the resources and the vision to play a long game in relation to land purchase and, if necessary, the ability to thwart the negative effect of land banking.

I was both interested and shocked to learn that the agreed definition that Sir John used for affordability rests at 35% of a householder’s gross income.

I was interested in that because that sets a tangible level for purchasing a property, but I was also shocked by how far financial expectations are out of kilter with realistic purchase prices and rental costs.

4.15 pm

Although people who remain unemployed in the long term because of disability or any other contributing factor will, naturally, be catered for, those in a full-time employment and working for the minimum wage would have less than £300 a month to pay towards their dwellings. A landlord or bank would be more likely to laugh at them than hand over keys, yet thousands of people regularly find themselves in such a position.

Similarly, the days of securing a mortgage of twice, three times or even five times a person’s annual income are well and truly over. House buyers can only expect to receive a mortgage for an amount that is simply deemed manageable by their lender, and certainly for a longer period than the standard 25 years. While it may be predicted by some, the result of a property crash and the negative equity that would inevitably follow would be unbelievably catastrophic to an economy that is, I believe, finally starting to find its feet again.

There is no quick-fix solution to the housing problem, but nevertheless a solution is required. I have no problem in supporting this motion and that proposed by Mr Shannon in the earlier debate on affordable housing. I hope that this issue will be afforded the importance and Assembly time that it deserves —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Your time is up.

Lord Browne: I hope that in time we will establish a level of stability and sustainability.

Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I offer my congratulations on your appointment and wish you well.

I thank the proposer of the motion, my party colleague Fra McCann. Last week’s ‘Strabane Chronicle’ reported that a young family living in a house in a row of 11 Housing Executive properties in one of the town’s estates was put at risk by a fire in one of the derelict houses in that row. According to a family member, it was not the first time that a fire had been started there. That family member fears that sooner or later someone will be injured — perhaps a resident, one of the children, or a member of the emergency services.

Apparently, the derelict houses in the row have been vacant for over two years. In my experience, the Housing Executive has done a lot of good work in Strabane, but in this particular case, local people feel that something should have been done much sooner.

As a general principle, responsible bodies and organisations should refurbish and re-let vacant properties as soon as possible to provide housing opportunities, to prevent vandalism and to ensure the safety of residents. Several Members have already made that point. Five hundred and fifty-five households have applied to be put on the waiting list in Strabane, 197 of which have reported housing stress. Omagh has a waiting list of over 600 households, 160 of which are in urgent need. As I said in the previous debate, we must not forget that there is a human side to the statistics and that there are people in real difficulties.

Given that there is a lack of affordable housing, undue delay in dealing with vacant properties is unacceptable. I wonder what causes the delay: is it bureaucracy? We must determine whether bureaucracy is preventing regeneration programmes, particularly those that are planned in conjunction with the community and voluntary sector, from moving forward efficiently and effectively.

Our progress in dealing with vacant properties — particularly in dealing with the kind of scenario that I have outlined — has to be much quicker. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Spratt: I support the motion. The extraordinary level of vacant homes is an unacceptable waste of resources. Given the current housing climate, which was so well debated earlier, that waste is unjustifiable. I am sure that, like me, other Members can tell stories of long waiting lists for public housing in their areas. Even in the cases of most need, when the applicant has a high number of points, there is no guarantee that they will be accommodated quickly. When somebody who is in dire personal circumstances comes to a Member, it is hard to explain to them why their problems cannot be resolved urgently when many homes in the locality lie empty.

There are many working-class areas in South Belfast — particularly Protestant ones — about which it is an understatement to say that housing is a problem. In this debate, we should consider not only the wasted potential of vacant property but the negative impact that it can have on the surrounding environment. That is a major problem in the Village area, which is in the Donegall Road area of my constituency, in which there are hundreds of unoccupied properties. Property in the public or private sector that is allowed to lie vacant in the long term can drag the character of an area down. A house that lies empty for any significant length of time — especially if it is allowed to become derelict — can become an unattractive focal point in a neighbourhood, no matter how well maintained the remaining homes. It can become a hazard to the health and safety of local people and a magnet for antisocial behaviour, as was said earlier in the Chamber. Threats to the appearance and harmony of an area can originate from one house, but Members can imagine the impact on a community when such threats emerge from 400 houses.

I acknowledge that vacant homes are not the only problems that face the Village area. The Blackstaff ward has one of the highest levels of housing deprivation in Northern Ireland. A great deal of the occupied housing is also in an appalling condition. Some residents are without proper heating or proper bathroom and lavatory facilities. That should be unthinkable in the modern age. It is essential that such problems are tackled in parallel with the problem of vacant homes.

The existence of so much vacant property acts as an impediment to improving an area and exhibiting the pride of the local community. It also acts as a significant barrier to inward investment. Investment can often play a major role in lifting neighbourhoods out of deprivation. It should be noted that the existence of vacant property is an issue for the business as well as for the residential sector. A number of sites and buildings around Belfast could provide an economic boost to their vicinity if their potential were harnessed and put to use.

It is early days for the new Executive, but it is in locations such as the Village that devolution will have to make a difference. The problems in the Village are not new, but the poor conditions have been allowed to exist for far too long. Studies have been carried out and strategies have been drawn up, but those are of little comfort to people who live in such conditions. Measures have to be implemented in the Village area; we have to see a vast improvement as soon as possible in the vacant properties and in all the other problems of the area. That has to be one of the most urgent priorities in South Belfast. Consequently, I have to warn the Minister that she will probably hear from me and from other representatives of the area in future.

Mr Elliott: The House has heard much about the urban areas of the Province, so it will come as no surprise that I want to talk about the problems of vacant properties in rural areas of Northern Ireland. Today’s three motions — the processing of planning applications, affordable housing, and vacant properties — are closely linked and come into one domain.

Statistics show that the west of the Province has the highest number of vacant properties, with the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area having the highest proportion — 10·8% of private housing stock is vacant. Close behind are Cookstown, Omagh and Fermanagh, which all have a high percentage of vacant properties. Why? It is linked to the planning process and affordable housing, which the previous two motions were concerned with.

A major issue is the planning criteria for vacant or replacement dwellings. Applicants go to great lengths to prove to planners that their dwelling has not been abandoned. As soon as that has been proved, the planners ask for proof that the house is not structurally sound, because if it is it must be repaired rather than replaced. That is one bureaucratic system that the people of Northern Ireland can do without, and I hope that the Minister takes that on board. Although planning is not in the Minister’s direct remit, I hope that she, along with the rest of us, can influence it, because it is costing the people of the Province a vast amount of money.

Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council has the highest percentage of vacant properties, yet it has a huge number of foreign workers, which the factories in the area cannot do without, who cannot get homes — just like local people. Property has become unaffordable and first-time buyers cannot get homes. I ask the Government to take that issue on board.

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

Interestingly, recent statistics highlight that in 1992 some 31,000 homes were vacant, a figure that has increased to about 36,000. If that trend continues without being addressed, in another 10 years the figure will have increased by 10%. Therefore I ask that the issue be dealt with urgently.

Mr Campbell: I support the motion and note that many Members mentioned the extent of the problem. As Chairman of the Committee for Social Development, I assure Members that the Committee will take an abiding interest in the topic.

Over the past 15 years, the figures for vacant dwellings — despite a slight variation between 36,000 and 38,000 over the past year or two — have oscillated between a low of 30,000 and a high of 40,000; at present the figure is 38,000. The problem of vacant housing stock has not emerged in the past two years — although it has undoubtedly been exacerbated in that time — it has been an abiding problem for which a solution has not been found. I hope that the Minister will look for an innovative and progressive solution.

I note that the Semple Review mentioned an empty homes agency. The Committee and other Members and I may want to look at that and see how it might work.

4.30 pm

However, if we examine much of what passes for empty homes as a global phenomenon — be there 30,000 or 40,000 — there has been a combination of problems in housing estates in many parts of Northern Ireland. Problems such as antisocial activity, paramilitary involvement and other issues associated with some of the housing estates have contributed to a perception that these are not desirable places to live.

In the view of many, the Housing Executive has struggled to allocate one or two houses to keep the voids ticking over. That approach has not worked. In my constituency there are several large estates, and the perception is that they are not desirable places in which to live. The problem is compounded, and there are not only 10, 20, 50 or 100 empty properties but hundreds of voids. In one case, the Housing Executive eventually had to issue a demolition order, because it could not allocate certain properties and get them back into circulation.

There must be a cross-cutting approach to this problem. The Housing Executive cannot merely look at the issue and try to allocate properties in those estates despite the problems — some of which may be throwbacks to the 1980s — still being there. That has obviously not worked.

There must be a co-ordinated approach between the Department for Social Development, the Department of the Environment and the police. In other words, the message must be sent to people who live in those estates that there is no place for drug dealers and those who breach the law or engage in antisocial activity. Such people are not welcome there, and everybody, including all public representatives, must support that drive to get rid of lawbreakers.

If the Department for Social Development and the Department of the Environment do that, areas of perceived unattractiveness can be changed into areas that are attractive and desirable. That will be a more likely key driver to getting a resolution rather than the piecemeal approach that appears not to have worked over the past 15 or more years.

I hope that the Minister adopts an innovative and dynamic approach. Members have mentioned the escalating prices and the fact that homeowners simply sit tight on an acquisition that grows in value every day. There are individual properties like that, and we must do something about that, but we have whole areas in the social-housing spectrum in which hundreds of properties are void. That can, and must, be tackled. I hope that the Minister will have listened to this debate, will listen to the Social Development Committee’s proposals and will come up with a solution to the problem.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I welcome, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your first occasion in the Chair and my colleague Mr Dallat, who was in the Chair previously. I wish you both well.

I thank the Members, Fra McCann and Mickey Brady, for bringing this serious and vexatious issue to the House. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a serious problem with housing, that there is a crisis, which was identified in the previous debate, and that the issue of vacant property must be addressed. There are many reasons for properties lying vacant, many of which are due to the past conflict situation, antisocial behaviour and drugs. They present a hazard to the community and must be addressed.

Never mind the “here” and “there” that Mr Wilson mentioned earlier, we are in the here and now, and we must address this matter.

I wish to set out the background to the problem. As the motion states, at least 36,000 homes lie vacant across Northern Ireland. Given the current crisis in the provision of social and affordable housing, this debate must serve to bring the problem to the fore and to seek solutions.

I agree that the availability of 36,000 homes would certainly help to relieve the pressure on the supply of housing, but, as the Member for Lagan Valley Basil McCrea said, a more complicated picture lies behind that headline figure. Only a small proportion of those properties are social housing. The majority of those homes are in the private sector, and data is not available on the reasons why they are vacant. However, we know that 14,000 of those properties have been declared unfit, and only 5,000 social dwellings are currently unoccupied. More than half of those social dwellings are undergoing major repairs, improvements, or are being used for decanting — which means that families occupy them temporarily while their own social houses are renovated.

Mr Shannon: Does the Minister agree that, rather than using such properties for decanting, perhaps mobile homes would be more suitable so that houses can be released immediately?

Ms Ritchie: I thank the Member for his intervention, but gone are the days when such families would be placed in caravans or mobile homes. I have had personal experience of seeing people living in mobile homes or caravans in winter while their Housing Executive properties were being renovated, and I saw water running down walls, extensive condensation, and many people who suffered from ill health as a result. Several years ago, SDLP representatives sat on the board of the Housing Executive and their intervention ensured that people would no longer have to endure living in mobile homes and caravans during decant periods.

Around 700 houses are vacant due to their locations and about 1,000 are earmarked for resale, development or demolition, which leaves only about 300 that are available for immediate re-let. Why are those properties vacant? It is primarily due to location. Non-traditional types of housing have also proved unpopular, such as maisonettes, which are difficult to let.

The growth of new property in the private-rented sector at various locations, combined with favourable housing benefit levels, make the less popular dwellings even more difficult to let. Although some empty properties are derelict, many are empty due to changing population profiles, and some are vacant due to the fairly recent practice of investors purchasing properties for capital growth value only. It is no longer “buy to let”, but “buy to sit”. That is unacceptable; empty properties are a luxury that we can no longer afford.

As well as being a valuable but unutilised asset at a time when housing demand is rising, empty properties attract antisocial behaviour. Such properties are unpopular with those living in neighbouring properties, and they blight existing communities as they fall into disrepair because their physical condition quickly deteriorates when neglected.

What is currently being done to address those issues? Working in partnership with the Housing Executive, the Department has put in place a number of measures to address the problem of empty homes in both the public and private sectors. For instance, estate strategies involving improvement, sale or selective demolition have been put in place in many areas.

The general oversupply problems of the growth centres that are in towns such as Craigavon, Antrim and Ballymena have been systematically addressed. The situation has improved, although further work is needed. There has been demolition and environmental improvement work at interfaces. Urban renewal programmes that have involved the improvement or replacement of dwellings, or a combination of both, have been introduced in private areas.

The Housing Executive can avail itself of several laws to intervene when domestic property is unoccupied or where, due to deterioration, property is likely to become, and remain, vacant. The Housing Executive’s power to vest land and dwellings for housing has been used extensively to facilitate large-scale redevelopment and regeneration in areas where poor housing stock was concentrated.

The Housing Executive also has powers to secure those vacant private-sector dwellings that cause a nuisance or damage to adjoining occupied properties. It also has the power to encourage owners to bring properties that are in disrepair back into use. The private-sector grants scheme can assist owners in improving existing dwellings and bringing vacant stock back into use.

The law also empowers the Housing Executive to acquire land and dwellings and to pay compensation to the owner or occupier. Significantly, however, none of the provisions outlined provide it with powers to bring empty private-sector dwellings back into use.

As Members will now realise, vacant properties create a significant and complex problem that has no easy or quick solution. Against that background, last year the Department for Social Development initiated a review into affordable housing. That review made several recommendations about the high level of empty properties in Northern Ireland. To move forward, many recommendations require cross-Government working.

As I said in today’s earlier debate on the affordable housing crisis, this Thursday I will propose to the Executive that an interdepartmental group or task force be set up. Given the views that the parties expressed in their manifestos and the comments that were made in today’s debates, I look forward to getting support from all the Executive parties, because the crucial issue is money. To put it bluntly, if I had the money, I would build the houses, and I would deal with the problem of empty properties. Semple’s ‘Review into Affordable Housing’ recommends the introduction of measures to encourage the return of empty dwellings in the private sector to housing use.

There must be a more proactive approach to managing empty homes in the social and private sectors. I want to act on that, which is why I wrote to the Housing Executive today to ask it to produce an empty homes strategy, along the lines that Semple recommended. That strategy will address several areas, such as creating and maintaining a register of homes that lie empty for longer than six months and making greater use of existing powers to occupy and vest empty homes. It will also create initiatives to encourage owners to bring properties back into use by using private-sector grants, it will set up a rental-support scheme to help owners find suitable tenants, and it will provide housing management advice.

Subject to the findings of that strategy, I will also consider introducing legislation to extend the powers of intervention along the lines of the English empty homes management order. In my letter, I asked the Housing Executive to provide me with a progress report on the empty homes strategy by the summer. However, that is a short period in which it has to do a considerable amount of work.

It is worth noting that 5·4% of the housing stock in Northern Ireland is vacant, compared to 3% in England, where there are plans to further reduce that percentage. My Department will set the Housing Executive a target of moving towards a level of empty properties. Within five years that target will be 1% above the English level, as recommended in the Semple Review. The Housing Executive will also consider developing a scheme to provide for the release of empty social-sector properties for purchase by first-time buyers who are on low incomes.

I will also ask my colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel to make strong representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reduce to 5% the VAT that is levied on refurbishments.

4.45 pm

Often, empty properties are easy to spot, because their vacancy is usually a result of neglect or failure. However, many apartments have been purchased by investors to sit empty; they are harder to deal with. No lights are on and nobody is at home. That situation must be dealt with. I hope that those investors will take that simple message from the debate. In order to rectify the situation, Semple has recommended that rates should be payable on vacant properties, with liability rising to 200% if vacant for a year or more. It should no longer cost nothing to leave a property vacant. The increased cost may deter investors from buying to sit and may encourage them to return to buy-to-let investment. It may also encourage owners of derelict properties to deal with the unfitness of the properties or to sell them. However, the issue will require further discussion across Departments before it can be agreed upon.

If Semple’s recommendations are implemented, the Department for Social Development will need professionals and the public to bring such properties to its attention. Creating awareness of the empty homes problem and marketing the role of the Housing Executive, of professionals and of the public will be essential. Everyone in the wider community has a duty in that regard. Dealing with empty homes will encourage regeneration and vibrant, sustainable communities. It will help to achieve the shared future that Dr Farry referred to earlier.

I want to deal with points that were raised by Members. Mr Basil McCrea referred to the empty homes strategy. I have already mentioned that I have written to the Housing Executive today. I hope that it will have reported back by the summer. Rest assured that if it has not, I will pursue the issue with it. My colleague Mr Maginness referred to the reduction in the percentage of empty homes. The Semple Report recommends that my Department should set the Housing Executive a target of 1% above the English level of void properties within five years, and that the empty homes strategy should address the issue. I will monitor its progress closely.

Dr Farry referred to the shared future. I have no problem with that. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, it was envisaged that people should be able to participate in a shared future. With regard to housing, they should be able to choose to live where they want, free from intimidation, wherever they feel safe. However, as has been stated earlier in the Assembly, just under 95% of Housing Executive developments are occupied by more than 70% of persons from one or other of the two major communities. Therefore, a new approach must be developed in order to make the shared future that has been envisaged a reality. I intend to pursue that.

Mrs McGill raised the issue of empty properties in Strabane and inaction by the Housing Executive. In my experience, the Housing Executive goes to great lengths to secure vacant or void properties. Steel shutters — which I do not like, because I believe that they send out their own message — are placed over windows and doors. Unfortunately, however, the scourge of antisocial behaviour is always present, and vandalism occurs despite regular checks being carried out. It was distressing to hear the report that Mrs McGill brought to the House. I will ask the Housing Executive for a report on what is wrong in that specific case. If Mrs McGill provides me with the exact address, I will pursue the issue and write to her.

Jimmy Spratt raised the issue of the Village area of south Belfast, which has been the subject of much debate, both internally in the Housing Executive and the Department, and externally in the Village community. Certain demands have been made of my Department and me. However, the issues that the Member raised are serious. My Department, in conjunction with the Housing Executive and representatives from the local community, is working towards regeneration of the area.

In the past week, officials from my Department met to agree a way forward to regenerate the area, and another meeting has been arranged. I am aware of the problems. I have been pressed about those problems and have received letters from representatives of the Village community. I hope to visit the area shortly to meet the local community, to see the problems at first hand and consider how a resolution might be achieved. Obviously, that goes for other areas, whether they are in Belfast, Derry, towns throughout Northern Ireland or in the rural communities —everywhere for which the Department for Social Development is responsible.

Mr Shannon: Even Strangford?

Ms Ritchie: Even Strangford. [Laughter.]

I welcome the Chairman of the Committee for Social Development Mr Campbell’s participation in the debate. He referred to the DSD, the DOE and the PSNI working together. I expect that the empty homes strategy, which I have already commented on, will come up with innovative approaches to cross-agency working to bring those properties back into use. I will ensure that my officials pass on Mr Campbell’s ideas, along with the numerous others raised in the Chamber today, to the Housing Executive.

I am determined to lead my Department in implementing initiatives that will ensure that valuable, much needed resources are not wasted. I appreciate that some empty homes in Northern Ireland are a legacy of the past, but, with the recent return of power sharing, now is the time to deal with the problem of segregated communities and the housing problems that it has created. That step is not easy, but people in Northern Ireland must move to the situation where peace lines and segregated mindsets are removed and where communities can become more integrated.

The Assembly must work towards a shared future in which housing plays a major and pivotal role, and which will impact on the social, environmental, health and economic well-being of local communities. As Minister for Social Development, I wish to bring my Department to that point.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Ms Carál Ní Chuilín for the winding-up speech.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. For the record, I wish to point out that you have mispronounced my name, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have heard 20 different pronunciations of my name.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I have the same problem sometimes.

Ms Ní Chuilín: Yes, I understand.

I welcome the debates on the motions this afternoon, which have been very good — and fair play to Fra McCann and Jim Shannon for moving them. There is an obvious synergy between the issues, and the level of interest in both of them has been indicated by the fact that the Minister for Social Development has been on her feet answering questions for 20 minutes each time. Both motions have touched Members in different ways.

Claire McGill is right; it is the people behind the statistics who matter most. The fact that there are 30,000 to 40,000 empty houses is an indictment to all Members, and I welcome opportunities for interdepartmental approaches to the issue.

Naomi Long raised an issue about the Right to Buy scheme, which concerned equality, and that is at the heart of the matter. In the past, people have tried to purchase their homes, but they are now in the situation where they cannot afford to do so. Access to housing is a big problem.

Most people have been accustomed to waiting between 10 and 15 years for a house, and many have accepted dereliction as a way of life. There is now an opportunity to consider an old problem with new thinking.

I welcome the idea of an empty homes strategy, and it should be introduced as a matter of urgency. Having such a strategy will send a clear message to private developers that they can no longer land-bank while people are living in hostels and house prices in local communities are driven upwards. In addition, the statutory responsibility of the Housing Executive will be brought to book, and people who live in hostels, or who are on waiting lists for homes, will get the clear message that Members are collectively taking their case as far as possible.

I welcome the Minister’s comments on the north-west quarter and other quarters, and her remarks on other areas of development. I encourage her to talk to the residents’ groups and to the people who live in the derelict communities and on the interfaces. Only they can tell the true story of what it is like to live there. Only they will appreciate the value of this debate and the action that I hope will be taken as a result.

Unless we tackle the problem of vacant properties head-on and put a value on people, their lives and their communities, we will be condemned to talking about dereliction for evermore. We must use the new era of power sharing to look at the issue pragmatically. We must have vision and be innovative, but we need to look beyond the laudable sentiments of a shared future. The issue is not about tribal politics and accepted segregation. It is about need, not greed.

I welcome and support both of the motions that have dealt with affordable housing, and I commend all my colleagues who have participated in the debates. I look forward to future debates on increased powers for vesting. I support interdepartmental co-operation and the call for more money, because houses cannot be built on sentiment alone.

Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes that some 36,000 homes lie empty across Northern Ireland; calls upon the Minister for Social Development to take immediate steps to tackle the scandal of vacant properties; and recognises that this could go a long way to deal with the serious crisis which exists in the provision of social and affordable housing, highlighted by the Semple recommendations.

Adjourned at 4.57 pm

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