Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 1 October 2007
Private Members’ Business:
Private Members’ Business:
The Assembly met at 12.00 noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the current situation regarding bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Gildernew): Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish to make a statement on the current bluetongue situation in England and the actions that I have taken to prevent it from spreading here; also, I will give an update on the foot-and-mouth outbreak in England and my response to that.
It is of great concern that bluetongue has been confirmed in south-east England. What is particularly unfortunate for the farming industry is that this has happened while the foot-and-mouth outbreak is ongoing. My priority continues to be to do everything possible to stop bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease from entering the North.
First, I shall give an update on the bluetongue situation. I shall start by explaining what bluetongue is, and by outlining the disease situation that has been developing in northern Europe over the past year. Bluetongue is a viral disease, spread by biting insects, that affects all ruminants, but particularly cattle and sheep. It does not affect humans, so there are no human- or public-health implications. The bluetongue virus cannot be transmitted directly between animals; it is spread by midges that bite infected animals and pass the infection to uninfected ones.
Bluetongue can have a significant economic impact through on-farm losses, due to death, sickness and reduced productivity, and lost export revenue, as live exports from affected areas are banned. There are no implications for meat or dairy products.
In Europe, bluetongue has usually been found only in the Mediterranean area, but in August 2006 a different strain of bluetongue was found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, western Germany and parts of northern France. Unfortunately, during the summer of 2007, the disease has re-emerged in a more virulent form in the same countries, spreading more widely than in the previous season.
This year, the disease situation in northern Europe is, therefore, much worse than in 2006, with over 5,000 confirmed cases of bluetongue reported in those countries in the past nine weeks; there have also been reports of increased mortality rates in animals and milk production losses. The existing restricted zones now extend across the whole of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, a large proportion of Germany and a large area of north-eastern France. The German restriction zones also extend into parts of Denmark, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
On Saturday 22 September, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) detected bluetongue in an animal on a farm near Ipswich in Suffolk. The strain has been confirmed as serotype 8, which is the same strain that has been found in northern Europe since August 2006. That is a serious development. It is the first time that bluetongue has ever been recorded in Britain. It has never been recorded on the island of Ireland.
By Sunday 30 September, bluetongue had been detected on a further 14 premises in south-east England. Initially, the premises were all placed under restriction, and the infected cattle were culled because they could have been a source of infection for the local midge population, which could go on to spread infection by biting other animals.
At that stage, bluetongue was not considered to be confirmed in Britain because, unlike other diseases, bluetongue is not confirmed on the basis of positive individual animals. EU law requires that, in order to confirm an outbreak, there must be evidence that the virus is circulating between the local animal and midge populations.
On 25 September, DEFRA put in place a bluetongue temporary control area in eastern England, and surveillance was carried out to determine whether the disease was circulating. After further investigations, on Friday 28 September, DEFRA confirmed that the disease is, indeed, circulating in East Anglia. At present, DEFRA believes that bluetongue was introduced into Suffolk in early August 2007 as a result of wind-borne movement of infected midges from the bluetongue outbreak in northern Europe.
DEFRA has now established a 20 kms control zone around the area in East Anglia where cases have been identified to date. Ruminant animals are able to move within the bluetongue control zone but not out of it, except to slaughter in the bluetongue protection zone of 150 kms that surrounds the control zone. Ruminants are able to move around within the bluetongue protection zone but not out of it. Now that bluetongue has been confirmed in England, infected animals will no longer be compulsorily slaughtered because the virus is circulating in the local midge population.
I will now say something about the actions that I am taking to prevent bluetongue from spreading here. My priority continues to be to keep bluetongue out of the North, if possible, and my Department has a range of precautionary measures in place to minimise the risk of bluetongue reaching here. In the light of the heightened risk from northern Europe since August 2006, imports of susceptible animals from bluetongue-restricted areas in EU member states have been banned. As a safeguard, animals and the vehicles in which they travel across the restricted areas are sprayed with insecticide.
The Department carries out post-import testing of imported cattle and sheep from continental Europe. Those animals are restricted and isolated, pending negative test results. All test results to date from that post-import testing have been negative. The Department has also advised potential importers to request that animals are pre-import tested as an additional precaution.
Our ports remain closed to the import of live animals from Britain because of the foot-and-mouth disease preventative measures that I reintroduced here on 12 September; that gives us dual protection from bluetongue. In response to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in Britain, my officials have traced and examined all consignments of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs imported directly from Britain since the beginning of July. All examinations were negative for signs that could be attributed to either foot-and-mouth disease or bluetongue, which has given me some reassurance that bluetongue has not spread to the North.
Over the past six months, my Department has been working in partnership with key stakeholders here, through the bluetongue working group, on preparedness to deal with the threat of bluetongue; it will continue to do so. In May 2007, my Department, in conjunction with its key stakeholders, issued advice to the industry about bluetongue, including information about clinical signs. That leaflet is available on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) website, along with other comprehensive information on bluetongue. I did have a copy of the leaflet with me, but I have mislaid it; I apologise for that. However, it is available for any Members who may wish to use it.
That leaflet has just been handed to me, so Maurice, you can have a wee look at it if you like. You were slagging me off about it.
Lord Morrow: You said that you did not have it.
Ms Gildernew: I am holding it up now — I hope that that makes you happy.
In June, the Department followed up publication of that leaflet with further advice to local importers to highlight the potential risks of importing animals from those northern European countries in which bluetongue is present.
In light of the detection of bluetongue in England, I have asked the farming community here to remain vigilant for signs of the disease by regularly — at least daily — inspecting their animals for symptoms, and to report any suspicions immediately.
We are working closely with industry stakeholders. Last week, my officials met with key stakeholders in the bluetongue working group. That meeting provided an opportunity to share information on developments in the disease situation, to exchange views, and to review the precautionary measures that are in place here. I thank the stakeholders for their ongoing constructive engagement with us on the disease.
We are continuing to liaise closely with our counterparts in Britain and in the South to monitor the bluetongue situation. We are also working closely with the South to co-ordinate our preventative actions to protect the whole island from bluetongue.
Our current veterinary risk assessment is that the preventative measures that we already have in place continue to be appropriate to the risk of the disease’s being introduced to the North through live animals. We will keep that position under active review in line with developments in the situation.
Unfortunately, it is not really possible to control the movement of infected midges, but we are working with the Met Office to seek advice on the pattern of air movements that may carry midges this way. The potential for spread will be lessened by the onset of winter, as the vector cannot survive in very cold conditions. However, we cannot be complacent, and, if necessary, I will not hesitate to take whatever action is required to keep the island of Ireland free from bluetongue.
My Department has a contingency plan to put in place if bluetongue reaches the North. That plan is subject to a continuous process of review and updating. Any action would be in line with the bluetongue control strategy, which has been developed in consultation with local industry stakeholders through the bluetongue working group. The strategy recognises that different regions have different priorities to consider, and it provides for us to respond in a way that is specific to our circumstances.
In conclusion, I will continue to ensure that all efforts are made to prevent the spread of bluetongue to the North. My Department will continue to keep the position under active review, depending on developments in Britain, and will continue to work in partnership with key stakeholders to mitigate the threat of bluetongue incursion. I remind farmers to remain vigilant and to report any concerns immediately.
I will now update the House on any developments in the situation with foot-and-mouth disease in England since I made my previous statement three weeks ago and gave my response to that outbreak.
It is very unfortunate that, within only a couple of days of my previous statement, on 12 September, a further case of foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed in England. That was confirmed to be the same strain as the two cases that occurred in August. Since then, there have been a further five confirmed cases, which means that there have now been eight confirmed cases of foot-and-mouth disease in Surrey since 3 August.
I moved very quickly on 12 September to protect our industry from the outbreak. Even before the disease was confirmed, I put precautionary measures in place, in view of the strong suspicion of disease in England. Those mirrored the preventative measures that I took when the outbreak was confirmed in Britain in early August. I took immediate action to close our ports once again to cattle, sheep, goats and pigs from Britain. I revoked, with immediate effect, all DARD-specific import licences for such animals. I sent one consignment of cattle back to Britain that was en route to Larne.
I also reintroduced an immediate ban on the import of certain animal products from Britain, including fresh meat from susceptible animals and unpasteurised milk. I ordered that disinfectant mats should be reinstated at local ports and airports and that literature should be handed out.
By 13 September my officials had identified and traced all consignments of cattle, sheep and pigs that had been imported directly from Britain since 23 August. In total, 75 consignments were confirmed as having been imported into the North. None of those consignments came from the Surrey area.
By 14 September, inspections of all consignments had been completed, and all examinations were negative. That has given me some assurance that no disease has spread to here. A programme of follow-up visits to those animals is ongoing, and individual animals will remain restricted until the revisits have been completed.
Based on our risk assessment, I decided to apply no restrictions on the movement of animals in the North, except to those imported animals, and to apply no constraints on the operation of slaughterhouses, shows, markets and assembly centres here. Access to the countryside continues to be unrestricted.
I have asked that farmers and the wider public adhere to strict biosecurity measures, and I have reminded farmers of the importance of remaining vigilant by inspecting their animals at least daily for symptoms of disease, and to report any suspicions immediately.
My officials and I are in close contact with our counterparts in Britain and in the South to monitor and assess the situation. I have spoken personally to Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Agriculture in the South, and to Jonathan Shaw, a DEFRA Minister. Our actions are absolutely consistent with those taken in the South, and in line with the fortress-Ireland approach.
My officials worked closely with DEFRA officials who attended the EU Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH) meeting in Brussels on 12 September, and were able to influence the EU Commission’s decision, which, I am glad to say, was unanimously agreed. I am particularly grateful to the agriculture policy officer from the Executive’s Brussels office, who worked closely with my officials to keep us updated on developments. I am pleased that this latest EU Commission decision has again recognised the unique position of the North and allowed us to continue to trade freely within the EU, using the additional certification that we gained after the August outbreaks.
On 13 September, my permanent secretary wrote to all agrifood stakeholders, including farming organisations, retailers and processors, to advise them of the latest developments and enclosing our press release, along with the DARD website address and helpline number so that they can report any problems that they may be experiencing. I am pleased that trade to EU countries continues to be relatively unaffected.
On Monday 24 September, DEFRA published its latest foot-and-mouth disease investigation report, which concluded that there is a low risk of the foot-and-mouth virus having spread outside the current surveillance zone. Based on that report, Britain has been divided into two foot-and-mouth disease risk areas: a risk area in south-east England that includes the surveillance zone and takes in the surrounding counties, and a low-risk area that consists of the rest of England, Scotland and Wales.
DEFRA’s stated aim is to reduce the size of the foot-and-mouth disease risk area, taking a risk-based, staged approach, and to permit further movements as soon as the situation allows. Farm-to-farm movements are allowed in the low-risk area, subject to biosecurity conditions, and, from 4 October, movements to livestock markets in the low-risk area will also be permitted, subject to stringent biosecurity measures. DEFRA has adopted an integrated, risk-based approach to deal with the current situation with both bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease.
Turning to the implications for us, my aim has always been to return to normal trading practices as soon as it is safe to do so. Based on our veterinary risk assessments, and to accommodate industry requests, from 14 September, animals have been able to move directly to approved slaughterhouses in Scotland. That type of movement is allowed because it is considered to present a low risk and is subject to strict biosecurity conditions. We are currently considering whether to allow the movement of breeding and production animals, and we have a strict system in place to ensure that dirty vehicles are not permitted to enter through our ports.
Given these controls and precautions, our current veterinary assessment is that the risk of foot-and-mouth disease entering the North is very low. The most recent cases in Britain have not changed that assessment. However, we will continue to keep the position under review in light of the situation in Britain and our own veterinary risk assessment. We are working closely with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (DAFF) in the South to ensure that any further action is joined up across the island. Our thinking on the entry of animals from Britain, even from the low-risk zone, remains that it is not permitted until a SCoFCAH decision changes that position.
I believe that my actions and those of my officials have been swift, decisive and proportionate to the level of foot-and-mouth disease threat that we face from the recent further outbreaks. My Department will not be found wanting in respect of any necessary steps to maintain our foot-and-mouth-disease-free status, and to protect our local industry. Everything that can be done will be done to keep foot-and-mouth disease out of the country.
I conclude by thanking all those who continue to contribute to helping me and my Department to deal with the current foot-and-mouth disease crisis. Go raibh maith agat.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development (Dr W McCrea): I suppose that the Assembly should feel privileged that it has been given a personal ministerial statement, because the same courtesy has not been afforded to the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, which is officially sanctioned by the House.
I have listened carefully to the Minister’s statement, and it makes depressing listening. Some clarification is needed, because, at times, I do not know whether she is talking about the north of England, the north of Britain or Northern Ireland. It would probably burn her lips to say “Northern Ireland”.
What is clear, however, is that Europe and the Department were complacent. They were too quick to announce a return to normal service in early September. That they prematurely started to relax restrictions then means that we are now worse off than ever. New cases of foot-and-mouth disease are still being declared, more than two months after the first outbreak.
If foot-and-mouth disease emanated from a broken pipe at the Pirbright laboratory site, how is it still spreading around the countryside? It is about time that the Minister engaged regularly with those most affected by foot-and-mouth disease, and by bluetongue, instead of running around the country with her officials to provide updates here and there. Will the Minister set up an emergency committee — consisting of departmental representatives, the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development and other interested parties — to deal with the crisis?
In respect of bluetongue, what are the Minister and her Department doing to ensure a fortress-Northern Ireland policy? The warmer climate in the southern part of the Irish Republic may be more likely to attract the infected midges. Has the Department prepared emergency measures should bluetongue affect animals in the Irish Republic?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development for his questions.
I shall outline what has been done since the first case of bluetongue was detected in Britain on Saturday 22 September. However, it was only last Friday afternoon, 28 September, that the disease was confirmed to be circulating. On Tuesday 25 September, my officials were scheduled to update the Committee on foot-and-mouth disease. That briefing would have included an update on the cases of bluetongue that were being detected in Suffolk. In the event, my officials were stood down at short notice by the Committee Chairperson. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order.
Ms Gildernew: On Thursday 27 September, I gave a presentation to the Executive on foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. I also asked the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister for permission to make a statement to the Assembly today, and that request was granted.
Last Thursday evening, I offered to update the Committee on the situation on either Friday afternoon or Monday morning — before I made today’s statement to the Assembly. I met the Committee this morning in Dundonald House to brief it before delivering my statement. It was necessary to meet there, because my officials were actively working on the rapidly developing situation in liaison with DEFRA and DAFF.
My officials again stand ready to brief the Committee in detail at its next official meeting tomorrow. Moreover, my Department issued press releases about bluetongue developments on 22 September, which was when the first case was detected, on 26 September and on 28 September, when the disease was confirmed in Britain.
The establishment of the emergency committee that the Chairperson advocates would be more in keeping with a situation in which bluetongue or foot-and-mouth disease was directly affecting us. Our actions to date have been based on the veterinary risk assessment and on the danger that our industry faces. We have worked extremely closely with the entire industry to ensure that there are few problems with trade, and that everyone is fully updated and apprised of the situation as it develops. This is obviously a very fluid time, so we will keep everyone updated as and when necessary. If I feel that going down the route of setting up an emergency committee has become a necessity, I will certainly explore the idea with officials.
The Chairperson remarked about our approach to keeping foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue out of the country. If animals in the South were to become infected, the emergency measures that we would implement would very much depend on the circumstances of the case in question, including the type of disease, the exact location and the scale of the incident. We would not decide anything before closely liaising with colleagues in Dublin. Obviously, in any decision that we were to take, we would be bound by EU rules for dealing with outbreaks of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue.
The control zone for bluetongue is 150 km. Therefore, if bluetongue were to appear in Ireland, the control zone would likely extend to the North anyway.
Regarding the Member’s comment about the EU decision, I am sure that he will appreciate that EU veterinary officers on SCoFCAH make their decisions based on risk assessment and that I, as Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development here in the North, did all that I could to persuade them to keep our trade restrictions to an absolute minimum and to keep our industry going. However, I do not have any sway with them about not allowing exports to be reopened; that would be based on veterinary risk assessment, and it would not be appropriate for me to try to influence that.
Mr Brolly: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister tell the House what action is taken when a suspected case of bluetongue is reported?
Ms Gildernew: The process is quite technical, and I want to provide as much detail as possible, so I ask the Member to bear with me for a moment.
Dr W McCrea: Does the Minister need any help?
Ms Gildernew: No, I am fine, but thank you for the offer.
If a case of bluetongue were confirmed here, the measures put in place would include a veterinary investigation on suspect premises, and restrictions, including a ban on the movement of susceptible animals on and off the premises. On confirmation that bluetongue was circulating, restrictions would remain in place and be extended to a zone with a 20 km radius around the infected premises. Wider zones would then be declared with a radius of at least 150 km around the infected premises. Restrictions on the movement of susceptible animals out of those zones would be put into place and surveillance programmes implemented. Additional housing requirements and the requirements to control midges with insecticides might also be put in place within the 20 km zone. There would be some flexibility in demarcating the zones with the agreement of the European Commission, but various factors, such as local geography, must be taken into account.
I stress again that the Department is updating its control measures daily. We are looking closely at how the disease is being controlled and dealt with in northern Europe and in Britain and we are learning from that. Keeping our industry free from the disease for as long as possible — until the onset of winter, which, hopefully, will be fairly soon — would be the preferred option. However, there is a contingency plan in place were the industry here to be affected.
Mr Elliott: I thank the Minister for her statement, although with the way that midges and foot-and-mouth disease are spreading, I foresee many more statements in the months ahead.
First, I am curious to know whether the Minster and her Department have given any information to Northern Ireland farmers about the symptoms of bluetongue that they need to look out for. I understand that no recent information has been distributed.
Secondly, I am also curious about the DEFRA and DARD assessment that the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is a continuation of the original outbreak at the beginning of August and not a new one. In early September, we were led to believe that the all-clear had been given and that imports from mainland GB were to be reopened. I urged the Minister and her Department to be cautious about allowing those imports into Northern Ireland. I suggested that such action would be premature. However —
Ms Ni Chuilín: Is the Member asking a question or making a speech?
Mr Speaker: Order. On many occasions —
Ms Ni Chuilín: Sorry, Mr Speaker.
Mr Speaker: Order. I have advised Members on many occasions that, during ministerial statements, it is vital that they ask questions and do not start making statements too. I allow some latitude in the case of Chairpersons of Committees, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, other Members must address only their questions to the Minister.
Mr Elliott: Thank you for that, Mr Speaker. I suppose that consistency is the name of the game. I posed two questions — one on bluetongue, and one on foot-and-mouth disease — and was supplying background for my final question. Does the Minister believe that she and her Department were premature in allowing imports from GB into Ireland in early September?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. That matter was raised with the Member after my last statement, and I shall give the Member the answer that I gave him then: I do not have the authority to stop imports if the EU has decided that it is safe for them to continue. I am not in a position to make that decision with regard to Europe. Furthermore, had I made the decision unilaterally to stop imports into the North, when imports were permitted into the South, and from there to Europe, the same Member and others on his Benches would have been extremely critical of me and would have suggested that I had taken that action for political reasons. We must follow the available veterinary risk assessment. SCoFCAH made the decision to lift the ban — I did not, nor did my Department.
As for guidance to the farming industry: in May, my Department and key stakeholders jointly issued advice on bluetongue, including information about its clinical signs. An information leaflet and a question-and-answer guide are available on the DARD website, and officials have written to importers to highlight the potential risks of importing animals from countries where bluetongue is present. An information leaflet has been issued to importers and to private veterinary practices. It is important that farmers and keepers of herds remain vigilant, by daily inspection of animals for symptoms of bluetongue. If a farmer has any concerns, he should immediately consult his own vet or the local divisional veterinary office.
We cannot notify every single farmer in person. That would be a huge job; however, we have done our absolute best via the media, our own website and by every possible avenue to highlight the symptoms of bluetongue and what farmers should do if they suspect a case.
Mr Burns: One line in the Minister’s statement causes me concern:
“I sent one consignment of cattle back to Britain that was en route to Larne.”
I would like the Minister to make a clear statement about those cattle. Was the ship that brought that consignment turned back? Were the cattle unloaded at Larne and left on the quayside until the Department decided what to do with them? There is no facility there for isolation or quarantine; were the cattle then put back on the ship, with cars, lorries and vans, and sent back to Britain?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. Although I do not believe that the consignment was unloaded, I could be wrong about that; I do not have the details. However, had they been unloaded, the cattle would have stayed on the lorry, which would then have been turned back. The cattle would not have been taken off the lorry at the port. There are no animal-holding facilities for such incidents. If the lorry even left the boat, it would have been driven straight back on again. When that consignment was turned back, we had had no confirmation of the outbreak in England; it was a precautionary measure — just in case — and it followed the risk-assessment guidelines.
I am content to write to the Member with further details of the incident.
Mr Ford: Mr Speaker, I trust that you will permit me to congratulate the Minister and her officials, especially her veterinary staff, for their speedy response between 12 and 14 September in dealing with the latest threat of foot-and-mouth disease.
In her statement, the Minister suggested that one way in which she was dealing with bluetongue was through existing foot-and-mouth disease import restrictions. Will she confirm whether, once the threat of foot-and-mouth disease is over, she will continue to impose those import restrictions on all susceptible animals from GB or whether she will have powers to restrict the movement only of those animals that are within the 150 km control zone? If the latter is the case, will she take up the issue in Brussels to ensure that she can defend farming in Northern Ireland from a threat that occurs in any part of GB?
Ms Gildernew: As I have already said, the situation is very fluid: on Wednesday or Friday it could be different from today. Import bans on the movement of animals from affected areas in northern Europe have been in place since 2006. Therefore, a ban on the importation of animals from bluetongue-infected areas has existed. If the risk assessment finds that it is necessary to ban the importation of animals from bluetongue-infected areas, outside of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak — I assume that that is what the Member is referring to — EU requirements state that we can ban imports from the zone’s affected areas. Imports are, however, permitted from the rest of the territory. That would be in line with European requests. However, the Executive would need to discuss any suggestion that I should go further and seek clarification from the EU about the position on banning the importation of animals from the rest of Britain. As I have said, I will do all that I can if further action is required. I do not have the legislative backup, but we are working closely with people in Dublin, Britain and Europe to protect our industry from this awful disease for as long as we can.
Mr T Clarke: Given that Northern Ireland remains free from bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease, can we still enjoy some competitive advantage over our colleagues in the rest of the United Kingdom? Livestock that is going to markets in continental Europe often has to travel through GB. Has the Minister’s Department carried out any work to improve routes to European markets? Has it worked to ensure that any travel through GB will not affect those animals’ disease-free status?
Until recently, it was thought that the climate meant that Northern Ireland, the UK as a whole, and even northern areas of continental Europe were all safe from bluetongue. Given that, what assessment has DARD made of any risk from other livestock diseases that were previously not deemed a threat?
While I am on my feet, on a point of accuracy, the Minister stated earlier that last week the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee stood her down. However, the entire Committee, including her own two party colleagues who were present, did not abstain from agreeing to write to her.
Ms Gildernew: As I said in my statement, animals and lorries travelling through bluetongue areas are sprayed with insecticide to reduce the risk of the spread of the disease. I repeat that the Department has been doing all that it can to keep the disease out of Ireland. It has also been considering routes.
The Member asked three or four questions, one of which was whether we have an advantage. We have a small one, in that we are free from bluetongue and foot-and-mouth disease. We should capitalise on that position for the months that that is the case.
I cannot remember the Member’s other questions; he asked several.
Mr T Clarke: I asked whether the Department had carried out a risk assessment of other livestock diseases that were previously not deemed a threat.
Ms Gildernew: Gabh mo leithscéal, a Cheann Comhairle. Climate change affects many of us, and I know that, in recent months, the Minister of the Environment has been considering that issue carefully. Some insects and diseases that the winter would previously have killed off can now live through our winters.
We must consider the situation from a global perspective and identity those diseases that are now prevalent in areas not previously affected. Our geographical location on the western corner of Europe means that we have a wee bit of time to examine how those diseases are spreading. In general, they are moving in an east-west direction, so we must make the most of our geographical location and take advantage of clinical assessments, scientific analysis and everything else in our power to prevent our agriculture industry from falling victim to any of those diseases.
Mr Molloy: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister on her statement, and I congratulate her and her Department for their work to keep the North free of foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. It is important to realise that this situation is not about party-political bickering or the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development; it is about trying to keep the North free of disease and continuing to prevent it as much as possible. If we get into a stand-off situation with the Committee, in which everything has to go to a vote, very little business will be done.
We must take a different road. The Committee has an important role — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Member must ask a question.
Mr Molloy: I certainly will. Is Mr McCrea more interested in Committee business than he is in bluetongue or foot-and-mouth disease?
Dr W McCrea: On a point of order. When did this turn into Question Time for Mr McCrea? If people want to abdicate, or hand the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development over to me, I will take on the job of Minister.
Mr Speaker: Order. I will say to Members once again that we can have lively debates in the Chamber, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, I must inform Members that when they are given the opportunity to pose a question to a Minister, they must do just that. That goes for all sides of the House, because all sides of the House are to blame in this regard. I have been fairly lenient during questions to Ministers, and I intend to be lenient. However, it is vital that Members do not use the time for questions to Ministers as opportunities to make full-blooded statements.
Mr Molloy: I apologise, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister describe the clinical signs of bluetongue in animals so that farmers have that information for the future?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I suppose the question is not whether Dr McCrea is going to be the Minister, but whether he could do a better job. That is certainly a matter for debate. [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Gildernew: The clinical signs in animals include: fever; swelling of the head and neck; lameness; inflammation and ulceration of the mucous membrane of the mouth, nose and eyes; drooling; haemorrhages in the skin and other tissues; respiratory problems such as froth in the lungs and an inability to swallow; high mortality rate; and discolouration and swelling of the tongue.
Interestingly for a disease known as bluetongue, a blue tongue is a rare indication of the condition. Farmers will know when an animal is off-colour or not in good form, and although bluetongue can kill cattle, it is usually much more virulent in sheep. It is a worry for the farming population, and, once again, I stress the need for vigilance. If any animals display any of the symptoms I have mentioned, I urge their owners to contact their local divisional veterinary office or veterinarian for assessment, because the earlier that we can establish the existence of bluetongue or foot-and-mouth disease, the earlier we can deal with it.
Mr Irwin: I note that in the Minister’s statement of 10 September 2007 on the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, she maintained her commitment to a so-called fortress-Ireland approach. Does she not agree that such an approach would be no barrier to bluetongue, given its ability to spread over distances greater than the Irish Sea, such as when it moved from Morocco into Spain and Italy? Will the Minister commit to close liaison with DEFRA colleagues and the other devolved regions, as well as the Republic of Ireland, so that the spread of the disease across the British Isles may, if possible, be prevented?
In support of my colleague Dr McCrea, who asked a similar question, will the Minister also outline the steps that she intends to take under her fortress-Ireland commitment if bluetongue moves across the Irish Sea into the Republic of Ireland? She did not answer that question.
How does the Minister come to the conclusion that, if bluetongue crosses the Irish Sea into the Irish Republic, it will automatically come to Northern Ireland? I do not believe that.
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh míle maith agat. I hope that I am able to get through all the Member’s questions. As the Member has pointed out, bluetongue can often be wind-borne. In the recent case of bluetongue in England, it was believed that the disease was carried by the prevailing wind from Belgium to the south-east of England. Although that makes it extremely difficult to keep it out of the country, most of our winds come off the Atlantic Ocean, from west to east. The Department is working closely with the Met Office to discover whether winds are likely to come from the east.
It is also extremely difficult to prevent midges from leaving an area. Therefore, counties close to Suffolk, where the initial outbreak happened, are worried about where the midges are travelling, their native midge population, and how virulent the disease is when infected midges bite other animals.
Although there are difficulties in keeping the disease out, there are measures that can be taken and we must work on an all-island basis to keep the disease out. For example, lorries that come over from England are sprayed with insecticide. I assure the Member — as I have repeatedly said in my statements — that I work not just with my colleagues in the South, but with Ministers and officials in DEFRA and in other devolved Administrations to try to ensure the protection of our industry. The Member will know that if the disease comes to the east coast of Ireland and is found in cattle in, for example, County Louth, it will have to be contained from reaching south Armagh. Midges do not recognise borders; they will go wherever they want. As my colleague Martin McGuinness will agree, anyone who lives near the lough shore will know about the prevalence of midges.
Bluetongue is an awful disease, and it is difficult to stop. We should use our geographical location to protect our industry for as long as we can.
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Minister for her statement. However, it appears that the Minister continues to be afflicted by her own, unique version of bluetongue, given her ongoing inability to get her tongue around the words “Northern Ireland”.
In the event of bluetongue extending to other parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will the Minister undertake to keep under review the issue of compensation to owners of affected livestock? Can the Minister indicate whether any research is available to assist with controlling or killing midges that are capable of spreading such a serious disease?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I wonder whether the Member is suggesting that I have a case of “greentongue”.
No compensation package for bluetongue is available for farmers in EU member states. Scientists are working on a vaccine, which may be introduced, subject to a veterinary risk assessment on whether it is safe to use. By and large, infected animals do not need to be culled. Bluetongue is a viral infection; the animals become sick, but can get better. It is not like foot-and–mouth disease, whereby once an animal is infected, it will rapidly deteriorate and die. Bluetongue is an illness from which an animal can recover and is able to go on to the food chain with no health implications for humans. Therefore, there is no need to cull animals that have bluetongue. Some of them will die, and there is no compensation package for farmers who suffer that loss. Although that is regrettable, I am unable to do anything about it.
Many animals recover from bluetongue, so it does not have the same financial implications for farmers as foot-and-mouth disease. Being so far west, we have an opportunity to see what other countries do. I am not aware of any system having been introduced in northern Europe to eradicate the midge.
It is also worth pointing out that not every midge is infected with bluetongue. The midge itself is an important part of the food chain. Even if it were possible, I do not know whether its eradication would be wise, given that it might impact on animal biodiversity. The Department will take whatever measures it can, such as spraying lorries with insecticides.
Mr McKay: The Minister has touched on the role that climate change played in the outbreak of bluetongue in Britain. What difficulties will climate change create in future in the attempt to combat bluetongue?
Ms Gildernew: The Department is carrying out an ongoing assessment of climate change. Other animal diseases and insects can now live through the winter. The Department is keeping the situation under review and working closely with those carrying out veterinary assessments in other European countries. We are trying to ensure that we are one step ahead to prevent the arrival of any new diseases that are not normally found here. The Department is keeping a close eye on the climate and liaising with vets throughout Europe to ensure that any necessary precautions to try to keep out diseases such as bluetongue are taken.
Lord Morrow: There is some disappointment on this side of the House that the Minister only released her statement, and made it available to Members, at 10.45 am, because it was known last week that the statement was going to be made. Perhaps she will bear that in mind when making future statements. I also encourage her to meet the Committee, set aside any political differences and not allow politics to affect her handling of this awful crisis.
The Minister said that:
“Our ports remain closed to the import of live animals from Britain because of the foot-and-mouth disease preventative measures that I reintroduced here on 12 September; that gives us dual protection from bluetongue.”
How long after the disease has been eradicated does the Minister envisage that the decontamination period will have to last? Having listened to the Minister, I understand that the warm climate has caused the movement of the midges that carry the virus here, there and yonder. If the disease were to be eradicated due to a cold snap of weather, how much longer would the ports remain closed — could they reopen this year?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh míle maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. The Member’s question has several elements, and I will try to deal with them as best I can. This outbreak was officially confirmed on Friday, and I could not have made my statement any earlier. I gave the Executive a briefing on Thursday, but, at that stage, there were only isolated incidences of the disease, and it had not been classed as an official outbreak.
I am glad to say that, by and large, I have an excellent working relationship with the Committee. I have asked a number of times — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members. The Minister has the Floor.
Ms Gildernew: I have been before the Committee three times, and each time I have stressed the need for partnership. We should work together for the benefit of the farming industry and the rural community. If the Chairperson of the Committee wants to go down the road of involving politics, he may do so. I will work with the Committee, which is why I met its members in Dundonald House this morning to discuss the issue.
As for the decontamination period and the reopening of the ports, I will have to act in line with EU requirements and guidelines and the decisions of SCoFCAH. The Department is bound by European rules, and I will abide by them.
Therefore, I do not have the authority to keep our ports closed when other ports are open. However, I will liaise carefully with colleagues on this island, and, indeed, across these islands, to do my best for the farming industry. I hope that I can still rely on the support of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I congratulate the Minister on her handling of the latest incidence of bluetongue. There does not seem to be much panic here or on any of these islands. If the Chairperson had allowed officials to attend, my questions could have been answered at last week’s Committee meeting. Perhaps this week’s questions would not have been so difficult.
Mr T Clarke: Will the Member give way?
Mr McHugh: No, I will ask my question. It concerns DARD’s imports of susceptible species following the first outbreak.
Mr T Clarke: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Again, there are inaccuracies in a Member’s statement.
Mr Speaker: Order. That is not an appropriate point of order. I ask the Member to take his seat. There are no appropriate points of order during ministerial statements.
Mr McHugh: My question relates to the import of susceptible species from continental Europe following the first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue.
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Following confirmation of the first outbreak of bluetongue disease, imports of susceptible species from restricted areas have been banned, and animals that have been imported from areas that are free from disease must be treated with insecticide prior to commencing their journeys if they are transiting a restricted area. We have also advised potential importers to request that animals are pre-import tested, and we carry out post-import testing on animals that have been imported from continental Europe.
Mr McCallister: I welcome the Minister’s statement. I hope that her “greentongue” ailment never becomes a notifiable disease, or she will be in real trouble.
I congratulate the Minister. It is vital that she continues to work with industry stakeholders. How exactly did bluetongue get into GB? Was it spread by midges, or were there lapses in the bluetongue testing regime? Does the Minister agree that in order to best protect Northern Ireland, rather than simply hoping for a cold snap, it is vital to find out as accurately as possible how the disease got into the United Kingdom?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. The infected midges that first spread bluetongue to the farm in Suffolk were blown across in a prevailing wind from Belgium. We are not certain of that, but it is believed to be the most obvious source of the disease. The animal that was first found to be infected with bluetongue was born and raised on a rare-breeds farm. It had not come into contact with other imported animals. Therefore, the ports did not cause a biosecurity problem; rather, the close geographical location of the coasts of Suffolk and Belgium caused the midges to be blown across, thus infecting the first animals. The first four or five animals were culled to try to prevent the spread of the disease and to take them out of the equation so that the local midge population would not become infected. However, that was impossible.
On Friday 28 September, it was confirmed that the disease was circulating between the native midge population and the animals in question. Therefore, the ideal scenario is to cull in time in order to prevent native midges from being infected.
That is why the Department is calling for farmers to be vigilant and immediately report any signs of the disease to the DVO or their own vet, so that we can try to stamp it out before it gets into our native midge population.
Mr Shannon: The agriculture industry seems to lurch from crisis to crisis: from BSE to foot-and-mouth disease, and now bluetongue. Given the importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland — particularly beef and pork produce — what does the Minister intend to do to prevent such diseases spreading to the Province in the same way that they have to the UK and Europe? I suggest a root-and-branch approach. Does the Minister agree — and it is important that she does — that restoring confidence in the agriculture industry is of paramount importance to producers and consumers? Finally, the Minister said that the midge was an important part of the food chain — perhaps I caught her wrongly there.
Ms Gildernew: I stand corrected if that is the case. There is a very important demarcation on this issue. The farming industry in England is going through a horrendous time; it is suffering an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and is now suffering an outbreak of bluetongue. Confidence is at an all-time low after taking some very hard knocks. Equally, our farmers have come through a hard time, but a clear distinction needs to be made; we are currently free from foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. We have given ourselves the best chance of ensuring, for as long as possible, that those diseases do not get a handle on our agriculture industry, and our farmers should know that. As the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, it is hugely important to me that the farming community knows that the Department has done all it can to prevent the diseases from spreading here.
Had a direct rule Minister been in charge in August, the issue would not have been tackled as effectively. Again, I mention the support that I had from the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. As a farmer’s daughter, I am grateful that we have a local Minister in charge. As someone who lives and works in a rural community in Tyrone, I am grateful that we have an Executive that are able to deal with such matters. Confidence in and support for our agriculture industry is at an all-time high compared to that in England. Our stock is free from those diseases; our produce is of high quality and should get a price to reflect that. Members should ensure that that message is projected.
Mr McElduff: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister elaborate on the close working relationship between her Department and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (DAFF) in the South — an example of North/South co-operation — which aims to take preventative action to protect the whole island?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. As mentioned, I spoke to the Minister Mary Coughlan and to Jonathan Shaw, a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), in an attempt to do what I could about foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. As foot-and-mouth disease was in England, we were able to take a fortress-Ireland approach to keep it out of Ireland; that was hugely important for our industry and imports, because we are still able to export our cattle — [Interruption.]
Mr Speaker: Order, Members.
Ms Gildernew: We are still able to export our cattle, meat and dairy produce, which is hugely important. The Department had to take a slightly different approach to bluetongue. Although the fortress -Ireland approach continued, we knew that disinfectant mats at ports and airports would not stop the spread of midges. I liaised closely with my counterpart in Dublin to ensure that the disease was kept out of Ireland — and that returns to the industry were maximised — for as long as possible.
Mr Savage: I thank the Minister for her statement. I declare an interest in the issue as a farmer.
The agriculture industry across the United Kingdom is asking what will happen next. Great Britain continues to have problems with foot-and-mouth disease, and now some animals there have contracted bluetongue. Is there a suitable vaccination to protect against bluetongue disease? If there is, will the Department consider providing it to farmers throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland — especially in view of climate change? If there is a vaccine, how quickly can it be made available to farmers to use as a precaution for their animals?
Ms Gildernew: Go raibh maith agat. The Blue Tongue Order 2003 prohibits the vaccination of animals in the North unless authorised by the Department. A vaccine is not available for the serotype 8 strain of bluetongue. Development of a vaccine is under way, but it must be demonstrated that the vaccine is safe and effective before it is considered for use. Therefore, a vaccination is not currently available, and we will have to be satisfied that any future vaccination will work if we decide to take that route.
As I said earlier, there are 24 different strains of bluetongue around the world. Although a vaccine is being worked on for serotype 8 — the strain that is currently circulating in south-east England — serotypes 10 or 12, for instance, might affect the industry in the next year or two. Scientific evidence, therefore, has to try to stay ahead of the game. It is difficult to do that, but we are working closely with veterinary colleagues across the globe to see what diseases may be on the horizon, and we are using this time to try to find effective ways to deal with them. Mr Savage is right: it is a worrying time. However, I stress that bluetongue does not kill every animal that it strikes. Many afflicted animals will recover, and farmers will be able to sell them for food. It is important to remember that although bluetongue is a disease — whose vector is hard to control — it is a viral disease from which many animals will recover.
Mr Speaker: The next item on the Order Paper is a motion to change the membership of the Public Accounts Committee. As with similar motions, this will be treated as a business motion. Therefore, there will be no debate.
That Mr Mickey Brady replace Mr Willie Clarke as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. — [Ms Ní Chuilín.]
The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I beg to move
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 7 November 2007, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (NIA Bill 2/07).
The Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was given its Second Stage on 19 June 2007, and it was referred to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety on 20 June 2007. It was the first piece of primary legislation to come before the Committee. Although the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill is not a major piece of legislation, it contains 20 clauses and two schedules, and it involves a degree of complexity, because it deals with amendments to other primary legislation.
The Bill has three main aims. First, it amends the provisions of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 in relation to the regulation of the four family practitioner services: general practitioners; opticians; pharmacists; and dentists. Secondly, it sets out a legislative base for a new contract for dental practitioner services.
Thirdly, the Bill amends the Smoking (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, and makes provision to permit smoking by performers taking part in performances if artistic integrity so requires.
Prior to the summer recess, the Committee heard evidence from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and several key organisations affected by the provisions. Twenty-four organisations responded to the Committee’s request for written evidence over the recess period. The Committee began its clause-by-clause scrutiny of the Bill on 6 September 2007, immediately following recess. I therefore seek an extension of the deadline to 7 November 2007 to allow the Committee sufficient time to consider the views expressed and compile its report on the Bill.
I ask Members for their support.
Question put and agreed to.
That, in accordance with Standing Order 31(4), the period referred to in the Standing Order 31(2) be extended to 7 November 2007, in relation to the Committee Stage of the Health (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (NIA Bill 2/07).
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr McGlone): I beg to move
That the Local Government Pension Scheme (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) (S.R. 2007/372) be annulled.
The purpose of the statutory rule is to amend the Local Government Pension Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2002 to remove the statutory right of both employer and employee representative bodies to nominate candidates for appointment to the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee (NILGOSC). The Committee considered the secondary legislation or SL1 proposal from the Department at its meeting on 21 June 2007, and the statutory rule was laid in the Assembly Business Office on 3 September 2007.
Members received correspondence from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) on 3 September asking that the statutory rule be annulled when it came before the Environment Committee. ICTU represents and campaigns on behalf of 770,000 working people and is against the regulations as they will remove the statutory right of employer and employee bodies to nominate members to NILGOSC.
At its meeting on 20 September 2007, the Environment Committee deliberated a motion to recommend the annulment of the statutory rule. The outcome was that six members voted to annul, one member voted against and one member abstained. The majority of the Committee, therefore, wishes to see the statutory rule annulled.
There are currently five trade union representatives on NILGOSC. The proposed changes would remove the right of employee representatives to have seats on the committee. If the statutory rule is passed, trade union representatives will not be treated any differently to other people who apply for positions on the committee and who have no interest in the pension scheme or its members. Naturally, ICTU is fundamentally opposed to the appointments being opened to candidates who have no connection with the pension scheme, and it is difficult not to agree with that view. I agree with the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and with ICTU’s views on this important issue.
At its meeting on 13 September, the Environment Committee took the views of the Irish Congress:
“NILGOSC, while a public body, is responsible for administering a pension fund of around £3 billion pounds, which belongs properly to the members of that pension scheme itself. The fund is made up of contributions from both employers and employees. The Committee should be constituted on a statutory basis primarily from representatives of the employers and employees. The proposed changes, which will require applicants to have, among other things, experience in the administration of pension schemes, will disenfranchise the vast bulk of the employees who belong to the scheme. In any event NILGOSC provides detailed training for new Committee members. Trade Union representatives have participated in the Committee, as of right, since the 1950s and this arrangement has worked well. In Britain, moves are on the way to provide for nominees of employees to sit on the Committees of pension schemes covering local Councils in England and Wales.”
After hearing from ICTU the Committee decided to invite departmental officials to its meeting on 20 September to brief members on the statutory rule. The departmental position can be summarised as follows: the aim of the change to the constitution of the committee is not to exclude employee and employer representatives but rather to widen the pool of candidates.
The Minister has confirmed that it is her intention to ensure a balance of interests, including employees and employers, when making appointments to the committee.
The answers that we received at the meeting on 20 September were not very reassuring. The Committee was shocked to hear that the recruitment of outside candidates for positions on the management committee had already gone a considerable way down the line, despite the fact that the rule had only been laid on 3 September. There were seven responses to the departmental consultation on the proposed rule, and all but one of the seven respondents objected to it, that one being a small public body.
The respondents were concerned mainly about the potential loss of representation for the two groups that contribute to the fund — employers and employees. The Department argues that the rule is intended to widen the pool of candidates. However, the people already doing the job are more than capable, and the past performance of the scheme is evidence of that. The Committee asked if there was a precedent for removing the employer and employee representation for similar public-service schemes and why a different approach is being taken in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales, where proposals have been put forward to add employee representation.
The response was not encouraging. No such precedent has been set. The Department said that when best-practice principles were available it would consider whether it would be appropriate and necessary to include a similar provision in the regulations, and that if so, it would consult on the proposed amendment. There were many inconsistencies in the Department’s arguments and its reasons for fixing something that is not broken, which have not been made entirely clear, and the Committee was unconvinced by the arguments put forward for change.
NILGOSC is responsible for administering a £3 billion pension fund on behalf of its members, which is crucial to enable its workers to lead a good-quality life in retirement. The scheme has worked well until now, and any move to change it can be seen, at best, as an unnecessary step. Among the proposed changes is a requirement for applicants to have experience in the administration of pension schemes. As has already been outlined, NILGOSC already provides comprehensive training to its staff to enable them to become experts in the administration of a pension scheme that is functioning perfectly well at present.
The Committee has no difficulty with an open competition to ensure that the best candidates who have a stake in the pension fund are nominated. Members of the Committee are, however, fundamentally opposed to appointments being open to candidates who have no connection with a pension scheme and no direct interest in it. Therefore, I ask the House to support the motion to annul the Local Government Pension Scheme (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007. Go raibh maith agat, a leasCheann Comhairle.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr Boylan): I support the Chairman of the Committee for the Environment in moving the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on this matter. I have noted the views of the Environment Committee, both today and when it took evidence from my officials.
The Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee was established in April 1950 to administer and maintain a fund providing pension benefits to employees of district councils and other admitted bodies. NILGOSC is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) and, as such, is subject to a set of procedures for the operation of NDPBs. These regulations extend to the potential pool of candidates for membership of the committee. NDPBs can benefit from having a board or committee with a mix of experience and expertise relevant to their work. I accept that NILGOSC is rather different to most NDPBs because its primary purpose, as the Chairman of the Committee for the Environment said, is to administer and manage a pension fund to which employers and employees contribute.
It was not my or my Department’s intention in making these regulations to undermine the employers or the employees who contribute to the local government pension scheme. Much has been made of the appointments procedure. If it had proceeded, I would have been appointing four employer and six employee representatives. However, I have listened to the concerns raised and the suggestion that the regulations disregarded employee and employer interest and, therefore, I do not intend to oppose the motion.
I presume that the motion will be carried, but, even if it is not, I have already decided to conduct a policy review of NILGOSC’s constitution. The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment is aware of my intention. I intend to invite representatives of employers, as well as employees who contribute to the pension fund, to participate in that review. In due course, I will advise the Committee for the Environment on the details of the policy review.
If the motion is agreed, in order to ensure that NILGOSC continues its important work, I intend to extend the terms of office that were due to come to an end on 30 September 2007 — yesterday — of the three committee members and the chairman of NILGOSC. I also intend to reappoint the remaining seven committee members. I am pleased to say that those three members and the chairman have agreed to remain in office for a further 18 months. I express my gratitude at their willingness to continue in office during what, because of the re-evaluation of the fund and preparations for the introduction of the new local government pension scheme, will be a busy time. For the record, the Commissioner for Public Appointments has been consulted and has agreed to the proposals that affect the NILGOSC committee. I will not be opposing the motion.
Mr McGlone: I shall be brief. I thank the Minister for listening to the views that were expressed in Committee. Members of the Committee for the Environment listened intently to all concerns that were raised, and considered them in detail. I thank the Minister for her positive response. Further details of the review will come before the Committee, and we look forward to getting our teeth into that.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Local Government Pension Scheme (Amendment No. 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) (S.R. 2007/372) be annulled.
Mandatory Registration of Landlords
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for a winding-up speech. All other Members who speak will have five minutes.
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 a winding-up speech.
Mr F McCann: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister for Social Development to legislate for the mandatory registration of all landlords in the private sector.
A leasCheann Comhairle, tá súil agam go bhfaighidh an rún seo tacatocht ó gach páirtí. I hope that all parties will support the motion and the amendment. The content of the debate has been dealt with, and generally agreed on, in wider debates on housing in the Chamber.
Although Sinn Féin accepts the proposed amendment, I wish to put down a marker for the Minister for Social Development that any dilution of the issue will be strongly contested. I ask the Minister to reiterate her commitment to deal with the issue sooner rather than later.
Other Members and I have spoken at various events on the subject, so I know that there is consensus that action must be taken to bring this deplorable situation to a head. I am confident that Members will support moves by the Minister to introduce legislation to make landlord registration mandatory. That would send out a clear message that the Assembly will no longer allow vulnerable tenants to fall prey to unscrupulous landlords.
That should not be interpreted as an attack on all landlords. Many landlords provide excellent accommodation for their tenants. In any society, the private-rental sector fulfils a valuable role in providing a good mix of housing.
Tá dualcais ag again tiarna talon sa tír seo. At a recent meeting with a representative from the Landlords’ Association, Sinn Féin stated that the present situation, in which a non-regulated private-housing sector takes advantage of many of its tenants in parts of the North, must not be allowed to continue. Most of those who are taken advantage of are those in need.
How many Members have been appalled at the threats of eviction and intimidation that have been received by tenants who dare to complain about repairs? One well-known estate agency decided that it was not collecting enough rent, so it switched from monthly to four-weekly payments, which guaranteed an extra month’s worth of rent each year.
How many Members have received complaints about landlords who place antisocial tenants in properties, causing major problems for residents, but who, when challenged, say that they are only landlords, not social workers?
How many Members have spoken to people who have had to hand over deposits of up to £1,000, only to lose that money when they move due to false claims of damage made by landlords? How many Members have dealt with tenants on housing benefit who are charged in excess of £200 more than their benefits, and who are threatened with eviction if they complain?
Individuals are crammed into houses that are in terrible condition, and are charged up to £75 a week for a bed, and they will not complain in case they are told to leave. They say that it is better than sleeping on the streets. They believe that if they complain, they will get no help from the housing authorities and will be evicted. Sadly, the authorities, including the Department for Social Development (DSD) and the Housing Executive (NIHE), know what is happening but have done nothing to stop it.
Between January and August 2003, the Housing Executive inspected the addresses of multi-occupancy properties in which migrant workers were living. Of the 86 properties that were inspected, 73 were given notices requiring the landlord to upgrade the dwellings to the correct standards under article 80 of the 1992 Housing Order. The Housing Executive’s report also said that the majority of unregistered HMOs (houses in multiple occupation)were failing to meet the regulatory standards.
The Housing Executive does not know how many houses are being used as private-rented accommodation. It can tell us how many people are in receipt of housing benefit, but that is the limit of its knowledge. That is a deplorable situation, which cannot be allowed to continue. Tá sé in am stop a chur leis an chás seo.
Statutory and voluntary registration systems have failed. The Assembly must show leadership on this matter. The Assembly has a duty to ensure that those in our society who are most in need are given the protection that they require so that they can live in accommodation that is suited to their needs, which is correctly priced, and where intimidation is a thing of the past.
There has been massive growth in the private-rented sector in recent years, which has coincided with a serious crisis in the provision of social housing. People are forced into private rentals because there is nowhere else to turn. In 2006-07, homeless figures rose again to 21,013 — a 4·4% increase on the figure for 2005-06. However, of those cases, only 9,744 were accepted as being homeless. What happened to the other 11,000 applicants who were refused? They turned to the unregistered private sector.
People cannot understand the Assembly’s hesitance to introduce mandatory registration. Some people in housing circles have pointed out that the Administrations in the Twenty-six Counties and in Scotland realised that there was a problem and moved to legislate for it.
In Scotland, each local authority prepares and maintains a register of landlords. Anyone who applies for registration must pass a “fit and proper person” test before he or she can become a landlord. The person must meet all legislative requirements and observe agreed standards of practice. The landlord pays a registration fee of £50, which covers a three-year period. There are other elements to the legislation and criteria in the Scottish model. However, the bottom line is that the Scots saw a problem, moved to put it right, and gave their people the protection that our constituents are crying out for.
In the Twenty-six Counties, the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 requires landlords to register all tenancies with the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB), which administers a central register. The landlord pays a fee of €70 a unit or €300 for multiple units. There are strong enforcement laws, and the PRTB vigorously pursues failure to comply with registration. Failure to register is an offence punishable by a €3,000 fine, or six months in prison, or both.
Disputes between landlords and tenants are referred to the PRTB instead of the courts. The board deals with matters such as deposit refunds, breaches of tenancy obligations, lease terms, termination of tenancies, market rent, rent arrears and neighbours’ complaints about tenants’ behaviour.
The board also has the power to apply for injunctive-type relief in serious cases, such as illegal evictions or threat to life. It can also award damages of up to €20,000, and arrears of rent of up to €20,000 or twice the annual rent — whichever is the greatest amount.
Furthermore, the board can initiate a resolution process to adjudicate any difficulties that may arise, has the power to mediate in private session and can set up a public session with a three-person tenancy tribunal. That tribunal can oversee issues such as landlords not giving adequate notice periods when bringing tenancy to an end; harassment and illegal eviction of tenants; tenants being charged non-refundable deposits and four weeks’ rent in advance, which is also non-refundable, even when housing benefit is paid; tenants being held responsible for making up the shortfall, even when housing benefit covers the full contractual rent; landlords withholding deposits and refusing to refund those at the end of the tenancies; and excessive service charges.
Sinn Féin believes that the rent-officer system should be scrapped, and that it should be subsumed into a new board with powers to deal with the private-rented sector. A board similar to the model in the South — with the right powers — could help to deal with the serious problems in the private-rented sector.
The Minister for Social Development should have no difficulty with Sinn Féin’s proposals. From her experience in dealing with those issues, she is aware that a serious problem exists. She has witnessed at first hand the abuse of tenants by some landlords. She also knows that the registration scheme that is currently in place has failed those who it is supposed to protect. It is time to move forward and to put in place a mandatory registration scheme.
The Minister should consult widely on this issue, including the voluntary housing sector, to develop the consultation process in order to ensure that we get it right.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Fra, please do not hold your papers over the microphone.
Mr F McCann: No landlord should fear mandatory registration — it will assist landlords who provide excellent accommodation and weed out those who abuse the system.
To lead the way on this issue, I urge all Members who act as landlords to take the first step and declare their interest to the House. Both the Minister and Members know that it is the right step to take. Let us send a clear and unanimous message that we support those tenants who have no voice and that we are prepared to legislate to give them that voice. I ask the House to support the motion as amended.
Mr Burns: I beg to move the following amendment: Insert after “legislate”
“, subject to the findings of the Housing Affordability Review Implementation Group,”.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk on this issue. I strongly support the call for the mandatory registration of private-sector landlords. Landlords and letting agents have responsibilities, not just to their tenants, but to the wider community. There are too many instances in which those responsibilities are ignored to the detriment of tenants and of society in general.
I appreciate that there is legislation already in place, such as the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which requires landlords to make sure that their properties are maintained in a fit state. It is time that the legislation was taken one step further in order to give the tenant the right to know the name and address of the landlord.
As I have said previously, I agree wholeheartedly with the recommendations of the Semple Report. There is a strong case for the registration of all landlords by the Housing Executive, with sanctions for those who fail to register. It is important to remember that many tenants in the private-rental sector are supported by housing benefit, which is, after all, public money. It is important to ensure that we are getting the best possible value and providing people with the best possible service.
With that in mind, I am fairly sure that the housing affordability review implementation group will share that point of view when it publishes its conclusions.
We should look to our neighbours in the South and in Scotland for advice, and we should learn from their experiences. The model that was introduced in Scotland in 2006 provides a good framework for the development of our own system, mainly because it is strongly tied to antisocial behaviour legislation.
As I have said, landlords have a duty to their community as well as to their tenants. They not only have a responsibility to keep buildings in good order, but they must ensure that their properties are not used as dole drops or party houses. Similarly, landlords should not be permitted to evict tenants from homes at short notice without good reason. We all know that making people homeless puts a strain on our already dwindling public-housing stock. That must not be allowed to happen without the application of sanctions. Within our proposed system, sanctions should be available to punish swiftly landlords who take such action; the threat of the quick administration of anti-social behaviour orders or swift prosecution should prevent such activity.
Although I have talked about legislation and regulation, we must never lose sight of the bigger picture and the main priority. Everyone should live in a good neighbourhood and have warm comfortable homes in which they can live securely without fear or worry. The mandatory registration of private landlords will help to achieve that.
I support the amendment.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development (Mr Campbell): Social housing is an issue that gains in importance with each passing month. A combination of factors in Northern Ireland ensures that we are all only too well aware of the matter. Surveys show that house prices are increasing rapidly month-on-month, making purchasing out of the question for many, particularly young people. Five increases in interest rates have occurred over the past 15 months. Those factors alone have ensured that the demand for social housing has increased significantly in that comparatively short time. As a result, the main provider of social housing, the Housing Executive, has come under severe pressure. In their constituency work, many Members have found that people who have 120, 150 or even 200 points find it difficult to get accommodation in the public-housing sector, and, increasingly, those people are turning to the private-rental sector. We have also recently received the information that £140 million in benefits is going to private landlords to pay rent. That combination is causing problems that are unlikely to decrease; in fact, the situation will probably worsen over the next 12 to 18 months, if not beyond.
We have evidence of the Scottish scheme, which is similar to that proposed. That scheme is undergoing a review, and, at this stage, it appears that it has worked.
Many of the private landlords in Northern Ireland are bona fide landlords, with whom tenants have a good relationship and with whom there is no difficulty. However, as Mr Burns pointed out, several problems have arisen with regard to antisocial behaviour. Residents who live in close proximity to problem families may have difficulties that could be alleviated if such a register were available.
If the Assembly does not take the right steps, the situation will not improve, but is likely to worsen. I am not convinced of the benefits of the amendment, which I understand may be accepted by Sinn Féin. I hope that such a move will not create unnecessary bureaucracy for the housing affordability review implementation group, and that the Minister will say that that will not be the case.
Most private-sector landlords who are effective, efficient and law-abiding, want to see the minimum amount of fuss and bureaucracy in order to allow them to continue to offer private-rented accommodation in a manner of which most people approve, while simultaneously rooting out those private-sector landlords who do not fulfil the criteria in the way in which they should.
On balance, the DUP is in favour of the motion, and, along with Members who belong to the Committee for Social Development, and the House, I look forward to the Minister’s response to the motion and the amendment.
Mr Cobain: I am disappointed to hear that Sinn Féin will accept the amendment, which compromises the original motion. Handing over the future of the registration of landlords to another agency would be a mistake. It is the job of Assembly Members to legislate, and that is what we should do.
I am in favour of introducing compulsory registration of all landlords in Northern Ireland. Sir John Semple referred to that matter in his latest report when he called for the registration of all landlords by the new local authorities, when they are established.
The case for registration is self-evident. The number of people who live in private-rented accommodation has grown steadily over the last decade because of an inability to satisfy housing needs in the public sector.
All of the housing studies that I have seen, including the Semple Report, show that there is a need to build between 2,000 and 2,500 new public-sector homes each year in order to meet housing demand. In 2008, it is planned that 600 new public-sector homes will be completed. That will not address the need, and will drive a number of families into the private-rented sector.
There are already more than 80,000 homes in the private-rented sector, which represents more than 11% of our total housing stock. Therefore, there are a number of issues that are specific to the private-rented sector that must be addressed. Those issues include accommodation for the most vulnerable in our society. Historically, that sector also contains a higher number of other tenures.
In 2001, the level of unfitness in the private-rented sector was approximately 9%, and although that improved significantly, reducing to 6% in 2004, that figure was still higher than the overall unfitness levels in the rest of the property market. That sector provides accommodation for the most vulnerable, and covers more than 80,000 homes. Therefore, because the unfitness levels are higher than average, the case for compulsory registration is clear. No one wants to penalise landlords. Instead, we must work with and encourage landlords to improve housing conditions and standards. A registration scheme would be an ideal vehicle to achieve those ends.
The Minister for Social Development gave a commitment to examine how to bring back into use empty homes in the private-rented sector. I look forward to seeing that work completed at the earliest possible opportunity.
There is a strategy for the regulation of HMOs. The Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 provided powers for the Housing Executive to introduce the statutory registration scheme for HMOs, and that has been working well since 2004.
The registration requires landlords to comply fully with HMO standards; to ensure that the accommodation is fit and that it meets management standards; to provide annual certification that all fire protection equipment has been serviced and maintained in full working order; to provide electric and gas certificates as appropriate; and to pay a registration fee of £15 each year for each occupant. The drive behind that is to ensure that landlords comply with specific regulations.
The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which came into effect on 1 April 2007, provides a new structure for the private-rented sector in Northern Ireland. Although it covers other tenancy issues, it does not go far enough on unfitness and disrepair, rent controls and certificates of fitness. It does not compel landlords to register but relies on their co-operation. That is the Order’s weakness.
I welcome the motion and the compulsory registration of landlords. However, I cannot support the amendment.
Ms Lo: It is useful to consider examples from our neighbours. Private-landlord registration practices exist in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. The Scottish scheme, established under the Antisocial Behaviour etc. (Scotland) Act 2004, aims to ensure that all private landlords in Scotland are considered fit and proper to let residential property. They must meet all legislative requirements and observe agreed standards of practice.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Private Residential Tenancies Board was set up under the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide a centralised register and a comprehensive dispute-resolution service in order to avoid people’s having to resort to the courts. The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 sets out the obligations of landlords and tenants, including repairs and fitness inspection, and enhances the provisions of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992. However, its scope is only to ensure that accommodation meets the minimum physical conditions for habitation. That is not enough.
More families are looking to the private-rented sector because of the chronic housing shortage, spiralling house prices and long waiting lists for social housing. Many people who would normally have applied for Housing Executive accommodation are now forced to rent from the private sector. In 2006, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive paid out £140 million in housing benefit to private landlords, which is a massive sum of money. Although it must be recognised that there is much quality private housing and good management practice, there are people who are at the bottom end of the range who pay relatively high rents for poor accommodation, often with short-term tenure and bad management. The demand for a deposit and rent in advance can also cause financial difficulty for tenants, who include migrant workers and their families who have moved to Northern Ireland to live.
The Alliance Party supports the call to regulate the private sector, which is expanding at an unprecedented rate and receives huge sums of public money in rent from housing benefit. My party agrees with the Housing Rights Service that there is a need for mandatory registration of private landlords and letting agents, which incorporates a dispute-resolution service and a statutory deposit scheme. It is essential that registration be compulsory for all landlords and letting agents and that the register be available in a publicly accessible format. It must be co-ordinated by a central agency that is similar to that in the Republic of Ireland and must have rigorous enforcement powers in order to be effective. However, the Assembly needs to be mindful that adequate consultation on such a scheme must be carried out and that there must be a sensible timescale for its development and implementation in order for it to work properly.
I disagree with the proposed amendment. This should not be subject to the findings of the housing affordability review implementation group, as that would only delay matters. We should look at this urgently.
Mr Hilditch: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the introduction of a mandatory registration scheme for Northern Ireland. It would be a good opportunity to promote better standards in the housing sector, and would result in our communities having good-quality private-rental accommodation for a wide range of households at various income levels.
I urge the Minister for Social Development to legislate for the mandatory registration of all landlords, sooner rather than later. Registration would be an important strand of the Assembly’s wider policy framework for the private-rented sector, which is designed to secure good management, good standards, and good behaviour right across the housing sector. By doing so, the legislation would reinforce the positive contribution that the private-rental sector makes to meeting housing needs in Northern Ireland. It would increase the quantity of affordable homes, develop the quality of those homes, and address the needs of vulnerable people.
By doing this we would ensure that there were proper tenancy agreements setting out the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. In turn, that would prevent exploitation and harassment of tenants, and would also help in taking action where a tenant’s behaviour causes a nuisance to neighbours.
According to the Department for Social Development figures, in 2005 almost 8,000 homes in the private sector, more than 3,000 Housing Executive properties and 210 homes owned by housing associations were deemed unfit. We are aware that there are negligent landlords out there, and we know the problems that they create. We have all heard the complaints about poor wiring, damp homes, health and safety issues, and even rat problems. Other agencies, such as the Housing Executive and council environmental health departments, must be called upon to resolve those problems.
Many landlords live outside Northern Ireland, and, consequently, their tenants find it impossible to get in touch with them. Absentee landlords sometimes use agencies, which brings a third party into the dispute. The lines of communication become complicated, and it appears that the tenant is being given the runaround. The Assembly must realise that many of the people living in houses in multiple occupancy are among the most vulnerable in our community.
“A House in Multiple Occupation is defined as a house that is occupied by persons who do not form a single household.
Typically, a HMO in Belfast is a three storey Victorian terraced house that has been converted into flats, and which do not always meet fire safety standards.”
Therefore, as a matter of urgency, we should be concerned for the residents’ health and safety and we should be insisting on annual gas safety certificates, safety of electrical appliances and furniture, working smoke alarms, and written terms of occupancy.
As politicians, we should encourage inspections of properties that are rented out as houses in multiple occupation. We should issue licences to landlords, as long as their properties comply with the standards of fire safety, amenities and management. We should set up databases of properties for which licences have been issued, and make that information available for public inspection. We should encourage prospective tenants to consult the registration database before renting private accommodation.
The Chartered Institute of Housing in Northern Ireland recommends the development of strategies to improve, and work in partnership with, the private-rented sector. It feels that the current housing benefit levels urgently need to be reviewed. It agrees with the principle of a mediation and arbitration service for landlords and tenants, but states that more detail is needed as to who would operate those functions. As public representatives, we should introduce penalties for landlords who are not licensed and fines for any breach of licence terms.
The other side of the coin is that we must protect our landlords. The availability and stock of social housing would collapse if landlords were not filling the void. It is difficult to provide exact figures for the number of landlords in Northern Ireland, as there are a large number of people who will not declare themselves as landlords.
We have heard of landlords complaining about their tenants, regarding the mess and damage that they cause to their properties. That should not be happening, but it happens to many landlords. If people were vandalising public property they would be charged by the PSNI, yet tenants are not charged unless their landlord takes them to court and wins the case.
I hope that the rest of the Assembly shares my views on the important issue before us. I urge the Minister to begin working on better standards of accommodation in the housing market and insist that she takes immediate action. Without the proposed legislation, it will be more difficult to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016, to halve child poverty by 2010, and to combat the ongoing problems with the lack of social housing. We will need all agencies and Departments to pull together and set dates and targets for the legislation to be passed. Like other Members in the Chamber, I am happy to support the motion as it stands.
Miss McIlveen: I declare an interest as a landlord.
The recent boom in house prices has stemmed largely from people considering property to be a good investment. After the highly publicised pension scheme frauds, the problems surrounding final payment occupational pension schemes, and a volatile stock market, it is little wonder that, having seen the price of property increase over the past 20 years, people have decided to purchase additional properties to give them security in their old age. Their mortgages and supplementary incomes are supplied by the tenants’ rent.
However, certain unsavoury types of landlord can be attracted to those situations in which large sums of money can be made. There are those who fail to fulfil their obligations as a landlord because they want to maximise the money that they make from a property, and there are those who are not fit and proper landlords because of their involvement in criminal activity. I fear that the first category of unsavoury landlord is on the increase because, first, rising mortgage rates have meant lessening profits, and secondly, people are inexperienced. The second category is also on the rise, which is evident from the excellent work of the Assets Recovery Agency. Tenants, of course, need to be protected, and although rights conferred by a tenancy agreement offer some protection, they can be enforced only through the courts. That can be a lengthy and stressful experience.
A landlord-registration scheme is a laudable idea as long as we are clear about the reason why we want landlords to be registered and about what is to be done with the information. Such a scheme can offer tenants a level of security in that they will know that the property that they are going to rent is of the appropriate standard and that the landlord is a reputable person.
Undoubtedly, there are horror stories about landlords, but many look after tenants, comply with housing regulations, and are fit and proper landlords. Currently, there is a form of limited landlord registration in Northern Ireland. That covers certain areas and HMOs that have 10 or more occupants in certain district council areas, along with other conditions. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has the power to bring prosecutions for failure to register, as was seen in August this year when one landlord was fined £3,000 for his fifth offence.
The house must meet all the requirements that are set out in article 80(2) of the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1992; be fit for human habitation as defined by the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order 1981; be managed in compliance with the Housing (Management of Houses in Multiple Occupation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1993; and have valid current certificates for electrical and gas installations. In addition, the person having control of the house and the person managing the house must both be fit and proper persons. Each house is registered for occupation by a maximum number of occupants, and a fee equivalent to £15 a year for each occupant is to be payable on first registration of a house. Registration is for a period of five years.
The register is available to the public for a fee, barring certain sensitive properties. The register contains certain information: the property reference number; the address of the property; the maximum occupancy level that is permitted under the scheme; a contact telephone number for the manager of the HMO; the date of the registration of the property; and the date for renewal of registration. However, it does not have — nor should any proposed register have — a provision that enables the public to search against the name of a landlord. The fact that a particular property is registered and that the landlord and manager of the property are deemed fit and proper by virtue of that registration, should be sufficient for anyone searching the register. Such a register should not afford a member of the public the luxury of prying into a person’s financial affairs.
The cost of administration is one problem that I foresee with such a register. Those who apply to register will, of course, pay for that pleasure, but costs will arise as staff will have to be employed to investigate and prosecute those who do not register. Legal costs may be recoverable from those who are prosecuted, but with a vast number of rental properties in the private sector, the initial costs could be enormous.
I support the principle of the motion, but, as with everything, the devil is in the detail.
Mr McCallister: I support the motion. It aims to protect vulnerable people from bad landlords and from having to live in unfit properties and in poor quality housing. It is not concerned with those landlords who follow best practice and who are an example to others. As has been mentioned throughout the debate, our society has changed enormously, with rising house prices, increased numbers of migrant workers in HMOs, and so on.
I support the motion, along with my colleague the honourable Member for North Belfast Mr Cobain. The proposer of the motion said that it was about showing leadership. I agree with him. It is about saying that this is a matter for this Assembly to decide, not farming it out to some review group. It is up to us as the leaders of this society to decide what we want to do.
Mr F McCann: Will the Member give way?
Mr McCallister: Yes, but the Member will have to be quick.
Mr F McCann: I proposed the motion to try to achieve a unified voice in the Chamber. Obviously, when I said this morning that we accepted the amendment, we did not realise the strength of feeling across the House. Having discussed the issue with some of our colleagues, we withdraw our support for the amendment and state our preference for the original motion.
Mr McCallister: From the Ulster Unionist perspective, that is a very welcome move. The amendment would have weakened the motion significantly. As I have said, policy is for the Assembly to decide. Registration of landlords will provide protection in disputes over deposits, which the Member mentioned earlier. Landlords do have a duty of care, both for the buildings that they own and for the people who live in them.
On this side of the House, my party supports the motion.
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I welcome the opportunity to debate the way forward for the private-rented sector. I believe firmly in the need for all tenants to be protected, whether they live in public social housing or in the private-rented sector. Such a system needs to be open and transparent, and the housing conditions in which people live are of paramount importance. I support the spirit of the motion and that of the amendment.
I wish to clarify something before I continue — this is for the proposer of the amendment, to whom I think it may be of help. The amendment refers specifically to the Minister-led implementation group, which I hope will report in December. After that, measures will be brought forward for legislation, and the implementation group will take on board all possible ideas from within the Semple Report — such as the subject of this motion — and from without. I have encouraged the expert panel to think outside the Semple Report, because there are many issues that we need to address.
I wish to begin by answering a simple question: what has my Department already done to regulate and improve the private-rented sector? The answer is that it has done a very considerable amount. In 2004, my Department and the Housing Executive published a joint strategy for the private-rented sector, ‘Renting Privately: A Strategic Framework’. That strategy was the first attempt in more than 25 years to address a full range of vital issues in the private-rented sector. I have no doubt that those issues need to be addressed, that rogue landlords need to be addressed and that all tenants need to be protected. From that strategy emerged a new piece of primary legislation, the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which came into effect in April 2007.
The 2006 Order has established a new system of regulation for the private-rented sector. It gives clear rights to tenants and places new obligations on landlords, with district councils given strong new powers to tackle rogue landlords and poor housing conditions. The councils have been given specific powers to tackle unfitness, disrepair, harassment and illegal eviction. In the case of unfit dwellings, they have been given powers over rent control and registration.
The law prevents unscrupulous landlords from harassing tenants, offers new protections for tenants about notice periods and, importantly, places an obligation on landlords to provide all tenants with rent books and a written statement of tenancy terms. For the first time, that will give all tenants the right to know the identity of their landlords and important written information on their tenancy terms. I am sure that all Members will join me in welcoming those important steps. Having listened to all today’s contributions, I have no doubt that Members want to ensure that landlords adhere to strict conditions and that they take due notice of all tenants’ rights.
Over the past few years, houses in multiple occupation have been an area of concern. Although such houses are an important provider of accommodation to students and migrant workers, they have their problems — poor housing conditions, overcrowding and poor management. In recent years, my Department and the Housing Executive have worked hard to improve the conditions of such houses. New legislation has been introduced and, in May 2004, a statutory registration scheme was put in place, to be managed by the Housing Executive. Initially, that scheme focused resources on areas where the problems were greatest, and it has now been rolled out across Northern Ireland in areas such as south and north Belfast, Derry, Coleraine, Portstewart, Dungannon, Cookstown and Bangor. Clearly, much has been done, but we must go further. Perhaps more legislation is required.
Before a rational decision can be made on how to move forward, we must be clear about the impact of our achievements since the introduction of the new legislation in April 2007. The Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 has been in place for six months, so it is early days, and new measures are bedding in. Local councils are starting to exercise their powers, but there are still lessons to be learnt. I am keen to know what has gone well, where the problems lie and, above all, what more needs to be done. Therefore, I have asked my officials to talk to people on the ground — namely, local councils, the Housing Executive, advice agencies, tenants’ groups and landlords — and get answers to those questions and report to me as soon as possible. Public representatives have a role to play in this also.
I am also keen to learn what works in other places. The South of Ireland and Scotland have taken different approaches to the regulation of the private-rented sector. They have both adopted registration schemes, which are relatively new. Have those schemes been effective? Do they represent value for money? Have they achieved what they set out to do?
Mr F McCann: I appreciate what the Minister says about the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which came into effect in April 2007. However, many people think that that Order is not worth the paper that it is written on. It is better than the legislation that it replaced, but it still has no teeth. Tenants who are charged exorbitant rents by rogue landlords will not run, because they fear eviction and intimidation. A former direct rule Minister declared that houses in multiple occupation would be allowed to be built in areas of Belfast other than south Belfast.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Member have a question?
Ms Ritchie: That was a comment rather than a question. It illustrates the fact that I need to spend some time with my officials to ascertain the impact of the 2006 Order. If I find that the Order has not been effective, I will introduce changes quickly, because I want to be absolutely sure that the right legislation is in place in order to protect tenants. Various questions must be answered before the Department can say whether a registration scheme will work in Northern Ireland. My officials are currently examining those issues.
We must also consider the Semple Report on affordable housing. I take Fra McCann’s comments on board about the number of people on waiting lists and the many people who are homeless.
That is why we must increase the level of supply of social and affordable housing to meet demand, and why I said that I inherited a woefully inadequate budget. Above all, it is why I said that I need the support of my ministerial colleagues to factor into the draft Programme for Government the need for social housing to be a priority so that it can be used as an instrument for tackling deprivation and disadvantage. It must be given a high priority when it comes to budgets.
Sir John Semple adopted a clear line on the valuable role that the private-rented sector plays in the housing mix, and he made the case for the registration of all landlords. However, that case is based on the new local authorities’ undertaking the registration and enforcement role, following the implementation of the review of public administration, and will need to be explored further as the Executive and the Assembly debate the way forward for local government. Full registration is not easy; it is a huge and costly matter, and I welcome Sir John’s pragmatism in recognising that point and in proposing a progressive move towards registration that builds on existing work.
Today, I will not have time to respond to the points made by individual Members. However I will write to them, in due course, after the debate.
Mr A Maginness: The debate has been interesting. Everyone agrees on the principle of having a mandatory registration scheme for private landlords, and I do not think that there is any doubt about the Minister’s intention to move in that fashion. However, there is disagreement on the amendment, and I am disappointed that Mr McCann sought to withdraw the support that was previously pledged. I would not like to be going into battle with Mr McCann as my leader. [Interruption.]
After the first shot, he would flee the battlefield.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask Members to make their remarks through the Chair.
Mr A Maginness: I am not trying to engage with Mr McCann directly. There was a bit of panic by Mr McCann and his Sinn Féin colleagues, given the remarks of my friend from North Belfast Mr Cobain regarding the amendment.
The amendment is perfectly sensible. When one is proceeding with legislation, the first thing to do is to establish the principle of the legislation, which has been accepted by everyone in the House. Then, in order to put the legislation into context and give it shape and form, one has to be advised as to how that should be done. In this case, there is no better way of doing that than through the housing affordability review implementation group. It is a pity that it could not be given a shorter name. That group will report to the Minister who will, in turn, report back to the Assembly. Therefore, there is nothing to be frightened of.
It is quite clear that there are various ways of dealing with the matter. Scotland has a scheme, as does the Republic of Ireland. The main thrust of the Scottish scheme is to deal with antisocial behaviour, and we could take some lessons from that. However, I note that the scheme introduced by the Department and the Housing Executive, in relation to houses in multiple occupation, failed in the courts, as it was regarded to be too onerous on landlords and disproportionate in its terms.
I ask the House to rethink its apparent opposition to the amendment. Owing to the fact that so many people are dependent on private-rented accommodation, there is an obvious need for increased regulation. Such regulations should be introduced.
I emphasise that the implementation group, which is led by the Minister, is backed by the Executive — I refer to the Northern Ireland Executive, not the Housing Executive. It is important that that ministerial support continue.
Some of the comments that were made during the debate related to the terms and conditions that apply to people who live in rented accommodation. In many ways, that matter has been addressed by the Private Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, which is a good set of proposals. The House should bear that in mind.
Mrs McGill: Go raibh maith agat, a leasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister to the House. There was some comment during the debate about Sinn Féin’s panicking over whether to accept the amendment. I wish to say from the outset that we did not panic. We fully discussed the matter this morning when we received the amendment. My party colleague Fra McCann said early in the debate that we would accept the amendment because we believe that the motion is exceptionally important, and we did not wish to divide the House. We thought it important to have a mature debate. I repeat that we did not panic; we gave the matter full consideration.
The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development said that the motion was not aimed at all landlords; it is not — as he rightly said, there are many bona fide landlords. However, in offering leadership, it is important to urgently put in place measures to deal with landlords who are not behaving as they should, no matter who their tenants are. A number of Members, including Mr Cobain, the Minister and others, referred to the 2006 Order, which came into effect in April 2007 — indeed, Mr Burns referred to it at the start of his speech. Mr Cobain was quite right to say that that Order does not go nearly far enough. It is not at all clear how the Order addresses the matter that is under debate, namely the mandatory registration of private landlords.
The Committee for Social Development received a page and three quarters of correspondence that pointed out all the deficiencies of the Order. I am not saying whether the group that sent that correspondence is correct, but I agree with the Members who said that the 2006 Order does not go far enough. I do not see provision anywhere in that Order for the mandatory registration of private landlords.
I listened to Mr Burns, who did not often refer to his own amendment. I felt that his heart was with the House’s agreeing the motion. Perhaps that is what he really wants in his heart of hearts, and, if that is the case, I agree with him.
I spoke to Advice NI this morning, and it says that, if the difficulties that Members have highlighted were to arise in the contract between landlord and tenant, in that people on income support who receive housing benefit cannot make payments, those difficulties should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
As I have said, we did not panic at all over whether to accept the amendment. We did not want to divide the House, but, because the text of the amendment does not urgently address the matter, we are minded to say that the mandatory registration of all private-sector landlords should be dealt with in legislation.
The Minister referred to the Semple Review. The Chairperson of the Committee for Social Development was worried that it would add a layer of bureaucracy. We share his concern — any added bureaucracy would not be welcome.
A leasCheann Comhairle, Anna Lo also said that the mandatory registration of all landlords should be addressed as a matter of urgency. Overall, very few contributors disagreed.
LeasCheann Comhairle, sin é go raibh míle maith agat. My party did not panic. We did not want to divide the House, but we will be supporting the motion. Go raibh maith agat.
Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister for Social Development to legislate for the mandatory registration of all landlords in the private sector.
Mr Deputy Speaker: We now suspend —
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Has the Speaker’s Office, or, indeed, any of the Deputy Speakers, considered the acoustic that currently obtains in the Chamber? Many Members find it to be unsatisfactory. I know that microphones for the Front Bench have been newly arranged, but considerable problems persist, not least for people in the Public Gallery, who are unable to hear large sections of debate. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is a different matter, but, nevertheless, I am concerned about the Chamber acoustic.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I note the Member’s concerns, which will be referred to the Speaker’s Office, where, no doubt, they will be the subject of further discussion.
I suggest that Members, when speaking, avoid holding papers over the microphones, because that causes muffling.
Mr McNarry: What did you say, Mr Deputy Speaker? I cannot hear you.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am sure that I will improve.
I will repeat what I have just said. The issue that Mr Kennedy raised will be referred to the Speaker and to the Business Office. In the meantime, I suggest that Members, when speaking, do not hold papers over the microphones. I hope that I was heard that time.
It is almost time for questions for oral answer, so I shall suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 2.25 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —
Health, Social Services and Public Safety
Trilingual Translation Services
1. Mr McCallister asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make a statement on his Department’s approach to trilingual translation services. (AQO 217/08)
The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): My Department will honour its obligations under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In Northern Ireland, that applies to Irish and Ulster Scots, although each has a different status under the charter. In line with that, I have decided to adopt a trilingual approach to the Department’s title on letterheads. I have, however, discontinued Irish-language translations of advertisements and press releases. Departmental publications may be made available in Irish or Ulster Scots on request, providing that those requests meet certain criteria. Moreover, my Department will accept correspondence in Irish or Ulster Scots and will consider arranging for translations so that responses can be provided in the same language that the correspondent has used.
Mr McCallister: I thank the Minister for his answer and for the sensible approach that he has taken on the issue since he took up office.
Does he agree that every penny in the Health Service is precious and that any financial efficiency that is achieved by savings on translations and advertising costs should be ploughed back into front-line services to ensure top-quality care for everyone in Northern Ireland?
Mr McGimpsey: I agree with those sentiments. In an area such as health and social services, every penny is precious because the health and well-being of every man, woman and child in Northern Ireland is involved. It is crucial that full use be made of every resource that is allocated.
Mr McCausland: I also welcome the Minister’s decision. Can the Minister provide the House with figures that show the amount of money that his Department has spent in the years since his predecessor as devolved Minister introduced her policy of bilingualism?
Mr McGimpsey: In the past five years, since the onset of suspension, £151,000 has been spent on translation. I know that substantial funds were expended during the previous period of devolution. With the increased activity that devolution has brought, I would have anticipated a substantial increase in that figure, to beyond £30,000 a year.
2. Mr McClarty asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (a) what plans he had to raise awareness of the health dangers associated with fireworks; and (b) what discussions he had had with other Departments on this issue, ahead of the Halloween period. (AQO 214/08)
Mr McGimpsey: I am launching a fireworks-safety campaign on 8 October to coincide with the lead-up to Halloween 2007. The campaign will highlight the health dangers that are associated with the misuse of fireworks. My interest in fireworks is concerned with reducing — better still, eliminating — the number of avoidable injuries that they cause.
In addition, my Department funds the Northern Ireland regional office of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), which, along with its other messages, promotes fireworks safety. I am particularly concerned about the injuries that fireworks can cause to children and the traumatic effects that they can have on elderly people. Therefore, I wish to see greater control of those dangerous devices. That requires the adoption of a multi-agency approach, and, to that end, I recently met with Paul Goggins, who has responsibility for the control of fireworks, to discuss improvements in the enforcement of controls.
Mr McClarty: I thank the Minister for his response. It is reassuring to know that the Minister and his Department take a proactive approach in tackling what is an important matter. In launching the fireworks-safety campaign, will the Minister ensure that the key messages from that campaign continue after Halloween so that people are continually made aware of the real dangers that fireworks pose?
Mr McGimpsey: It is important that the message is not simply lost after Halloween. People are injured year on year.
The introduction of licensing for the sale and use of fireworks in 2002 led to a significant reduction in injuries. However, since then, there has been a steady annual increase in the number of injuries. Therefore, the Department cannot afford to be complacent and the message must resound every year and throughout the year.
Mr Burns: Given the health risks associated with the burning of toxic materials on bonfires, why was the Department not represented on the inter-agency working group on bonfires that was set up in 2003?
Mr McGimpsey: The inter-agency approach was an initiative that was inspired by local government. I was involved in that as a member of Belfast City Council, and several Members were similarly involved. The issue requires the involvement of agencies and communities because, as the Member is aware, bonfires are an important part of a tradition in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the safe application of that tradition, ensuring that toxic materials are not burned, is a matter for everyone.
Mr I McCrea: I thank the Minister for his comments. There is no doubt that a multi-agency approach is required, and some councils take a proactive approach to the problem. Will the Minister advise the House of the extent of acquisition of fireworks without licences? What actions are being taken to limit that practice, and what more can be done?
Mr McGimpsey: One of the problems, to which I have referred, is the steady rise in injuries since licensing was introduced in 2002. That is primarily due to the increased availability of illegal fireworks. Because people unscrupulously avoid the licensing arrangements and sell fireworks illegally, they fall into the wrong hands. Given that 97% of people who are injured are male and more than 70% are minors — under the age of 18 — the problem mainly concerns children and young people.
This is a matter of control. To that end, my Department involves other Departments and agencies, such as the police, the Department of Education, the Ambulance Service, the Fire and Rescue Service and community safety units, in trying to get our message across and in attempting to gain control, particularly of the illegal importation and sale of fireworks.
Promotion of Good Mental Health
3. Ms Lo asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what support his Department was giving to students’ associations with regard to promoting good mental health among students and young people. (AQO 295/08)
Mr McGimpsey: The ‘Promoting Mental Health Strategy and Action Plan for 2003-2008’ was published in 2003 and includes 30 actions designed to promote the health and well-being of the entire population. Those include personal development programmes, directories of services and the training of youth workers and teachers.
In line with that strategy, the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland has been working in partnership with the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland to support the mental health of students in higher education. Their work includes the distribution of the ‘Mind your head’ booklet to first-year students. The ‘Share It’ advertisement that was broadcast as part of the implementation of the suicide prevention strategy also encourages young people to share their problems and to seek help at times of crisis. In light of the publication of the suicide prevention strategy and the recommendations of the Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability, the ‘Promoting Mental Health Strategy and Action Plan for 2003-2008’ is now being revised.
Ms Lo: I thank the Minister for his answer.
Mr K Robinson: The University of Ulster is in my East Antrim constituency, and I am aware of the excellent day-to-day work of its medical centre. Given the focus on mental health in recent weeks, is any specific work being undertaken directly with local universities to promote mental-health issues in general?
Mr McGimpsey: As far as I am aware, the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast have developed mental-health strategies to promote good mental health among the student population. As a matter of course, GP practices in university areas specialise in providing services that are tailored to meet students’ needs, which include the promotion of good mental and sexual health. In addition to that, the University of Ulster carries out other related work. The stress and expectations among young students, particularly at universities, and the pressure that they feel under to make the grade and be successful in their degree course, have prompted that supplementary question and also those strategies that the universities have developed.
Mr Simpson: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Health Promoting Schools initiative, which has proved to be internationally effective. However, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Education recently refused to fund it. Will the Minister agree to revisit that decision?
Mr McGimpsey: The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has introduced a number of initiatives, not least the Investing for Health strategy, which has been successfully in place for five years. I will enquire about the status of the Health Promoting Schools initiative in the Department, and I will inform the Member of the position in writing. He can then discuss the issue with me if he wishes.
Agenda for Change: Ulster Hospital
4. Mr Easton asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to explain the delay in implementing the Agenda for Change programme for clerical staff in the Ulster Hospital. (AQO 220/08)
Mr McGimpsey: Agenda for Change implementation for the 745 clerical staff in the Ulster Hospital is progressing in the same way as in other trusts. The process and timetable for implementation have been agreed in partnership with regional staff representatives, and significant progress has been made in the past two months. Over 57%, which represents 425 members of staff, will move to Agenda for Change rates of pay within the next month. All staff will receive their increases, and they will be backdated to 1 October 2004. I recently met the main unions to review progress.
Mr Easton: What commitment will the Minister give to those staff who have been affected by the Agenda for Change programme? When will staff receive their entitlements? When will he commit to using his time more wisely and sort out this four-year process as a priority, instead of spending and wasting time interfering in the business of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety?
Mr McGimpsey: I am not aware of my interfering with the work of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and I have not heard any remarks about that. As far as the work of Agenda for Change is concerned, Members must understand that 63,000 healthcare staff must be assessed, graded and accorded new grades in relation to the skills and jobs that they do in order to determine their new rates of pay. To date, 97% of staff have been matched to those new grades, so there is no question of anyone’s time being wasted. We must bear in mind that 63,000 members of staff require individual interviews and assessments. When they are matched to the new pay bands, their pay will be backdated. Some 65% of healthcare staff and 62% of social services staff are on the new rates of pay. Matching will be completed for all staff in the service by the end of December 2007, and the new rates of pay will be in place by the end of March 2008.
Mrs D Kelly: Will the Minister assure the House that all moneys required to implement Agenda for Change have been provided to each board and trust? Will he further guarantee that audit and accounting mechanisms have been established to ensure that the money is spent on the purpose for which it was intended?
Mr McGimpsey: On both points, I assure the Member that the money that was previously bid for has been set aside. As I said, a large portion of that money has been allocated already, and the rest will be allocated in the next few months — certainly before the end of March. Sixty-five per cent of staff are receiving the new rate of pay — 62% in health and social services — which is backdated to 1 October 2004.
5. Mr Cobain asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to make a statement on the work of his Department in relation to suicide prevention. (AQO 216/08)
Mr McGimpsey: A suicide prevention strategy, which contains over 60 actions that aim to reduce the rate of suicide, was launched on 30 October 2006. I have allocated over £3 million annually to support the implementation of that strategy. Of that funding, £1·8 million has been invested in local communities.
A cross-sectoral suicide strategy implementation body has been established to oversee and advance the introduction of the strategy. Membership of that body includes representatives from the statutory and voluntary sectors, members of bereaved families, and members of those communities that have been most affected by suicide. The greatest strength of the body is that it brings together all the key players and stakeholders in the issue to advance the implementation of the strategy.
Mr Cobain: I thank the Minister for taking a personal interest in the issue and for visiting recently the community representatives in north and west Belfast who help those who need assistance with this matter. Does the Minister agree that further investment in mental-health services is important and that any cuts in the health budget will have a devastating impact on those who are on the front line and are attempting to save lives?
Mr McGimpsey: Yes, I agree unreservedly. As I mentioned, the Department has a suicide prevention strategy and an implementation body in place that provide mechanisms for various forms of action. Such actions have been discussed in the House; therefore, I will not list them again. That does not mean that anyone in my Department is complacent. As we are aware, suicide rates have doubled, an increase that is largely in the young. Dealing with that is a key priority for me and the Department.
Suicide is one of the most graphic examples of what poor mental health can do. The Bamford Review, which is an exhaustive review of mental health, demonstrates that mental ill health in Northern Ireland is 25% worse than that in England. If we use England as a benchmark, mental-health needs in Northern Ireland are 25% greater. In addition, the spending on mental health in Northern Ireland is about 25% less than in England. That big gap must be addressed. After inescapable costs for diseases that directly kill — such as cancer and strokes — my number one bid in the comprehensive spending review is to fund the implementation of the Bamford Review’s recommendations.
Mrs I Robinson: The Minister said earlier that “every penny is precious”. The Health Committee has responded to the worrying increase in suicide in Northern Ireland by urgently setting up a full inquiry, which includes going to Scotland in November, DV, to learn from the experiences of the Choose Life strategy. Why is the Minister not prepared to let the Committee report its findings to him? Instead, he is duplicating our work in the Department. That indicates that he is interfering, despite his protestations.
Mr McGimpsey: I am almost, but not entirely, lost by that comment. As I have repeatedly said to Mrs Robinson and to the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, I want to work with the Committee, and envisage working as a team. If Mrs Robinson has issues, the door to my office is always open. I will be at the Committee’s meeting on Thursday. I totally agree with her about duplication of work — I have no desire to see that.
Mr O’Loan: The provision of mental-health nurses is an important element in a suicide prevention strategy. The Minister will be aware of the small number of teaching places that are available in Northern Ireland for such nurses.
He will also be aware of the Bamford Review’s recommendation that the number of teaching places be increased. I welcome the Minister’s support for the outcomes of the Bamford Review. What discussions has the Minister had with the universities here on the number of teaching places for mental-health nurses, and what progress can he report?
Mr McGimpsey: Mr O’Loan is correct. There are 400 mental-health nursing vacancies — a huge amount. However, that does not apply solely to Northern Ireland. There is a shortage of mental-health nurses in the other home countries — England, Scotland and Wales — and in the Irish Republic. In fact, there is a universal shortage. This year, we increased the number of training places to 70. It is expected that approximately 53 new mental-health nurses will graduate; therefore, not all of the places are being taken up. I am looking at that again as an urgency, because one of the key matters around the Bamford Review related to how staff can be encouraged to take up those places. It does not matter how many beds are available; without the staff to man the beds, the beds cannot be opened. Staffing is an important determinant, and is one of the big obstacles.
Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital: Acute Mental-Health/Psychiatric Beds
6. Mr McElduff asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety what proposals he had to either increase or reduce the number of acute mental-health/psychiatric beds at the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital in Omagh. (AQO 227/08)
Mr McGimpsey: The Western Health and Social Care Trust’s recent mental-health review, ‘Health in Mind’, and the recent Bamford Review, both recommended a reduction in acute inpatient beds in tandem with the development of a range of alternative community services, such as home treatment teams and crisis intervention teams. The number of mental-health acute beds in the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital was recently reduced from 52 to 42 as a result of the services provided by several alternatives to hospitals, such as Ferone Drive in Omagh, Clare House in Enniskillen — both step-down facilities — and Ramona House in Omagh, which is an additional unit. It is the trust’s intention to reduce acute mental-health beds further as community places become available, in line with the Bamford Review’s recommendations.
Mr McElduff: I thank the Minister for his reply. Does the Minister agree that all the health indicators west of the Bann point towards great health investment? Can the Minister assure the House — and me — that he will continue to invest in mental-health provision in the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital and west of the Bann?
Mr McGimpsey: As Mr McElduff is aware, we have announced a new hospital facility in Omagh — the enhanced local hospital. It will include 97 mental-health beds, some of which will be for acute mental illness. The thrust of the Bamford Review and the strategy is that patients do better outside of hospital. They do better in their homes, if they can get the support they need. That does not apply to everyone, but it is the thrust of the findings. Our mental-health budget spend on hospitals is about 54%, whereas that in England is 40%. I use England as the benchmark on the trend for the way forward. There is probably an argument about our making an over-provision; perhaps we are too inclined to send patients for long stays in hospital, when it would be more appropriate and beneficial to give them support in their communities. That is the thrust of areas of the Bamford Review, and, as we consider its implementation, I expect to have further discussions on those issues.
Dr Deeny: I thank the Minister for saying that acute psychiatric services will remain in Omagh. That is the very least that we expect from his Department.
The Minister and his Department are — rightly — to spend £65 million on a proper hospital in Downpatrick that will provide for the people of Downpatrick and surrounding district the essential, lifesaving services of an accident and emergency facility, inpatient medicine and coronary care — vital services that the Downpatrick and district GPs need for their patients.
The Minister stated when he became Health Minister that he would listen to the health professionals. However, he proposes to spend £190 million of public money — almost three times the amount spent on the Downpatrick hospital — on a so-called hospital in Omagh, on the site of the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital.
Does the Minister listen to the GPs and other health professionals of our area? If so, will he and his Department provide the new Omagh hospital with those vital lifesaving services of coronary care, inpatient medicine and accident and emergency facilities, which are essential in emergency situations to allow us — as front-line health professionals — to save the lives of patients in County Tyrone?
I will finish by asking the Minister —
Mr Speaker: I ask the Member to come to his supplementary question.
Dr Deeny: I am quite angry and upset, because it seems that the Minister is duplicating what we are doing in the Health Committee. Is it duplication or coincidence? First, within a week of the Committee’s talking about infections in hospitals, the Minister was doing something about it; second was the case of Mrs Caldwell; and third is the Health Committee’s plan to visit Scotland. Within days we will see the Minister duplicating the Committee’s work on that.
Mr McGimpsey: I would need another Question Time to deal with Dr Deeny’s questions.
To answer his last three points, those issues were on the record and talked about in this House, and in other places, and Scotland offered good practice for suicide prevention. The Department is looking hard at that, and has already had discussions about suicide. There is a five nations group that deals with suicide, including Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and the Irish Republic. That is all on record. It cannot be said that the Department is jumping the Committee’s gun.
With regard to infections in hospitals, I get constant questions about MRSA and C difficile. The Department has already had one initiative on hospital cleanliness before the summer, and I am still looking closely at that. I may not be doing Gordon Brown’s “deep clean”, but patient safety is key. For me to not do so because the Health Committee wants to talk about it would not be a responsible way for me to go forward. The Caldwell case came about at a particular point in time, and it is not a fair criticism.
The original question was about mental health. There will be 97 mental-health beds, as follows: 28 acute mental-health beds; 20 elderly mental-health beds; nine alcohol and treatment beds; 20 challenging-behaviour beds; and 20 challenging-behaviour beds for the under-65s. That is part of the Omagh hospital project. I recall Kieran Deeny telling me to keep my hospital when I told the Committee that that was part and parcel of what was happening in Omagh.
Mr Buchanan: The Bamford Review encourages the redirecting of more resources into the community. Can the Minister tell us what progress has been made on upskilling staff and enhancing services in the community in the Omagh and West Tyrone area? Will he give a commitment to the House that he will provide full, acute, life-saving services at the Tyrone County Hospital at Omagh, instead of continually interfering with the work of the Health Committee?
Mr McGimpsey: I am almost tempted to ask for that again, but we have already had a large part of it.
I am planning to go ahead with training for staff, because delivery and implementation is key when there is a policy to deliver on the ground. I have already set out what the Department and the trust intend to do at the Tyrone local hospital, although there is a long way to go before the hospital plan is decided.
I entirely refute the suggestion that I interfere with the Health Committee.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
7. Miss McIlveen asked the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to detail the funding his Department is making available to implement the Care Matters strategy for the most vulnerable children in need of care. (AQO 213/08)
Mr McGimpsey: Responses to the ‘Care Matters in Northern Ireland: A Bridge to a Better Future’ consultation, which finished recently, are being analysed and considered before determining the final policy.
Funding for the initiative will depend on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, which is still under consideration. Therefore, it is not possible to give a more detailed answer at the moment. However, the Department is identifying those elements of the strategy that have a neutral or moderate cost, and is consulting colleagues in the voluntary and statutory sectors about implementing those changes and improvements as quickly as possible.
Care Matters will build on recent investments in foster care, leaving care and children’s residential homes. That includes introducing nationally agreed minimum foster-care allowances, more foster-care support workers and more resources to recruit foster carers from children’s extended families. That also includes the appointment of personal advisers for care-leavers and measures to enable care-leavers to continue living with their former —
Mr Speaker: I must interrupt the Minister because Question Time is now over for his Department. I apologise to the Member that she cannot ask a supplementary question.
(The Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair).
Derry/Londonderry to Belfast Railway Line
1. Mr McCartney asked the Minister for Regional Development to outline the next steps in the development of the Derry/Londonderry to Belfast railway line. (AQO 269/08)
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Some £12 million of funding has been earmarked to finance a major project that is designed to extend the track life of the line between Ballymena and Coleraine on the Belfast to Derry railway line. Translink hopes that, when approved, the project will commence work on site early in the new year. In the meantime, the Department has approved funding of almost £500,000 to enable Translink to carry out urgent remedial work on wet beds on the line close to Ballymoney.
In planning for the future, the Department and Northern Ireland Railways have worked together on an interdepartmental steering group to examine a range of investment options for future railway provision. As a result, a bid has now been submitted for additional funding to upgrade the Derry line as part of the second investment strategy for Northern Ireland. Future levels of spending on the line, and on rail infrastructure generally, will be determined after the outcome of the budgetary process.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that the development of the Derry line is vital for the further development of the north-west and for his commitment to regional balanced improvements?
Mr Murphy: I agree that the development of the Derry line is key. As the Member and other representatives from that area will know, a spatial development strategy for the north-west generally is under way. That strategy takes in Derry and Letterkenny, and central to it will be infrastructure that will support the area’s development. That includes not only the railway but the A5, the north-west gateway that was announced recently, the port, and improvements to the airport. All those aspects are vital to making Derry the regional centre of the north-west area. Supporting infrastructure is needed so that Derry can develop to its full potential, and I support that desire. I know that infrastructure is key, and that is why I am keen to see appropriate infrastructure investments made in the north-west.
Mr G Robinson: Does the Minister have any plans to improve the frequency and speed of the railway service between Belfast and Londonderry, similar to that considered for the Belfast to Dublin line?
Mr Murphy: The bid that has been submitted is to upgrade the Derry to Belfast line. Money has already been invested in stock, which has greatly improved comfort, as well as passenger numbers, on the service from Derry to Belfast. The steering group that examined the investment options felt that the line needed to be upgraded in order to improve the speed and, it is hoped, the frequency of trains. It has been shown elsewhere that investment in railway lines and stock has improved frequency, journey times and passenger uptake.
Mr Dallat: The Minister has said that the £12 million will be concentrated on the line between Belfast and Ballymena. What has happened to the rest of the line, from Coleraine to Derry? Has he discovered what happened to the original £21 million, and has he applied to the European Union for funding under TranSystems, as has been done successfully by the Dublin Government for the Cork to Dublin line?
Mr Murphy: The Department will try to secure funding wherever possible. The decision to maintain the line was taken under a previous Administration, and that was the status when I took up office. I have approved a decision to upgrade the line from Derry to Belfast, and the Department has bid for funds to do that. That is an advance on the position under the previous Administration.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Question 2 has been withdrawn.
Planning Policy Statement 14
3. Mr Boylan asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will give a timescale within which he will make a statement to the Assembly on Mr Justice Gillen’s decision on Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 14: Sustainable Development in the Countryside. (AQO 275/08)
Mr Murphy: The judgement by the courts in the judicial review of Planning Policy Statement 14 found that the Department for Regional Development did not have the statutory authority to make draft PPS 14.
On 27 September, a hearing on remedies was held in which a final decision was reserved. A judgement is expected this week, and I will consider the implications of that decision in conjunction with the Minister of the Environment, Arlene Foster, and ensure that the Assembly is appropriately informed at the earliest possible opportunity thereafter.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that there are widespread concerns about this issue in rural communities? Pending the decision on Thursday, will he confirm that the matter will be addressed as soon as possible?
Mr Murphy: It is not only in rural communities that there are widespread concerns about planning policies, although they are more keenly felt there. As a consequence, all the parties that were involved in the Preparation for Government Committee agreed that PPS 14 must be reviewed.
There was consensus that the previous policy should not be restored and that the Executive should develop a more balanced policy that is less restrictive than PPS 14 and sympathetic to sustainable development in the countryside and rural communities.
Further to my submission of a paper, the Executive agreed to set up a subcommittee to develop a more balanced rural development policy. That work continues in parallel to, and in anticipation of, the outcome of the court case. The subcommittee met stakeholders and will shortly meet the relevant Ministers.
Whatever emerges from the courts this week will have implications for that; however, it is important to continue the work that the Executive undertook as a result of an all-party report before the restoration of devolution and to strive to develop a balanced policy, which is important for the whole community.
Dr W McCrea: In view of the previous answer, what progress did the Minister make in bringing forward the work of the ministerial review team on PPS 14, before the announcement of the judicial review of the policy?
Mr Murphy: Several things have happened. First, we had wide-ranging debates in Tí Chulainn in Mullaghbane and the Rural College in Draperstown, where we met groups of stakeholders that had responded to the consultation process for PPS 14.
The Executive subcommittee was formed and was due to meet before the court case began. The initial implication from the court case — we await its final judgement — was that the project to decide on, and review, PPS 14 should not be progressed by the Department for Regional Development. The implications of that must be considered.
Although I must discuss the issue with my colleague Arlene Foster, I want the Executive to carry on with their work to produce a balanced policy, for which the parties in the Assembly gave a clear mandate. I am content for that work to continue under the authority of the Executive subcommittee if the desired policy is produced.
The work of that subcommittee is hampered because we await the ruling of the courts. However, I expect some conclusion this week, and the Executive subcommittee will be able to commence its work. I hope that it will have the space to develop a new policy over the coming months.
Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat. Mr Boylan stole some of my thunder when he referred to the considerable pressures on rural communities from rural planning and affordable housing for rural dwellers.
In the light of those considerable concerns, will the Minister explain why, embarrassingly, the Executive subcommittee has not yet met some three months after it was set up, although two consultation meetings have been held in outside locations? I am unsure whether the ongoing court case is the reason.
Mr Murphy: As I explained in my answer to Rev McCrea, the subcommittee was due to meet, and it did undertake some consultation work with stakeholders late in the summer. It had been decided previously that I would be the Chairperson of the subcommittee; however, the court ruling was expected, and we knew that it would have implications on who would be the Chairperson of the subcommittee. Therefore, we have had to wait for the court’s full response.
As we have anticipated, the early indications are that the judge will rule that the Department for Regional Development should not have taken forward the policy. Therefore, to undertake to review and take forward a new planning policy would, in the court’s view, be the responsibility of the Department of the Environment. That ruling will have implications for the way in which the subcommittee takes forward its work.
We are expecting to hear the final judgement this week. Everything is in place to carry the work forward: the subcommittee has had useful consultation with stakeholder groups, and I expect that it, with whoever is the Chairperson, will begin work very soon.
Traffic Congestion in Lurgan
4. Mr O’Dowd asked the Minister for Regional Development what discussions he has had in relation to the bid to bring forward plans for a road bridge or underpass to resolve the traffic congestion in Lurgan, due to the three different railway level crossings in the town. (AQO 289/08)
Mr Murphy: As the Member will be aware, Lurgan is one of 29 towns for which local transport studies were undertaken during the development of the ‘Sub-Regional Transport Plan 2015’. Consultation with elected representatives, including those from Craigavon Borough Council, was carried out at that time.
Among other issues, the study highlighted traffic delays on William Street, which is one of the main arterial routes into the town and the location of a level crossing. However, further assessment did not consider a scheme at that location to be suitable for inclusion in the plan. The locations of the other two crossings, at Bells Row and Lake Street, were not considered to be problem areas for traffic delays.
At the request of Craigavon Borough Council, a meeting was held with senior officials from my Department, and it was agreed that a further study would be carried out to assess the William Street crossing and develop and consider options for its possible removal. In particular, the merits of constructing a road overbridge or underbridge were examined. The results of that study have been received recently and are being considered. Roads Service will issue the final report to Craigavon Borough Council for comment in the near future.
Mr O’Dowd: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his response. He is aware that it is a matter of concern for traders and the business community in the Lurgan area, because the three crossings that go through the town centre have a detrimental effect on the social and economic regeneration of the town. I look forward to receiving the Roads Service study, and I will come back to the Minister on the matter.
Mr Murphy: I thank the Member for his comment.
The key traffic problem occurs at the William Street crossing. A railway line that crosses a busy town street will present considerable difficulties when deciding to put the road over or under it. Nonetheless, Roads Service has undertaken to conduct a study of the matter and will be open to discussion with Craigavon Borough Council to examine the options for alleviating the traffic problem there. The problem is considerable and it will be difficult to resolve. However, the Department is content to examine it.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I thank the Minister for answering a question where there was none.
Mr Gardiner: The Minister might have answered part of my question, but will he take steps to address the obstruction of traffic entering Lurgan town centre from the M1 that is posed by the crossing in William Street, as it is a contradiction of PPS 5, which encourages access to town centres and town shopping centres?
Mr Murphy: The Member will be aware that other measures are being examined as regards traffic congestion in Lurgan, such as at Gilford Road and Millennium Way. As in all towns in the North, problems with illegal parking have also contributed to unnecessary traffic congestion.
Nobody underestimates the problem that the William Street junction poses or the difficulties involved in solving it. As the Member knows, the railway crosses a main arterial route in the middle of a busy town centre. As I said, Craigavon Borough Council prevailed upon Roads Service to consider the matter again. The report is due soon, and, no doubt, there will be further discussion on what can be achieved to alleviate the traffic problems in that area of Lurgan.
Mrs D Kelly: I can assure the Minister that the crossing at Bells Row in Lurgan causes traffic problems for me.
Further to the Minister’s comments about reports that he is waiting to be completed, does he have any money in his budget for the current year, or a strategy in a 10-year plan, to facilitate a crossing at William Street, in particular? Will the report include an engineering study and a feasibility study?
Mr Murphy: We will not know how much a crossing at William Street will cost until the report is concluded. Therefore, it is difficult to include a sum in any budget or to do any planning to accommodate that. The report will consider seriously what is required and what is possible in the William Street area.
Building an overpass on a busy street with a railway crossing would have an effect on the properties in that area because there would be a high-level road outside people’s bedroom windows. Alternatively, to put an underpass in place would be a significant project. Therefore, the Roads Service report will examine all the options and will undoubtedly outline some indicative costs. After that report is produced, the Department will ascertain how feasible that project is, and whether it can be included in the plans for the budget in the years ahead.
5. Mr McHugh asked the Minister for Regional Development what steps he is taking to promote sustainable development within the remit of his Department. (AQO 277/08)
Mr Murphy: The Department for Regional Development is fully involved in taking forward key elements of the sustainable development strategy, as set out in the implementation plan that was produced in December 2006. A senior official has been appointed as sustainable development champion.
The main areas in which sustainable development is being promoted are: capital investment in the water and sewerage infrastructure to improve standards and reduce water leakage; capital and revenue investment in public transport and other forms of sustainable transport — in the context of the regional transportation strategy; and compliance with sustainable procurement practice.
In addition, my Department is implementing an in-house sustainable action plan, covering waste, water, energy, estates, travel and procurement. I have recently met with the Sustainable Development Commission and I look forward to a further proactive engagement with its members.
Mr McHugh: I thank the Minister for his answer. In order for future sustainable development or successful regional development to be effective, does the Minister agree that there is a need for effective transport infrastructure, such as roads, particularly west of the Bann?
Railway travel, or, indeed, public transport, is not an option for people travelling to Belfast to work, or to other places outside Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Will the Minister give a commitment to the improvement, or the considerable upgrading, of the present roads infrastructure west of the Bann, and, in particular, in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, because that would have an impact on tourism, business and people’s journeys to work? Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Murphy: There are many people who argue in support of sustainable development who think that too much investment is skewed towards roads, and that more of it should be directed towards public transport. Investment in roads can, of course, help to improve public transport, because buses can use those routes. Therefore, where possible — and the Department is committed to examining sustainable development options — we will make that investment to try to support public transport.
There are plans for roads infrastructure improvements in the west, including a dual carriageway from Ballygawley onwards. I appreciate that — as in South Armagh, the area that I represent — people sometimes feel that the roads in Fermanagh are very much substandard. However, it is important to get the balance right among investment in sustainable development, public transport and roads, which obviously encourages car users. That is the task that the Department is trying to address.
Mr B McCrea: How does the Minister feel that his Department is performing with regard to sustainable development targets and actions? Furthermore, how does he feel that his Department is performing in comparison with other Departments?
Mr Murphy: I do not have information on comparisons with the other Departments. My Department has been working with the Department of the Environment to establish up-to-date information on transport emissions. As for reduction, we are investing heavily in public transport in line with the regional transportation strategy. Progress and the need for change will be assessed in the review of the regional transportation strategy, which is beginning.
Mr Burns: Has the Department appointed a sustainable development champion? How many times have the departmental champions met?
Mr Murphy: My answer to the first question is yes; my answer to the second is that I do not know, but I will provide the information that the Member requires.
Millennium Way, Lurgan
6. Mr Moutray asked the Minister for Regional Development what plans he has for the completion of Millennium Way in Lurgan. (AQO 249/08)
Mr Murphy: The road known as Millenium Way, which extends from Edward Street to Malcolm Road, Lurgan, was completed in December 2002 as part of the Lurgan town centre comprehensive development scheme.
I assume that the Member refers to a further proposal by my Department’s Roads Service to construct an additional road, linking Malcolm Road and Gilford Road. The link road is included as a proposal in the ‘Sub-Regional Transport Plan 2015’. Planning approval for that link road was obtained in 2006, and work is ongoing in preparation for the vesting of the land required for its construction. Like other measures proposed in ‘Sub-Regional Transport Plan 2015’, implementation of the scheme will be subject to the satisfactory completion of an economic appraisal, successful progression through the statutory procedures and availability of funding through the normal budgetary processes. Therefore, I cannot be more definitive about a commencement date at this time.
Mr Moutray: I thank the Minister for his response. The Millennium Way development road was first mooted 30 years ago. Completion is vital to ease traffic congestion and to advance the economic regeneration of Lurgan town centre. Will the Minister undertake to act as speedily as possible in that respect? I am glad that he recognises that there are traffic problems both in north and south Lurgan.
Mr Murphy: I am due to meet the Lurgan Forward group, which will press the case for that road. I am not sure whether MLAs will be involved in that meeting. I have no problem in ensuring speedy progression of the plan through the statutory processes. Inevitably, it will depend upon budgetary constraints. A case for it must be made through the Budget.
The Department is aware that there is traffic congestion not just on William Street at the railway crossing, but in the other streets. I will be happy to meet the group and to listen to its case. I will do my best to advance the project as quickly as possible in my Department.
All-Island Transport Collaboration
7. Mr W Clarke asked the Minister for Regional Development what discussions he has had with his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, the Minister for Transport, in developing areas of collaboration and co-operation on an all-island basis. (AQO 274/08)
Mr Murphy: Members will be aware that I made a statement on 25 September to the Assembly, reporting on a discussion that I had with Mr Noel Dempsey TD, the Minister for Transport and the Marine, as part of the third meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in the transport sector. At that meeting, Arlene Foster and I represented the Executive. We discussed opportunities for co-operation on strategic transport planning and road safety. We also noted and welcomed progress that had been made since the last transport sectoral meeting in April 2002.
Mr W Clarke: I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he consider improving road signage on a North/South basis? Can he assure me that that issue will be an agenda item at the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting in the transport sector?
Mr Murphy: A question was asked recently in the House about the use of kilometres, rather than miles, on road signs. Road signage — whether in relation to traffic speed or traffic direction — will be reviewed at meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. If the Member considers that some specific aspect of directional signage is lacking across the island, he should bring it to my attention. I look forward to hearing from him. I have no objection to that item going onto the agenda of a future transport sectoral meeting.
Mr Attwood: Given that many North/South journeys end at Connolly station in Dublin, I ask the Minister what progress has been made in securing a dedicated rail line into that station, in order to service North/South traffic. Furthermore, given that many journeys to the South begin in Newry, what progress has been made in upgrading that railway station?
I am mindful that in recent weeks there have been developments in road funding in the North and that the Assembly has universally welcomed them. What initiatives might be anticipated in the next six months, in respect of road development on a North/South basis?
Mr Murphy: To answer the questions in reverse order, the Department for Regional Development made an announcement about the development of the A5. The Member will be aware that the contract for the last remaining link on the A1 Dublin to Belfast road will be signed in the near future and that the scheme is due to be completed by 2009.
I am pleased to note that work on Newry railway station will commence early in 2008. That is also due for completion by 2009. The recent North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on transport noted that there are ongoing discussions between Iarnród Éireann and Translink on the preparation of plans for the further development of the Dublin to Belfast railway link. The North/South Ministerial Council agreed to consider the outcome of those discussions at the next transport sectoral meeting. Short- and medium-term solutions will be considered, including limited-stop services, hourly frequency, removal of speed restrictions, and new rolling stock. The timing of implementation will also be considered and phased, taking account of the availability of resources and any operational issues.
The Member’s question specifically concerns congestion problems on the north side of Connolly station. However, that is primarily a matter for Iarnród Éireann to resolve. The Minister for Transport and the Marine in the South is keen to examine that issue closely and to make progress on it.
Other work can be done on the Belfast to Dublin line to improve the frequency of and the time taken for journeys. The Department for Regional Development, Iarnród Éireann and Translink will consider those issues.
Battletown Gallery, Newtownards
8. Mr Shannon asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will explain the criteria applied in relation to the decision to refuse ‘white-on-brown’ tourist signage for the Battletown Gallery, Bowtown Road, Newtownards. (AQO 303/08)
Mr Murphy: The Department for Regional Development’s Roads Service facilitates the provision of tourist-traffic signs through its policy document ‘The Guide to Tourist Signing in Northern Ireland’, which was published in April 2004 and was jointly developed and agreed with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
Under that policy, Roads Service agrees to and implements local tourist-signing plans. The plans are drawn up by local councils in conjunction with the Tourist Board, and they represent an inventory of tourist attractions, facilities and utilities for the local council area.
Roads Service also provides traffic signage for other tourist destinations that are designated as eligible by the Tourist Board. The policy provides a framework for establishing eligibility for such signing. The white-on-brown road signs constitute one part of the overall family of direction signs. The main purpose of tourist signs is to guide visitors, in the later stages of their journey, to their desired destinations via the most appropriate route, particularly when some sites are hard to find.
As with all other direction signs, tourist signs are an aid to safe and efficient navigation. They are designed to complement, not replace, pre-planning of the journey, verbal instructions, maps, and road atlases.
Under the terms of the agreed policy, a place or service that would be of use to tourists but does not in itself constitute an attraction is deemed to be a tourist utility, and, as such, should not be individually signed. That includes antiques’ shops, art galleries, restaurants, and garden centres. Although the Battletown Gallery offers art workshops, Roads Service considers it to be predominantly commercial in nature. It is, therefore, classified as a tourist utility and is not considered eligible for individual signage.
It is Roads Service’s view that the gallery’s literature provides clear directions to the premises and that it should be found easily without tourism signage.
Mr Shannon: Does the Minister accept that the Battletown Gallery is not only a gallery but a first-rate craft industry? White-on-brown tourist signage has been provided for a craft industry that is within three miles of the gallery. Can the Minister explain why Battletown Gallery, though similarly involved in the local craft industry and a tourist attraction that brings people from all over the world, is not treated in the same fashion as other places that are not too far away from it?
Mr Murphy: I am loath to name the business in case it is not the one that the Member means, but I am informed that when Roads Service was not familiar with the interpretation of the policy, it inadvertently permitted a sign in the locality.
The policy in question was introduced in May 2004. Some signs for properties and tourism attractions and facilities were put up prior to that. Those signs will stay in place until they are due for replacement, when they will fall under the current policy.
Belfast to Dublin Rail Link
9. Mr Simpson asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will make a statement on the number of passengers using the Belfast to Dublin rail link in the last three years. (AQO 250/08)
14. Mr Storey asked the Minister for Regional Development if he will make a statement on the work carried out by his department to enhance the Belfast to Dublin rail link. (AQO 247/08)
Mr Murphy: I had intended to take questions 9 and 14 together, but I fear that I will run out of time.
The railway line between Belfast and Dublin is a key part of our transport infrastructure, and it has important economic benefits for the whole island of Ireland.
A major scheme to upgrade the Belfast to Dublin line between Belfast and the border was completed 10 years ago.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Time is up. Perhaps the Minister will provide the Members with a written answer.
1. Mr Kennedy asked the Minister for Social Development to detail the number of applications for housing units submitted by members of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations in each of the past 10 years. (AQO 262/08)
The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): Since 1 April 2003, registered housing associations have made 506 submissions for approval on a total of 6,978 units. In the same period, 506 schemes for a total of 6,734 units have been approved by the Department. Figures for previous years have not been retained. Prior to 31 March 2003, such information was held on paper records. Records were retained for the current year and the three previous years. In 2003, a computer database was established that allows such information to be extracted.
Mr Kennedy: Will the Minister indicate whether her Department has the necessary finances to fund the many schemes that are required to help deal with the increased need for social housing in Northern Ireland and, in particular, in my constituency of Newry and Armagh?
Ms Ritchie: As I have said in the House on several occasions, and in the Committee for Social Development, I inherited a woefully inadequate budget with which to provide social housing. There are 36,000 people on the waiting list for social housing. That figure has increased by 13% since 2006 and rises every year. There are 21,000 homeless people — a figure that has also increased since last year and which continues to rise. Record high house prices are 10 times the average income. Those facts and statistics encapsulate the crisis in the availability of social and affordable housing, which, clearly, precipitates the need for an adequate budget to be provided.
I have made a significant bid to the Finance Minister. I hope that I can gain the support and endorsement of my ministerial colleagues in the Executive in order to ensure that social housing is given number-one priority.
Mrs M Bradley: Does the Minister agree that inadequate finances are available for social housing?
Ms Ritchie: As I said, I agree that I have inherited a woefully inadequate budget for social housing. The social housing programme has inadequate resources. I have bid for significant resources for 2007, and for future years, in accordance with the comprehensive spending review. I await the outcome of that. I will be meeting the Finance Minister this afternoon to continue to campaign for sufficient funds. I have written to ministerial colleagues about land issues, and to district councils throughout Northern Ireland. The issue is also being investigated by a Minister-led team. I will make strenuous and vigorous efforts to gain the support of my Executive colleagues for a significant funding bid.
Mr Storey: Many people turn to the co-ownership scheme because of the lack of affordable social housing from newbuilds, housing associations and Housing Executive stock. What plans are there to improve the scheme and the resources that it is allocated?
Ms Ritchie: The co-ownership scheme is being examined by the Minister-led team, which is dealing with affordability issues arising from the Semple Review. It will also seek advice from an expert panel on housing and any other available information. If the Member, or any other public representative or Assembly Member, has any relevant information on the matter, I suggest that he convey it to the Minister-led team and the expert panel. Any information or advice from Members will be gratefully received.
Housing Needs: People with Disabilities
2. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Social Development to detail her plans for ensuring that people with disabilities have their housing needs met without delay, and are not offered hostel accommodation as the only option. (AQO 223/08)
Ms Ritchie: In order to resolve the housing needs of a homeless — or potentially homeless — applicant with a disability, all options must be, and will be, fully investigated. Those include: identifying suitable social housing in the applicant’s area of choice; the nomination for an allocation on a newbuild scheme, if no suitable existing accommodation is available in their area of choice; or, in exceptional circumstances, purchasing suitable accommodation in the private sector. Hostel accommodation will be the option of last resort. I want to focus on that particular area because that type of accommodation is not suitable for people with multiple disabilities.
Mr Dallat: I could not agree more with the Minister. Does she know what the current position is regarding Mrs Elaine Kennedy, and the proposal to purchase suitable accommodation for her?
Ms Ritchie: I am very conscious of the personal, particular circumstances in which Mrs Kennedy, a lady who suffers from multiple disabilities, finds herself. I am anxious to do whatever I reasonably can to assist her. My Department received a request from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, asking whether it would be prepared to approve the purchase of a property in Coleraine for Mrs Kennedy.
My Department is in receipt of two reports from an occupational therapist and, currently, the second report is being assessed. I hope that a decision can be taken on the way forward, by early October 2007. I will ensure that that will happen because I am aware that Mrs Kennedy has multiple disabilities and is wheelchair-bound. In any event, I am happy to discuss the details of the case with Mr Dallat, and I will inform him of the decision on the case as early as possible.
Mr K Robinson: With one third of homeless households being families with children — and 50% of those having preschool children — will the Minister state that she does not regard hostel accommodation as suitable for families with young children?
Ms Ritchie: I said in my initial answer that I am currently focusing on the issue of hostel accommodation because I firmly believe — based on my experience as a constituency representative, and after wider debate with many people — that hostel accommodation is the option of last resort. Hostel accommodation is unsuitable for people with young families, and for people with multiple disabilities.
I want to examine that issue and to focus on it, and I want the Housing Executive to concentrate on it. It is most important that I be given adequate resources to provide and increase the supply of social housing that would obviate the need for the use of hostel accommodation.
Mr T Clarke: I am sure that the Minister is aware of the continuing difficulties in obtaining reports from occupational therapists for many people who require adaptations to their properties. Has the Minister made any representations to her colleagues to address the issue of reducing the time that it takes to undertake an assessment?
Ms Ritchie: I have already spoken and written to my ministerial colleague the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on that issue. I am sure that there is not a Member in the House who has not encountered difficulties with the delay in the processing of such applications by the occupational therapy service. That service is short-staffed. Notwithstanding that, there is a need for the matter to be progressed as quickly as possible. As a result of Mr Clarke’s question, I will raise the matter again with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.
Empty Homes Strategy
3. Mr P J Bradley asked the Minister for Social Development if she will give an update on an empty homes strategy, aimed at bringing more void homes into use. (AQO 254/08)
Ms Ritchie: I appreciate that there is a widely held perception that there are around 40,000 empty homes in Northern Ireland that can readily be brought back into use. Following my appointment as Minister for Social Development, and a debate in the House at the end of May, I immediately asked the Housing Executive to draw up and cost an empty-home strategy. I have received the interim report from the Housing Executive. The report concludes that approximately 3,300 vacant Housing Executive units can be brought back into use in two years at a cost of around £19 million.
Approximately 5,000 private-sector dwellings and 1,500 housing association properties are potentially available, but further assessment is required to establish the nature of those vacancies. I have asked the Housing Executive to undertake further research on the matter, and I hope to receive a copy of its more detailed report in the near future. However, the Housing Executive will have to undertake considerable additional work before it can provide me with its full report and associated costs. I will pursue the matter vigorously over the coming weeks, because I recognise the need to increase the housing supply to cater for those who have been on the waiting list for a considerable period and to address the needs of the homeless throughout Northern Ireland.
Mr P J Bradley: I thank the Minister for her answer. She dealt with the Housing Executive houses, but how many vacant properties could be brought back into use altogether? How much would that cost, and — probably the most important question for many people — what is the expected timescale?
Ms Ritchie: It will take a little time. It is important to stress that only a minority of houses that are currently vacant can be brought back into use, because many of them are inaccessible and are situated quite some distances from services. Most vacant properties are in the private sector, although, unfortunately, 19,100 of those can be discounted for a variety of reasons — for example, those that are being modernised and are simply part of the natural chain found in any healthy housing market. Of the 16,300 houses that could potentially be brought back into use, 700 are unfit dwellings in isolated rural areas, and a further 10,700 have been vacant for six months or less, leaving approximately 5,000 private-sector dwellings available for action.
As I said earlier, further work needs to be done to determine whether those properties can be brought back into use, and I will pursue the matter with the Housing Executive vigorously to ensure an early receipt of its fuller report. Not only do I need the support of my Executive colleagues to secure a much better budget, I want to try to ensure that more properties can be made available through the empty-homes strategy so that I can increase the supply of much-needed social-housing stock.
Mr Campbell: The Minister will be aware that during what was described as a loyalist feud on the Shankill Road a few years ago — in a deprived loyalist community in Belfast — scores of properties were vacated. What steps is she taking to ensure that the financial support that she has committed to similar areas across Northern Ireland will continue after her deadline regarding the conflict transformation initiative expires next week?
Ms Ritchie: I have visited all areas in north and west Belfast, including all the vacant properties along the interface lines, particularly in the Shankill area and in north Belfast. I am well aware that many of those houses are not terribly old and could be brought back into use. They are currently subject to investigation by the Housing Executive as part of the empty-homes strategy.
I want to make my position very clear — I want all deprived or marginalised communities to have their needs tackled adequately, regardless of whether those communities are in loyalist Protestant areas or Catholic nationalist areas. That will continue to be my position. My Department’s focus is on tackling disadvantage and deprivation and on building communities. They remain, and will continue to remain, the key issues for me and my officials.
Mr McHugh: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Has the Minister carried out any research or worked with local Housing Executive offices in various areas to check whether the homes that have been allocated to people are genuinely being used by those people? Is there a strategy in place to verify that and to ensure that there is no abuse of the system, such as houses being re-let by people who are supposed to be occupying them so that others can use a particular postcode when applying for admission to schools, and so on? I believe that that is happening in certain areas.
Has the Minister consulted with local Housing Executive offices and other involved parties to ensure that those practices do not continue?
Ms Ritchie: Mr McHugh is referring to houses commonly known as “giro drops”. I have raised that issue with my officials and with the ministerial-led committee. More importantly, I have raised it with the Housing Executive in the past and have asked it to insist on, and carry out, a monitoring exercise to ensure that the person to whom the house has been allocated is the person paying the rent and is the resident of the house. On foot of Mr McHugh’s question, I will approach the Housing Executive again to ensure that that is still the case. We must have a good standard of housing stock. Public housing is allocated under the common selection scheme; that is the basis on which all this work is done, and it must be adhered to.
Housing Associations: Procurement
4. Mr McCallister asked the Minister for Social Development whether she will confirm that changes to the procurement policy for housing associations will not adversely affect their delivery of specialist housing. (AQO 241/08)
7. Mrs Long asked the Minister for Social Development what progress has been made in respect of her Department’s procurement strategy on new developments by groups of housing associations. (AQO 263/08)
Ms Ritchie: Mr Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I shall answer questions 4 and 7 together.
There is no reason for the delivery of social-housing programmes to be disrupted by the change to new procurement arrangements. The projects that are already on site when the change takes place will continue under the old arrangements. No decisions have been taken about the number of procurement groups or the nature of such groups. They could be formed under a lead association, as a group of associations that pool development staff, or they could involve the setting-up of a separate procurement entity. Where development staff from associations who are members of the group move to the new group, they will take their scheme files with them to ensure continuity. There may be a very few schemes in which no dedicated development staff have been involved. In those cases, co-ordination will be necessary between the originating association and the procurement group.
The consultation period for responses to the procurement proposals was extended to 31 August. The responses have been analysed, and my Department is currently considering the final shape of the procurement strategy. Members of the Committee for Social Development have already been consulted and have responded directly to me.
This issue is important for the Executive and for every Member of the House. I hope that all Members will agree with me that there is an urgent need to increase the supply of affordable social housing throughout Northern Ireland, particularly in those areas in which need has been identified.
Mr McCallister: Will the Minister give an assurance that her Department is totally committed to ensuring appropriate housing for people with disabilities?
Ms Ritchie: I assure Mr McCallister that my Department and I are totally committed to ensuring that there is an adequate supply of housing throughout Northern Ireland to accommodate the needs of people with special needs; those with disabilities, or, indeed, multiple disabilities; those who live in inaccessible locations; those with young families; or those who belong to one-parent families. I want to be able to ensure that all the needs of the people of Northern Ireland are adequately met.
Mrs Long: The Minister expects housing associations to form new procurement groups by 1 April 2008. However, the Department has yet to produce much in the way of guidance for housing associations on the subject.
Given the tight time frame, and the experience in Scotland and Wales, where the creation of procurement groups cost a significant amount of time and money, is the Minister confident that she can make the assessment that the benefits of that step will outweigh the costs?
Ms Ritchie: It may be helpful if I provide Mrs Long with some background information. The document that initiated the consultation was issued to 42 groups, and 27 responses were received. Generally, there was broad support for the proposal to create procurement groups. It was felt that having a small number of groups was better for developing client expertise and economies of scale. However, it was also felt that having fewer than three groups might pose a risk in the unlikely event that one were to fail or perform poorly. The selection of three groups rather than six has the advantage of not permitting the largest associations to overwhelm the smaller associations. Three groups would encourage the larger associations to spread their expertise.
The Member also asked when the procurement strategy will be published. I will have it published as soon as is practicably possible, and I want to be able to ensure that that is the case. According to the joint National Audit Office and Audit Commission report of 20 December 2005, the housing corporation procurement strategy, through the use of procurement groups and associated changes, made an efficiency saving of 9% between 2003-04 and 2004-05. The aim of such efficiency exercises is to enable more to be done for the same level of expenditure. It is not the intention that the same level of activity should be maintained for less cost. As the procurement strategy rolls out, I will return to the Committee with further details.
Mr Craig: I listened with interest to the Minister’s answer to question 4. Housing schemes are all planned and priced several months in advance. Inevitably, the new procurement groups, and the changes that they will bring, will lead to a crossover.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Does the Member have a question?
Mr Craig: I am coming to it, Mr Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister give an assurance that the new procurement groups will not try to impose new procurement policies on existing projects that are about to proceed?
Ms Ritchie: I take Mr Craig’s comments on board. I hope that good-practice guidelines will be in operation. I will get back to the Member on the detail of the issue.
Mr Elliott: Does the Minister accept that, in the past, the Housing Executive has often acted extremely slowly when assisting to access land for housing associations? Does she have any plans to speed up that process in order to help the associations and local people who are waiting for housing?
Ms Ritchie: I am conscious of that issue. The matter is currently being considered by the implementation group, which I lead, into the Semple Review. It is Government policy that all surplus land be circulated in the public sector. Moreover, the clearing-house arrangements give my Department access to other Departments’ surplus land. All public-sector needs must be taken into account, and the Valuation and Lands Agency must decide priority. I am conscious of the issues that the Member has raised, but what is important is that the supply of social housing throughout Northern Ireland increases. The Member will no doubt agree with doing that in his constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where I recently met members of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council on the matter.
Housing Associations: Opportunity to Purchase Surplus Land
5. Mr Lunn asked the Minister for Social Development what consideration she will give to offering Housing Associations the opportunity to purchase surplus land owned by her Department for the provision of social housing, prior to it being offered for sale on the open market. (AQO 293/08)
Ms Ritchie: The Department for Social Development, like all Northern Ireland Departments, is obliged to follow the disposal policy that is incorporated in a document called ‘Disposal of Surplus Public Sector Property in Northern Ireland’. The guidance requires Departments to offer any land that has been designated as surplus through a clearing-house process that the Valuation and Lands Agency has administered. The clearing house circulates all Departments to determine whether there is another public use for the land or property. Where there is a social-housing need, the Housing Executive makes representations on behalf of the housing associations. As Members know, it does that in its role as the strategic housing authority for Northern Ireland.
Mr Lunn: I thank the Minister for her answer. In view of the length of time that has been spent discussing housing associations, I will not pursue my supplementary question.
Mr B McCrea: In the absence of measures similar to those proposed by Mr Lunn, is the Minister confident that her Department can meet Northern Ireland’s need for social housing? If not, and given her recent announcement of some £77 million for housing in Lagan Valley, will she make representations to find additional funds to purchase land, now that the market has turned?
Ms Ritchie: Some weeks ago, I was happy to launch the housing and regeneration strategy in Lisburn, and Members from the Lagan Valley constituency were present that day. I hope that other district offices will be able to implement similar proposals to integrate housing and regeneration. The aim is to uplift communities, whether they are disadvantaged or not.
With regard to the particular issue that the Member raises, I have made significant representations to the Minister of Finance and Personnel. In fact, the specific objective of my meeting with him later this afternoon is to address the need for capital funding for housing. I will also meet the Strategic Investment Board later today to discuss that same issue. I hope to have the support and endorsement of all my ministerial colleagues.
Several weeks ago, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ published a Market and Opinion Research International (MORI) poll that showed that health and social housing are the two highest priorities of people right across Northern Ireland. Therefore, the need for social housing must be addressed. There are 36,000 people in housing stress on waiting lists, and 21,000 people are homeless. Their needs must be catered for, and I hope that I have the support of my ministerial colleagues in doing so. Under the comprehensive spending review, I have made substantial bids for the current financial year and for the following three years. Members can rest assured that I am doing all that I can. I think that I have the support of the House that I need.
Mrs D Kelly: I congratulate the Minister on her efforts to date. In response to an earlier question, the Minister referred to land that is owned by public authorities and other public-sector agencies. Will she elaborate on her progress and the responses that she has received?
Ms Ritchie: There is no doubt that it is vital to address the requirement for social housing in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I have written to all my ministerial colleagues, to district councils and to the Housing Executive to ask them to specify any available surplus land. I have received some responses and await others. With the assistance of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, I am pursuing the subject of military sites. If those sites were made available free of charge — and I hope that that could be the case, as per the Joint Declaration on Peace by the British and Irish Governments on 1 May 2003 — more land could be made available, not only for social housing but also for mixed economy and educational use. I will return to the House on that matter. Suffice it to say that I am pursuing the issue of additional land with district councils, Departments, and agencies. Via OFMDFM, I am in contact with the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister’s office about military sites, of which there are several in Northern Ireland.
Job Losses: Social Security Agency
6. Mr D Bradley asked the Minister for Social Development to outline what she is doing to ensure that a reported 1,500 job losses within the Social Security Agency are averted. (AQO 261/08)
Ms Ritchie: I am continuing to put forward a strong, vigorous case in an attempt to secure the maximum amount of funding possible to avert any job losses as part of the comprehensive spending review. I look forward to the support of my ministerial colleagues to endorse the delivery of front-line services in social security offices, particularly the processing and payment of benefits, particularly to those who reside in disadvantaged, deprived and marginalised communities. I understand the need for efficiencies in the SSA, but I am not prepared to take measures that would result in the diminution of services to needy people —
The Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister will write to the Member with her answer. The time for questions is up.
Strategic Planning Policy
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.
Mr Beggs: I beg to move
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister for Regional Development to remove gardens from the definition of brownfield/previously developed sites in the review of the Regional Development Strategy and Planning Policy Statement 12: Housing in Settlements; and to address the failure of strategic planning policy to protect the unique character of towns, villages and urban landscapes throughout Northern Ireland.
I thank the Business Committee for selecting the motion for debate, because I know that this issue is of great concern to many in our towns, cities and villages. I wish to declare an interest as a local councillor; as such, I am involved as a consultee in the statutory planning process. Sadly, I must work within the current guidance.
In 2001, Assembly Members unanimously agreed to the adoption of the Northern Ireland regional development strategy. One of the more eye-catching targets at that weighty time was that 60% of new houses should be built on previously developed sites, also known as brownfield sites. That was universally welcomed, and the impulse behind the target was commendable: to avoid reliance on building on greenfield sites; and to limit urban sprawl and the encroachment into agricultural land. It was a noble planning aim.
The perception of a brownfield site that was conjured up in my mind, at that time, was of a disused industrial site, an urban wasteland, or any inner city vacant houses or areas of dereliction. However, the regional development strategy was not specific when defining what constitutes a brownfield site. Brownfield sites are defined in the glossary of the regional development strategy as:
“previously developed lands sometimes known as ‘recycled sites’. For operational purposes further definition of potential housing sites inside urban areas will be provided in the Regional Planning Policy Statement on Housing in Settlements.”
Planning Policy Statement 12 (PPS 12) was duly delivered several years later in July 2005. Strangely, draft Planning Policy Statement 12 had a detailed definition in its glossary which indicated something different in what is actually being delivered. It stated:
“These are normally sites which have previously been developed or used for some purposes which has ceased. They may encompass re-use of existing buildings by conversion; demolition and new build; clearance of vacant or derelict land and new build; infill and various other forms of intensification. It excludes private and public gardens, sports and recreation grounds, woodlands and amenity open spaces.”
Note that private and public gardens were specifically excluded from being described as brownfield sites in the original draft Planning Policy Statement 12. I contend that its subsequent removal has heightened the current problem. From my reading of Planning Policy Statement 12, brownfield development is classified as any development within the urban footprint of our cities, towns and villages, within their development limits. Gardens and virtually everything else within the urban footprint is included, therefore, when calculating the 60% brownfield target. The link between that oversight and the demolition and replacement of single houses and their gardens with multiple dwellings and apartments is blatantly obvious.
The drive to build — intensively — on previously developed sites, as encouraged by the 60% regional development strategy brownfield target, as newly defined, is the problem. That has led to the overdevelopment commonly known as “garden grabbing”, and it is not what was originally intended.
It causes untold sleepless nights for neighbours, as their tranquil — often rear — gardens are suddenly overlooked by the countless windows of a development next door.
Is that a problem? Many people, including many of my constituents, feel that it is. Moreover, Sir John Semple, in the Review into Affordable Housing, thinks that it is a problem. On page 17 of the final report he states that:
“Many organisation representing communities, housing and planning professionals expressed concerns to me about the demolition of single family dwellings to make way for apartment blocks. Further guidance would be helpful to counter cases of ‘garden grabbing’, ‘town cramming’ and limit what has been referred to as the ‘greying’ of our towns.”
Flash flooding is becoming more commonplace; environmental change is a factor, but there is no doubt that the change in our town centres, and the urban footprints, contributes as well. In urban areas, rain is no longer absorbed by natural drainage in gardens; instead, it frequently lands on roofs and pathways, before immediately entering culverts and streams. That results in additional pressure downstream and, often, flooding. In the case of mixed sewerage systems, there is the additional problem of sewage flowing downstream into homes. Sadly, there have been too many instances of that in recent years.
I am sure that Members who are local councillors are aware of the public concern that exists on the issue. However, as public representatives, they have little input, due to the current policy planning statement by which planners operate. Consequently, houses are often demolished and replaced by apartments. As a local councillor, I recently received a petition from residents of the Old Belfast Road in Larne, following the advertisement of a development opportunity to demolish newly-built houses and replace them with sea-view apartments overlooking Belfast Lough. Destroying newly-built homes to create apartments is not environmentally friendly and is not what PPS 12 intended.
Undoubtedly, many Members will have been lobbied by residents who face their neighbourhoods’ being threatened by intensive, and often unsympathetic, development. The Planning Service and the Planning Appeals Commission have the power to refuse planning permission and stop inappropriate developments if the correct planning policy statements are in place. That is why I have tabled the motion — PPS 12 must be adjusted to exclude gardens from brownfield development percentages. The inclusion of gardens almost enables a presumption in favour of development.
Few would argue with the point made by a Rt Hon Member who, during a debate on the regional development strategy on 2 July 2001, said:
“I am appalled by the number of applications for high- density apartment developments, almost invariably to be built in existing residential areas where one or two houses will be knocked down with perhaps 10 or 20 being built in their place.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 11, p339, col 2]
I empathise, and I agree with those wise words of the current Minister of Finance and Personnel.
As recently as last week, I learned of another plan to build, in my constituency, six apartments, six semis, five town houses, and one detached house on the site of a detached house and parts of two adjoining gardens. In another part of my constituency there is a trend for detached homes to be bought by developers, then demolished and replaced by apartments. For example, there have been several applications for such developments on North Road in Carrickfergus, and some devlopments have already been built. Those change the character of the neighbourhood.
There is nothing illegal about any of that, but what effect does it have on the architectural heritage and the quality of life enjoyed by residents in those areas? I am not apartment-bashing — everyone appreciates the demand for apartments, but they must be carefully located. I have supported the Living Over the Shop (LOTS) scheme, which has been successful in the regeneration of urban areas.
The Assembly, as a legislator, can make a difference, and it is important that we correct this wrong. It is important that developers do not have that presumption in favour of them as they try to remove gardens and disturb neighbourhoods. I ask the Minister to review the situation, and I urge the appropriate Committees to make the necessary changes.
Mr Wells: When the Assembly debated the regional development strategy, all Members applauded the policy that 60% of development should be on brownfield sites. I — as were many Members who are present — was a Member at that time, and when we envisaged brownfield sites, we thought of old derelict, industrial warehouses, factories, and old, terraced housing that would be knocked down and replaced. That was welcomed, and I would still support that. Sadly, however, the majority of apartment developments in Northern Ireland have not been on classic brownfield sites. Instead, old houses have been knocked down, trees have been ripped up and gardens have been destroyed, and the entire plots used for high-density development.
Property development is the single biggest issue in my constituency mailbag: I get letter after letter about it. Even today, I am tackling a problem on the Tollymore Road in Newcastle. People are seeing our old traditional suburbs being wrecked by that type of development. A typical situation pertains in Tullybrannigan in Newcastle, where a developer is going around knocking on doors, brandishing cheques for £1·2 million and asking pensioners whether they would like to sell their houses — which, perhaps, were bought 20 years ago for £40,000. The house, which is an important part of Newcastle’s architectural landscape and heritage, is then knocked down and replaced by nothing more than rabbit hutches.
On the Strangford Road in Downpatrick, houses have been knocked down and replaced by 22 apartments, in one case, and 19 and 15 apartments in other instances. If that trend continues, the Strangford Road approach to Downpatrick will be destroyed. I could live with those changes if starter homes for young married couples were replacing those old houses, because there is a need for starter homes in society. However, that is not what is happening.
Apartments do little for the economic regeneration of any town. The late Gerry Douglas was an excellent councillor in Down District Council, and he made a telling comment about apartments in Newcastle. He said that someone who comes to an apartment in Newcastle for the weekend brings with them a £5 note and a shirt, and all that is changed at the end of the weekend is the shirt. There is no doubt that apartments bring little to the town. There are no children coming to live in the apartments or attend the local schools, and those apartments provide little economic development.
We are all politicians and have had the experience of knocking on the doors of apartment developments. I knocked on the doors of a 42-unit apartment development in Dundrum, and found that six householders were on the electoral register. Only six householders regarded that property as their main residence, and the majority of the units were empty. The election was in March, and, at that time, two thirds of the properties were empty. The developments are like ghost towns, and much of our heritage is being destroyed in order to produce something that brings no economic benefit to our community.
I have campaigned on property development for many years, and I called a public meeting in Newcastle in June to highlight the issue. When I knocked on the door of one house in Newcastle to ask the householder to come to the meeting, she took one look at me and told me that she had voted already. She obviously got the wrong end of the stick, but more than 250 people packed that meeting in Newcastle. Property development was the biggest single issue of concern to those ratepayers. Those who are caught up in such situations find that the house beside them is to be knocked down and replaced by 20 apartments — they cannot live with that, so they are forced to sell, and the owners of the next house are forced to sell. A domino effect sweeps through the entire town and destroys its character.
I understand that there are moves afoot to address that situation. The policy issues fall to the Minister for Regional Development, and the Minister of the Environment is responsible for development control. I appeal to those Ministers to move quickly. If they do not, much of what we find historic and important about our towns will disappear before our eyes.
The new developments are nothing to be proud of. If a developer can fit in one and a half car-parking spaces a unit, and the site is within the development limit of a town, the site is regarded as brownfield, and the law of the jungle applies.
I would like to take the two Ministers to meet a lady who lives in a little cottage on Post Office Lane in Newcastle. Her house faces the former post office site, for which an application has been submitted for 42 apartments in a four-storey development. Her life will be ruined, as will the lives of thousands of others, if those developments are not soon stopped and some form of sense and normality is brought back to development, before we destroy that which makes Northern Ireland’s towns and villages so special.
Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an rúin seo. I welcome the opportunity to speak. The two previous Members clearly highlighted the major problems. Replacing homes and gardens with multiple-occupancy town houses and apartment blocks is an increasingingly common practice known as “garden grabbing”. Cramming new housing developments into residential areas is not a suitable way to alleviate housing stress because it significantly erodes the local character and the environmental and social quality of life of the residents and communities affected by it. The practice is getting out of hand, and there is an absence of clear, unambiguous guidance from the Planning Service on the issue.
We should be ensuring that the building of multiple-occupancy properties on what were the sites of single homes is monitored and proactively discouraged. Hopefully, the issue will be addressed as part of the overall review of planning policy.
However, it is quite apparent that until monitoring is implemented, developers will be buying homes with generous gardens and will be applying for planning permission to demolish the buildings and build town houses or flats. Obviously, as there is no need for new roads or services, profit margins are very high. Neighbourhoods are being transformed, and, unfortunately, in quite a few cases not in a positive way. Developers have been known to demolish fit houses and replace them with a large number of smaller dwellings, and often the character of the location is changed dramatically.
Many communities have found that planning applications for multiple-occupancy housing or flats have been parachuted in on them, and the severe housing shortage artificially inflates house prices, which wrenches the first rung of the property ladder from the reach of the majority of young people.
I agree with the previous two Members. To me, brownfield sites are industrial sites or possibly waste or contaminated sites that can be recycled or reused. However, we also know that “garden grabbing” takes place.
Sinn Féin broadly supports the motion, and feels that it should be defined clearly in any future planning policy that building in limited spaces and in built-up areas, including gardens, is not to be encouraged. Go raibh maith agat.
Mr Dallat: I support the motion, because I have knowledge and experience of the harm being done, particularly in the coastal areas of east Derry — Portstewart, Portrush and, of course, Portballintrae.
Gardens have become liquid gold. No longer are they adornments or places of leisure and recreation. They are now valuable pieces of real estate and serve one purpose — to be flogged for inflated prices to land speculators, who will plant them not with flowers and shrubs but with apartments, flats and townhouses. Environmentally-friendly open spaces — open in the sense that people can enjoy them without trespassing — are being turned into concrete jungles with no grass, and no class.
The concept of utilising brownfield land has been turned upside down — with devastating consequences. That is particularly true in the seaside towns. However, towns and villages have also been at the receiving end of the bulldozer and the chainsaw, because it is not just the grass that is lost. Mature trees have been cut down in their tens of thousands, and we must be aware of the damage that that is doing to the air that we breathe.
It is unfortunate that the planners did not foresee that problem, because they are, to a large extent, the cause of the land shortage that has sent the price of development land through the roof — and many roofs no longer exist.
The motion, which was moved by Mr Beggs, identifies rightly the loss of character of our towns and villages, but the problem is more serious than that. Town cramming, as it has become known, has had a much more detrimental effect on the overall environment. In many cases, the sewerage systems cannot cope with the additional pressure placed upon them. Parking becomes a crisis, and there are many additional issues relating to road safety.
Far be it for me to look to England for inspiration, but on this occasion, and as an exception, we could promote the little song ‘English Country Garden’, and demand that all planners learn it by heart. Those who are taking away the gardens should write that out on their application forms.
Mr Deputy Speaker: I am glad that the Member did not take up the offer about singing.
Mrs Long: Like Members who have already spoken in the debate, most of us would recognise brownfield sites as meaning ex-industrial and ex-commercial sites. In redevelopment areas, that would also include the demolition of existing housing.
I am concerned that brownfield development has been extended to include a lot of other development — particularly gardens. I support the motion as one way of trying to redress that balance. However, it comes with something of a health warning. While it would be helpful to have recognition at departmental level that gardens should be removed from the definition of “brownfield land”, as it would show that gardens are not brownfield sites and that they are of a different nature and character, it would not necessarily preclude other people from bringing forward speculative proposals that would relate either wholly or in part to garden sites. The Assembly must be aware that that is a development control issue and, therefore, more a matter for the Minister of the Environment. I am pleased to see both the Minister for Regional Development and the Minister of the Environment in the Chamber; it shows willingness on their part to take action.
“Garden grabbing” and the associated development of sites involving the demolition of existing residential properties have significant consequences for established residential neighbourhoods. As regards infrastructure, we have already referred to the pressure put on the drainage system. Undoubtedly the increase in roofed, paved and impervious areas — which were previously gardens and from where water could soak away over time — has led to speedier run-off and increased the risk of local flash flooding.
Mr S Wilson: I thank the Member for giving way — as she always does. Will she accept that it was the previous Assembly, and all of the parties in it, that agreed to have more houses built on the existing urban footprint to do the very thing that she has referred to — to make better use of the existing infrastructure?
Mrs Long: No one is questioning that, and I thank the Member for his intervention. However, the question is where the houses will be built. Many areas in east Belfast have not been redeveloped, but in other areas houses are under incredible pressure and gardens are being gobbled up by greedy developers. There must be a balance.
As regards the character and local heritage of an area, Members have referred to trees being felled, houses being demolished and the loss of open space, which is inherently part of the character of an area where the suburban grain is interrupted with high-density, urban-style development. That is not good for maintaining a balance, and it is not good from an environmental point of view. The transportation links are often not good enough to maintain the higher levels of population in those suburban areas — in contrast with some inner-city areas.
I am concerned that it has also led to an inflation in house prises. Houses are being priced out of the reach of families. It is rare to see a house for sale in east Belfast: instead, development opportunities are for sale. The houses built on those sites will not be affordable accommodation for those who need it, but will be investment opportunities for those who want a second property as a pension. We must be conscious of the impact that that vacancy of property across the area has on local services.
There is the issue of local amenity for the current residents and for those who will buy properties in the area. The restrictions on building outwards means that many new properties are built higher. The result is that someone’s main living room may look into the back bedroom of houses on neighbouring sites. Those are mainly development control issues. However, the policy of back-land development makes it much more important to have a rigorous framework in place.
I recognise the need for a number of smaller properties among the larger ones to facilitate the needs of older residents who want to downsize in their own locality and not to have to leave behind the social support network that they have built up over the years. However, that is not the driver for the current development. It is largely speculative development. There are examples of well-designed, well-integrated development, but increasingly the architecture does little to relate to the local character. Instead, generic house styles are simply dropped in on several sites across a constituency area and bear no relation to what was there previously or to what will remain when building is complete.
It is important to define “brownfield” sites; however, Members must also focus on development control. Without adequate control, that definition will not protect residents from what is increasingly the biggest headache that they face.
Dr W McCrea: This is an important debate — worthy of the Assembly — and Members must address the issues. The previous Assembly debated this matter and took a different view — against the stance of the then DUP Minister for Regional Development. Although the Assembly took a decision in the past, that does not mean that it was the best decision. Therefore, Members must consider the matter in the light of current events.
In my constituency of South Antrim, I am inundated daily by people and communities horrified by what has been proposed for their neighbourhoods. For example, four houses are to be knocked down on the Rashee Road in Ballyclare and replaced by 54 apartments, with no care for adequate parking on a road that has limited traffic access. The developer is simply squeezing as much development as possible onto a restricted site, with no care for the community.
I acknowledge that there are good developers and some excellent developments throughout Northern Ireland; however, there are also some poor developers who want no more than to draw as much finance out of a site as possible. In Ballyclare, Glengormley, Antrim, Burnside, Ballyrobert, Dunadry and Templepatrick, people believe that the developers are concerned only with what they can get out of a community and not with what they can put back in. A developer has not only a right to take out but a duty to put back that which will be acceptable and natural to the character of an area.
Currently, developers pay exorbitant prices to invest in an area — perhaps three times the value of a house. They then feel that it is their right that everyone should buckle to their demands. They force as many apartments as possible onto a piece of ground because they have paid three times the going rate. Those developers deserve to feel the pinch. They must pay — not the community. Developers will learn if their fingers are burnt a few times.
The motion will not provide the instrument with which to solve the problem; it simply puts it on the long finger. I appeal to my friend the Minister of the Environment. She has an effective instrument in her hands — development control. I pay tribute to her because, further to representations by other colleagues and me about the areas that I have mentioned, she has already communicated to her divisional offices that she wishes to ensure that the established character of those areas is properly protected, in line with policy objectives, and that the individual and cumulative effect of proposals does not significantly erode the environmental quality, character and amenities of existing areas. Members must consider that. The Minister has taken the first step, but I appeal to her to take a further step and put that into action. That would be effective and could be done quicker than the motion’s proposal.
The Minister also gave instructions that the density and character of new housing must not detract from the environmental quality of residential amenities and the established character of the wider residential area. Ballyrobert is a small community. If plans are passed, it will double in size over a short time, not because of new development but because a swathe of houses will be knocked down to be replaced by apartments.
I must correct another point: it is not only old dwellings that are being knocked down; some dwellings that were built only a few years ago are being knocked down too. Where developers can build a multitude of apartments on a site, they are knocking down newer buildings too. We must be sensitive to the needs and demands of the community, and, therefore, the House must do something about this problem.
Mr McCartney: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé ag iarraidh tacaíocht a thabhairt don rún seo. As my colleague Cathal Boylan said, Sinn Féin broadly supports the motion. A review of PPS 12 is under way, which will provide an opportunity to deal with this issue in a wide-ranging and comprehensive manner. I welcome the Minister for Regional Development’s attendance for the debate. He will have his own views on the matter, and he will take note of the many pertinent observations raised during the debate, which will be reflected in the outcome of the review.
There is no doubt that the unique character of our towns, villages and cities needs to be protected and improved, and that that requires rigorous and relevant planning policies. There may be examples of that character being disrupted by improper planning policy, poor design and the practice known as “garden grabbing”. However, other Members have mentioned those matters, and I do not have to list any more; we see them daily.
That does not mean that we should oppose the development of brownfield sites to improve the character and landscape of urban centres and to tackle the need for affordable housing. There are many excellent examples, particularly in previously commercial and industrial sites, where the urban landscape has benefited from proper development and much-needed housing has been provided.
Without an effective strategy for the development of brownfield sites, it will become common practice for development to spill out onto greenfield sites in the countryside. We see and hear of the consequences of that every day. We have the opportunity to ensure that planning policy reflects people’s needs, as well as the character of urban and rural landscapes.
In conclusion, although I do not want to predict the outcome of the pending court case, I urge the Minister to speak to his Executive colleague the Minister of the Environment, who is also present and welcome in the Chamber. The proposed reviews of PPS 12 and PPS 14 can result in the best possible policy for the future protection, development and improvement of urban and rural landscapes and the representation of the best interests of our people. Tugann Sinn Féin tacaíocht don rún seo. Sin é. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr Craig: When I was elected as an urban councillor six years ago, planning issues never appeared on the radar. However, since my election to this House, the number of planning applications from developers in urban areas has exploded. They all seem to want to rip the heart and character out of some of the most settled communities in our towns.
I beg the House’s indulgence to talk about some of the most beautiful areas in my community, which have been blighted by that type of character change. In Pond Park, eight apartments were built; in Monaville, there are eight apartments and three town houses; in Ballymacash, there are nine apartments; and there are 26 apartments in Marna Brae. The list goes on and on. All those developments are within one mile of one another.
What is such building doing to the character and development of that area? Looking at the concrete jungle that the area is becoming, the residents and I have serious questions for the Departments. Will the roads cope with the extra traffic that the apartments will bring? How will the council cater for recycling when each apartment needs three bins? Will the crumbling sewerage system be able to cope? The Planning Service seems to dismiss those issues.
I have already received reports from residents who feel intimidated and pressurised by developers to sell their homes or face the prospect of remaining in the houses in which they grew up, surrounded by 10, 15, 20 or more apartments, which they have no desire to do.
Today, the argument is not about the need for new policies. Existing planning policies have to be considered and the erosion of urban areas must be stopped. That aspect needs to be examined. For example, paragraph 1.4 of PPS 7 states:
“The promotion of more housing in urban areas should not be allowed to result in town cramming or damage to areas of distinctive townscape character. In established residential areas the overriding objective will be to avoid any significant erosion of the local character and the environmental quality, amenity and privacy enjoyed by existing residents.”
As regards appearance, landmarks and appearance, paragraph 3.2 of PPS 7 states that development plans may set out:
“requirements for the arrangement and appearance of new housing in particular urban areas whose distinctive character would benefit from being reinforced”.
Those statements show that there is a critical issue about how policies are being implemented in urban areas.
Mrs Long: Does the Member accept that, even in the circumstances in which planners find common cause with Members on an issue, their decisions are often overruled by the Planning Appeals Commission, which takes a more liberal view?
Mr Craig: I concur fully with that, because I have had similar experiences.
I would defend the Department of the Environment, and especially Arlene Foster, because she has made strenuous efforts to bring the Planning Service under control since taking office. I concur with the measures that she took a few months ago that will result in planners no longer being allowed to view every planning decision as being unique. A more holistic view is required, and one cannot be considering one planning application in isolation when a further 20 are outstanding. Her decision will move the debate on, and could go a long way towards solving some of the issues that we are talking about today.
There is no point in the Assembly passing new laws if those already in place are not being enforced. I know — having spoken to her directly — that the Minister is fully aware of the problems and has started the process in her own Department to stop even more urban areas from becoming concrete jungles.
Mr B McCrea: Like several other Members, I can say that it is this issue that most fills my postbox. People from Drumbeg, Drumbo, Hillsborough, Culcavy, the Belsize Road, the Pond Park Road, the Antrim Road and so on are affected by the issue. However, there is no point in going on about it — people expect Members to do something about it, and they are quoting regulations to us. They quote policy QD1 from PPS 7, which states:
“In established residential areas proposals for housing development will not be permitted where they would result in unacceptable damage to the local character”.
People cannot understand why that provision does not count. They then refer to paragraph 1.4 of PPS 7, which states:
“In established residential areas the overriding objective will be to avoid any significant erosion of the local character and the environmental quality, amenity and privacy enjoyed by existing residents.”
However, that does not count either. Therefore, when Willie McCrea says that it is great that the rules are in place and that we can go and fix the problem, that does not happen. He quoted paragraph 4.8 of PPS 7, which says exactly the same thing — and it makes no difference.
On 20 April 2007 I took those issues to two permanent secretaries — one from the Department for Regional Development and the other from the Department of the Environment. The reason that I went to two permanent secretaries was because we could not work out who was responsible for the mess and why it could not be sorted out.
This situation is simply not acceptable. Historic villages, towns and townscapes are being absolutely destroyed, and people did not want that to happen.
When it is asked whether the designation of areas of townscape character has actually occurred, the response is no. Planners in Bangor had the foresight to designate the whole of the town as such; however, the only areas in other towns that were designated were those that were deemed important. It was never envisaged that the value of property would rise so high and so fast that it would be economically viable to knock down a perfectly good house and build others in its place.
Who is to blame for that situation? John Prescott. He wanted to cover the whole of south-east England with concrete. He said that he would no longer count gardens as gardens: he would build on them.
I have attended consultation after consultation, and all the time planners say to us that they are only doing —
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr B McCrea: Go on then, Sammy.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member appreciate that the target — for good sustainability reasons — of having 60% of houses in Northern Ireland built on the urban footprint can be achieved only if some gardens are treated as brownfield sites? There are not enough commercial or industrial sites for that purpose.
Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I ask Mr McCrea to draw his remarks to a close. He was allowed only three minutes; we must finish the debate within the hour that has been allowed for it.
Mr B McCrea: I will finish with the point that has just been raised.
We have to build 200,000 new homes by 2015. Some 60% — as opposed to 30% — must be within the urban footprint, and 60% must be built for single occupancy. We are not getting even close to meeting that target. There is no land for us to build on. Legislation is the only way in which we can address the situation. Past events have proven that controlling development by ministerial decision does not work: the Assembly must legislate.
The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Murphy): Ar dtús ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an díospóireacht seo. I welcome the motion, and I am grateful to Mr Beggs for tabling it. It is an important issue, and one can see how impassioned Members have become during the debate.
It strikes me, however, that there are contradictions in what some Members have said. Sammy Wilson intervened towards the end of the debate to point out some of those contradictions. Some argue against overdevelopment of the countryside and say that it should take place within the urban footprint; others argue that development should not be within the urban footprint. I appreciate that a balance must be struck.
I recognise the concerns of those in established residential neighbourhoods who find that the characters of their areas are rapidly changing. Our cities and towns have been built at much lower densities than many of their European counterparts. That means that the effect of higher-density proposals, such as town houses or apartment-type developments, can be dramatic in many instances.
Many of our urban areas have a traditional character and identity; they are attractive residential environments. Therefore, preserving and protecting the amenity of such neighbourhoods must remain an important element of our policy. We need to exercise particular sensitivity in areas of distinctive quality. That is done through the designation of areas of townscape character and conservation areas. For example, the draft Belfast metropolitan area plan 2015 designated 100 areas of townscape character.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Minister for giving way. There has been much talk today of cross-cutting issues, and this is one such issue. Mention has been made of the circular that I issued in August. I did that because this is a matter of development control. Will the Minister comment on the work that is going on between officials of his Department and those of the Department of the Environment on development control issues where apartments and garden grabbing are concerned? Despite what some Members think of ministerial action, officials of both Departments are working on the issue.
Mr Murphy: I confirm what the Member has said. Both Departments are taking action on the issue. We must strike a balance between implementing the plans that were desired — and approved — for 60% of development to take place within the urban footprint, and finding appropriate sites for that development.
Those decisions were taken with the best intentions in terms of sustainable development and the location of housing where there were facilities such as schools and public transport, instead of increasing urban sprawl, or bungalow blight in the countryside. To balance that with the need to build on brownfield sites, the development of “garden grabbing” has come to the fore. Measures have been taken to attempt to address that, and there will be further opportunities to do so. There is a balance to be achieved in the outworking of that type of policy, but the intention behind it was correct.
As other Members have mentioned, the problems are fuelled by rising populations, an increase in the number of new households being formed, and people choosing to live on their own. By 2025 it is expected that almost two thirds of households will be one-person households.
My officials are working to update the regional housing need figures to take account of the increases in populations that are caused by such trends. It is important that that information be up to date, as it is used to allocate land in towns and cities. There is an equal commitment to the promotion of future growth in a sustainable way. The overarching framework of the regional development strategy promotes growth first in towns and cities. The aim is to make the best use of urban land and buildings. The regional target is to build 60% of new houses in existing urban areas. The purpose is to reduce the amount of greenfield land used for new development and make better use of existing infrastructure.
However, the 60% target is not a mandate for higher-density schemes in all urban areas. There are lots of opportunities for new homes to be built in towns and cities without imposing on those who live there already — for example, using redundant factories and former industrial land, or the Living Over the Shop initiative, for which Mr Beggs expressed support. Important sites such as Titanic Quarter offer real opportunities for redeveloping industrial land to provide new urban housing.
There are good reasons for this sustainable policy approach. Building more houses at higher densities in the right locations has many advantages. People have easier access to jobs, schools and shops, and it allows for the development of more efficient public transport and reduces the number of journeys made by private car. This policy approach is in line with those taken in all European countries.
No one wants to live in sprawling cities and towns where every journey must be made by car. That threat is real. Between 2000 and 2004 the population of Belfast declined by 4%. Other major cities such as Dublin, Cardiff, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester experienced population growth over the same period. Therefore, the challenge is to strike the balance between accommodating higher densities on appropriate sites and protecting residential areas from insensitive forms of higher-density development proposals.
I have already referred to the regional development strategy, which contains guidance on how additional housing should be accommodated and emphasises the importance of protecting established residential areas and the need to protect the character of cities and towns. My officials are finalising the first five-year review of the strategy. That document will set out the definition of brownfield development in more detail and re-emphasise the need to promote quality higher-density schemes in locations close to existing schools, shops and jobs. It is my intention to consult the Committee for Regional Development on the review of the strategy as soon as possible. I will also seek the agreement of the Executive Committee to the document before its publication.
As I have said, my officials are working closely with those from the Department of the Environment to assess the need to update and revise existing planning policy statements that affect planning in urban areas. For example, there are policy statements that deal with housing settlements, quality residential environments, open-space sport and outdoor recreation. The housing settlements policy sets out guidance for dealing with schemes in established residential areas, and the open- space policy deals with the protection of existing open space and areas zoned for open space in development plans. I am also advised that the Minister of the Environment has reminded all Planning Service staff of the need to consider fully the impact on established residential character when processing applications for new residential developments.
Finally, I emphasise that the issue is very important. Housing shapes our cities and towns and has a major influence on the location of jobs and the provision of services. Therefore, it is important that we accommodate additional housing in a sustainable way that respects the character and identity of all our settlements. More homes in our towns and cities are welcome, but not at the expense of treasured existing residential neighbourhoods and communities. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.
Mr McFarland: I thank my colleague Roy Beggs for bringing this motion before the House. I probably speak for most Members in saying that I am disappointed that only one hour has been given to the debate. There is substantial feeling about the issue, so it seems slightly daft that we only have an hour to debate it.
Mr Weir: I sympathise with the Member. However, in the Business Committee, his party Whip asked that only an hour be allocated to the debate because he believed that it could be contained within that time.
Mr McFarland: I thank the Member; I was not aware of that.
I believe that the theme of the debate is an issue that is common to all Members. Every MLA in every constituency will have received an enormous postbag full of letters on planning, building and development in what people believe to be the wrong places. The Minister, Mr Wells and I are veterans of the Committee for Regional Development in the 1998 Assembly. The regional development strategy is one of that Committee’s achievements. That was a long, hard-fought battle. However, the Committee got there in the end.
It would be useful if the Assembly were to remind itself of what that strategy was about: controlled development through consultation with local people. Members will have quickly established that most of the major problems come about because no one consults with local people. There were supposed to be agreed plans so that people knew what would happen in their areas, everyone had been consulted, and developers would work accordingly. That has not happened. The Department for Regional Development was to lay down clearly defined rules. Soon after the regional development strategy was introduced, the Department and the Planning Service released a substantial number of policy planning statements that were supposed to be adhered to by the Planning Service.
The Assembly must also remind itself that the regional development strategy contained housing projections. I do not know whether Members have revisited that document recently. We were assured at the time that those projections were accurate. However, every single one of them was probably a load of nonsense. The projections stated that no houses would be built in North Down, for example. Despite that, several thousand houses have been built there. There is confusion because of that.
The strategy’s aim was to stop ribbon development and to build on urban footprints in an effort to avoid towns and villages being joined together. Of course, a necessity of that is to densify development. There is confusion as to whether the strategy states that development should be densified, and what that means. As I recall, the result of people’s living longer, leaving home and setting up home themselves, and divorce rates, is that there are expected to be just 1·6 people living in each household by 2025. I stand to be corrected on that.
Mr Shannon: Does the Member agree that PPS 7 is so loosely worded and has been so loosely applied that it has adversely affected the character of certain areas? That has been a key factor in the problem of apartments being built everywhere, including in North Down.
Mr McFarland: I thank the Member for his comment. I also recall that 60% of development was supposed to be on brownfield sites. The Committee rowed with the Department when it said that 40% of development would be on brownfield sites. Six in 10 houses were built on the Castlereagh hills, and there was an enormous row. It was agreed that that figure should be at least 60%. A study was carried out to identify where brownfield sites were in urban areas. It was determined that, as in England, 80% of development could be on brownfield sites, if that was required. The figure was not set at 60%: it was 60% plus.
What has gone wrong? The Planning Service has continued to break the Department’s rules. Irate constituents have waved the Department’s documents at me many times, which have stated that no apartments can be developed in a certain area or that a particular building cannot be built so close to another. For some reason, those documents appear to mean nothing.
Of course, developers will do whatever they can. If they can drive a coach and horses through the regulations, why would they not? They will go around waving cheques for a million pounds in order to get their development. Why would someone not sell their house and garden for a million pounds if he or she had paid just £10,000, 20 years ago?
Another issue that worries me is that of people being scared. In North Down, there are many little old ladies who are widowed and who live in enormous houses.
Therefore, what happens? Those people, knowing that they are about to be hammered by rates and water charges, realise that they will need some sort of pension. Consequently, they sell off their back gardens — on which a developer builds three or four houses. Therefore, many issues combine to make it vital that the current definition of brownfield and recently developed sites be changed.
I welcome the Minister’s urgent review of the regional development strategy. It is vital that it take place. I also want him to revisit his policy planning statements, and to team up with the Minister of the Environment to work out why the Planning Service does not appear to agree with the motion.
Mrs I Robinson: Does the Member mean “senior citizens” when he refers to “little old ladies”?
Mr McFarland: I apologise — I used a euphemism. I am sorry if the Member was offended by it. My “little old ladies” in North Down will understand exactly what I am saying.
More co-ordination is needed. Let us get the matter sorted and end the problem of constituents being disadvantaged by the current planning policy. I commend the motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls upon the Minister for Regional Development to remove gardens from the definition of brownfield/previously developed sites in the review of the Regional Development Strategy and Planning Policy Statement 12: Housing in Settlements; and to address the failure of strategic planning policy to protect the unique character of towns, villages and urban landscapes throughout Northern Ireland.
Adjourned at 4.58 pm.