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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Executive Committee Business:
Local Government (Boundaries) Bill: Consideration Stage

Committee Business:
Standing Orders

Private Members’ Business:
Access to Health Service Dental Treatment
Aggregates Mapping Programme

Regeneration of the Sandy Row area in South Belfast

The Assembly met at 10.30 (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair).

Members observed two minutes’ silence.

Executive Committee Business

Local Government (Boundaries) Bill

Consideration Stage

Mr Deputy Speaker: Members have a copy of the Marshalled List of Amendments, detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the Speaker’s provisional grouping of amendments selected list.

There are two groups of amendments, and we shall debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on the 13 amendments that are listed in group 1. Those amendments relate to the number of local government districts and the determination of their boundaries. The second debate will be on the five amendments that are listed in group 2. Those amend­ments concern the rules that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will have regard to in making recommendations.

I remind Members who intend to speak that, during the debates on the two groups of amendments, they should address all the amendments in each group on which they wish to comment. Members must address the subject matter of the debate in question.

Once the initial debate on each group is completed, any subsequent amendments in the group will be moved formally as we debate the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on clauses to stand part of the Bill will be put at the appropriate points. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 (Local Government Districts and Wards)

Mr Deputy Speaker: We now come to the first group of amendments for debate: amendment No 1, with which it will be convenient to debate amendments Nos 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18.

Mr Ford: I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 1, line 3, leave out “11” and insert “15”.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “11” and insert “at least 11 and not more than 15 new”. — [Mr Gallagher, Mr McGlone.]

No 3: In clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert

“(2) The 15 local government districts shall incorporate, respectively, the whole or the major part of the following former local government districts —

1.   Ards.

2.   Armagh.

3.   Ballymena.

4.   Belfast.

5.   Coleraine.

6.   Cookstown.

7.   Craigavon.

8.   Derry.

9.   Down.

10. Fermanagh.

11. Lisburn.

12. Newry and Mourne.

13. Newtownabbey.

14. North Down.

15. Omagh.”

[Mr Ford, Dr Farry.]

No 4: In clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert

“(2) The 11 local government districts shall incorporate, respectively, the whole or the major part of the following former local government districts —

1.   Ballymena.

2.   Belfast.

3.   Coleraine.

4.   Cookstown.

5.   Craigavon.

6.   Derry.

7.   Fermanagh.

8.   Lisburn.

9.   Newry and Mourne.

10. Newtownabbey.

11. North Down.”

— [Mr Ford, Dr Farry.]

No 5: In clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert

“(2) The new local government districts shall incorporate the former local government districts.” — [Mr Gallagher, Mr McGlone.]

No 6: In clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “the major”. — [Mr Kennedy, Mr Beggs, Mr Gardiner, Mr Armstrong.]

No 7: In clause 2, page 2, line 16, leave out “11” and insert “15”. — [Mr Ford, Dr Farry.]

No 8: In clause 2, page 2, line 16, leave out “11 districts mentioned” and insert

“new local government districts as referred to”. — [Mr Gallagher, Mr McGlone.]

No 9: In clause 2, page 2, line 26, leave out “11” and insert “15”. — [Mr Ford, Dr Farry.]

No 10: In clause 2, page 2, line 26, leave out “11 districts mentioned” and insert

“new local government districts as referred to”. — [Mr Gallagher, Mr McGlone.]

No 16: In clause 2, page 2, line 32, leave out “40” and insert “25”. — [Mr Ford, Dr Farry.]

No 17: In long title, leave out “11” and insert “15”. — [Mr Ford, Dr Farry.]

No 18: In long title, leave out “11” and insert

“at least 11 and not more than 15 new”. — [Mr Gallagher, Mr McGlone.]

The debate we are having this morning, and may potentially have in one week’s time, illustrates the problem of accelerated passage. The House is faced with a number of amendments, and in many cases the intention across different amendments is consistent but the precise wording is in conflict. It would have been beneficial to refer the Bill to Committee Stage, which need not have been particularly long. That would have given the Environment Committee the opportunity to examine the phrasing of the amendments and perhaps seek consensus within that Committee on the way forward.

When the Minister was speaking during the Final Stage of the Taxis Bill, she referred to the benefits of the Committee and the Minister working together on 50 agreed amendments. It is sad that she turned down her irony indicator that day, as I said. We are left in the difficult position of dealing with a batch of amendments that do not fit together. I shall do my best to address them all.

The first amendment is simply to change the number of councils proposed from 11 to 15. The Minister previously argued, in her usual eloquent way, that the power that will be given to district councils will increase their expenditure by around 25%. The problem is that 25% of a very small figure, around 5%, is barely 1%.

If we look back to what happened in the 1970s, approximately 70% of the spending power of district and county councils was removed and given to Departments. We are now faced with the fact that, having reduced spending power from 100% to 30%, we are increasing it to somewhere between 35% and 37%. It is pretty small beer to make such a fuss about, as though this was going to be a major change in the role and function of councils. The idea that we will be examining powers further one year from now does not suggest that the Executive, in agreeing this pattern and these powers, has actually got a detailed, considered view of the way ahead. It looks much more like a short-term fudge.

A number of models were floated in previous consultations — nine models, concerning three configurations each of seven, 11 and 15 councils. It is now quite clear that the possibility of having seven councils has been ruled out, even by the one party whose Members previously supported it.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Ford: There has been no specific consultation following general consultation as to whether we should be considering model 11b, or whether the views previously expressed by most parties and councillors that there should be 15 councils described a better way forward. There has been a very modest increase in powers created. My colleague Brian Wilson previously suggested that if this is all councils are getting, we might as well keep the current 26. I am not advancing that case this morning. The House decided when Second Stage was passed that there will be reforms.

There are real issues as to why the number of councils needs to be explored in greater detail. If I were trying a modest grovel in the direction of the Minister, I would suggest there are issues like the Fermanagh factor. Having as few as 11 councils would make it impossible for a county with a separate identity, but a population of just under 60,000, to have its own council. People in that county, at least, will argue strongly that 11 is an inadequate number. On that basis, we have put forward an amendment that there should be 15 councils, since that was the preferred option of most Members at the time the consultation took place. The opinion of the House should be tested on that matter.

Amendments 3 and 4 are in a different area. They deal with the definition of how the new boundaries will be created. In the early 1970s, when the Parliament of Northern Ireland was working out the new arrange­ments under the Macrory Review, the Bill presented in that House, and passed unamended in that arena, did not specify a complete list of places that would be included within each district council.

Rather, it gave a single defining point for each of the 26 councils. What is now Antrim Borough Council was defined by reference to saying that it would include all, or the major part, of Antrim urban district electoral division of Antrim rural district council.

The other part of my constituency was defined on the basis that it would include all, or the major part, of Newtownabbey urban district. It did not list Newtownabbey urban district, Ballyclare urban district and part of Antrim rural district. The Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 did not state that your area, Mr Deputy Speaker, would include Coleraine borough, Coleraine rural district, Portstewart urban district and Portrush urban district. It merely specified Coleraine as the central area of that configuration.

There will be problems if we proceed to list a number of councils and say that all, or a major part, of them will be included. We will continue with the problem of what is now known as the little “bent banana” — the skittering round the southern suburbs of Belfast from Dundrod to Drumbeg to Dundonald. That does not give logic. It would be more logical to provide a defining point of Lisburn and allow the appropriate area of Castlereagh to be included with other parts, perhaps, of Belfast and parts of greater North Down — as Mr Weir calls it — or greater Ards — as his colleague Mr Shannon calls it. It may be argued that the definition of “the major part” is 50% — or more — of the land area; and that may be adequate. However, a reference to “the major part” implies that at least a significant part of that borough will be included, but there are other cases where it might not fit.

A parochial example relates to what might be called the East Antrim question, which was introduced by Roy Beggs when the Bill received its Second Stage. The projected models 15b and 15c show a configuration of Newtownabbey, Larne and Carrickfergus councils in one group and Antrim and Ballymena in another. However, model 11b groups those councils in configurations of Newtownabbey and Antrim together, and Ballymena, Larne and Carrickfergus in another group. I have worked as a social worker for the Northern Health and Social Services Board in Larne, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey districts as well as in Antrim and Ballymena districts. Many people think that it would be logical to make two councils from those five, and to do so from a mid Antrim/east Antrim variation rather than in the manner that is proposed in the Bill — and which is derived from model 11b.

If, as has been said by the Minister and her supporters, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner — and not the House — defines boundaries, it is logical that we should leave it as open as possible to the Boundaries Commissioner to decide the easiest and best way of doing it; to consider how local social and economic needs can be met; and to examine what model will fit the pattern that people are used to. In that context, our amendment to define Newtownabbey and Ballymena as two points — one in each council — and to leave it to the Boundaries Commissioner to decide the best way to fit the boundaries, is more logical than the method the Minister has decided on by opting for model 11b.

There has been no suggestion as to why model 11b is better than models 15b or 15c in the mid Antrim/east Antrim area. I accept that there may be a slight procedural issue, and it may take longer to implement. Furthermore, there may be a need for a preliminary view on the external boundaries of each council published in advance of the provisional recommend­ations. If Members feel that there is merit in such an approach, it could be addressed at the Bill’s Further Consideration Stage, and it would be an informal issue.

If we proceed with the Bill as it stands — and assuming that the House rejects the 15-council model, which has, implicit in it, the point of defining a single place, as was the pattern in 1972 — we will run into major difficulties, and the Boundaries Commissioner will be left to produce a set of recommendations that will have significant and long lasting debate around the external boundary of the district, and not merely about the internal ward arrangements. That will create difficulties, which will mean that the timescale, which is supposed to be set, will become less meaningful.

10.45 am

Amendments Nos 7, 9 and 17 are all consequential to amendment No 1, which is the proposal for 15 councils. Amendment No 16 is effectively consequential to amendment No 1. That amendment would change the number of councillors in each local authority from 40, plus or minus five, to 25, plus or minus five. It is designed to maintain the same number of councillors whether there are 11 or 15 councils. That amendment is proposed only on the basis of there being 15 councils; therefore, if amendment No 1 is not passed we will not move amendment No 16.

The SDLP and the Ulster Unionist amendments are largely seeking to achieve the same objectives as those in our amendments. Both parties recognise the Executive’s failure to win support for the proposed 11b model.

The Alliance Party believes that there is merit in testing the waters by having 15 councils. I accept that, in amendment No 2, the SDLP is suggesting having a range of between 11 and 15 councils. Certainly, if amendment No 1 is not passed, the Alliance Party will be supporting amendment No 2. We believe that, given the time constraints, that amendment is slightly too loose, but it nonetheless has significantly more merit than ramming through a proposal for 11 — and only 11 — councils. The vagueness of amendment No 2 is unfortunate, but allowing the issue to be tested by the Boundaries Commissioner rather than having a model rammed through is an option that should be considered.

Amendment No 6 appears to meet very similar concerns to those that are dealt with by the Alliance Party amendments Nos 3 and 4, as they all concern the way that individual authorities are defined. We see considerable merit in amendment No 6 but it is not quite as good as our own.

Mr Ross: Although this is the first opportunity to debate amendments to the Bill, many of the arguments that we will hear today have been rehearsed during the Second Stage debate. I welcome the fact that the Members who are inclined to change the Bill have the opportunity to do so today. Indeed, allowing amendments to be tabled may produce an improved Bill, and that is the purpose of that process. However, I do not believe that any of the tabled amendments will improve the Bill; rather, they will complicate and confuse the process.

As I argued during the Second Stage debate, the real choice that we had was not between having either 11 or 15 councils, but between having either seven or 11 councils. Certainly, I believe that having 11 councils is preferable to the model that was originally supported by direct rule Ministers as well as by the party opposite.

We can all agree that local government needed to be modernised, and the Executive have agreed on the 11-council model. The grouped amendments that we are debating during this section of the Consideration Stage do not aim to amend that Bill so much as to radically change it.

The Assembly must have the ability to determine the future of local government. Although an independent Boundaries Commissioner can have a say on what the boundaries of various councils should be, the Assembly should be able to determine the number of councils that should exist, and I believe that we have now been able to do that. The review of public administration debate has gone on long enough and finally we are getting somewhere with it. To argue that, after six years, there has not been enough consultation on the matter seems quite bizarre to me.

It would be virtually impossible to come up with a model that all Members would approve of. Even if we could agree on the number of councils, I am sure that there would not be agreement on what the boundaries of those should be, whether because of self-preservation concerns or for other interests. Indeed, during his opening remarks, Mr Ford referred to the East Antrim question about the grouping of Larne, Carrick and Ballymena. However, many of the services for people living in Larne — such as Planning Service or Roads Service — are already provided in Ballymena, so a linkage between those areas already exists.

Neither should the Assembly decide what area should become the administrative headquarters for the proposed new councils, as seems to be proposed in amendment No 4. The new councils will be given new powers and should also be given the opportunity to decide such matters for themselves, and I am quite sure that there will be some interesting debate about where councils should be centred.

I do not believe that any of the amendments in this grouping improve the Bill, and I consider many of them to be impractical. I urge the House to vote against the amendments.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I oppose the amendments, which show that other parties cannot abide the fact that an agreement has been reached in the interests of delivering — in a timely fashion and after proper and appropriate consideration by a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner with the local communities — fair, effective and efficient local government by 2011.

In many ways, the amendments are contradictory. David Ford talked about the Alliance Party’s preferred option being 15 councils. However, he then proposed amendments that deal with everything including the number of councillors, and that are aimed at redefining the wards in advance of the commissioner’s doing his work. He went on to say that if his amendments are not accepted he will support the SDLP’s amendments, which call for anything between 11 and 15 councils. Members can take from that what they want.

It is unfortunate that the parties that have proposed the amendments are showing, yet again, that they are not serious about the substantive changes that are required at local government level. Accelerated passage has already been granted by the Assembly, and Consid­eration Stage provides an opportunity for amendments to be proposed and even agreed. However, what we have heard this morning has been a rehearsal of the same arguments that have been rejected so far. I presume that that is what we will continue to hear for the rest of the morning.

The amendments expose the lack of substance in the thinking of the other parties. Many of the amendments are about the numbers of councils and the number of councillors. They have nothing to do with the way in which local government will function. Furthermore, they have nothing to do with striking a balance with the communities across the new council boundaries. They expose the fact that the other parties do not have credible arguments or even any cohesion to their arguments.

One of the arguments that we have heard in recent years, and even in recent weeks, has been that reducing the number of councils will create a distance between the councillors and the local community. However, one of the amendments is aimed at reducing the number of councillors from 40 to 25. Is that not a contradiction?

Mr Ford: It might have helped the Member had he listened to what I said earlier. I made the specific point that the amendment aimed at reducing the number of members of each council from 40 to 25 is in the context of increasing the number of councils, so the number of councillors remains the same. Had the Member listened to that point, I do not think that he would have made the argument that he just did.

Mr A Maskey: I did listen to the point, and I have done so repeatedly. I have listened to the Alliance Party speaking about that matter for years. The Member will be aware that we have been diligent in this matter for some years; we have listened attentively to what he and his colleagues have said, not only here, but also in the meetings of the strategic leadership board and in the original task force. Therefore, Sinn Féin is well versed in the Alliance Party’s position. I was simply rehearsing the point that we have been advised by the Alliance Party and by others that we should not make changes to boundaries that create a further, unacceptable distance between councillors and local communities. However, one of the amendments is seeking to do just that by reducing the number of councillors.

As the Minister of the Environment has said, the changes to the boundaries are part of a process. A lot of work is required in the years ahead, not only in changing the nature of local government, but also in addressing the issue of the number of quangos. To accept that amendment would leave us in a position in which we would still have a ridiculous number of people who were publicly appointed, but a reduced number of local councillors. That would simply create a further electoral deficit.

In future, addressing the number of quangos and the number of public appointees who are unaccountable — they are certainly unelected — will provide a greater opportunity to consider the number of councillors.

Sinn Féin believes that the agreements that have been reached thus far provide a solid foundation upon which local government can be rebuilt in a fair, effective and balanced manner. None of the amendments would help us in the work that we have to do.

Many of the provisions that the amendments call for are included in one way or another in the current commissioner’s mandate. Therefore, the amendments add nothing; they simply expose the fact that other parties do not agree with the model for 11 councils. They want 15 — or, if they cannot get 15, they will accept 12, 13 or 14.

That is no way for parties that are opposed to the Bill to show any integrity in respect of being credible, thoughtful and considerate, or having desired outcomes in mind. Sinn Féin opposes the amendments.

Mr Kennedy: I support amendment No 6. The Bill provides the legislative foundation for the complete reform of local government in Northern Ireland. When the number and the basic scope of the new local government units are established, the Bill will potentially shape the way in which people interact with their local authorities for decades. Ultimately, the Bill will shape how people interact with one another — either reconfirming local identities or forging new ones, as the Bill demands. Therefore, it is of crucial importance that we get this right.

The Ulster Unionist Party has consistently supported a 15-council model, because that best reflects the identities and communities that currently exist in Northern Ireland. Identities and affinities are extremely important in creating good local government and ensuring that communities are adequately equipped and enthusiastic.

Mr Weir: I appreciate that the Ulster Unionist position on the 15-council model has been made fairly clear in the House. However, unlike the Alliance Party and the SDLP, why has the Ulster Unionist Party not tabled any amendments that argue for a 15-council model?

Mr Kennedy: The Ulster Unionist Party has consistently supported the concept of a 15-council model. It is for others to decide whether they also support that concept.

By mirroring the parliamentary boundaries, the 15-council model would lead to the least confusion. It would increase the level of local community buy-in to the democratic process. For those reasons — and others that my colleagues will expand on — the Ulster Unionist Party is minded to support the Alliance Party amendments that seek to change the number of local government districts to 15.

However, although the Ulster Unionists are supportive of the Alliance Party’s efforts to change the number of districts to 15, we are also realistic. As Mr Alex Maskey confirmed to the House during his contribution, the deal has already been done between Sinn Féin and the DUP. By tabling amendment No 6, the Ulster Unionist Party is simply trying to make the best possible legislation out of the Bill in the short time that has been allowed.

This Bill has two major clauses. The first establishes that there should be 11 new council areas. It then identifies those council areas, precisely based on an amalgamation of the existing 26 council districts. Clause 1(1) of the Bill is quite precise in stating:

“The 11 local government districts shall incorporate, respectively, the whole or the major part of” —

— the suggested local government areas.

The second major clause of the Bill outlines the powers and the role of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, who will decide the exact boundaries of the local government units and wards. However, the powers that the commissioner has been given are much more limited than they should be. They are much more limited than the powers of the commissioner’s counter­parts in England. In Northern Ireland, he or she will not be able to explicitly take into account people’s local identities and affinities. That will influence the efficiency of local government. I will return to that issue later.

The Bill details the boundaries of the local government areas in clause 1, but does not explicitly give the commissioner reasonable powers and flexibility to make reasoned changes to those boundaries in clause 2.

The Ulster Unionist Party has tabled amendment No 6, which requests that the words “the major” are left out when the scope of the 11 new units is considered. If the amendment is carried, the legislation will read:

“The 11 local government districts shall incorporate, respectively, the whole or part of the following former local government districts”.

11.00 am

The amendment gives the commissioner the power and room to make significant and meaningful changes to better serve the people of Northern Ireland. In recent debates, we have heard that many Members in the Chamber have reservations about the make-up of the suggested new local government units. By providing the commissioner with the power to be able to make meaningful changes, we can allow those reservations to be heard — and acted on, if the commissioner deems it necessary and in the interests of the local communities of Northern Ireland. That, we contend, is a common-sense amendment that will give the commissioner the flexibility to meaningfully carry out his or her job for the local communities of Northern Ireland, and not exclusively for the two major parties in the Assembly.

In the debate last week, the Minister stated that the words “whole” and “major” are open to interpretation and may be defined differently by the new commissioner. The Minister is right to suggest that the commissioner will, and should, be given the flexibility to do his or her job. That being so, amendment No 6 should have broad support from across the House. The removal of “major”, thereby making the role of the commissioner reasonably and flexibly independent, reflects the views expressed by many Members of the House during the debate on the Bill’s Second Stage.

Last week, the Member for East Antrim Mr Sammy Wilson said:

“The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner can make small or larger changes to boundaries.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p351, col 1].

If we retain the Bill in its present form, I am not entirely convinced that Mr Wilson’s statement is correct. Indeed, if we retain the original wording of the Bill, we will almost certainly have an outcome that merely confirms amalgamated boundaries suggested in the listing of the 11 council areas. Amendment No 6 provides the commissioner with the flexibility that many Members of the House have said is desirable and necessary.

In her statement announcing decisions on the future shape of local government, the Minister stated:

“our vision is of a strong, dynamic local government that creates vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe and sustainable communities that have the needs of all citizens at their core.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p2, col 1].

There is no problem there, then. The Minister also stated that she recognised:

“that it is important that local government should be closer to citizens and that a balance of responsibility between the Assembly and local government is necessary.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p1, col 2].

I urge the Minister and the Assembly to get that balance between the Assembly and local government right from the start. What better way to create strong and vibrant local government than by giving local communities, through the commissioner, meaningful power to influence the make-up of their own local government units? If we do not allow for the commissioner to make meaningful changes in light of the consultations that he or she will have with local communities, we will be sending out the message that all our pronounced commitments to creating vibrant and strong local government that is for the people and close to the people of Northern Ireland were merely words. I urge the Assembly to support amendment No 6.

Mr Gallagher: The SDLP continues to support the review of public administration in the interests of delivering a better service to the public and improvements in accountability, value for money and accessibility. The SDLP’s key concern in relation to local government is to ensure that the new councils are representative of the community and operate on the basis of legislative power-sharing concerns.

From the outset, our party said no to the proposed super councils, and since 2002, we have stated our concerns consistently that the reduction of council numbers on the scale that was proposed would have Balkanised the North. We welcome the scrapping of the seven-council proposal, which, as we said at the time, was British Government policy. It was wholly inappropriate for Northern Ireland, and it was supported by only Sinn Féin. Indeed, it was an issue that divided Sinn Féin and led to the muzzling of Francie Molloy, who is one of that party’s most experienced local government representatives. I notice that Mr Molloy has been in the Chamber today, and, no doubt at this stage, he is having the last laugh on some of his colleagues who sought to suppress his views.

The SDLP amendments in group 1 are aimed at giving flexibility to the commissioner as to the number of boundaries and councils. It is clear from our amendment No 14 in group 2 that such flexibility will ensure that the new councils are based on population profile, demographic needs and geography, rather than on an arbitrary and rigid decision that has been born of political negotiation.

The SDLP amendments also propose to delete from the Bill the proposed mergers, leaving increased flexibility for the commissioner to consider appropriate linkages under the set criteria. The Minister’s proposal fails to allow any flexibility. It is much too early to decide that a council such as Fermanagh District Council, for example, which is the only council the boundary of which coincides with the county boundary, should have no future. Similarly, the Bill proposes to split the two councils that largely make up the constituency of West Tyrone — Omagh District Council and Strabane District Council. Given the close links that exist between those two district councils, it is much too early to decide that they should have no future under the proposed arrangements.

Opportunities should be given to the people who count most — the ratepayers — to put their views to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. At that stage, several options would remain open. Is there anybody who, in setting out to build a house, would show an architect a piece of ground and ask him to build a house with 11 rooms?

Mr Weir: If the honourable Member were to approach an architect or builder and ask them to build several houses, would it be good to advise them to build houses with perhaps 11 or 15 rooms or any number of rooms in between?

Mr Gallagher: That matter would best be referred to the Committee for the Environment.

To return to what I was saying, we all know that the architect will build the 11 rooms, but they may not all be equal — the job cannot be done in the way that has been asked. For example, one room will have no windows, or another will be difficult to access because the corridor needs to be narrow. When embarking on a major task such as this, it therefore makes sense to leave some elbow room. Amendment No 2, which provides for the number of councils to be between 11 and 15, leaves that kind of flexibility.

Mr F McCann: Does the Member not agree that amendment No 2 is aimed not at giving the commissioner flexibility, but reflects the SDLP’s inability to set a firm figure for the number of councils and that it also has more to do with protecting the council electoral base of the Member’s party than with anything else?

Mr Gallagher: I made the point clearly, and I assure everyone that the SDLP is united in its support for the amendment. I regret —

Mr A Maskey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Gallagher: I will not give way again.

I am disappointed that dithering by the DUP and Sinn Féin has resulted in the Bill’s accelerated passage. That forces the Assembly to address matters in a rushed manner, and the mounting pressure is largely of the Minister’s making. The SDLP acknowledges that swift progress is required, but I stress that my party will not support accelerated passage for future legislation on related matters. Ministers must not be allowed to proceed on that basis because it is unhelpful to the democratic process, particularly the scrutiny mechanisms of the Assembly.

It is remarkable that the equality impact assessment —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not relevant to the debate, Mr Gallagher. Please stick to speaking about the amendments, not about accelerated passage or equality impact assessments.

Mr Gallagher: To put the debate in context, the SDLP’s amendments are designed to provide an opportunity to improve one aspect of an unsatisfactory process. The Assembly is rushing through important legislation without resolving other fundamental issues such as power sharing or reaching an agreement to hand over significant powers.

I urge Members to support the SDLP’s amendments Nos 2 and 5 and their consequential amendments.

Mr Weir: The amendments fall into several categories. The Alliance Party’s amendment No 1, and amendment Nos 7, 9 and 17 to which it gives rise, deal with whether there should be 11,15 or, in theory, seven councils, a matter that was previously discussed in the Chamber. The amendments are wrong because the parties struck the correct balance by proposing an 11-council model.

A similar balance must now be struck between the need for local accountability and identity — and the DUP considered the seven-council model to be inappropriate for Northern Ireland because it fails to satisfy that requirement — and ensuring the appropriate economy of scale, balanced rates and councils of similar size. Councils must be of a sufficient size to be able to cope successfully with their new functions and absorb their new powers. I hope that, as the Minister said, there will be a rolling process rather than a one-off transfer of powers. Councils must be of the correct economy of scale to handle the future transfer of additional powers — and the 11-council model caters for that.

It was remiss of me not to declare an interest at the outset: I am a member of North Down Borough Council and the vice-president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA). The Alliance Party’s attempt to push for a 15-council model does not reflect the new situation in Northern Ireland: the Assembly is up and running, and a degree of consensus must be achieved.

Dr Farry: The number of powers that were originally to be transferred to local government, in lieu of regional accountability in Northern Ireland, was revised, and significantly reduced, in the light of the fact that there is now an Assembly in place. Does the Member accept, therefore, that there is a reduced need to transfer powers to local government and a stronger argument for retaining more of the existing structures rather than for the more radical reforms being suggested?

Mr Weir: I am not sure whether the Member is joining his erstwhile colleague, Brian Wilson, in arguing for the retention of 26 councils.

11.15 am

I agree with the Member that the situation is new; we have an Assembly that is up and running and we have regional accountability. Consequently, the context has changed considerably, and the rationale that was used to justify the seven-council model — with a range of powers that would, effectively, operate in the absence of regional accountability — no longer applies. Therefore, it is important that all parties try to ensure that the level of functions match the number of councils. What we have put in place will provide that degree of balance. The Alliance Party’s 15-council model, which was debated last week, is out of step. The 11-council model creates a balance between having economies of scale and councils that are not too remote.

The Alliance Party amendments, Nos 3 and 4, list particular councils and propose to give maximum flexibility to the commissioner. However, those amendments would throw a number of councils, including those named on the lists, into a high level of uncertainty. For example, if a council is not on the lists, how can it plan for the future? Will Strabane District Council, for instance, be looking to the north and Londonderry, or east to Omagh, or will it be joining up with councils in a different direction? Actually, looking from Strabane, it is southeast to Omagh: one feels that the political compasses that the Members from South Antrim and I would be following might be slightly different.

Under such circumstances, how can councils make plans? There would be a least a year’s delay, because a lot of the work would have to be put on ice. How, for example, could there be any examination of transitional committees if, in one case, your council is to be part of 11 councils, or, in the other case, it is to be part of 15 councils? In which direction would your council be going? The same applies, to some extent, to amendment No 6 from the Ulster Unionist Party.

The other Alliance Party amendment, I believe, refers to a reduction in the number of councillors. The proposer of the motion, when speaking to Mr Alex Maskey earlier, referred to councillor numbers. Perhaps the maths had not been done particularly well. The current proposals cater for 460 councillors, although the commissioner can make adjustments in individual cases. The Alliance Party proposal caters for 410 councillors, which is a reduction of 50. I am sure that the proposer might be keen to go to some of his colleagues and indicate which of them are to be culled — some of my colleagues seem to be suggesting names already. If we are to have proper local representation, and be responsive to local needs, we need to have the correct number of councillors. The Alliance Party’s proposal for a more than 10% reduction in the number of councillors provided for by the Bill has not been thought through.

Regardless of my criticisms of the Alliance Party amendments, most of them give us some degree of certainty. The SDLP’s position of having anywhere between 11 and 15 councils throws us into a quagmire of chaos, confusion and delay.

Mr Gallagher: Does the Member agree that when reviews of constituency boundaries are carried out at Westminster, in Northern Ireland’s case, a Bill is usually worded so that there is a band — for example, that there will be between 17 and 19 constituencies? It does not say that there shall be 18 constituencies.

Mr Weir: I appreciate the Member’s point. However, that does not compare like with like. The Assembly must deal with the current 26 councils and modernise local government.

Let us remember that constituencies’ boundaries can change. One of the weaknesses of the Ulster Unionist’s position is its reliance on that. To change a constituency’s boundaries may affect its electorate and Member of Parliament. However, it does not affect the institutions, services or people’s jobs. If one were to say to a council’s employees that because there could be any number of councils, its boundaries could be anywhere and it could be grouped with other areas, quite frankly, one of their complaints would be — indeed, the concern has, rightly, been raised by many local government employees — that they have not been given a high level of certainty. Provision must be made for that.

The roulette wheel of choice, which could land anywhere between 11 and 15 councils as a number pops into the head of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, abrogates the House’s responsibilities. The DUP has proposed that there should be 11 councils; other parties have proposed different numbers. However, the position of four parties is to provide some certainty about the number of councils that are put in place. At least, that will bring about a situation in which the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner is not simply given carte blanche to produce any number of councils off the top of his or her head.

A situation in which there could be any number of councils between 11 and 15 would fall down because no consultation has been carried out at any stage on any number of councils other than seven, 11 and 15. It would also be a clear abrogation of the House’s responsibilities. Clearly, some of the SDLP’s other amendments are essentially consequential; amendment No 5, amendment No 10 and amendment No 18 flow from amendment No 2. The reasons for rejecting them all are the same.

I appreciate the argument that has been made by the proposers of the Ulster Unionists’ amendment No 6. That party has not put down a separate proposal for the number of councils, despite the fact that, at times, it seemed to be a point of high principle that the number should not simply be 15, but that it should be 15 on the basis of parliamentary constituencies. I accept that the Ulster Unionist Party has not put down an amendment to that effect because it will potentially support other parties’ amendments on the matter.

With regard to the issue of 15 parliamentary constituencies, as was illustrated by the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Mr Gallagher, I should reiterate that the number of parliamentary constituencies, by nature, can be completely free flowing. During the past 30 years, the number has gone from 12, to 17, to 18. There cannot be certainty about the number of councils. Although adjustments can be made to councils’ boundaries, there cannot be a situation in which the number of councils changes constantly, perhaps every 10 years. No one believes that the current process will be pain-free for councils. However, the high disruption that would be caused by constant change to the number of councils does not bear thinking about.

Although the Ulster Unionists’ amendment No 6 is intended to create the highest level of flexibility, to leave out the words “the major” means that councils would constantly be cast into a situation in which they did not know what direction they would go.

Mr Kennedy: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I will give way in a moment.

For example, will the majority of Strabane District Council’s area go to Omagh or Londonderry? That has important implications for planning because delays would be caused while local arrangements are being made. That would create uncertainty for staff, as, in a sense, it is not an institution that is being transferred.

Indeed, if there were a situation in which it was not known whether 45%, 55% or 60% of a council would be transferred in one direction or the other, how, for example, would debts and financial arrangements between councils be handled when the merger takes place? The high level of flexibility that is currently provided by the Bill creates a situation where although a large proportion of an area is moved from the council to which it had been designated in order to accommodate local need, the institution is left intact. That does, at least, create a proper level of engagement for staff and, from an institutional point of view, a pathway to go forward.

Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for giving way. Will he accept that coterminosity in terms of public representation would be useful for ratepayers, like taxpayers, to be able to clearly identify their Member of Parliament, their Members of the Assembly, the boundaries of their local government area and their local councillors?

There is another point in favour of having a higher number of councils. In my constituency there is the prospect of the people of Crossmaglen and Crossgar being served by the same local government. In reality, the two areas bear little correlation — how can we call that successful local government?

Mr Weir: Of the two points that the Member raised, I will first deal with the idea of coterminosity of elected representatives. Delivery of services is more important to people. At the moment, in most cases, we do not have coterminosity between parliamentary constituencies and council areas. I have not noticed a great deal of confusion about that; if someone has a problem, he can approach his Assembly Member or local councillor to help address that. That issue is, therefore, slightly overplayed.

If we were proposing something that was out of step with every boundary in Northern Ireland, and the Members sitting opposite were proposing that everything be put in line with coterminosity, then there would be more merit in looking at it. However, the parliamentary constituencies which the Member is so in favour of are not coterminous with health authorities, education boards or police districts. Indeed, there is no coterminosity with parliamentary boundaries on any subject.

In relation to the issue about Crossmaglen and Crossgar, clearly there will be a range of places that do not harmonise together, which is an issue that will come in at a later stage. It is possible to pinpoint areas that sit 500 yards apart but which have little in common.

Dr Farry: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: I want to finish my point first. I will be happy to give way after that.

Under the proposed new boundaries, which will be a matter for the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, Crossgar would be at the northern end of the Newry, Mourne and Down district council area. That is a clear case in which there could be a strong argument that the people of Crossgar may or may not see themselves as more linked with Ards. That is a poor example. My colleague beside me Simon Hamilton, who is from the Strangford area, is unsure as to how keen the people of Ards would be about embracing the people of Crossgar — that is another question.

The point is that the diverse areas at the ends of any model of local government are exactly those that must be looked at to ensure that boundaries reflect local need. There is plenty of scope within the Bill to do that already.

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for giving way. This is on the point that Mr Kennedy made — in our usual efforts to help the Ulster Unionist Party. Surely the issue about combining Down District Council with Newry and Mourne District Council is broader than simply whether towns and villages at either tail end are appropriately grouped. A map of that area shows that the Mourne Mountains are in the middle of the presumed grouping. Bearing in mind that these new councils are supposed to be more efficient in service delivery, does the Member think that it is sensible to have an elongated council area with a major mountain range in the middle?

Mr Weir: I am not quite sure what the Member thinks that we should do with the Mourne Mountains. I am aware that the party prides itself on its environ­mental credentials. However, I am not altogether sure that many people in the Mourne area would be keen on flattening the mountains so that we could create a more homogeneous unit. The reality is that there are going to be different geographical features.

People have found themselves on different sides of the Mourne Mountains in the past, and I point out to the Member that roads have been invented and that people can drive over mountains. He must live in the real world.

11.30 pm

Sadly, the adoption of amendment No 6 would create a high level of confusion. The Bill provides scope to be able to cope with those sorts of local issues. For example, people in Castlederg might see themselves as being closely linked to Omagh, and people in Strabane might feel attached to Londonderry. Consideration must be given to where the Clogher Valley and Fivemiletown belong, and where Crossgar, Killyleagh and Saintfield see themselves. One could highlight a range of areas to be debated, including the Cregagh Road, Twinbrook and Poleglass, and Rathcoole. Ultimately, an independent person will listen to the public and make judgements on those issues, and there is scope for that.

The amendments do not add to the Bill; they simply reinforce the desire of certain parties for a particular outcome. We have the right balance for making improve­ments to the working of the Bill, and the amendments that are listed in group 1 should be rejected.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I sometimes wonder whether the debate is about the indulgences of councillors and bums on seats, rather than achieving effective government. Perhaps today’s debate on the aggregates mapping programme will deal with the point that Mr Farry raised about the Mountains of Mourne, now that the Minister of the Environment is here.

I have studied the Marshalled List of Amendments from Members who like to consider themselves to be the official opposition, and I do not believe that it would be in the interests of the general public to support them. A few debates have taken place on the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill, and I reiterate what I said during those debates. Although there are concerns in the nationalist end of my own area about the council area to which it will move, a model of 11 council areas has been agreed, which should create a balance in local government and deliver effective government. Perhaps parties that want 15 councils — or some other number on which they cannot agree — would do well to accept that.

Rather than debating amendments to the Bill, we should be moving on to ensure that the next level can be implemented so that the future of local government can be radically changed for the benefit of its people. The amendments are an attempt to do the work of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner in advance of his or her appointment. Not only do the amendments try to change the terms of reference but they narrow the council areas to such an extent that it would not be possible to work outside the parameters that would be drawn. That is not acceptable, so neither my party nor I can accept the amendments.

I call on Members to move the Bill forward and to let us get on with the work that the public wish to be carried out. That work is about creating local, proper, fair and effective local government. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr Beggs: I declare an interest as a member of Carrickfergus Borough Council. My fellow Member for East Antrim Alastair Ross said that the choice was between seven and 11 council areas. However, he did not say why a choice had to be made between those numbers. I fail to understand why the option of having 15 council areas has been excluded from that consideration.

Mr Ross: If the Member does not realise why the choice was between seven and 11 council areas, perhaps he is not as politically astute as he would let on.

Mr Beggs: I understand that the Assembly has the ability to determine the make-up of local government and its boundaries.

If we are willing, we can determine any number of boundaries that we wish. Some Members might not be willing to consider alternative numbers, and wish to work within the straitjacket of seven councils that was proposed by the Northern Ireland Office, but there is no reason why the Assembly should not be free to decide to adopt a different model, and I am disappointed by the Member’s response.

Mr A Maskey: Will the Member give way?

Mr Beggs: Before giving way, I wish to develop my speech. I will give way later, but I want to make some other points first.

Although some people consider coterminosity irrelevant, it is important. Some Members argue against linking any boundaries — why not break all natural boundaries? Normally, there are good reasons for fixing boundaries. In my constituency of East Antrim, the Antrim plateau consists of hills that create a natural physical boundary. In addition, there is a large upland area that is sparsely occupied and, consequently, services are patchy and there are significant distances between centres of population, such as Larne, Carrickfergus and, potentially, Ballymena. Therefore, coterminosity is important.

Everyone accepts the Westminster boundary for East Antrim, and the reasons for determining that boundary are clear — the Antrim hills form a natural physical barrier. Nevertheless, some Members wish to ignore the reality. Owing to hills, such as the Antrim plateau, community interaction corresponds to valleys and historical links to market towns.

The 15-council model consists of one council area, comprising the four Belfast constituencies, in addition to 14 council areas outside Belfast. People who live, work, shop and socialise in Belfast, bearing in mind their postcodes, consider themselves to be in Belfast, and there is great merit in uniting them in one area in which council services and additional services that are proposed to be devolved to local government would be provided. The proposal to link — as some Members have suggested — sizable portions of Belfast to areas that are some distance away, such as Lisburn, does not appear to be logical. Therefore, I fully support amendment No 6, whereby it is proposed to remove the words “the major”. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner must be given some degree of flexibility, and there are advantages in that, rather than operating in the proposed straitjacket.

The fact that the proposed Bill has been granted accelerated passage is disappointing. Nevertheless, the Assembly made that determination. However, although many worthwhile and reasoned amendments have been tabled, the DUP and Sinn Féin appear not to be open or willing to consider any of them. A back-door deal seems to have been done between those parties, and, afraid of the deal unravelling, they seem unwilling to consider any alternatives, whether or not they have merit. Worthwhile amendments have been tabled and, hopefully, at least some members of those parties are open to considering sensible proposals.

As I said, the 15-council model would utilise the accepted and agreed existing boundaries, and, indeed, everyone in the Chamber was elected on the basis of those boundaries. We all accept that, as time goes by, boundaries change slightly and are moved. However, let us attempt to ensure that the vast majority of services are delivered consistently.

My East Antrim colleague Alastair Ross appears to be content with the proposed link between Larne and Carrickfergus, and Ballymena. The co-ordination of those local services will involve the consideration of considerable distances. I fail to understand why the shorter distance between Antrim and Ballymena, which is about 12 miles — as opposed to the 20 miles between Larne and Ballymena, or the longer distance between Carrickfergus and Ballymena — has not been observed.

I mentioned natural geographical boundaries, which have also dictated the major roads and transport links in constituencies. The major roads in the East Antrim coastal area do not run from Carrickfergus or Larne to Ballymena, but follow the coastal strip, such as the A8 or the A2. There is also a railway track and other natural good lines of communication along the coastal strip. Where those natural geographical transport links are not followed, it will be more difficult to deliver effective services.

The practical outworkings of the proposals of the Bill reinforce my view that 15 councils represent a much better model. I ask Members to envisage monthly local-council planning meetings during which a member of the public wants to lobby his or her local councillors to reject an application for apartments or windows that overlook his or her house. That planning meeting will either take place in one area — meaning that councillors will have to travel an unnecessarily long distance — or planning meetings will be rotated among Larne, Carrickfergus and Ballymena. Either way, constituents will have to travel a considerable distance to make their points. The argument for 15 councils is focused on the creation of accountable and accessible local government.

The effect that the proposed 11-council model will have on East Antrim is particularly unfortunate — it will not work well and will not provide a good service for the ratepayers and constituents of Larne, Carrickfergus and parts of Newtownabbey. Therefore, I urge Members to not be drawn into the back-door deal that the DUP and Sinn Féin have made.

Mr Neeson: Does the Member agree that there is already close co-operation between Larne Borough Council, Carrickfergus Borough Council and Newtownabbey Borough Council? The relationship among those councils should form the basis of the boundaries for the new council.

Mr Beggs: Most local people will agree that there is much co-operation among those councils on various issues, such as the attempts to improve the rail service in East Antrim. Most people in East Antrim shop in their neighbouring towns and boroughs, if not in their own borough. Naturally, people travel along the transport links in East Antrim to shop, and they have connections to the surrounding areas.

I urge Members to think carefully about the constructive proposals in many of the amendments so that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner can have sufficient flexibility to apply a degree of common sense to the outworkings of the proposals, and not be restricted by the straitjacket that the DUP and Sinn Féin have imposed in a Stalinist fashion.

Mr McGlone: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I note that my party has received criticism from Members to my right — they are right in many senses —

Mr Gallagher: And wrong in others.

Mr McGlone: Yes. We have received criticism for being consistent in our views. Our consistency has been shared at grassroots level by some members of Sinn Féin — I will talk more about that later. The criticism has come from a party that changed its view at the drop of a DUP hat — it was the only party in Northern Ireland to rubber-stamp the view of the British Government on this matter. Those observations must be put on the record, acutely made, and shared with other Members.

Essentially, the SDLP wishes to provide local government, equality, accountability, engagement and a sense of belonging for our local communities, as well as responsiveness — through local government — to those communities.

11.45 pm

The SDLP amendments are designed to ensure that the new councils are based on population profile, democratic needs and geography rather than on an arbitrary and rigid decision born of political negotiation. That approach is not novel; it mirrors the logic of the Bill because it applies a similar logic to the creation of ward boundaries as it does to that of council boundaries. If flexibility is appropriate at ward level, why should it not be granted at council level? If ward boundaries take account of communities, and rural and urban representation, why is that logic not applied at council level rather than being denied?

Some of the other proposed amendments aim to achieve a similar end by alternative means. In particular, amendment No 6, in the name of Mr Kennedy and his party, makes infinite common sense. It makes particular sense to those living in communities that will be arbitrarily divided by a line on a map. That division could equally be aligned at council or ward level, so flexibility must be built in to allow the realistic needs of local communities to be accommodated. The UUP amendment is pragmatic, and I believe that anyone with common sense will see it as such. For that reason, the SDLP fully supports that amendment.

Mr Weir commented earlier that the SDLP amend­ments would create uncertainty. However, the uncertainty that has been in place for several years is the result of a lack of decision-making.

My party’s proposal will allow flexibility to move from the general to the particular when the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has all the relevant details. It will also allow the commissioner to respond to local needs realistically and pragmatically. The 11- to 15-council model allows the commissioner to do that, based on how the consultation process goes. Previously, when the seven-council model was imposed on us, there was no consultation. In my own area, that proposal saw a local government boundary straddle three counties from south Derry across to Belleek in County Fermanagh.

All the SDLP asks is that pragmatism and realism are allowed to prevail in the commissioner’s deliberations. The party wants elbow room to be built in to take account of real local needs in the wider community.

Mr B McCrea: When I arrived in the Chamber, I was given a briefing by my party colleagues. It was suggested that the UUP should adopt a reasoned approach on the issue and that it should attempt to persuade rather than cause a fracas. I am a man who is easily guided in these matters, so that will be my position. It is helpful to have party colleagues because they have reminded me to declare an interest as a councillor on Lisburn City Council.

Therefore, rather than grandstanding, I ask Members of the DUP and Sinn Féin to consider the real and genuine concerns of the UUP. I also ask the parties to consider that the adoption of the UUP amendment — which simply removes the words “the major” — would afford the necessary flexibility to come up with a satisfactory solution for all.

Earlier, I heard a Member argue — I believe it was a Sinn Féin Member — that, by tabling this amendment, the UUP is trying to do the commissioner’s work in advance.

That is not the case. The party’s aim is to give the commissioner sufficient flexibility to allow him or her to come up with a set of boundaries that fully reflect the natural boundaries with which people identify. When we last discussed the issue with the Minister, she assured me that we could raise that matter with the commissioner.

I listened to Peter Weir’s long alliterative list of town names, which included Crossgar, Crossmaglen, and so on. We must see whether we can resolve the matters that have arisen in a much more benign manner. I have mentioned Castlereagh before, but I can see no real reason why it should be included as part of the city of Lisburn. Were I not in a benign mood, I might be tempted to say that the emperor has no clothes.

Mr Elliott: I do not want to steal the Member’s thunder, and I have no personal interest in this matter, but perhaps the city of Lisburn will be included in the borough of Castlereagh.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr B McCrea: That, of course, is a danger that we all face — an alternative option would be that the city of Belfast might be included in the borough of Castlereagh. It is almost a case of the borough with no mates.

My point is that there are natural contours. My friend Roy Beggs explained the situation from his point of view. We in Lagan Valley understand that the River Lagan runs through the area and that there is a natural hinterland, so it would make sense for us to have locally devolved powers for that area. I daresay that there are folks from Poleglass and Colin Glen who consider themselves to be part of West Belfast. Certainly, when I go there to have a chat with them, they tell me that it is very nice to see me, but that they do not really travel to Lisburn, rather they travel to Belfast. Therefore, that is another issue.

Our amendment seeks to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility to allow the commissioner to take those points on board. It flies in the face of common sense to say that Castlereagh is part of Lisburn — it is part of Belfast.

Mr A Maskey: The Member is talking about the need to ensure greater flexibility, but will he advise us how taking away an option — by removing the words “the major” from the clause — would offer greater flexibility? Logic dictates that by doing so, it would narrow the commissioner’s scope.

Mr B McCrea: Of course, that is another issue that we would have had a chance to discuss had the Bill not been given accelerated passage. Amendment No 6 seeks to remove the words “the major” from clause 1(2) so that it will read “or the part”. It would be appropriate to place areas of Castlereagh in the Lagan Valley council area.

Mr Spratt: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: There seems to be a bit of queue.

Mr Spratt: When the Member last spoke on this matter, he did not know which areas were part of Castlereagh Borough Council and which were part of Belfast City Council — he said that the Rosetta area was in the Castlereagh Borough Council area. Will he accept that many areas in the Castlereagh Borough Council area lie very close to Lisburn — Carryduff, Moneyreagh and other areas.

Does he further accept that the people of Castlereagh do not consider themselves to be part of Belfast, in the same way as people from Lisburn probably do not consider themselves to be part of the city of Belfast? Part of Lisburn lies close to Belfast, too. Perhaps the Member has not recognised that fact, or perhaps he does not want to recognise it.

Mr B McCrea: Once again, it appears that a sophisticated argument is lost on Mr Spratt. My point regarding the Rosetta area was that decisions about which places belonged in which council areas were being made arbitrarily, particularly when it came to parts of Castlereagh.

I thank the Member for making my argument for me. There are parts of Castlereagh that have a natural affinity with, and should be included in, Lagan Valley. However, there are other parts of Castlereagh from which one could throw a stone into Belfast. Perhaps I should not say that, because we do not throw stones any more. The point is that we would have to ask people whether they regard themselves to be citizens of Belfast. Members are in danger of standing in their little ivory towers in the Assembly and inserting pins in maps.

Ask people on the ground in which part of the city they live. I do not know whether Mr Spratt has recently spoken to anyone in Castlereagh, but I would be pretty sure that a referendum that asks people whether they live in Belfast or in Lisburn would discover that a fair majority consider that they live in Belfast.

I am not trying to predetermine an outcome. I am not saying that I know better or that I have got a particular plan. All that I am saying is that we would like to give the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner the powers and the ability to take those points on board and to examine the issues. There is a substantial case to be investigated.

Our approach to the first block of amendments has been supported by Mr McGlone and other Members, including, as usual, the Alliance Party. It is tremendous to have that support. Members know that they are in big trouble whenever Dr Farry stands up to support them.

When the Bill was granted accelerated passage, there was at least a suggestion that people would bend over backwards to try to accommodate reasoned and reasonable amendments. We were told that there was not enough time for a Committee Stage, so we are tabling genuine amendments, which we urge Members to take on board. That would make the Bill more acceptable to the electorate.

The question is whether, in a reasonable and responsible manner, the Assembly can agree amendments that benefit everyone in Northern Ireland. I hope that Members accept my argument in the spirit in which it has been made, and support our amendments. We will consider the other group of amendments separately.

Dr Farry: I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council.

Essentially, two broad issues are being debated. The first is how many councils Northern Ireland should have — 11, 15, or perhaps somewhere in between. The amendment represents the last opportunity to avoid taking a retrograde step by allowing the Bill to set in stone the figure of 11 councils.

The second issue is the approach to delivering new councils and taking forward the process of redrawing boundaries, irrespective of whether there are 11 or 15 councils. Some consequential amendments arise from both issues.

There is a trade-off between the number and size of councils, and the powers that they are granted. The wider community, and some Members, share the Alliance Party’s view that the proposed level of powers to be granted to the new councils simply does not warrant moving to 11 councils instead of the current 26. The establishment of 15 councils is much more appropriate.

Of course, we are all in favour of efficiency and economies of scale in local government. That is important across the whole ambit of governance in Northern Ireland. However, some of the approaches that we are taking towards boundaries will inhibit efficiencies and economies of scale.

12.00 noon

The other aspect of local governance relates to a sense of local identity, civic focus and access for constituents to the people who are making decisions on issues that affect their daily lives, such as planning, local roads or the emptying of bins. That is very important. Local representation is an important issue in our society, and we are trying to encourage that across the board, on a range of issues, including policing, for example. It would be a mistake to move away from that.

It has been argued that the 15-council model would make for a more difficult process than the proposed 11-council model. One could not group the existing 26 councils together as readily, as we would end up with parts of some existing council areas being thrown in with others. That would result in problems involving the division of assets and liabilities and other issues regarding resources, among other things.

In any event, that process will come with a move towards the 11-council model. As has been said, it appears that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will be able to tinker with the boundaries of the proposed new 11 council areas. That will inevitably lead to bits of council areas being transferred, with the result that we will have to address the issue of resourcing and how that is split up between different councils. Therefore, that argument is a bit of a red herring, to put it bluntly.

My other concern relates to the issue of identity and focus for councils. In the seven-council model, seven meaningless names were proposed — Belfast, East, Inner East, South, North West, North East and West. I do not see how, under that model, people would have felt any real sense of identity with the areas from which their local services were being provided. I am not sure that the process will be much better under an 11-council system. The process of creating names for councils is inherently difficult and flawed, and I am sceptical about whether it will be successful.

I wish to focus primarily on the second aspect of the first group of amendments, which is the approach to drawing the boundaries. I accept that there may be a political deal on having 11 councils rather than 15, and, if the DUP and Sinn Féin have made that deal and are sticking to it, fair play to them. Indeed, it may well be a harbinger of things to come. I do not agree with what those parties have done, but it is their democratic right to ram their deal through the House if they so choose. However, there are some amendments that would improve the process of devising boundaries for the new councils, irrespective of whether there are 11 or 15. It is important that those amendments be properly considered. I am disappointed that there seems to be no flexibility regarding the response to our proposed agenda, which is very constructive in trying to improve the Bill. Nevertheless, we accept that the Bill will go through the House.

The proposed process is essentially one of grouping existing councils together in twos, threes or fours. As other Members have said, that is an inflexible way of moving forward. The point has been made that there is a certain logic regarding the administrative process, as the transition from one set of councils to another will give officers and councillors a sense of direction regarding the preparations that they will have to make. However, there may be some changes to boundaries anyway, so that idea does not entirely hold water.

In the longer term, this is not about making things easier for administrators or councillors over the next two or three years — this is about putting in place boundaries that will be with us for 30 or 40 years. It is about creating service units, focuses of local identity that respond to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland — the people who actually put us here. It is for their consideration that we must have a proper analysis of what is happening, rather than simply doing something quickly to not inconvenience people in the short term. Frankly, if we had dealt with the issue earlier, there would be less haste from Members on some Benches who are trying to rush the Bill through at the eleventh hour.

The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has a mandate to modify the district boundaries, provided that is done within certain parameters — that is, retaining the major part, which we interpret as the major geographic part. However, that has not been tested by law and may not be interpreted as such by a new Boundaries Commissioner.

The Alliance Party fears that the flexibility that exists on paper will not materialise in practice. The provisional recommendations made during the process in 2006 and 2007 resulted in little change. Except for an acknowledgement of some minor defacements, no changes were made to the council districts transferred to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner by the direct rule Administration. There were no proposed changes to the East, Inner East, North East, North West, South or West district areas with one small exception — the Magilligan Strand in the North West district. Belfast’s boundaries were changed but, again, that process was flawed and, ultimately, unsatisfactory.

The revised recommendations submitted by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner made only two further changes to district boundaries: Mussenden Temple was moved from the North West district to the North East, and Glencregagh Road — a street that will now have its 20 seconds of fame — switched from the proposed East district into the Belfast district. I do not take much confidence from the previous process that was executed by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, which, essentially, was based on the same procedures that the Minister of the Environment wants the House to support.

Belfast will pose a particular problem for the future commissioner. The boundaries of Belfast are tightly drawn; they do not reflect the people of Northern Ireland’s sense of the natural setting of Belfast. In my experience, most people who live in what is formally known as the Castlereagh Borough Council area consider themselves part of Belfast, and, therefore, frankly, I am at a loss to understand Mr Spratt’s earlier remarks.

The south-eastern boundary of Belfast, which is carried forward through this legislation, dates back to 1898. Given the changes to Belfast over the past 110 years, we are starting on a flawed basis. The Belfast district area needs to expand and become a natural unit. Members have talked about recognising Belfast as our capital city and recognising the important role that it plays in driving the wider regional economy. We have discussed giving the councils community-planning powers to capture that as far as possible. Belfast’s productivity levels are well above the Northern Ireland average, and it is doing very well when compared with standards in the rest of the UK. We need to focus on making Belfast an effective unit of local government.

In 2006, the Local Government Boundaries Com­missioner changed the west and south-east boundaries of Belfast. However, a number of anomalies remained. For example, three wards, namely Four Winds, Beechill and Newtownbreda, were effectively left hanging outside the boundaries of Belfast and were to be served by the proposed East district. In essence, those wards were left to hang in the wind without consideration of logical service delivery, and many people found that disconcerting and illogical.

There is logic in the south-east boundary of Belfast being defined as the ring road or, more logically, the build line around Belfast that continues to the Castlereagh hills. Identity and service delivery are important considerations too. The notion that sections of south Belfast would be serviced by a council area based on a Castlereagh and Lisburn configuration is barking mad.

Logic dictates that Belfast is better placed to provide services to people who live in those communities. We must ensure that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has sufficient flexibility to ensure that such issues will be addressed.

There are several other anomalies in the current arrangement of boundaries. As for the proposed hook-up between Down District Council and Newry and Mourne District Council, I have already pointed out that the issue is not simply that towns and villages at either end of the proposed new council will not fit in. The problem is that the new council area will have an elongated shape, divided by the Mournes. Although we can get around mountains, they inhibit, to a certain extent, the efficient delivery of services. That argument applies elsewhere, and Mr Beggs used it in relation to the Antrim plateau.

That brings me to the proposed combination of Ballymena, Larne and Carrickfergus councils. Many people on the ground believe that a hook-up between the Ballymena and Antrim councils would be, by far, a more efficient and logical solution. Even the railway line that runs from Newtownabbey, through Carrickfergus, to Larne creates a sense of identity and ties people together in those communities. We are trying to encourage more people to use public transport. That combination would be straightforward, and I am at a loss to understand how the proposed boundaries were arrived at.

In the west, there is a proposed merger of Fermanagh and Omagh councils. Although that topic is close to Minister Foster’s heart, it is causing concern on the ground, because it is no secret that there is little love lost between Omagh and Fermanagh. We may talk about communities trying to make new arrangements in the short term, but there will be major problems in implementing the process in that region. Although there is a certain logic in linking Fermanagh with Omagh, one could make a similarly strong argument that Fermanagh could be linked as readily with the Clogher Valley, perhaps even as far as Dungannon. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner should have the flexibility to determine which of those solutions is the more accommodating.

Mr Neeson: Will the Member give way?

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Dr Farry: I will give way first to Mr Neeson, then to Mr Weir.

Mr Neeson: Does the Member agree that the Fermanagh case is a classic example of why not all the councils in Northern Ireland must be the same size or have the same size of population?

Dr Farry: Yes, I agree with my colleague Mr Neeson. As far as I am concerned, if there were to be 15 councils, Fermanagh District Council could remain in place. Councils across the globe vary in area and population size. At times, one must draw a boundary around a coherent local community with a small population in order to preserve the community’s sense of coherence and identity. Fermanagh is a classic case in that regard.

Mr Weir: I thank the Member for giving way. He mentioned Clogher Valley, and whether it should be part of the Fermanagh/Omagh amalgamation. Clogher Valley is currently one district electoral area, which is equivalent to about one quarter of Dungannon. Will the Member accept that the current proposals could place part — or all — of the Clogher Valley into Fermanagh or Omagh? That would be permissible under the proposed regulations, not precluded by them.

Although I do not wish to anger the Minister by being in any way derogatory about Fermanagh, surely one of the drawbacks of establishing a separate Fermanagh council — and affording it some degree of special status — would be that people in Fermanagh would be much more heavily represented than people in North Down or Ards. Surely we should strive for a greater level of equality of representation to ensure that there would be a roughly similar number of people for each councillor? For example, people in North Down and Ards do not live in a rural area, and they should not be treated, therefore, as second-class citizens.

12.15 pm

Dr Farry: I thank the Member for his intervention.

I made the point that the Fermanagh/Omagh corridor could be extended to include Dungannon. That would be as logical as linking the respective district councils of Fermanagh and Omagh. It would also, by and large, reflect Westminster’s system of boundaries. However, as I said last week, it would not be wise to follow the Westminster boundaries, given that they can change under the periodic boundary commissions. We should consider only minor defacements of the new council boundaries within the next 30 or 40 years.

I disagree with the Member’s second point. I speak from the perspective of North Down, an area which is largely urban and suburban, rather than rural. It is fundamentally important that Members represent areas of similar geographical and electoral size in the Assembly. However, each local council can be considered separately; some councils will have large populations and some will have small populations. A process that attempts to ensure that each councillor has an equal number of electors is flawed; the UK, and other countries, demonstrate that.

Mr Weir: I appreciate the Member’s point. How­ever, in the UK, a number of decisions are made on the basis of shared services, or by drawing representation from the councils. It has been indicated that the libraries authority will have 11 councillors, one drawn from each council. Now, there will inevitably be some variation in the size of council electorates. However, Fermanagh has a smaller population than Bangor, for example. A single council for North Down and Ards — or however it is drawn — could have three, four or five times the population of Fermanagh, but would have the same level of representation on Northern Ireland-wide bodies. Surely, such a system ultimately discriminates against people in certain areas.

Dr Farry: That is inherent in any local government system, and cannot be avoided. There are major discrepancies in the populations of the 11 proposed council areas. Belfast will inevitably have more councillors — potentially 60, as opposed to 40 elsewhere. It is a mistake to compare regional bodies with a body such as the Assembly, which is established on firm and clear democratic principles. They are different bodies performing different tasks.

It is inherent in local government systems — in the UK and in other countries — that councillors from different authorities, representing varying electoral populations, will come together. We cannot have uniformity in our approach — local councils are not administrative units merely designed to dole out services. Local councils provide an important focal point for local identity, local representation and civic pride; they must not lose those functions. There is a strong case for preserving the coherent unit of administration in County Fermanagh. I have family with deep roots in Fermanagh, so I am not talking through my hat completely.

There are two broad issues here. The first is whether there should be 11 or 15 councils. The Alliance Party believes that the 15-council model is by far the wiser and more balanced option.

The second issue is the approach that will be taken to determine the boundaries. From the Alliance Party’s perspective, it makes much more sense to identify a list of councils around which new boundaries may be devised, rather than try to pair off council areas. The danger in taking the latter approach is that one can easily end up with a doughnut effect — where the centre of the proposed council area lacks population and where the population is concentrated on the fringes, creating difficulties both in the formation of identity and in service delivery. Alternatively, one can end up with a council area that is dumbbell shaped, where the major population centres are located at opposite ends of the council area and are separated by a sparsely populated area: that, too, creates problems for service delivery.

If one considers the current model, one can see that across Northern Ireland each local government district has a major town as its focus, and comprises that town’s hinterland. That makes great sense as regards service delivery. I appreciate that the present model is for councils with different powers than those proposed for the new councils, but I fear that what is before us is going too far in the wrong direction.

Mr Elliott: I am pleased to be following Mr Farry. I also feel privileged that two Members from North Down are taking such a keen interest in County Fermanagh. Long may they keep up that interest: not just in relation to boundaries, but in the other aspects of life that we debate. I look forward to their support on other issues.

I declare my interest as a member of Fermanagh District Council. If either of the North Down Members wishes to contest a seat on the new council, they are welcome to do so.

We have heard much debate on the proposed 11-council model and how it will affect individual areas. We have heard much about Counties Antrim and Down and about some aspects of the greater Belfast area. I am surprised that the greater Belfast area has not been debated more fully: it is the key to the entire proposals.

However, the west of the Province takes precedence; and I am surprised that it took contributions from two North Down Members to pose a significant debate on it. I want to consider the relationships between the existing council areas of Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane and Dungannon. The majority of members of Omagh District Council want their district to be joined with the Strabane District Council area: the majority of Strabane councillors want to join with Omagh District Council. Neither will get what they want.

Fermanagh councillors would prefer amalgamation with the Dungannon council area — as Mr Farry has indicated — as opposed to joining with Omagh District Council. In answer to an oral question a few weeks ago, the Minister suggested that the proposed new council might be called the “greater Fermanagh” council. I assume that she has the support of her West Tyrone colleagues for that suggestion, though we have not heard from them.

I wonder how the people in Strabane council area will react to being swallowed up by Londonderry: that is effectively what will happen. I also wonder how the people in Omagh council area will react to being swallowed up by Fermanagh. Last week, we debated the proposals for St Lucia and Lisanelly army barracks. Omagh District Council is proposing to have a sub-office of the new council in that location. I would be happy with that, so long as the main council office remains in Fermanagh.

I notice that Mr Molloy is sitting on the Benches opposite, looking quite satisfied that his party has undergone a Damascene conversion from a seven-council model to an 11-council model. I do not know whether there is truth in the rumour that he now wants the rest of the Sinn Féin Members to be suspended, since they have changed stance. However, a Damascene conversion has been undergone by both main parties; the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Those parties now appear to be coming up with an allegiance — or perhaps it is just an agreement on the matter.

Mr Ross: We have heard a lot about the DUP’s change of position. Will the Member tell us what page of the DUP 2007 manifesto contains any commitment to 15 councils?

Mr Elliott: Of course, the DUP says much more than it publishes in its manifesto, and it does not stick to that anyway. I do not want to dwell on that point, because it may highlight how that party has changed its position again.

The issue in the west of the Province concerns the dominance of one council over another and about areas that do not have a general allegiance to one another. Strabane District Council and Omagh District Council, for example, were probably quite happy to work together and would have had an easier working relationship than Omagh District Council and Fermanagh District Council. Indeed, the councils of Fermanagh and Dungannon may have a better working relationship than some of the other suggestions.

My other query concerns debt management in those local council areas. That is not covered by this provision, but it will have to be examined in the future.

Coterminosity is also a big issue, and I heard —

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Elliott: I heard the Member’s earlier comments, but I would be happy to listen to them again.

Mr Weir: The Member has highlighted a serious issue — the potential debts and asset bases of different councils. Does he accept that working those out will be a lot more difficult if there is complete fluidity in that it may not be known whether a major part of an existing council area is to be included in any new council area? If a major area is to be included, as opposed to small adjustments being made, will that situation not make those calculations more difficult?

Mr Elliott: I do not believe that the inclusion of the major or minor part of a council area would make any difference; indeed, I do not see how such a difference would be made.

Mr Weir spoke earlier about other bodies in the Province, such as the health and education bodies, that do not have a coterminosity project. We have to start somewhere, and one easy area would be with the elected bodies in the Province. If the council, Westminster and Assembly constituency areas covered the same general area, matters would be simplified.

Mr Beggs: Will the Member agree with an earlier point that the policing districts did not follow the new proposed boundaries? That point made the argument about why coterminosity is not necessary. Under the policing legislation, a policing district will naturally be created for each of the new council areas. In my own constituency, the policing district will stretch from Ballymena through Carrickfergus to Larne. That is a large, sparsely populated rural area with a natural geographic boundary within which common difficulties can be dealt with. Will he therefore agree that some of the earlier arguments were shallow?

Mr Elliott: I agree. That point brings me back to the west of the Province and policing — I think that the police have gone ahead with the new F district on the basis of the seven-council model, having already started the process of amalgamating the Cookstown, Omagh, Dungannon and Fermanagh areas in policing structures and running them as one. That will need to be thought out again. There is talk that there may be only one commander for what will be two new council areas that will cover not only those —

Lord Morrow: Does the Member accept that an error was made by the police in moving ahead before the RPA had been determined? We now have the amalgamation of the four districts that he talks about — Cookstown, Dungannon, Fermanagh and Omagh, which is the nerve centre of the area —under the one command, so does he accept that that decision was wrong, or that it appears to be wrong now? We did not need to wait until now to discover that it was wrong because some of us said at the time — and perhaps he was among us — that that was a premature decision that should have been postponed until the outcome of the RPA could be realised.

12.30 pm

Mr Elliott: I thank the Member for his comments, and I agree with him. Many of us, especially in the west of the Province, urged the police not to go down that road at that time. The F district in the west of the Province was more advanced than any of the other police units across the Province that were merged.

It is imperative that we achieve some degree of coterminosity in such areas. If the health and social care trusts, the education and library boards, the Planning Service and the district policing partnerships are working in different areas, we will not make progress, because co-operation is required.

I support the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendments. I do not support amendment No 4, which stands in the names of Mr Ford and Dr Farry, but I understand why some Members may be tempted to support it. However, I notice that it does not mention areas such as Armagh, Omagh and Dungannon. I will not be supporting that amendment.

Mr Ford: Will the Member give way?

Mr Elliott: I am finished, so I am happy to hear the Member’s comment.

Mr Ford: I thank the Member for giving way as he sat down, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not think that Mr Elliott was in the Chamber earlier to hear my comments about the flexibility of boundaries — something that he spoke about. That is why it is appropriate to specify only one place — rather than a number of places — in each district. In Fermanagh, for instance, flexibility would be permitted so long as Omagh and Dungannon were to co-operate.

Mr Elliott: I appreciate the Member’s comments, which I heard earlier.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Members will be aware that the Tuesday sitting usually suspends at 12.30 pm to allow the Business Committee to meet. However, we intend to continue today’s sitting until 1.00 pm.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I welcome the opportunity to speak to the amendments. First, I will speak to amendment Nos 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 18, which seek to change the number of districts.

Mr Ford moved amendment No 1, and spoke on other amendments. Before I address the amendments, I acknowledge Mr Ford’s comments about the work of the Environment Committee on the Taxis Bill. On many occasions in the House, I have lauded the Committee for its work on the Taxis Bill, and, yesterday, I was pleased to receive a copy of the Taxis Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 — as I am sure were all Members.

Accelerated passage is not the norm, and it was used for the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill as a necessity; I have said that many times in the House. That is not the way in which I want to introduce legislation to the House. I have also given a commitment to the Committee for the Environment that we will continue with the rest of the review of public administration structure — including the local contracts Bill and the local government modernisation Bill — through the proper Committee procedures.

It was strange to hear Mr Gallagher’s comments about accelerated passage, because he voted in favour of accelerated passage in the Environment Committee and in the House. I understand why Mr Ford made his comments, but I do not understand why Mr Gallagher felt the need to make his.

The Executive considered the council models that were available, and we settled on 11 councils. Contrary to Mr Beggs’s assertion that my party was being Stalinist and that this was a back-door deal, the matter was on the Executive agenda, where it was discussed openly, and it was brought to the House at the earliest opportunity. Rather than be treated as a back-door deal, the issue has been discussed in the Committee, in the Executive and the House, and we have tried to be as open as possible.

Some Members acknowledged that the Assembly was up and running, and the Executive believe that, by opting for 11 councils, we have struck a measured and reasonable balance between reducing the range of variants that exist between councils — including population and rating income — while promoting and strengthening the links between councils and their communities.

I was disappointed with the lack of imagination that has been exhibited on how to engage with local communities, particularly by Mr Beggs. It is depressing that he can be so narrow-minded in that regard. It is hoped that others in the new councils will be more able to connect with their local groups — something that Mr Beggs seems unable to countenance. I refer him to the new community planning power, which has the ability to develop into something exciting for the community.

However, its success will largely depend on the new councillors’ ability to deliver it; so, it will be up to them to maximise its potential.

In choosing the 11b model, we considered it to be the optimum model for integrating councils and communities so that the new structures would best meet the vision for local government. Amendment No 1 seeks to change the number of councils from 11 to 15. I have already outlined why I feel that that amendment should be rejected. The Executive have considered the issue and believe that 11b is the optimum model for 2011 and beyond. As I have said on many occasions, this is not a definitive end to the process; rather, it is the start of it.

Amendment No 2 seeks to introduce an entirely new approach, involving either 11 or 15 council districts or a number in between. When the Executive commenced their review of the number of council districts, it was made very clear that consideration would be restricted to the models already consulted on — that is, seven, 11 or 15 councils. No consultation or detailed work has been carried out on the impact of changing to 12, 13 or 14 councils. I have to say to Mr Gallagher that it is a case of speculative development at its very worst. Therefore, I will be rejecting amendment No 2.

In addition, agreeing to amendment No 2 would mean that the number of districts would be determined by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner rather than the Assembly. It would be a very sad reflection on this House if, after six years of debate on the issue, we shirk the responsibility of deciding on the matter and ask the commissioner to do so for us, without having consulted on it; a point that was made by my friend Mr Ross.

We have spent enough time over the past six years arguing about this issue in various forums. It is time for a decision to be made; in fact, the decision was long overdue, and, therefore, I urge Members to reject those two amendments. Not even a plea involving Fermanagh, my weak point, will move me on this occasion — Mr Gallagher and Mr Ford both attempted that. I also inform Mr Gallagher that, rather than not having a future, I believe that Fermanagh will have a very bright future in the new south-west council.

Several eloquent speeches were made about parliamentary constituencies and bringing coterminosity. Mr Farry again pleaded about Fermanagh being on its own, although to be fair to him, he did not fall into the trap of equating coterminosity with parliamentary constituency, a point that was largely missed by others. The reality is that, historically, Fermanagh has shared the provision of services with Omagh, be that through health, education, housing or the old L division in policing.

I listened carefully to the points that were made about policing and, indeed, when serving in another capacity on the Policing Board, I made the point that a decision on policing should not be made before a final decision on RPA was made. However, the Policing Board will have to deal with that issue by itself because, as I recall, the Patten Report makes it very clear that each district policing partnership will align with the relevant council.

The location of the south-west council’s main base can be discussed by Fermanagh District Council and Omagh District Council in the transitional committees. I have every faith in my party colleagues’ ability to argue in favour of their own council areas in Fermanagh and Omagh, and I hope that Mr Elliott will join in that debate instead of grandstanding — or bandwagon-travelling, which is what he usually engages in — about Omagh.

Although amendment Nos 3 and 4 seek to introduce different numbers of districts, both are attempts to change the remit of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. I have already stated the number of councils that the Executive considered to be most appropriate. Rather than listing the grouping of councils that will form the new districts, amendment Nos 3 and 4 specify single current districts.

Mr Farry stated that the last commissioner did not alter boundaries in any meaningful way. I think that he will acknowledge that that was largely due to the fact that people knew that a return to devolved Government was imminent, and it was expected that the proposal for a seven-council model would not stand; therefore, there were very few responses to the commission’s consult­ations and public hearings. I do not imagine that that will be the case with this commissioner.

One of the advantages of an elected Assembly, and of debates on legislation, is that the new Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will be able to read the Hansard reports in order to become aware of the mischief, or intention, behind the amendments. He or she will then be able to proceed with the job.

Leaving aside the rationale that may have been used to choose the districts that are mentioned in the amend­ments, what is supposed to happen to the districts that are not mentioned? The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner is given no indication as to what he or she should do with those districts. I suspect, and it was confirmed to me during the debate, that the amendments are an attempt to recreate a similar process to that which was used in 1971. In that instance, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner was given 26 population centres as the basis for the proposed districts. That reorganisation of local government brought together some 70 bodies, including county councils, urban district councils and rural district councils.

The situation is totally different now. Currently, we have a structure of 26 district councils. It is more logical to refer to those in the legislation by means of an amalgamation. I suggest to Mr Ford that picking out one particular district, which is presumably to be the cornerstone of a new amalgamation, without giving the commissioner the benefit of a steer as to what to do with the districts that have not been mentioned, is illogical and would cause confusion.

Amendment Nos 3 and 4 appear to give an indication of what districts are considered to be more important than others. For example, amendment No 4 mentions Fermanagh, but not Omagh, nor, indeed, Dungannon, which is also an important town in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Neither Carrickfergus nor Larne are mentioned, which I am sure will concern Mr Beggs. Many other districts have also been left out. We should not be trying to tie the hands of future councils by outlining in legislation what district should be central. It should be up to the councils to make those important decisions, especially given the discussions that took place last week about Carrickfergus and Ballymena.

Dr Farry again mentioned the issue of the names of councils. He will recall that during the previous debate on this issue, I stated that it will be a matter for the new councils to change their names if they are unhappy with the names that are given to them by the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.

I also note that Members said that they were concerned because they believed that the Executive have not consulted on the 11b model. That was despite nearly six years of consultation on that issue during RPA. However, the amendments also seek funda­mentally to alter the remit of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. That has certainly not been consulted on.

By seeking to introduce an approach that is not based on amalgamations, the amendments would cause enormous practical difficulties in the implementation of the legislation, which is an issue about which all Members should be concerned.

Amalgamating groups of districts makes the transfer of assets and liabilities relatively straightforward. However, by basing new districts on the major part of a single district, and, presumably, parts of others, the process would be complex, time-consuming and expensive. Furthermore, we would not meet the timetable that has been set. If I were cynical, I would say that that is the objective behind some of the amendments, but I am not a cynical person.

For those reasons, I do not believe that the amend­ments would improve the Bill. On the contrary, they would serve to confuse and complicate the drawing of the boundaries, and would make the implementation of the new arrangements more difficult. Therefore, I urge Members to oppose amendment Nos 3 and 4.

Amendment Nos 5 and 6 also seek to alter the remit of the commissioner. Amendment No 5 would do so fundamentally by removing the approach of listing districts altogether, which would presumably give the commissioner the scope to alter the number and come up with whatever amalgamations seem appropriate. Amendment No 5 states:

“The new local government districts shall incorporate the former local government districts.”

I wonder what else they could have incorporated. Rather than having the effect of setting the remit for the commissioner, the amendment is simply stating an observation of the facts. One of the primary purposes of the Bill is to set the context in which the commissioner is to conduct a review. Removing any reference to current districts simply expects the commissioner to pluck the new districts out of the air.

There was much debate in the House last week — and, indeed, today — about coterminosity. The Executive chose the 11b model on the grounds that, although it may introduce some challenges in achieving coterminosity, it will be able to be implemented as required. It is inappropriate to ask the commissioner to consider the practical reform arrangements when his or her primary role has to be to ensure electoral equality across districts.

12.45 pm

I think that it was Dr Farry who raised the issue of an equal electorate. The legislation states that the number of electors per ward in a district should be as equal as possible. However, that is not the case for district electoral areas, and that legislation does not specify that the electorate in each district must be equal.

Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for giving way. It was actually Mr Weir who made the arguments that she rejected. I agreed with the Minister.

The Minister of the Environment: Amendment No 6 — an Ulster Unionist amendment — seeks to make a much less radical change to the remit of the com­missioner. However, the effects on the ease of imple­mentation would be similar. The commissioner cannot possibly be asked to consider issues such as coter­minosity when delineating electoral boundaries. Mr Kennedy made much of coterminosity with parliamentary boundaries, but then proposed amendment No 6, which removes the requirement for the major part of former districts to be incorporated into the new districts. That could lead to districts that are not coterminous with anything.

As Minister of the Environment, my job is not about making life easy for politicians, insofar as the ability to represent the same parliamentary constituency as an MP. My job — and the remit of the review of public administration — is focused on citizen-centred service delivery. Many of the arguments about coterminosity with parliamentary constituencies are rather self-serving.

Mr Kennedy also said that amendment No 6 would secure meaningful change to boundaries. I have already mentioned what happened in respect of the previous Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. As the legislation stands, I do not accept that the commissioner will not have the ability to make meaningful change. The legislation provides the commissioner with that ability — it is certainly not a straitjacket, as was alleged by Mr Beggs.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Minister explain the difference between “meaningful” and “major” changes? The Ulster Unionist Party has highlighted that issue. The Minister mentioned the view of some that, when the commissioner reads the Hansard reports, he or she will believe that, if amendment No 6 is not passed, he or she will not be allowed to make major changes. The Minister seemed to indicate that that is not the correct interpretation, so will she clarify how much scope there will be for the commissioner to make substantial changes to the areas concerned?

The Minister of the Environment: I made that very point during the Second Stage debate on the Bill. I raised that matter with the Member’s colleague the Minister for Employment and Learning. The legislation allows the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to consider the different areas and to decide which need to be moved to other council areas. The Member mentioned the fine borough of Castlereagh — his argument about removing the term “major” from the legislation was in fact a very good argument for keeping it in the legislation.

The last commissioner regarded “major” as a spatial term. That does not mean that the new commissioner will regard it in the same way, but I am sure that he or she will take legal advice on that matter. The new commissioner will not regard “major” as a term of art — that is something on which Members need to reflect. We heard much about common sense today, and that is a common-sense term. It will be up to the new commissioner to determine what “major” means when he or she considers the areas.

When consultations take place with the community and elected representatives, I am sure that the commissioner will listen very carefully to what is said. That remit is defined by legislation, and the readily identifiable areas are addressed in the second group of amendments. The new commissioner will consider the issue in a practical way. Current councils could be contained in the areas of other councils in the future.

Practical realism and common sense exist in the Bill in its current form. The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment, and others, talked about practical realism. I, therefore, urge Members to oppose amendment No 6. Indeed, I reject all the amendments that are contained in the first group, and I urge Members to do the same.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when I will call Mr David Ford to make his winding-up speech.

The sitting was suspended at 12.50 pm.

2.00 pm

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair) —

Mr Deputy Speaker: I call Mr David Ford.

Mr Kennedy: Hear, hear.

Mr Ford: I am glad to have the enthusiasm of such a large proportion of those in the House this afternoon to greet my rising. [Laughter.]

I declare an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council — I believe that I did not do so at the start of my speech to move the amendments in my name. I should probably also declare that my roots are in west Tyrone, lest I infringe on Fermanagh any more, and incur the wrath of Mr Elliott or the Minister.

Dr Farry: Or me.

Mr Ford: Or even my Fermanagh-rooted colleague.

It seems to me — given the way in which the debate went this morning — that the House has been presented with a done deal. The DUP and Sinn Féin have made the arrangements, and we can expect votes to be cast accordingly. However, there are issues that deserve debate, that deserve an airing, and that were given a good airing this morning. The House ought to pay heed to that before voting. In that respect — although he is not present, I am sure that his colleagues will tell him — Mr Weir at least made an extremely good fist of arguing a case that was not terribly good, and we should welcome the fact that he is fulfilling Sammy Wilson’s role this afternoon.

Unfortunately, I found the comments from Mr A Maskey and Mr Boylan, in reply to substantive points made by myself and colleagues from other parties at this end of the Chamber, distinctly unhelpful. We were presented with an utterly specious argument, claiming that we were talking about bums on seats. It was interesting that Mr Weir made the criticism that the effect of one of our amendments would be to reduce the number of councils — that was the complete opposite of the Sinn Féin Members’ argument. At least Mr Weir utilised a simple element of arithmetic and accuracy in what he was saying.

I recognise the point that Mr Boylan made when he referred to those who were carrying out the role of official opposition. I welcome the support that the official opposition received from the two parties of the unofficial opposition, as we together attempted to make improvements to the Bill.

A number of issues have been covered, and I do not intend to go through each individual speech. Key issues were raised on the need to ensure that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner has a degree more flexibility than some of us believe that the Bill, as currently drafted, will give him or her. Those points were made emphatically by Tommy Gallagher and Patsy McGlone. There was an interesting exchange between the Minister and Basil McCrea concerning that element of flexibility, when it appeared that everyone was fighting not to have Castlereagh included in their council area, not even in Fermanagh. The issues around that showed —

The Minister of the Environment: The bent banana.

Mr Ford: The Minister wishes me to refer to the bent banana, and I will gladly address that issue. There are fundamental issues that suggest that the major part of Castlereagh must be added to the major part of Lisburn. If that is accepted, as drafted in the Bill, it will create difficulties. I want to talk about that a little bit more later on.

Some of the issues that were highlighted by a number of people, from different constituency interests, referred to geographical problems. In my introduction, I referred to Roy Beggs’s version of the “East Antrim question”, which may not have the constitutional significance of the West Lothian question, but is a significant issue concerning how east and mid-Antrim are dealt with. Patsy McGlone pointed out the fact that, under the seven-council model proposed by the old RPA, three counties were to be included in the Dungannon borough. I believe that he was wrong — I think that four counties were covered, as a small part of County Armagh was also to be included within that borough.

Danny Kennedy referred to an issue that had been raised on a previous occasion — a possible district council stretching from Crossmaglen to Crossgar. I am not sure whether he is now canvassing for votes in Crossgar, but that illustrates a key issue: the way in which the Bill is drafted pays little heed to any meaningful social boundaries. Stephen Farry made some very substantial points about the boundary in the southern and eastern parts of Belfast, which has not changed since 1898, despite huge changes in the social geography of that area. Tom Elliott referred to that geographical issue, and also raised the point, which has been made on a number of occasions, that coterminosity is damaged by those measures.

It will be impossible for there to be a close relationship between the health and social care trusts and this pattern of councils, which will create major difficulties.

There was some debate regarding the 15-council model, and about which party had, or had not, changed its mind. The main protagonists were Tom Elliott and Stephen Farry, who highlighted the perception of some Members that, until recently, the DUP favoured the 15-council model.

In an early bid to win the loyalty contest on the DUP’s Back Benches, Mr Ross was at least accurate when he said that something must be done and that a decision must be made. Unfortunately, some of us consider that he favours the wrong decision. Mr Ross was subsequently trumped by his colleague Mr Weir, whose contribution I will mention later. Mr Spratt also competed for the award for the most loyal Back-Bencher — although the fact that he is a Chairperson of a Committee may disqualify him from the contest. [Interruption.]

Sorry; I thought that the Member was asking me to give way.

I must correct some of the arithmetic in which Mr Weir indulged last week during an exchange with the Minister. He informed the Assembly that Wales has a population of 3·5 million and has 22 councils. Mathematically, that would translate to 11 councils for Northern Ireland’s population of 1·7 million.

However, according to official Government statistics, as opposed to those of the DUP, the population of Wales is approximately 2·9 million. If the ratio of population to council in Northern Ireland were to match that in Wales, on my count — and my calculation may be slightly inaccurate — there would be approx­imately 14·2 councils. That is so close to the 15-council model that the argument may have to be revisited.

Dr Farry: Further to the Member’s last point, does he accept that councils in Wales exercise more powers than councils in Northern Ireland, and will do so even after the complete transfer of powers? Basing the case for having more councils on the size of the respective populations strengthens the argument for having 15 councils.

Mr Ford: I am grateful to the Member for introducing the next page of my speech. I was about to say that Rutland County Council in England covers a population of slightly over 38,000 but exercises full power over issues such as education and roads — something that no one has even proposed should apply to Belfast. In Wales, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council serves a population of only 56,000, and Clackman­nanshire Council in Scotland serves a population of only 48,000.

The Minister’s Fermanagh District Council serves a significantly larger population than English and Scottish councils that have far more power, and it is roughly equivalent to the Welsh councils that have somewhat less power that their neighbours. Given the level of powers in question, is the Assembly being realistic in saying that it cannot further devolve some powers?

Mr Weir said that the 11-council model strikes a balance between economic scale and remoteness, which is similar to a point made by Stephen Farry. However, the problem is that the arguments from the DUP and Sinn Féin suggest that the 11-council model represents a balance between the options of having seven or 15. That perception has not been diluted by any meaningful arguments during debates last week or today. There was little quality in the argument from either Sinn Féin Member to explain why that party considers the 11-council model to be particularly good.

The debate turned to the discussion of whether the larger part of a council, an entire council, some part of a council, or none would transfer. Mr Weir effectively implied that the “larger part” would mean the entire council. I am sure that he did not mean to do so, but he almost suggested that the Minister would give direction to the commissioner that is beyond what is contained in the legislation.

Some of the Alliance Party’s amendments concerning the definition of new councils by reference to only one council are being contradicted by the Minister and her colleagues. In that context, Members must consider how much flexibility there is in the Bill compared with how much flexibility the amendments proposed by the Alliance Party would offer.

I can be guided only by a previous interpretation that the “larger part” of a council means the majority of the land area. Therefore, it is consistent to use Mr Spratt’s example that the two Carryduff wards and Moneyreagh would transfer from Castlereagh to Lisburn. That would constitute more than 50% of the land area but significantly less than 50% of the population and resources. That rebuts the argument that the introduction of greater flexibility, as sought by the Alliance Party, would make it difficult to transfer assets or, dare I say, debts.

That differs only marginally from what may happen anyway, which will be dependent on the representations that local people make to the commissioner. The alternative is that everything is already stitched up, which would mean that only a street or two in suburban Belfast and a townland or two in rural County Antrim would change from the current pattern of councils.

If that is the case, it seems that we are elevating the concept of speed above the concept of getting the pattern right for the next 30 years.

Mr Weir: The wording of the legislation simply refers to “the major part”, which means, presumably, more than 50%. That allows for a lot of flexibility.

Will the Member not recognise that, because all 26 former councils are named — and, in that sense, ring-fenced — that it would be the institutions that transfer? Therefore, the issue of debt management and transfer of undertakings would not arise. However, if there was simply carte blanche to divide, without any guidance to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, that would create a whole range of problems such as working out what percentage belonged to what council, and which council was the employing authority. Will the Member not realise that his proposals would create those problems, bearing in mind that the councils and the institutions would be merging, with allowance made for flexibility of boundaries?

Mr Ford: The Member makes an interesting point about the effect of the changes. However, if the three wards out of 23 wards in Castlereagh, which constitute more than 50% of the land area, are all that goes to Lisburn, I do not see how anyone can credibly say that Castlereagh as a whole has been joined to Lisburn.

Mr Weir: When Mr Spratt mentioned the three wards, he did not say that those should be the only areas that should go to Lisburn; he gave them only as examples. Therefore, it is wrong for the Member to suggest that those would be the only areas that should go to Lisburn.

Mr Ford: Legally speaking, if the Bill goes through unamended, those three wards will constitute more than 50% of the land area, which is the only guideline that we have for interpreting that particular element of the rules. I think that people in Moneyreagh would look more towards Ards than Lisburn, so I disagreed with the point as it was made by Mr Spratt.

Regarding the argument that, potentially, 15% or less of the borough might transfer in terms of population, resources and community facilities, that is an issue over which there will be ongoing problems. The only way to overcome those problems would be if the same processes were to be applied as were in 2006, when the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner made effectively no changes to the external area, with the exception of Magilligan Strand and Mussenden Temple. Those issues exist regardless, and to suggest that they are an argument against our amendments, is not to recognise the reality.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member agree that it is surprising that the word “major” now seems to be defined as “50 plus 1” and that if 51% of those three wards joined Lisburn on the basis of geography, that that would be a mockery as far as the majority of the population is concerned, assuming that the more populous wards in Castlereagh went to Belfast? That is a basic inconsistency that we should have had the opportunity to thrash out and get right.

Mr Ford: The Member makes a valid point. We should have had the opportunity to thrash out this matter in detail in Committee, but I will not revisit that issue. However, I acknowledge that the Minister, in her closing remarks, made it clear that she recognises the disadvantages of accelerated passage and that she has seen the benefit of a proper Committee Stage with regard to the Taxis Bill. I welcome her assurance that we will deal with other matters that come up under RPA under the proper procedures of this House and that we will not regard this as a precedent — at least as far as the Department of the Environment is concerned.

The case is quite clear: we either acknowledge that we are talking about extremely modest additions to council powers and that, therefore, a larger number of councils is appropriate, or that, in fact, the Executive ought to go back to the drawing board and find more meaningful powers that would justify there being 11 councils.


The Minister of the Environment: I have made it clear on several occasions to the Member and, indeed, to other Members of the House, that the Bill is the start of the process. Will he acknowledge that? Given that an institutional review is ongoing in the Assembly, it may well be that other powers are ceded to councils. The Bill is only the beginning.

Mr Ford: Indeed, I acknowledge that and was about to refer to that fact because I have also said in this place that the idea that further powers may be granted to councils after a year does not seem to be the type of assurance that was expected when the RPA was initiated all those years ago. The Assembly should have known that more detailed proposals would be made.

I assume that the Minister has had limited time to seek to persuade the unpersuadable with whom she shares the Executive table. The fact is that the Assembly has been presented with a Bill that is not tied down in a way that justifies the dramatic reduction in the number of councils. The Bill contains rules that will make the composition of new councils excessively rigid.

For those reasons, the amendments that stand in my name and Dr Farry’s, particularly amendment No 1, should be made by the House.

Question put, That amendment No 1 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 19; Noes 52.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Beggs, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr McNarry, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Armstrong and Mr B Wilson.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr Ross.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As amendment No 1 has not been made, I advise Members that I will not now call amendment Nos 3, 7, 9, 16 and 17, which are dependent on amendment No 1 being made.

Amendment No 2 proposed: In clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “11” and insert

“at least 11 and not more than 15 new”. — [Mr Gallagher.]

Question put, That amendment No 2 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 31; Noes 52.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGlone, Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs Hanna and Mr O’Loan.


Mr Adams, Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McQuillan and Mr Ross.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Amendment No 2 has not been made. I advise Members that amendment Nos 5, 8, 10 and 18 will not now be called, as they are dependent on amendment No 2 being made.

Amendment No 3 is dependent on Amendment No 1. As amendment No 1 has not been made, amendment No 3 will not be called.

Amendment No 4 proposed: In clause 1, page 1, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert

“(2) The 11 local government districts shall incorporate, respectively, the whole or the major part of the following former local government districts—

1.        Ballymena.

2.        Belfast.

3.        Coleraine.

4.        Cookstown.

5.        Craigavon.

6.        Derry.

7.        Fermanagh.

8.        Lisburn.

9.        Newry and Mourne.

10.      Newtownabbey.

11.      North Down.” — [Mr Ford.]

Amendment No 4 negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Amendment No 5 is dependent on amendment No 2. As Amendment No 2 has not been made, amendment No 5 will not be called.

Amendment No 6 proposed: In clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out “the major”. — [Mr Kennedy.]

Amendment No 6 negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

2.45 pm

Clause 2 (Local Government Boundaries Commissioner)

Mr Deputy Speaker: Amendment Nos 7 and 9 are dependent on amendment No 1. As amendment No 1 has not been made, I will, therefore, not call amendments Nos 7 and 9.

Amendment Nos 8 and 10 are dependent on amend­ment No 2. As amendment No 2 has not been made, I will, therefore, not call amendment Nos 8 and 10.

We now turn to the second group of amendments for debate. The first is amendment No 11, with which it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 12, 13, 14 and 15. Those amendments concern the rules that the commissioner shall have regard to when making recommendations. I call Mr Danny Kennedy to move amendment No 11 and to address the other amendments in that group.

Mr Kennedy: I have been accused of making moving speeches in the House before, but I do not think that I am likely to move as many as I am about to move now. We will see when the votes are taken later on.

I beg to move amendment No 11: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) for paragraph 14 substitute—

‘14. Regard shall be had to the desirability of determining district and ward boundaries which—

(a) are readily identifiable;

(b) reflect the identities and interests of local communities; and

(c) secure effective and convenient local government.’”

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 12: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) at end of paragraph 14 insert—

‘and socially coherent’.” — [Mr Ford.]

No 13: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) for paragraph 15 substitute—

‘15. A townland shall not, except where in the opinion of the Commissioner it is unavoidable in the interests of maintaining social cohesion, be included partly in one district or ward and partly in another.’” — [Mr Ford.]

No 14: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) at end of paragraph 16 add—

‘(16A) The Commissioner shall make recommendations on the number and boundaries of districts having regard to the size, population and physical diversity of Northern Ireland, local identity and community ties and the representation of the rural and urban electorate.’” — [Mr Gallagher.]

No 15: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) at end of paragraph 17 add—

‘; and

(c) the desirability that wards may be easily grouped into readily identifiable and socially coherent district electoral areas.’” — [Mr Ford.]

Amendment No 11 reflects the broad consensus demonstrated in the House during last week’s debate on the Second Stage of the Bill. Across the House, Member after Member referred to the need for the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to ensure that local government boundaries reflect the identities and interests of local communities. Despite the controversies over the merits of an 11-council model and accelerated passage, no Member dissented from the proposition that local government boundaries should reflect the identities and interests of local communities.

Perhaps I can point to the comments made during that debate by some Members from those parties that have proposed the 11-council model.

Mr Weir, a Member for North Down, stated:

“local identity must be one of the factors taken into consideration…Local identity is important, and that is one of the reasons why I believe that the seven-council model is not the right one.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p353, col 2].

He continued:

“To take local needs into account, it will be important that the commissioner has the level of flexibility that the Bill will provide.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p354, col 1].

Mr Alex Maskey said:

“I understand the need of communities to feel an affinity for their local councils, and to relate to, and have access to, those councils.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p347, col 1].

Mr Sammy Wilson emphasised that his reading of the Bill was that the commissioner would possess the power to establish boundaries that reflect the identities and interests of local communities. In response to Mr Ford, Mr Wilson said:

“The Boundaries Commissioner will work to terms that can deal with that. The rules for determining the numbers and boundaries of wards are the same: they will have regard for the size, population, physical diversity and the desirability for proper urban and rural representation. All those factors will be taken into consideration”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p350, col 2].

In response to Mrs Long, Mr Wilson continued:

“It is still possible to cater for social coherence, because the Bill’s terms of reference are wide enough to allow the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to take account of all such considerations.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p351, col 1].

That being so, amendment No 11 merely seeks to make explicit in the Bill what Members from the different political parties in the House believe should be the case: when determining the local government boundaries, the commissioner should have regard to the desire to reflect the identities of local communities.

One reason that due consideration should be given to amendment No 11 emerges from comments that were made in the March 2007 revised recommendations report of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner for Northern Ireland. With regard to Belfast and its suburbs, the commissioner stated:

“I acknowledge that the expansion of the city has created suburbs where many continue to feel affiliation with Belfast. However, neither affiliation nor parliamentary boundaries are factors which may influence the delineation of local government district boundaries.”

Let us leave aside the issue of parliamentary boundaries. I respect fully the judgement of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and his understanding of the legal constraints within which he operates. However, his statement should give pause for thought to all those Members who have emphasised the need for local government to reflect local identities. Therefore, if honourable Members are correct in their understanding of the Bill, amendment No 11 clarifies that situation by making explicit what is implicit in the Bill and related legislation.

However, if the legislative context takes less favourable cognisance of local identities, amendment No 11 provides a necessary corrective that should find support from across the House.

It should be noted that amendment No 11 is careful not to make local identity the only grounds for a determ­ination by the commissioner, or to state that it negates any other concerns. The amendment states:

“Regard shall be had to the desirability of determining district and ward boundaries which… reflect the identities and interests of local communities.”

That answers a concern expressed by Mr Weir during last week’s debate, when he said:

“a balance must be struck between local identity and the issues of economies of scale, the opportunity for efficiencies of delivery, population and the rates burden.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p353, col 2].

In my view, and in that of my party, amendment No 11 strikes that balance. It also requires the commissioner to heed the need to secure effective and convenient local government, thus reflecting concerns expressed across the House that local government boundaries should take account of local identities.

However, the amendment does so in such a manner as to acknowledge other concerns that the commissioner must also take into account.

On 21 April 2008, during the debate on the accelerated passage of the Bill, the Minister said:

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel; this is a relatively straightforward piece of legislation.” — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p297, col 2].

The Minister and I may disagree on a number of aspects of local government reform, but we agree on the fact that there is no need to reinvent the wheel, which is precisely why amendment No 11 is taken directly from the Local Government Act 1992 for England and Wales. The amendment merely updates the principal act referred to in the Bill — the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 1972 — in light of legislation elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

In doing so, it allows the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to examine precedents and best practice on how the provision has been interpreted and implemented in England and Wales.

My party disagrees with the foundational principle of the Bill. We are in favour of having 15 local councils in Northern Ireland, rather than 11. However, that does not preclude those of us who hold such a view from meaningfully contributing to the legislative process. Indeed, on 22 April 2008, during the debate on the Second Stage of the Bill, Sammy Wilson stated:

“Amendments may be tabled that will improve the Bill; that is the point of this debate. I look forward to examining those amendments”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p352, col 1].

I trust that Members will support amendment No 11, as it will improve the Bill. The amendment reflects the views expressed across the House during the Bill’s Second Stage. It will ensure that, irrespective of our debates over whether there should be 11 councils, as opposed to 15, we will provide a legislative framework to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner that will explicitly require the holder of the office to have regard to the desirability for local government boundaries to reflect the identities of local communities. I commend amendment No 11 to the House.

Mr Weir: I will try to deal with the issues as thoroughly as possible. I was not aware of the extent to which Mr Kennedy seemed to hang on my every word, so I will try to clarify matters for him. I hope that I will not spoil the new-found fan status that he seems to have afforded me.

When I spoke in the debate last week, I said that local identity will be important when determining the boundaries of the new districts. Indeed, had an amendment been proposed referring to the local identity of the 11 district councils, it would have been taken into account. I am less concerned about that. As Mr Kennedy pointed out, I went on to say that local identity was one factor — and I appreciate that amendment No 11 introduces a number of factors. If local identity were the overriding factor when determining the new boundaries, we could end up with 11 councils, 111 councils, or 1,011 councils, depending on how one defines the phrase “local identity”. However, local identity is clearly implicit when one is determining district boundaries.

I am sure that Mr Kennedy thoroughly read the text of what I said last week about local identity being one of the balancing factors considered when opting for 11 councils, as opposed to seven or 15. What I did not make reference to, and what I think is wholly inappropriate, if one is making local identity a key determinant when setting local government boundaries, is to look at the issue in terms of ward boundaries. That also applies to social coherence, which I will come to in a moment.

Local identity can make a difference when it comes to determining the boundaries of the 11 districts, and I think it will be taken into account. However, if it were to be taken into account when setting boundaries at ward level, it could be established by a village of 300 people or an estate of 5,000 people. Indeed, there could be little common identity between two areas within the same ward. That applies to my constituency of North Down, and it could also apply to Mr Kennedy’s constituency of Newry and Armagh.

For example, last week I mentioned two areas in the ward of Conlig — the village itself and, directly across the dual carriageway, a Housing Executive estate called Breezemount. There is little interaction between the two, and, as the local council discovered recently when Breezemount was left without a community hall, its residents have no desire to cross the dual carriageway or to have any direct connection with Conlig.

Conlig, perhaps, represents a microcosm of wider issues of local identity. At the end of the main road in Conlig, instead of leaving the village, one can turn left into the new Beechfield estate — a middle-class, well-to-do estate. Beechfield residents have little interaction with the village of Conlig; their children do not attend the local primary school, they rarely shop in the village, and they do not consider themselves part of Conlig.

Distinguishing sensible ward boundaries is difficult, and having to have regard to local identities in that way would place an impossible burden on the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, because local identities vary massively in size and scale. To achieve consistency of representation on councils, and as wards are the building blocks for both DEAs and parliamentary constituencies, we must establish wards of a roughly similar size. Using local identity as a key determinant for ward boundaries is problematic.

3.00 pm

Mr Beggs: Mr Kennedy indicated that the wording of the amendment is lifted directly from the Local Government Act 1992, which applies in Great Britain, where it has operated effectively and in a balanced way. Why does the Member think that the legislation cannot operate effectively here?

Mr Weir: Northern Ireland has a more defined sense of identity, with more emphasis on villages, and so on. In England, the population of council areas varies massively. Although Belfast is a different case, I want a fair level of representation irrespective of location, and a situation whereby the same number of people live in each ward.

The Member mentioned the effect of the 1992 Act on councils in England. Councils operate differently in England, and, therefore, Members should wonder why such an amendment has not been adopted for any other kind of boundary discussion since 1992 in England.

I am puzzled about the meaning of “interests of local communities”, and I should like an Ulster Unionist member to elucidate that. Also, the proposer did not clarify the third part of the amendment. How is the boundary commissioner to judge what will

“secure effective and convenient local government”?

I am unsure what is meant by “convenient local government”, and I would appreciate an explanation. Had amendment No 11 focused solely on district boundaries rather than ward boundaries, it could have been applied to local identity.

Mr B McCrea: Does the Member understand the argument in relation to the bigger picture, but think that its application at ward level is impractical?

Mr Weir: I hope that I understand the bigger picture. The relationship between district boundaries and local identity is already implicit in the Bill.

Because local identity is implicit in the Bill, there is no particular need to spell it out. Therefore, the amendment may be unnecessary. However, there seem to be particular problems when trying to apply the concept of local identity to wards, rather than to general districts. For example, many areas have been mentioned in the debate, such as Crossgar, Saintfield, Castlederg and the Clogher Valley, and I suspect that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will determine the local identities of those areas, among other matters. However, that will be very different from determining potential ward boundaries.

Mr B McCrea: I asked the Member that question for clarity. I thank him for allowing me to elucidate further. Is he aware of the concept of super-output areas, and the role that they play in statistical planning by trying to bring together groups of residents that might be deemed to have similar socio-economic issues? Will he accept that, when wards were originally planned, many years ago, the idea was that they would be roughly the same size and have roughly the same geography and the same type of houses?

As a rule of thumb, a ward would have consisted of approximately 1,000 homes and contain approximately 2,500 voters. However, due to development, the wards have become distorted over time. That is why we have had to establish super-output areas. Some highly populous wards contain many super-output areas of differing standards. However, in many rural areas, a super-output area is exactly the same as a ward.

The Member may view the cup as half full, rather than half empty. There is a principle of establishing local accountability and local identity, about which we have argued on other occasions. He asked what words such as “convenience” mean. Convenience is connected to locality. That is the real basis of what we are trying to establish. Mr Kennedy’s point was that there is general agreement that we ought to ensure that, where possible, similar identities are brought together, and we would welcome the Member’s support for that.

As I have said, that is not the only issue. If we have a problem at ward level, the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will be entitled to make a judgement on it. However, it is important to take on board the points that have been quoted from legislation in other jurisdictions. There is a very important point about making sure that boundaries reflect local identity.

Mr Weir: I was beginning to wonder, given that intervention, whether we would hit the target date of 2011 for implementing the new councils. Although Basil McCrea’s super output is always good to hear.

First, we may say that a Boundary Commission should consider effective and convenient local government, but those are vague and ill-defined terms. No definitions of those terms have been provided. The more clear-cut the terms are —

Mr B McCrea: There is existing legislation.

Mr Weir: The terms are not clearly defined in amendment No 11.

Mr Basil McCrea mentioned ward boundaries in respect of local identity. Wards have always been building blocks, and, rather than shift away from using wards, in many cases — although the process has perhaps been held up due to the reform of public administration — the consistency of size of wards within local councils has, broadly speaking, been maintained.

The Member may not be aware that several Boundary Commissions have been convened since the reorganisation of local government in 1973. Those commissions have changed the boundaries of wards — with one exception, which actually changed the boundaries of a district. In many cases, districts have grown, and not only have the ward boundaries changed, but the numbers of wards in the districts have changed.

Ward boundaries have been readjusted in a number of constituencies. For example, North Down had 20 wards in 1973; 24 by the mid-1980s; and later that figure became 25. We should attempt to produce boundaries of similar sizes. Since the late 1990s, the process has been somewhat out of kilter. If there had not been a review of public administration, I suspect that another review and a Boundary Commission on the 26 councils would have been implemented. Some ward boundaries have become larger, or smaller, than they should have.

Our overriding aim should be to have wards of similar electoral sizes, to ensure equality of representation. There are Members of the House who, historically, have claimed that gerrymandering was a factor in the make-up of local councils. There was disparity in the sizes and boundaries of wards within council areas. It is important that wards within a district have a similar electoral size, so that no one can complain that one ward is bigger than another. The foundation stone of this Bill provides the necessary protection, and will produce wards of similar electoral size.

If local identity becomes a key factor in defining a ward, the door is thrown open to discussion about whether a particular ward has an electorate of 500, 1,000, 1,500 people, or whatever. We all know of wards within our respective constituencies that are vastly different in electoral size. Kilcooley is one of the larger estates in my own constituency of North Down, and houses approximately 5,000 people; other Members could point to housing estates that are home to 500 or 600 people. Defining wards on the basis of local identity will create massive disparity.

I sympathise with the SDLP’s amendment No 14. However, it makes a fundamental mistake — which I assume is a consequence of their earlier amendments — by making a recommendation on the number of districts. Amendment No 14 attempts to reopen debate on the number of districts — a matter that has already been voted on. The SDLP amendment is better, and more loosely defined than that of the Ulster Unionists, but its reference to the number of councils creates a further problem.

The Alliance Party’s amendment No 13 refers to the concept of “social cohesion”. All districts in Northern Ireland should comprise a mix of social types. The existence of various housing patterns — or the mixture of rural and urban dwellings, and so on — makes it difficult to define wards on the basis of social cohesion. I referred to the village of Conlig, which consists largely of Housing Executive properties, and within a few hundred yards is Beechfield, a new, middle-class housing estate.

There are myriad other examples where there is not much social cohesion between one side of the road and the other. In South Belfast, Taughmonagh and the Malone Road are geographically very close. Taughmonagh is too small to be an individual ward, and, therefore, has to be grouped with the Malone Road or another area. It is impossible to draw up boundaries and create wards that genuinely reflect social cohesion. Furthermore, it is difficult to clearly define social cohesion. The more uncertainty we create, the more difficult the Local Government Boundary Commissioner’s job will be.

From a practical point of view, such a definition is almost impossible to achieve.

3.15 pm

Amendment No 15 refers to “socially coherent district electoral areas”. It is difficult to ensure social cohesion in one ward: ensuring it within a district electoral area would be enormously difficult. It would be wrong to create wards in such a way as to give a nod and a wink to a District Electoral Areas Commissioner. That commissioner must have a free hand if his or her review is to be separate from that of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. The review of district electoral areas must be independent. Therefore, to have wards prematurely grouped would be wrong. It will always be difficult to ensure social cohesion either in wards or in district electoral areas.

The legislation clearly prefers that townlands remain undivided. Amendment No 13, however, would permit division of townlands only on the grounds of maintaining social cohesion. That ignores the practical realities. For historical reasons, a townland might be heavily developed. Potentially, a townland might contain too many houses — and, therefore, too great an electorate — to be included in a single ward.

Elsewhere, a particular property might straddle two or three townlands, so that makes it difficult to avoid dividing townlands. Take the example of a golf club, parts of which are in different townlands. If townlands could not be divided, or if their boundaries were regarded as natural, it might lead to difficult situations, because ward boundaries may ultimately become boundaries between district council areas. As a result of that artificial definition, such a golf club might straddle two district councils and have to pay a proportion of its rates to one council and a proportion to another, which would be nonsensical. The legislation provides for townlands to be kept together where possible, but to make the maintenance of social coherence — which is nowhere defined — the only occasion for their division does not hold water.

Consequently, I urge the House to reject these five amendments and stick with the original Bill.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin also opposes these amendments. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments; however, I want to correct a Member who spoke earlier and alleged that, in a previous debate, I commented that balance related to striking a balance between seven- and 15-council models — the balanced position being an 11-council model. I have never associated the concept of balance with the number of councils. My rejection of that position is on the record. Sinn Féin has never argued that an 11-council model was a compromise between the seven- and 15-council models. My party has never for a moment argued that. Rather, it has argued for balance between communities within council boundaries.

I hope that the question of the number of councils has been dispatched. I suspect that we will return to the issues that were discussed during this morning’s lengthy debate: nevertheless, Members who argued this morning and this afternoon about the number of councils fully addressed the subject. No credible rationale has been offered for 15 councils, and I hope that we have dispensed with that matter, at least for the time being.

I now turn to the rules by which the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner operates. All these amendments seek to circumscribe the commissioner’s freedom to work. For the most part, the terms of the amendments are ill defined. Even where the intentions behind the amendments are good — and I do not concede that that is so — they are ill defined. The current rules are adequate and are well understood. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner will work subject to the clear understanding and practice that townlands, and readily identifiable areas, are not disrupted or distorted unnecessarily or without due cause. There are reasons that such disruption may occur, but the guidelines for the commissioner are sufficient to enable him or her to do the job.

The ultimate political decision has been taken by the Executive and by Members, and will hopefully be the eventual outcome. Political leadership must determine the scale of local governance, rather than asking a boundaries commissioner to determine what may be delivered. That is why the political decision and judgements have already been agreed by the parties.

What we are dealing with is the way in which the commissioner will work, and the rules being set out for that are adequate and appropriate. Whenever I read amendments such as amendment No 11, which states:

“(b) reflect the identities and interests of local communities; and

(c ) secure effective and convenient local government.”

I do not understand what those phrases mean. Does “convenient local government” mean that the proposers want 26 councils or 30 councils? Do they want a council in every district? I am sad to hear some Members talking —

Mr Beggs: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maskey: You would not give way earlier, but I will be very generous.

Mr Beggs: The Member acknowledged that the earlier part of the debate centred on the number of councils. This amendment relates purely to the boundaries and ward boundaries of those councils. It is misleading to reopen part of the debate which has already been determined.

Mr A Maskey: Thank you, Mr Beggs, but I did correct one of your colleagues earlier —

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. Mr Maskey: time after time I remind you that you must refer all of your remarks through the Chair. I gave you some leeway this morning when you did something similar, so please refer all future remarks through the Chair.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. You have been very kind, generous and gracious and I will seek to —

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr A Maskey: I would be glad to.

Mr Weir: Perhaps the phrase “convenient local government” means that local government is like a convenience store and that we are going to have a council based in every Spar.

Mr A Maskey: You could always give out Green Shield stamps to encourage people to come in. As I have said, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will be very responsive to your generosity.

My point about these amendments is that they are ill-defined. I have referred to Members talking about secure, effective, convenient local government. I have also heard the phrase “socially coherent” being used. That phrase has come from the Alliance Party, which more often than not, tells us that there is very little social coherence. Indeed, one of its biggest arguments concerns the duplication of public services due to the fact that we do not have a coherent society. Either we have a coherent society or we do not, and I would argue that in many places we do not.

How is the phrase “socially coherent” to be defined? Does it mean, as Mr Weir has referred to, the nice districts and the not-so-nice ones, or settled districts and unsettled districts? I do not know. There is no clear definition of what it means. However, the task of securing social coherence will be at the heart of local government. That is why I continually remind Members of other parties who object to some of the provisions on offer, which have been tabled by the Minister in recent times, to examine the substance of those proposals.

Members must apply their minds to the substance and requirements of enabling local government in the future. Our real task as parties, collectively, is to attain and secure social coherence. That can be done with good governance arrangements, local government structures, community planning provisions and good relations obligations. That would be better than trying to write social coherence into the guidance for the boundaries commissioner, who in my view could not interpret that phrase realistically.

Amendment No 14 from the SDLP states:

“having regard to the size, population and physical diversity…local identity and community ties”.

I do not know what some of those ideas are supposed to mean. I have heard Members speak of physical diversity. We have had a bizarre outline of social and physical barriers. The Assembly is discussing small areas, which are not far apart — they are not like the Amazonian jungle or the Asian continent.

I accept the need to ensure, as far as possible, that communities will feel comfortable within their local council boundaries. That is clear, and I have said that on record on behalf of Sinn Féin. We have always held that position. By the same token, one cannot say that many of the local councils, as they stand, are acceptable to a lot of the people who live in them. They are not comfortable with them, and that is why they want changes.

Some of today’s amendments border on incoherent, particularly amendment No 14, which was proposed by the SDLP. It mentions four or five criteria on which the commissioner could make his or her recommendations, and I defy any Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to interpret those in a realistic or meaningful way.

The intent behind the amendments may be genuine — and I will not second-guess Members’ intentions — but the amendments are ill defined and difficult to interpret.

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for giving way. As he knows, I always give way to him. Alex Maskey says that it is difficult to understand the language that is used in some of the amendments. However, we tried to avoid such confusion by lifting regulations from legislation that had been used before, which has been around for some time, and is tried and tested. There should be no difficulty in understanding the language.

We are entitled to do things differently, but it would have been better if we had been able to take the Bill through Committee, discuss it and work out what is going on. I am not demurring from Alex Maskey’s position that it is important that communities feel comfortable in their councils, and we will examine the safeguards. However, does he agree that there is no point in putting artificial communities together? We have talked about this matter in different guises, but the question about whether Castlereagh belongs to Belfast or Lisburn is one of those elephants in the room that we must get right now, because things will be easier for the commissioner if clarity is achieved.

The Ulster Unionist Party is suggesting that we adopt previously used legislation to clarify what is in the minds of every Member. That does not preclude the important points that Alex Maskey raises; it adds to the motion. That is why we ask for Members’ support.

Mr A Maskey: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Member for his contribution — we are moving closer to 2012. I can read and understand the amendments, but they are ill defined. Just because similar language is used elsewhere, that does not make it right or appropriate in this case. The Member would be wise to remember that.

The amendments may be well intended — and I am not second-guessing whether they are — but they are not workable. There are adequate provisions at the disposal of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, and I will rely more substantially on the outcome of this exercise when parties apply their minds to the way in which local government will function. Safeguards and guarantees must be established to ensure that social coherence is delivered, and that will be the responsibility of local leadership and the Assembly.

Sinn Féin opposes the amendments because adequate safeguards are built into the current rules. Most parties agreed, in other formats, to the vision that has been set down for local government. However, Members have introduced arguments that they did not mention until now. I know that because I have worked on this matter with other Members for a number of years, in local government, on the Strategic Leadership Board and on the Local Government Reform Task Force. All parties have had ample opportunity to discuss those concepts.

I have heard party representatives say that they need more time and they should have more time; I do not know why that is so. On one hand, they criticise Sinn Féin and the DUP for rushing the Bill, but we have been able to make decisions. Other parties may not agree with those decisions — as is their entitlement — but they cannot say that they have not had enough chances to debate the issues.

3.30 pm

I want to know why the Members who are saying that we are only using accelerated passage for the Bill because we have dithered have not themselves produced very firm and specific proposals. These amendments are aspirational; they may sound good, but they will not achieve anything. On that basis, we oppose the amendments.

Mr Gallagher: I assure Peter Weir — who I notice is not here, so I may not get a question from him — that amendment No 14 has not been tabled for the reason that he suggested; that is, to re-open the debate about council numbers. We have had that debate.

My party tabled amendment No 14 because of the importance that we attach to community identity and to keeping neighbourhoods intact. Members are all aware — and have seen it strongly evidenced throughout today’s proceedings — that we are dealing with a Bill that is based on a rigid decision, which itself is the outcome of negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The reason that we have tabled amendment No 14 is because we are quite sure that, when the commissioner completes this body of work, problems will arise regarding community links and how intact neighbour­hoods will remain. Now is the time to take account of those issues.

I acknowledge that much the same issue has been raised in other amendments. We must remember that this Bill is the outcome of a negotiation and that we have seen the outcomes of other negotiations on matters such as victims and policing. We know that those two parties intend to make such deals stick, and it does not seem to be a priority for them if a few little communities, neighbourhoods or parishes must be split in the interests of getting this Bill passed. I want to assure the House that it is a priority for the SDLP.

The Bill mentions protecting such communities to some extent, in relation to ward boundaries. However, that is only one part of the issue. The other part of it is to keep neighbourhood and community identity intact in relation to council boundaries. The Bill should mirror the concerns at both those levels, and that is why I urge Members to support amendment No 14.

Mr Ford: I want to speak about the second group of amendments, particularly the three amendments tabled by the Alliance Party, and to broadly endorse the comments made by Danny Kennedy and Tommy Gallagher.

The Minister may have felt that some of the first group of amendments proposed from this end of the Chamber were designed to damage the progress of the Bill — that was not the case, but perhaps she felt that it was. Normally the paranoia comes from elsewhere in the Chamber, not from her. The Alliance Party amendments in the second group cannot be regarded in the same way, as they are all designed to improve the process and the procedures by which the commissioner operates, and to ensure that we get a better pattern of local authorities than would otherwise be the case.

The booklet outlining the boundaries for the seven-council model that was drawn up and published in 2007 is proof that such amendments are necessary, because it contains numerous examples of how dubious the boundaries were when they were drawn up in accordance with the rules that the Bill, as presented, does not wish to change. The fact that there have been some fairly specious arguments against our amendments says more about the unwillingness of some people to listen than it does about the seriousness with which those amendments were tabled.

Unfortunately, Peter Weir is still not in the Chamber —

A Member: He has just returned.

Mr Ford: He is right on time — it would have been too much of a disappointment for him to have missed both Tommy Gallagher’s contribution and mine.

The Member does not seem to recognise that the term “desirability”, which is a direct lift from paragraph 14 of the existing rules, and is used in one of our amendments, applies to another amendment.

There are clearly limits as to what can happen to ensure that everything desirable happens at once. Our amendments are not an attempt to lay down hard-and-fast rules, nor are the Ulster Unionist Party or SDLP amendments, which refer to issues such as social cohesion. The amendments merely reflect the clear desirability for the legislation to lead to such cohesion.

Under the local government pattern that presumably would have persisted had direct rule continued, I live in what would have been called the Tardree ward of “bent banana” district council. That ward is drawn up to include housing on the edges of Randalstown, the northern fringes of Antrim, past Templepatrick and Parkgate to south of the Six Mile Water. There is no logic to that whatever, except to draw a line on a map in order to create the appropriate electorate.

In particular, as a measure of internal boundaries, as opposed to the external boundaries of the district council, the drawing up of that ward used main roads — specifically the M2 — for a large part of the area. Motorways may or may not be a suitable social barrier in urban areas; however, they are no recognition of the patterns of social life as they exist in rural areas. On that occasion, the commissioner abandoned the rules to use townlands as boundaries, and instead decided to use the M2.

If that example is not bad enough, Members should consider that of the proposal for the Clandeboye ward. It contained areas that were postally in Bangor, Newtownards, Holywood and Belfast. How can that ward possibly represent the way that people live their lives, given that it sprawls across the countryside of those areas? I cannot see how that can represent fairly what is needed on the ground. That example proves why the rules need to be tightened.

Mr Weir: Although I appreciate Mr Ford’s points, the postal argument should not be used to decide whether an area should be in one ward or another. For example, if a letter were addressed correctly to Conlig, there would be no reference to Newtownards. However, since the reorganisation that occurred in 1973, Conlig has been part of the North Down Borough Council area. Quite often, postal issues lead to anomalies. Therefore, that is not a strong argument on which to base local identity, unless the Member is a postman.

Mr Ford: That is a fair point, and I am not a postman.

A further example that could be used is the Shane’s Castle ward, which is the area directly south of the proposed Tardree ward. That ward was drawn up under the rules just over one year ago, and includes housing estates in Randalstown, the Shane’s Castle Estate, which is another substantial area of countryside, and a large part north of Antrim town stretching across to Holywell Hospital. I accept that that area is all postally in Antrim, but it includes at least two completely separate and distinct communities. The problem was that it was possible to draw up the rules in that way because they were sufficiently loosely specified and there was no requirement for social cohesion. The main requirement was that the electorate should be as near equal as possible.

Another example is a chunk being taken out of Glengormley, added to a piece of Rathcoole estate and spanning an industrial estate and the Valley Park. There is no logic to the way that the rules currently allow boundaries to be drawn up. That is why there is a need to strengthen that particular aspect of the rules.

Dr Farry: Further to the Member’s points, does he also recognise that the process of devising wards that stretch across large swathes of territory and take into account different settlements will complicate significantly the process of drawing up district electoral areas in any subsequent process?

The example of the Clandeboye ward, which has already been cited, shows how the rules tend to negate the possibility of drawing up a district electoral area that is based around Holywood or one that is based in Bangor because we would end up with a ward that stretches across a large piece of territory. There would either be a Holywood ward that goes into large parts of Bangor and around the ring road, or a Bangor-based district taking in large parts of Holywood. Surely that does not make social sense.

Mr Ford: My colleague has been reading my notes yet again.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr Ford: Perhaps I should just let you two fire ahead.

Mr Weir: Had there been a seven-council model, with the previous boundaries in place, would the problem not have been that there were insufficient numbers in Holywood to constitute a five-ward district electoral area, no matter what way the boundaries were drawn?

Perhaps Mr Ford should sit out this discussion. Whatever method was used to draw the boundaries — unless one switched to a three- or four-ward district electoral area, which is clearly something that is not particularly desirable — there simply was not the population under the proposals of the seven-council model to constitute a Holywood district electoral area.

Mr Ford: I am not terribly well acquainted with greater North Down, as it will become. As I am not going to let my colleague continue to answer Peter Weir’s points on that issue, I will give that matter a miss.

Obviously, there are issues concerning that specific area of which I am not fully aware. The fundamental point is that, by creating wards that have no social coherence, which stretch from one town to another, one will inevitably end up with incoherent district electoral areas. That is not a positive way forward. The rules could be used to instruct the commissioner to take regard of what is logical. That would ensure that a pattern of local government is achieved that appeals more to local people — who understand the areas in which they live and who can see representation working on the basis of how social networks operate.

That does not mean that ward boundaries should be drawn between nasty working-class people and nice middle-class people. It simply means that there are cases in which joining a ward across a chunk of countryside, from one town to another, does not lead to any social coherence and does not meet the needs of local people in any meaningful way. Those issues need to be considered carefully, specifically in respect of the district electoral areas.

I acknowledge that the Minister has spoken to the Secretary of State about the early appointment of a district electoral area commissioner. That commissioner will work alongside the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, rather than waiting until that job is completed. However, surely it would be logical to formally instruct the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to note the desirability of wards being grouped into readily identifiable and socially coherent district electoral areas. That should not be an obligation, but the commissioner should be obliged to consider desirability against all the other factors, of which the key one is to ensure equal electorates. Based on what the Minister is already doing, those arguments were advanced by Mr Weir. He is almost beginning to agree with me, although I am quite sure that he does not think so.

The Alliance Party believes that there is virtue in requiring wards to be socially coherent. That would avoid huge geographical monsters, reminiscent of the “Massachusetts salamander”. Some of the wards are such awkward shapes. That is not because they are gerrymandered for electoral purposes — it is because they are put together in a way that does not reflect reality.

There are valid reasons to tell the commissioner that townlands are the building blocks in rural areas. The previous commissioner did not note that. Main roads are frequently areas where people meet rather than divide, so drawing a line down a main road is a bad way to draw the internal wards.

Some of the minor messing that was done to boundaries made no difference at all. The boundary between Antrim and Ballymena — or, as I should call it, north-east and bent banana — was varied in two places for no particularly good reason. There was not a single person who lived in the affected area, but switching from a townland boundary to one that runs down the middle of two roads seems to be of no purpose.

Amendment No 13 effectively instructs the new commissioner not to make such changes. Amendment No 15 makes clear that — unlike the Northern Ireland Parliament more than 30 years ago — single-member wards, of any meaningful nature, are not expected. It is, therefore, logical that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner should be instructed to have regard for the potential for creating coherent district electoral areas that would ensure an ongoing positive pattern of local government.

Mr Ross: I will try to speak only about the second group of amendments, and not go over issues that have already been decided by this House, such as accelerated passage. I also noted that some of the contributions thus far mentioned shady back room deals between the DUP and Sinn Féin. However, all those decisions were agreed by the Executive, which are the decision-making body that the Assembly holds to account.

3.45 pm

This group of amendments aims to restrict the boundaries commissioner in his or her deliberations and tries to tie in some rather abstract concepts. They also make assumptions on centres for new council areas. I do not believe that the commissioner could be able to reflect some of those defined communities, as, in some cases, there is no simple definition of what those communities are. As some Members have said previously, although the concept behind some of the amendments is well intended, I am yet to find anyone in the community who is particularly exercised about which ward he or she is in. It is a nice concept in theory, but it is not a simple concept, because identity never is.

Our sense of community is changing as people move in and out of different areas as never before, and our sense of community is not what it used to be. Indeed, as Mr Weir said, perhaps our best sense of community is found at a more local level, such as a village or a street. However, that would lead to quite a few councils.

Amendment Nos 12, 13 and 15 mention the concept of social cohesion — although I am not entirely sure what that actually means in practice, and there is little explanation. That strikes me as a trendy term that, in practice, means very little. However, it would be challenging if some areas that are located closely together did not have very much in common. Mr Weir referred to some places where there would be massive differences between two areas that are geographically close — those areas would not have much in common but would not be big enough to constitute individual wards. Local identity is important, but I do not anticipate a massive public outcry if one’s sense of identify or community is not the same as someone else’s. The most important issue for constituents is that they receive the right delivery of services, irrespective of what ward they may be in.

It has already been said that it is important to strike a balance between having too many locally based councils that would not have the efficiency and effectiveness of local government, and the sense of remoteness that we could engender from having too few councils. However, it is important for the commissioner to establish areas that carry the same weight in votes and have the same level of representation. The commissioner must be able to come to his or her own determinations over boundaries and how they are composed, and reach an independent judgement based on the representations that will be received. That is why the commissioner will be given that task and why people, including Members, will have the opportunity to make representations to the commission.

We should allow the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner the freedom to do his or her job and not tie him or her to nominal concepts that do not have any meaning. Therefore, I oppose the amendments.

Mr Armstrong: One of the most basic principles of democracy is that those who are elected should represent people and not the places where they live, and the legislation on local government boundaries seems to have missed that point. There is clearly an anomaly, because the legislation is based on Westminster’s Local Government Act 1972, which has never been updated to take into account the changing times.

For some reason, the legislation relating to Westminster elections was updated in line with the regulations to be applied in Great Britain. I refer to the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’s fifth periodical report of parliamentary constituencies, whereby, in giving effect to the rules set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, the commission reviewed the set of principles on which its decisions had been based during the period of its fourth periodical report of parliamentary constituencies, and revised those to take account, as far as reasonable, of any local ties that would be broken by such alterations.

Appendix B of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’s fifth periodical report of parliamentary constituencies, stated:

“When the present local government wards were determined they were intended to be indicative of areas with a community of interest.”

Unfortunately, the regulations applying to local government were somewhat overlooked, leaving us with the existing outdated legislation. Too often in the past, electoral boundaries were drawn up that made no sense to the people who lived in a particular area.

Lines on a map that might seem fine to someone sat in an office in Belfast, or even London, fail to reflect the identities and interests of local communities on the ground. The language of the Ulster Unionist Party amendment — amendment No 11 — is very specific, and is lifted directly from the Local Government Act 1992, which affected England and Wales. No one can seriously argue that boundaries should not be readily identifiable, should not reflect the identities and interests of local communities, or should not secure effective and convenient local government.

Amendment No 11 is an attempt to bring Northern Ireland’s local government legislation into line with legislation for similar elections in the rest of the United Kingdom and the arrangements for Westminster elections held in Northern Ireland. I cannot see anything in the amendment that should not be supported by any Member in the House. I support amendment No 11.

Mr K Robinson: I declare an interest as a member of Newtownabbey Borough Council, and also as someone who has suffered under boundary changes. I have lived in my current home for some 30 years, and during that period, without moving house, I have been transferred from the East Antrim constituency into South Antrim, and back into East Antrim again. In Newtownabbey, we suffer in particular from the difficulties that arise from parliamentary constituencies.

Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?

Mr K Robinson: No, I am sorry; I want to develop this point.

There are three MPs representing Newtownabbey. Whether that is a bonus or a detriment I will leave for the House to decide. The three constituencies come together, making it very difficult sometimes for people to actually identify where they are. Coming down to council boundaries, situations arise such as that found in my own area of Newtownabbey — the university area — where four of the council wards are a part of the South Antrim constituency, and three of the wards are part of East Antrim. Several wards that once upon a time were in Newtownabbey are now in the North Belfast constituency.

The electorate get more disenfranchised and disenchanted when there is a councillor or an MP who perhaps has worked for them previously, and suddenly that person cannot cross a road. Some of my colleagues will recognise Fernagh Road in Newtownabbey, the right-hand side of which is part of North Belfast, while the left-hand side belongs to East Antrim. What can be done when there is a hole in the middle of the road?

I would have thought that this Bill represented an opportunity to rectify some of the anomalies that have arisen, both at parliamentary and local council level, and, of course, in relation to the membership of this House. There is an opportunity to address those anomalies and to bring the electorate closer to the democratic process. We have all seen how, over the years, electoral turnout has decreased again and again. I suspect that one of the reasons for that is that people are not identifying as strongly with districts and local political representatives as they could and should. If we look at our boundaries as we are moving through this process, that will give us an opportunity to rectify at least some of those issues.

All politics is local, and people really do identify with someone whom they see out on the ground — someone who is around and who is dealing with the local issues — and that translates beyond the local councils into the membership of this House under its current structures. If there were more support for the amendments, there would be a last-ditch opportunity to address some of those issues and to make democracy more accountable and more relevant to folk on the ground.

There is also a social aspect to the issue. The Monkstown ward in my constituency would, in any other situation, score highly on several indices, which would bring money pouring into that area. Unfortunately, part of the area incorporates Jordanstown, where social deprivation is not as noticeable, shall we say. That tends to skew the amount of help that can be directed to solving the social problems in the Monkstown area. There are opportunities here to address social issues as well as democratic issues and issues of identity and local character.

The parliamentary constituency of East Antrim, as it currently is, can be taken as an example. It stretches from Cloughfern, on the fringes of Belfast, up to Carnlough in the Antrim glens. It is a beautiful rural constituency around the Carnlough area, and at the other end an equally beautiful area around Cloughfern — including Carnmoney hill, part of the Belfast hills complex — and yet obviously a very urban setting.

It is difficult to stretch a single identity between those two points. However, the two easily identifiable areas of Larne and Carrickfergus, and some smaller settlements, are located between them. The Minister must examine closely how to address such problems.

Mr Weir: I understand the Member’s point, and I appreciate his circumstances. I suspect that he is not unique in Northern Ireland in finding himself living in different parliamentary constituencies due to boundary changes. He asserted that, while living in the same house, he has been in three different constituencies. However, had the council boundaries been based on the parliamentary boundaries, he would have been in three different council areas as well.

Mr K Robinson: I do not accept that argument. The First-Minister-in-waiting, Mr Robinson, is referred to on page 62 of the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland’s fifth periodical report on parliamentary constituencies, which was published in March 2008. It states:

“In asserting that Cregagh ward is part of East Belfast he [Peter Robinson] highlights issues of family connections, culture, sport, church life, transport, work and return patterns.”

There are, therefore, additional considerations to those that Mr Weir highlighted. On page 75 of the same publication, Mr Dodds:

“spoke of no doubt in his mind that the people in the Crumlin and Woodvale wards would regard themselves as being in North Belfast, as would others currently in the Court DEA wards within Belfast West, in terms of community, social, family and shopping linkages.”

When I worked as a schoolmaster on the Shankill Road, there was always a political difference between the right- and left-hand sides of the road, but try telling that to the people of the Shankill Road — I doubt that they would agree.

I ask the Minister to reflect on some of the points that I and other Members have made in support of the amendments.

Dr Farry: I support the second group of amendments, particularly those tabled by the Alliance Party. The first group of amendments, discussed this morning, proposed significant changes to the direction of the Bill. There was a major difference of opinion in the House between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and the other three parties.

The second group of amendments represents a genuine attempt to improve the Bill given the direction in which the Minister, her party and Sinn Féin wish to take it. These amendments do not radically change the Bill, but are designed to ensure that the Assembly does its job as a legislature by improving legislation. In this case, the Assembly has been denied the opportunity to improve the Bill through a Committee Stage, which would have teased out these issues. Today’s debate forms part of a severely curtailed process in which amendments have been tabled at short notice, and parties have not been given enough time properly to consider the issues.

Had the Minister and her officials taken the time to examine the 2006-07 report of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, they would have found clear evidence to support the Alliance Party’s stance today. We want logical wards that form the basis for logical district electoral areas. It is not a matter of seeking party-political advantage; we want to ensure that the coherence of communities is reflected in electoral units and extends to electoral representation.

Enumeration districts exist within wards, but the wards are important when it comes to the census and TSN. I will cite one example from my North Down constituency: the Harbour ward in Bangor is a TSN area for which we are trying to attract money. Under the new proposals, it would merge with the Princetown Road, which is one of the wealthiest areas in North Down. That would dilute the focus on the Harbour ward as an area of disadvantage. The new ward would be called Bangor Marina, which would send out the wrong message about that area. It would be very hard to make a pitch for targeting social need in the Bangor Marina ward. That is one example of many.

4.00 pm

The wards that have been drawn up in both urban and rural areas are flawed in various ways. After the last Boundary Commission review, my party went through the report in detail and tabled a number of amendments in an attempt to tidy up maps and to respect natural communities. Some of the amendments were accepted; quite frankly, however, it is not the job of political parties and local people to take the initiative and to try to fix problems at the eleventh hour. If the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner had a proper mandate, many problems could be avoided.

In Belfast, for example, guess what ward Crumlin Road prison is in? The answer is not Crumlin. Surely it is logical to have Crumlin Road prison as part of Crumlin ward? People might suppose that all of the village of Crossgar, in the Down district, is in Crossgar ward, but they would be mistaken. A sliver of Crossgar is going to be portioned off into a different ward. The Crossgar ward is going to stretch right across the rural hinterland and take in the fringes of Saintfield. That is not logical in any shape or form.

It could be argued that, in the end, this is simply about drawing lines on a map, and it does not really matter. However, the process of drawing up wards will, inevitably, feed into the drawing up of district electoral areas. Whenever wards take in fringes of settlements, with other parts going off to different wards, that immediately constrains the flexibility for drawing up coherent district electoral areas. Inevitably, district electoral areas are then drawn up that do not reflect common sense, touching a range of communities, yet some of those communities not having a single focus for elected representatives. That makes a difference when people want to make representations to local representatives.

Another example from my area is Helen’s Bay, a coherent community in North Down that is having a lot of difficulties regarding planning. Many old houses in the area are being demolished, and there is a lot of garden grabbing. The local community is, naturally, exercised by that and they want to approach their local representatives about the matter. The problem with Helen’s Bay, however, is that it is split between Holywood and Bangor West. Under the provisional boundary recommendations last year, the village of Helen’s Bay was to continue to be split between two wards. Therefore, there is still no focus for that community in respect of going to locally elected representatives to have their problems solved.

There are too many examples of wards that are dumb-bell or doughnut in character. In dumb-bell wards, major centres of population are at either end of the ward, with sparsely populated, rural areas in between; while, with the doughnut effect, the ward is populated around the fringes, with playing fields or open spaces such as parks in the middle. That creates difficulties and does not make a lot of common sense. Therefore, drawing up district electoral areas can result in one part of that fringe hanging in the wind, with the focus of that area based elsewhere.

The situation could be improved if the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner gave some thought to social coherence when drawing up boundaries. He or she would not be bound by that, but he or she should bear it in mind. Social coherence is not about segregation on the grounds of religion or class — and the Alliance Party is not talking in those terms when it talks about social coherence. We are talking about creating and reflecting natural communities, where people live and interact, and respecting and preserving such areas. When we ask the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to show some consideration towards district electoral areas, we are not trying to tie his or her hands.

My party is simply seeking to ensure that consideration is given to how wards eventually join up with one another. In my experience, that was not the case last time around.

Although I appreciate that the Minister is making efforts to streamline the process between the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner and the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, who will follow, at present, there is no formal requirement on the Boundaries Commissioner to give any consideration to the process that will come afterwards. Although, in some people’s minds, the processes may be separate, in my mind they are inextricably joined. If the Assembly is serious about joined-up Government, this Bill offers a clear opportunity for some joined-up thinking. Even at the eleventh hour, I plead for greater consideration to be given to the second group of amendments, given that they have been tabled with the sincere aim of trying to improve this piece of legislation.

The Minister of the Environment: I accept absolutely that the amendments, particularly those put forward by Dr Farry’s party, have been made with sincerity. However, I intend to go through the reasons why they would cause more confusion than provide clarity.

I will start with amendment No 11, which seeks to introduce equivalent provisions in the Bill to those contained under the Local Government Act 1992 in England. I must say that seeking to use those provisions backs up the old saying that there is no need to innovate when one can imitate. It is disappointing that Members have decided to simply lift elements from other legislation when, in fact, there are considerable differences, which I will explain, between English legislative procedures and those in Northern Ireland.

Legislation in England provides that in carrying out a review, the Boundary Committee for England must have regard to equalising the number of electors who are represented by each councillor; community identity; and convenient and effective local government. Much has been made of the fact that that works in England. I refer the House to the Boundary Committee for England’s ‘Electoral reviews: Technical guidance’, which was published in February 2008. It refers to both issues: community identity, and convenient and effective local Government. Paragraph 5.20 of the document states:

“The other two main considerations we are required to take into account are harder to define, as they cannot be measured can often mean many different things to different people.”

Paragraph 5.24 goes on to state:

“Effective and convenient local government is also difficult to define.”

The Boundary Committee for England published another paper, entitled ‘Electoral Reviews: what they are and how you can get involved’, which states:

“Equalising the number of electors represented by each councillor is only one of the considerations we are required to take into account that can be measured objectively. By contrast, the other two main factors — reflection of community identity and convenient and effective local government — are more subjective”.

I agree with those sentiments. I am not enthusiastic about requiring the Boundaries Commissioner to make subjective judgements.

Although it may be attractive to lift items from a Great Britain Act and add provisions from GB legislation to the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill, the two systems are not ad item. In England, the system for reviewing boundaries is different. The Boundary Committee for England can carry out electoral reviews, boundary reviews, structural reviews, and so on. There is also a two-tier local government system, plus parish and community councils. Therefore, to compare the legislation in Northern Ireland with that of England is not to compare like with like.

There are two problems with amendment No 11. First, how can the Boundaries Commissioner reflect the interests of local communities when those interests may well be diverse or even conflicting — to which community’s interests would he or she attach most weight? Secondly, I am not sure that the delineation of ward boundaries will secure effective local government. I would have thought that it would be the new councils’ responsibility to deliver effectiveness through, as we have already heard, community planning, the power of well-being and, indeed, the other powers that are to transfer down to local government. I am sure that councillors will work hard on that.

Under the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972, schedule 4, Part III, paragraph 7(1), the number of electors for each ward in a district should be as equal as possible. As has already been stated, the same is not the case for districts. In that excepted piece of legislation, which rests with the Secretary of State, it is not specified that the electorate in each district must be equal. I am sure that my friends will acknowledge that that is the case.

I notice that no party or individual has sought to amend schedule 4, Part III, paragraph 7(1) of the 1972 Act. Therefore, some of the arguments that have been made about the equal number of electors are rather vacuous.

Mr Kennedy earlier quoted from a statement that I made on 21 April, in which I said:

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel”. — [Official Report, Bound Volume 29, p297, col 2].

I am sure that he will also acknowledge the cliché “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. Local identity can be taken into account, and anyone can make representations on that issue to the commissioner, either in writing or in a public hearing. However, as far as I am concerned, the change that Mr Kennedy has proposed is not needed in order to allow the commissioner to take local identity into account.

Amendment No 12 seeks to require the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to have regard to the desirability of determining district and ward boundaries that are socially coherent. The fundamental difficulty is that social cohesion is not a well-defined concept, and that amendment makes no attempt to define it. Indeed, the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality said:

“I dislike the term ‘community cohesion’, frankly. I think it lacks clarity.”

We cannot ask a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to propose boundaries for wards or districts based on concepts that lack clarity. For that reason —

Mr Ford: I appreciate that social cohesion is not readily definable. Certainly, our amendments have not attempted to give it the same strength as the paragraph of the 1972 Act that the Minister quoted with reference to equal electorates. However, does the Minister agree that a ward consisting of two housing estates in Randalstown, a large stretch of open countryside and three housing estates in Antrim is not coherent in any sense?

The Minister of the Environment: I cannot make that determination, and I am surprised that the Member can do so. It is up to local representatives to raise such points with the commissioner. During the debate, it has become apparent that many Members have already decided where the boundaries lie. There was much mention of the Mountains of Mourne and other physical features, of which we will no doubt hear more from Mr Beggs when he speaks on that issue.

If local Members are going to make representations to the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, I would have thought that they would have had enough confidence in their arguments to make those points.

Much has been made of the previous Local Govern­ment Boundaries Commissioner and his report. I think that Mr Farry spoke about that. I made the point this morning — or was it this afternoon? I cannot remember when I made my last winding-up speech; it is all blurring at the edges. In the debate on the first group of amendments, I made the point that that report had a certain air of unreality about it because people knew that if devolution got up and running again, frankly —

Dr Farry: I thank the Minister for giving way. I agree with her about the level of responses that came from political parties and members of the public. However, having made detailed representations on behalf of the Alliance Party and also as a local representative, and having attended several different inquiries, I can testify that the assistant commissioners and the commissioner were treating it as a genuine exercise. That is because they had to operate legally on the assumption that the seven-council model may have been implemented until a decision was made to do otherwise. The commissioners considered that to be an extremely serious exercise, not just a paper exercise.

The Minister of the Environment: I accept that. I would not have thought that the commissioner would have done otherwise. However, I am saying that had it not been for the air of unreality hanging over him, he may have received more representations than he did.

Returning to amendment No 12 and my reason as to why the Bill is better without it — it leaves unchanged the rule that the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner should have regard to the desirability of determining boundaries that are readily identifiable. In other words, boundaries should be tangible and easily recognised by the population. I think that we are in agreement about that, and that is what we are trying to argue for. That should not, and cannot, be delineated in relation to abstract concepts, about which there were discussions today.

4.15 pm

Amendment No 13 is potentially even more proble­matic. It would mean that the commissioner could only divide a townland between districts and wards if that were in the interests of maintaining social cohesion. However, it demonstrates some confusion or misunderstanding of the prime function of the process of delineating electoral boundaries. The most important thing that the commissioner must achieve is electoral equality across each district. Put simply, that means that every vote in every ward should carry the same weight.

The importance of that is highlighted in the code of good practice in electoral matters, which has been adopted by the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission. It states that the variance from the average of the electorate per division should not exceed 10%. It is possible to imagine that, in the case of a densely populated townland, there may be a reasoned case for splitting it across boards or districts so that each electoral vote carries the same weight. Part III of schedule 4 to the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 states:

“A townland shall not, except where in the opinion of the Commissioner it is unavoidable, be included partly in one district or ward and partly in another.”

However, there are circumstances in which the commissioner may feel the need to split a townland due to problems caused by boundary defacement, housing developments and patterns that are not fixed over time. Mr Weir gave an example of a golf course that was divided by townland boundaries. It might be that the only way the commissioner can resolve the boundary of a townland that has been defaced is to split it. That would not be possible if amendment No 13 were adopted. The amendment would prevent the commissioner from his or her most crucial function, and it would prevent him or her from maintaining electoral balance in the pursuit of an abstract concept, which, however laudable, would undermine the democratic credibility of the new councils. That is precisely the opposite of what we are striving to achieve.

Amendment No 15 goes further than that and builds on the same ill-defined concept of social cohesion. I have already addressed the difficulties that that causes. The amendment seeks to tie the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, in his or her considerations, to pre-empting what the District Electoral Areas Commissioner may feel is necessary in delineating district electoral areas. Amendment No 15 may be the wrong legislative vehicle as it seeks to influence the District Electoral Areas Commissioner and would, therefore, subvert the district electoral area legislation.

Mr Ford: The Minister has said previously that she is seeking to have the District Electoral Areas Commissioner appointed early to work in parallel with the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner. What is the point of that being done if there is not to be interplay between them? The only logical reason for that interplay is to see that the work of one will assist the work of the other.

The Minister of the Environment: That is correct. I agree that the reason for that interplay is for one to assist the other, but it is not to predetermine the work of the other. I believe firmly that amendment No 15 would have that effect.

Mr Ford: Does the Minister appreciate that that is why the word “desirability” was used in our amendment?

The Minister of the Environment: There is no desirability for adopting amendment No 15. There is no need for the amendment; the two commissioners will work well together without the need to tie each other’s hands.

During the debate on 22 April 2008, Members suggested that there might be some benefit in trying to link the two-stage process. As I said then, I have some sympathy with that idea, but the adoption of amendment No 15 is not the way to achieve it. The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner cannot possibly be expected to draw up boundaries for wards while at the back of his or her mind considering what the District Electoral Areas Commissioner might think would be a socially cohesive district electoral area. I have told Mr Ford privately that I have already written to the Secretary of State about the District Electoral Areas Commissioner, and I hope that that process can run in tandem with that of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner.

Dr Farry: Does the Minister accept that amendment No 15 does not seek that the District Electoral Areas Commissioner would devise district electoral areas or would conceive of what a district electoral area would look like? Rather, the amendment seeks to ensure that, when wards are being drawn up, how a ward is plugged into a future district electoral area be borne in mind? Does the Minister appreciate that those are two separate concepts, which are subtly different from each other?

The Minister of the Environment: I accept that, but it is not the job of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to set the district electoral areas. That is the difficulty with amendment No 15.

Amendment No 14 seeks to achieve something similar to the amendments that I have discussed, but it uses slightly different terminology. Local identity and community ties are also subjective, and that point was well made by my colleague from North Down Mr Weir.

To one person, the term “community tie” might mean something entirely different than to the person next door. Such a person may attend a different church or play a different sport, either of which might be described as a community tie. To some people, local identity might be reflected in school catchment areas; to others, it might be the local shops that they use. Nevertheless, when deciding in which ward people should cast their vote, I question whether those notions are of any value.

The Local Government Boundaries Commissioner’s remit must be unambiguous, workable, practical and fair, and, I am sorry to say, the amendments do not add clarity. In fact, if anything, they muddy the waters, and anything that detracts clarity from the commissioner’s role would detract from the process’s legitimacy and the integrity of boundaries that it might produce. For that reason, I urge Members to reject the amendments.

Mr Beggs: In my opinion and, I believe, in the opinion of most reasonable people, amendment No 11 should be adopted. For local communities, it identifies several real issues that have been overlooked in the past.

As mentioned earlier, Northern Ireland suffers from outdated legislation. Updated guidance for the Local Government Commission for England, which is contained in the Local Government Act 1992, is not yet available here, and, indeed, difficulties in securing effective and convenient local government arose because the previous Local Government Boundaries Commissioner could not take into consideration terms such as “readily identifiable”, “reflect the identities and interests of local communities” and “secure effective and convenient local government”.

Mr Kennedy said that Mr Weir and Mr Sammy Wilson highlighted the importance of local identity and social coherence, and, if they wish to be true to those words, they should support amendment No 11 and, for that matter, amendment Nos 12, 13 14 and 15. However, they now appear to be backtracking.

Mr Kennedy and Mr Ford pointed out that the previous commissioner’s report, which proposed seven super-councils, demonstrated the weaknesses of not actively applying those considerations to its determinations, and that caused errors that would have detracted from local communities and local democracy.

Mr Weir seemed to acknowledge some merit to such considerations when determining district council boundaries; however, he argued against applying them to determinations about ward-level boundaries. I fail to understand precisely why he chose to argue in such terms. He said that amendment No 11 may be unnecessary.

Mr Weir: The Member has raised two matters that relate to what I said. With regard to whether amendment No 11 is necessary or unnecessary, I qualified my remarks by stating that, if amendment No 11 were restricted purely to determining district council boundaries, there would then be a question about whether the amendment would be necessary or unnecessary.

I identified ward-level determinations because a situation could arise in which, in order to accommodate local interests, instead of a district council area comprising 150,000 voters, it might have 160,000 or 170,000 voters. Some degree of variation would be possible. A problem would arise if such flexibility were applied at ward level. If local identity were the focus, one could create a ward comprising 500 or 5,000 voters, which is a massive variation, and that is why it would be a major miscalculation to treat wards and districts in the same manner.

Mr Beggs: The Member failed to consider the opening paragraph of amendment No 11, which states:

“Regard shall be had to the desirability of”.

That does not mean that those should be the only considerations; however, amendment No 11 would allow those considerations to be taken seriously by the commissioner. Mr Weir, undoubtedly, said that amendment No 11 was unnecessary, which means that it may be necessary —

Mr Weir: If the Member consults the Hansard report tomorrow, he will see that I clearly said that under no circumstances should those considerations be applied to ward boundaries. However, if they were to be applied purely to district boundaries, amendment No 11 might, or might not, be necessary.

If there were a different amendment, the consider­ations might be regarded as explicit or implicit. Therefore, the Member has selectively quoted what I said to produce a different meaning, as other Members will acknowledge. The Member will see the level of distinction that I used when he reads the Hansard report tomorrow.

Mr Beggs: I said that I failed to understand the Member’s reasoning for accepting the adoption of powers at a district level and not at a ward level. However, that is for him to clarify.

Mr Gallagher mentioned similar issues, such as the importance of physical identity and the importance of community in making determinations. Therefore, there is a similar line of thinking among SDLP Members as at this end of the House.

Mr Gallagher also expressed concern about the outworkings of the Sinn Féin and DUP deal. Those consequences may not be apparent now, but the difficulties will occur when the outworkings occur on the ground and pockets of areas are displaced. By then, it will be too late to make changes. My East Antrim colleague Mr Ross fails to understand that just because lots of people are not at his door asking about those issues, it does not mean that they are not important or that they should not be addressed.

Mr Ross also wanted the commissioner to make his or her own determination on boundaries. However, he failed to acknowledge that the commissioner has little leeway to give effect to his or her judgement. Again, I refer to the outworkings of the seven-super-council model, whereby only minor tweaks were made. I fail to understand how Mr Ross can say that the commissioner has been given the authority to make decisions, because there is very little flexibility.

Such matters should not be rigid in a democratic society. Identity, local communities and other matters should be taken into consideration in a professional manner. Instead, Sinn Féin and the DUP have made a deal, which will be rigidly implemented. I am disappointed that Sinn Féin and the DUP have opposed every amendment — they have not listened, which is not healthy in a democracy. Reasonable and constructive amendments have been proposed, but they have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps, if an amendment was accepted, the back-room deal would break down and other problems would arise.

It is unfortunate that there is a lack of debate in the Assembly on certain matters. Members are being whipped by their parties, and the DUP and Sinn Féin are not allowing Members to reflect local concerns and are not allowing a Local Government Boundaries Commissioner to make adjustments that reflect the importance of boundaries to local communities.

Mr Ross: Will the Member acknowledge that the Executive made the decision on the Bill? There are two Ulster Unionist Party Ministers on the Executive — which is a democratic part of this institution — so it was up to them to make their arguments at Executive meetings.

Mr Beggs: I can count. The DUP and Sinn Féin Ministers would have overridden the Ulster Unionist Party Ministers in the Executive. The Ulster Unionist Party said that it would propose amendments. It is important in a democracy — and an Assembly — that those in a position of power listen carefully to what others say and to the constructive amendments that are tabled. A democracy should not allow half a dozen Ministers to take decisions and adopt a Stalinist approach, which I mentioned earlier, to force their parties to accept measures. All sides should be listened to in the Assembly, and reasonable comments and amendments should be accepted. That has not been the case.

4.30 pm

Mr Ford stressed that his amendments were designed to improve the process, and most reasonable people would appreciate that. He illustrated his point with the difficulties of the Tardree ward, now Shilvodan where a local townland had been separated by the M2. Mr Ford also spoke about how, in rural communities, townlands were much more relevant than roads in deciding boundaries. Sinn Féin and the DUP, again, seem to ignore that problem as shown by their failure to support amendment No 13, tabled by Mr Ford.

My colleague Ken Robinson highlighted the difficulties in Newtownabbey, where the council area is served by three Westminster constituencies. He made a good and cogent argument as to why there should be as high a degree of coterminosity as possible in Newtownabbey and other areas. However, the proposals put forward by the Minister do not reflect that, and that will result in confusion. There is a real risk that the local electorate may be put off by the confusion of having huge variations between Westminster constituencies and local government boundaries. As a result, constituents may feel that they are not well served. It would be much better if people understood that they were being served in the same geographical area, rather than having to be represented by three Westminster MPs and one council.

The Ulster Unionist Party was led to believe that the Minister of the Environment would be open to reasonable and constructive amendments. Therefore it is disap­pointing that all amendments, thus far, have been rejected.

Mr Kennedy indicated how out of date our boundary legislation is at present. That was used by the Minister in some of her remarks as a way of rejecting his tabled amendment because of some difficulties elsewhere. However, I am sure that many other areas have realised benefits from the more updated English legislation and guidance.

There was criticism of the Ulster Unionist Party for simply adopting wording used elsewhere. I would have thought that this would have the effect of simplifying legislation in the UK and as a result Northern Ireland legislation would have fitted in better with other UK legislation. The amendment should have been more acceptable to the Minister.

The Minister, however, does not seem to want to have any subjective decisions made. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin seem to want their deal, and the boundaries, to be cut and dried. They would supplement this with a few minor tweaks that a commissioner may determine, to be thrust upon the community irrespective of what failings may result. I am disappointed with that approach.

Others have argued that “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. However, if we can see difficulties coming down the line should we not try to make improvements? That would avoid faults arising in the future. Again, I am disappointed with that lack of openness and flexibility.

It is a sad day for this Assembly when the two major parties do not listen to sensible, reasoned amendments made by other parties. Instead, they try to ramrod through their proposals, having carefully carved up Northern Ireland to suit their own narrow self-interest.

I support amendment No 11, in particular, and will also support amendment Nos 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Amendment No 11 proposed: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) for paragraph 14 substitute—

“14. Regard shall be had to the desirability of determining district and ward boundaries which—

(a) are readily identifiable;

(b) reflect the identities and interests of local communities; and

(c) secure effective and convenient local government.”.” - [ Mr Kennedy.]

Question put, That amendment No 11 be made.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I think that the Noes have it.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. On the collection of voices, it was clear in this part of the Chamber that this matter is worth a Lobby vote.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Speaker sits in this part of the House, where it was eminently clear that the Noes had it.

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. My understanding of Standing Orders is that a challenge to the provisional opinion of the Chair results, and has always resulted, in a Division through the Lobbies — including on at least one occasion, when, if I may gently remind you, Mr Deputy Speaker, you assessed the voices wrongly.

Therefore, based on the precedent that was established by you and your colleagues and the Speaker, and given that there was a challenge to your statement that you believed that the Noes had it, you should have granted a Division.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you for that point of order, Mr Ford. I have made my decision.

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, will you advise Members under what circumstances you would rule that a Division be granted, given that, on all previous occasions, a Division has been granted on the basis of a challenge to the opinion given from the Chair?

It appears that you are creating new rules for the Assembly, and I think that you have a duty to explain those rules.

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is the duty of the Speaker or Deputy Speaker to make a judgement on the collection of voices. The judgement that I made was that the Noes quite clearly had it. I made my judgement fairly and squarely on that basis. If a Division had been called, I firmly believe that the result would not have been any different.

Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Surely it is complete nonsense to suggest that this House is run in the way that was suggested by Mr Ford. If that were the case, the Speaker would have no authority. The Speaker, or, in this case, the Deputy Speaker, has authority, and has used it properly. The Speaker’s past and present authority cannot be bowed by a challenge such as the one that was made by the Member.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Amendment No 12 has —

Mr Ford: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, I believe that the Assembly follows parlia­mentary precedent. On a previous occasion, when a ruling of the Speaker was challenged and a Division was granted, the Finance Minister told me during the Division that, in another place — in Westminster — he and the honourable Member for North Antrim had divided the House of Commons when they were the only two voices of dissent. It appears to me that that would be a rather useful precedent for you to take on board.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Mr Ford, this is not another place. This is this place, and I have taken a collection of voices and it was quite clear at this end of the Chamber that the Noes had it. That is my decision and I am continuing with further business.

Mr Ford: Further to the point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, are you now making a clear ruling that precedents established in the House of Commons, which have so far been taken to apply in this place, no longer apply here — that, in effect, you are tearing up Erskine May, as from this afternoon?

Mrs I Robinson: Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker, is Mr Ford aware that, in another place, if I had used the term “misleading”, I would not have been put out of the Building?

Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. I take Mr Ford’s point of order regarding precedent. There is precedent in the Assembly when the Speaker’s decision has been challenged on a number of occasions. I believe that Mr Ford has made three challenges — I will check the Hansard report. The Division is called.

Question put, That amendment No 11 be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 29; Noes 50.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Kennedy and Mr McCarthy.


Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Donaldson, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr G Robinson and Mr Ross.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment No 12 proposed: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) at end of paragraph 14 insert—

‘and socially coherent’.” — [Mr Ford.]

Amendment No 12 negatived.

Amendment No 13 proposed: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) for paragraph 15 substitute—

‘15. A townland shall not, except where in the opinion of the Commissioner it is unavoidable in the interests of maintaining social cohesion, be included partly in one district or ward and partly in another.’” — [Mr Ford.]

Amendment No 13 negatived.

Amendment No 14 proposed: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) at end of paragraph 16 add—

‘(16A) The Commissioner shall make recommendations on the number and boundaries of districts having regard to the size, population and physical diversity of Northern Ireland, local identity and community ties and the representation of the rural and urban electorate.’” — [Mr Gallagher.]

Amendment No 14 negatived.

Amendment No 15 proposed: In clause 2, page 2, line 28, at end insert

“( ) at end of paragraph 17 add—

‘; and

(c) the desirability that wards may be easily grouped into readily identifiable and socially coherent district electoral areas.’” — [Mr Ford.]

Amendment No 15 negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Amendment No 16 is dependent on amendment No 1. As amendment No 1 has not been made, I will not call amendment No 16.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 3 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Long title

Mr Deputy Speaker: Amendment No 17 is dependent on amendment No 1. As amendment No 1 has not been made, I will not call amendment No 17.

Amendment No 18 is dependent on amendment No 2. As amendment No 2 has not been made, I will not call amendment No 18.

Question put, That the long title be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The ayes have it.

Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I suggest that the vote was closer than you have indicated.

Mr Deputy Speaker: Thank you for your advice Mr Kennedy.

Question put, That the long title be agreed.

Mr Deputy Speaker: The ayes have it.

Mr B McCrea: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. From this perspective, it seemed that the votes were balanced. I respectfully suggest that the House should divide.

Mr Deputy Speaker: I shall bow to your superior knowledge, Mr McCrea, and I shall put the question again.

Question put, That the long title be agreed.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 48; Noes 29.


Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland, Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler, Mr T Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Irwin, Mr G Kelly, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr I McCrea, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McQuillan, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy, Mr Newton, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O’Dowd, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Poots, Ms S Ramsey, Mr G Robinson, Mrs I Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey, Mr Weir, Mr Wells.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr G Robinson and Mr Ross.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Rev Dr Robert Coulter, Mr Cree, Mr Dallat, Mr Elliott, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Gallagher, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Ms Lo, Mrs Long, Mr McCallister, Mr McCarthy, Mr B McCrea, Mr McGlone, Mr O’Loan, Mr P Ramsey, Mr K Robinson, Mr Savage, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Noes: Dr Farry and Mr Kennedy.

Long title accordingly agreed to.

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

Committee Business

Standing Orders

Mr Deputy Speaker: As the next four motions relating to amendments to Standing Orders are connected, I propose to conduct only one debate as follows.

I shall ask the Clerk to read the first motion, and will then call the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures, who shall move that motion. The debate that will then take place will encompass all the motions. When all who wish to speak have done so, I shall put the Question on the first motion.

Subject to that motion’s being carried, I shall then ask the Clerk to read the second motion into the record and ask the Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures to move it. I will then put the Question on the second motion without further debate. I shall continue this process until all the motions have been read into the record, moved and voted on. If that is clear, we will proceed.

The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow): I beg to move

After Standing Order 23 insert:


(1) A Member may seek leave of the Speaker to make a statement to the Assembly on a matter which fulfils the criteria specified in paragraph (2) by making a formal request not later than the time provided for in paragraph (3), which formal request shall outline the subject matter of the proposed statement.

(2) In deciding whether to grant leave to a Member who has made a formal request under paragraph (1) the Speaker shall take account of the following criteria –

(a) whether the proposed statement relates to a matter which has occurred and has come to public attention since the Assembly last stood adjourned;

(b) whether the proposed statement relates to a matter which is of exceptional public interest;

(c) whether the proposed statement relates to a matter which directly affects the people of Northern Ireland;

(d) that the specific subject matter of the proposed statement is not, and has not previously been, the subject of or directly related to a statement, application, notice or referral made or given under this or any other Standing Order.

(3) Any request under this Standing Order shall be made not later than–

(a) 9.30 am on any sitting day; or

(b) if the Speaker is satisfied that the event or incident to which the formal request relates came to the attention of the Member at such time that the Member could not reasonably have made a formal request by the time stipulated in sub-paragraph (a), such later time as the Speaker may direct.

(4) As soon as possible after receipt of a formal request under this Standing Order the Speaker shall decide whether to give a Member who has made the formal request under this Standing Order leave to make a statement, and shall forthwith notify the Member of that decision. If the Speaker gives leave for a statement to be made he/she shall allow the Member (together with such other Members as the Speaker may select) to make the statement as soon as reasonably practicable.

(5) No Member may intervene during a Member’s statement under this Standing Order and there will be no questions and no vote will be taken at the conclusion of the statement or statements.”

The following motions stood in the Order Paper:

In Standing Order 10(1), after sub-paragraph (h) insert new sub-paragraph

“(i) Matters of the day.” — [The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow)]

In Standing Order 68(1), after sub-paragraph (c) insert new sub-paragraph

“(d) in any statement made pursuant to Standing Order 23A,” — [The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow)]

In Standing Order 68(2), after sub-paragraph (c) insert new sub-paragraph

“(d) in any statement made pursuant to Standing Order 23A,” — [The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow)]

As Members will be aware, there have been a number of terrible incidents in Northern Ireland in the last few months, such as the building collapse in Victoria Street in Belfast on 10 March and the house fire in Omagh on 13 November 2007. There has also been an attempt to murder a policeman in Dungannon, and a similar attempt to murder a policeman in Londonderry.

These are but a few of the things that Members may have wished to speak on but, unfortunately, there has previously been no Standing Order provision to permit that.

The Assembly has no official way in which to recognise such events. Instead, Members have been reduced to making comments at the beginning or end of other speeches. That method of addressing or recognising such incidents is inadequate. It appears to the electorate — those whom we represent — that the Assembly is removed from such incidents. When considering the issue, Members of the Committee on Procedures said that it appeared that the Assembly was cold or indifferent to events that capture the attention of the people of Northern Ireland.

5.15 pm

The Committee has been examining the issue over the past few months, and its overwhelming concern has been to provide a dignified procedure that allows the voice of the Assembly to be heard on such occasions.

On behalf of the Committee, I present a new Standing Order to the Assembly for its approval. The purpose of the Standing Order is to afford Members an opportunity, in a plenary session, to comment on an event or incident of significant public importance or interest — for instance a civic emergency such as flooding — or an event that results in substantial loss of life or which is worth celebrating. I emphasise the word “significant”; the Committee does not envisage that the Standing Order will be used regularly. It was designed for significant events of a happy or a tragic nature.

Although the Speaker will be the judge of what may be accepted, the Committee does not foresee that a local sporting club that wins a local trophy, for instance, will be a matter of the day. It is not the intention of the Committee that matters of the day become the Assembly’s equivalent of the local news. That would rob important events of the gravitas that they deserve.

A request to raise a matter of the day must go to the Speaker, and it will be allowed at his discretion, subject to criteria that are detailed in the Standing Order. This is a new procedure that has no counterpart in any other legislature that the Committee looked at. As such, its operations will, to an extent, evolve over time. To that end, the Committee is content to leave its operation in the capable hands of the Speaker and his rulings.

If the new provision is approved by the Assembly, the Committee recommends that guidance on its implement­ation should be issued to reflect the Speaker’s ruling on its operation and to make it clear that it will be subject to the provisions of the Standing Order.

The proposed Standing Order is clear on several points, such as timing. It has been written to allow for new events; it is not anticipated that Members will be able to go back in history to present matters that are weeks, months or years old. However, allowance has been made for events that happen during recess.

Ideally, matters of the day will be taken immediately after prayers, but the Committee recognised that that will not always be possible. Depending on when an event happens, arrangements must be made for matters of the day to be taken as soon as is practically possible after the event. Such practical arrangements will be in the hands of the Speaker and will depend on and vary according to the type of incident and when it occurs.

It is also clear that the proposed Standing Order cannot be used by Members to raise a matter that was discussed under another Assembly procedure or for matters that are better suited to Assembly procedures such as Question Time. That stipulation has been added to maintain the dignity and gravity that is necessary for matters of the day.

Some consequential amendments arise from the proposed Standing Order. Standing Order 10(1) includes a list of categories of business to be conducted in the Assembly, and “Matters of the Day” will be added to that list. Sub-paragraphs will also be added to Standing Orders 68(1) and 68(2) to ensure that Members’ matters of the day are covered by Standing Order 68 “Sub Judice”.

As part of its annual editorial reprint of Standing Orders during the summer, the Committee will — as a matter of course — renumber the new Standing Order as Standing Order 28 and renumber every Standing Order thereafter.

I commend the new Standing Order to the Assembly.

Mr Deputy Speaker: As no other Member has indicated a request to speak, I will put the question. Before we proceed to the question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved (with cross-community support):

After Standing Order 23 insert:


(1) A Member may seek leave of the Speaker to make a statement to the Assembly on a matter which fulfils the criteria specified in paragraph (2) by making a formal request not later than the time provided for in paragraph (3), which formal request shall outline the subject matter of the proposed statement.

(2) In deciding whether to grant leave to a Member who has made a formal request under paragraph (1) the Speaker shall take account of the following criteria –

(a) whether the proposed statement relates to a matter which has occurred and has come to public attention since the Assembly last stood adjourned;

(b) whether the proposed statement relates to a matter which is of exceptional public interest;

(c) whether the proposed statement relates to a matter which directly affects the people of Northern Ireland;

(d) that the specific subject matter of the proposed statement is not, and has not previously been, the subject of or directly related to a statement, application, notice or referral made or given under this or any other Standing Order.

(3) Any request under this Standing Order shall be made not later than–

(a) 9.30 am on any sitting day; or

(b) if the Speaker is satisfied that the event or incident to which the formal request relates came to the attention of the Member at such time that the Member could not reasonably have made a formal request by the time stipulated in sub-paragraph (a), such later time as the Speaker may direct.

(4) As soon as possible after receipt of a formal request under this Standing Order the Speaker shall decide whether to give a Member who has made the formal request under this Standing Order leave to make a statement, and shall forthwith notify the Member of that decision. If the Speaker gives leave for a statement to be made he/she shall allow the Member (together with such other Members as the Speaker may select) to make the statement as soon as reasonably practicable.

(5) No Member may intervene during a Member’s statement under this Standing Order and there will be no questions and no vote will be taken at the conclusion of the statement or statements.”

Amendment made: In Standing Order 10(1), after sub-paragraph (h) insert new sub-paragraph

“(i) Matters of the day.” — [The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow).]

Amendment made: In Standing Order 68(1), after sub-paragraph (c) insert new sub-paragraph

“(d) in any statement made pursuant to Standing Order 23A,”. — [The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow).]

Amendment made: In Standing Order 68(2), after sub-paragraph (c) insert new sub-paragraph

“(d) in any statement made pursuant to Standing Order 23A,”. — [The Chairperson of the Committee on Procedures (Lord Morrow).]

Private Members’ Business

Access to Health Service Dental Treatment

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has allowed up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes to do so.

Mrs O’Neill: I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses concern about the lack of access to Health Service dental treatment across all Health Board areas; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to urgently bring forward an action plan to address the problem.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Sinn Féin is committed to creating a society where inequalities in health are eradicated, and everyone has equal access to the highest-quality healthcare services, which are provided on the basis of need. We believe that healthcare is a right and should be free at the point of delivery, and that includes access to dental services.

The backdrop to the motion will be clear to many Members — a similar motion was debated in July 2007, and all Members expressed concerns about the issue of access to Health Service dentists. During that debate, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety stated that he was committed to dealing with the problems that were highlighted, and he informed us about the primary dental care strategy and the changes in the commissioning process that could lead to an increase in the availability of dentists. Despite that, almost one year later, we find ourselves in a situation that has not improved.

We welcomed the additional moneys that the Minister made available towards the end of 2007, but despite that additional funding, the oral-health strategy and the primary dental care strategy, we, as MLAs working in our constituencies, do not see a difference. We do not see the changes in the front-line service. The current situation is that we have the worst oral health when compared with England, Scotland, Wales or the Twenty-six Counties. The level of tooth decay among 12-year-olds here is more than double that found in England, Scotland, Wales and the Twenty-six Counties.

In spite of that situation, people here still do not have full, equal access to Health Service dentists. I am sure that every MLA has been contacted by constituents who cannot access a Health Service dentist in their area. I represent Mid Ulster, which is a rural constituency, and I believe that the challenge is even greater in rural areas because, although access to dental services may have been sparse in the past, the situation has now become dire. Some people are unable to access a dentist at all; some are able to access a dentist only after a long wait; some are able to access a dentist only if they travel great distances, and then they also incur additional financial hardship.

If they cannot afford the additional finances, their oral health suffers. That situation is unacceptable, and we have a duty to our constituents to ensure that we work to remedy it.

Dentists have a crucial role to play in patient education and in the promotion of good oral health. For example, the majority of mouth cancers are detected by dentists during routine patient examinations. Oral-health promotion and preventative dental care require adequate time for dentists to spend with their patients. However, more than two thirds of dentists believe that they are unable to spend sufficient time with individual patients to enable them to take a more preventative approach to care. Dentists want to provide modern preventative care to patients, and to do so, they require properly funded dental services.

Funding for Health Service practices is derived from two sources: the fees that the dentists earn for providing treatment, and the allowances that are payable to dentists. From those allowances, dentists then have to meet their overheads such as staff costs, premises, and so on. Fees paid to dentists have not kept pace with increases in expenses over the years, which has led to a system that penalises dentists who were committed to the Health Service.

A survey of dental practitioners that was conducted in December 2007 found that poor Health Service fees and a general lack of funding was considered the biggest threat to the viability of dental practices.

The primary dental care strategy that was published in November 2006 set out a 10-year plan for the Health Service’s primary dental-care services. The strategy was developed with the local commissioning of services in mind. Under the proposed arrangements, commissioners will be responsible for securing primary dental-care services. Those services will be obtained from general dental practitioners, the community dental service and salaried staff, or a mixture of all three.

To ensure an equal spread of dentists across all locations and a fully accessible dental service, dentists need to be viewed as part of the new commissioning structures. That is the key to progress on the issue. Core to that is that everyone, regardless of postcode, should have full access to dental services on the basis of equality.

I am sure that, when the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety contributes to the debate, he will talk about the problems of retention and recruitment. I accept that, but I accept it as a challenge that the Minister has to meet. The recruitment and retention of dentists to the Health Service depends on the service being an attractive environment in which patients can receive high-quality dental care.

It is simply not good enough to say that the Health Service cannot compete with market forces. The Health Service has to compete in order to provide equitable services across the North. It is time for the Minister to become more inventive. We want to see an action plan that will clearly set out how he will address what can be described only as an absolute disgrace and as a failure on the part of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to provide high-quality care that is safe and effective.

As for retention and recruitment, it is not only experienced dentists that we are losing from the NHS each year. What incentive is the Minister providing to newly qualified dental graduates? Each year in the North, we aim to produce 40 new graduates. On graduation, those individuals require places in training practices to begin their careers. However, in the past two years, that target of 40 new training places has not been achieved: there were only 30 places in 2007, and 32 places in 2008. That forces graduates to seek their training elsewhere.

I am aware that dental students are the most expensive to train, with costs running at perhaps double what it costs to train a doctor. However, what return do we get from that investment? The investment is substantial and we should expect to retain the service of dentists that we train. I call on the Minister to outline during his contribution what efforts he has made to address that issue.

The issues are clear. We want more effort to retain and recruit Health Service dentists, and we want to see more community dental services that will be responsive to local need. Furthermore, we want equality of service, and we want an action plan to deal with those issues. There is currently no fair deal when it comes to accessing Health Service dentists. Go raibh maith agat.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mrs I Robinson): I welcome the opportunity to speak during the debate on behalf of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and to give the motion the full backing of the Committee. I am pleased that the motion has been tabled by members of the Committee, and I note that the previous motion on this topic — which has already been mentioned — which was debated on 2 July 2007, was also tabled by members of the Committee.

Access to NHS dental treatment in Northern Ireland has been identified by the British Dental Association as being at an acute level. Despite assurances from the Minister that he is addressing the problem, it has not yet been resolved. That is why we find ourselves here, calling for urgent action.

5.30 pm

In a letter to the Health Committee on 21 February 2008, the Minister said that 800 general dentist practitioners were on the dental list. In evidence to the Committee on 6 March 2008, he said:

“Northern Ireland is well provided with dentists per head of population — we have 48 dentists per 100,000 people…Our problem is that dentists are drifting from the Health Service to the private sector, and that needs to be addressed.”

I could not agree more.

The reason for the drift from the Health Service to the private sector is because dentists are no longer sufficiently resourced by the Department and are unable to provide the service that the public requires.

The Minister quoted high figures in relation to practitioners. However, the number of dental practices has dropped from 362 in 2004 to 349 currently. While the number of dentists has risen by 34% in the last 10 years, the lack of resourcing into the infrastructure of dental services has markedly restricted service delivery. Furthermore, fees that dentists earn for providing treatment for NHS patients and allowances that are payable to dentists have not kept pace with increasing expenses. Dental practitioners in Northern Ireland have reported that poor NHS fees and a general lack of funding were considered to be the foremost threat to the viability of practices.

A significant part of the accessibility problem is reflected in the training regime for dental students, specifically dental practice placements. This year in Northern Ireland, 38 final-year students are looking for vocational training placements. There are only 32 dental training posts, although the Minister has provided funding for 40 training posts. This year, around 60 students are competing for those 32 places.

Many dental students are forced to look for training placements outside Northern Ireland, and there are more attractive options for dental graduates elsewhere. We are losing valuable expertise to what has often been described as the brain drain. Perhaps that is where we have much to learn from the Scottish model. An undergraduate dental student there receives £4,000 per year for each year of training. When the student qualifies, there is a range of incentives offered to graduate dentists to remain in Scotland, providing services to the NHS, and specifically to serve the outlying areas of Scotland; the Highlands and islands, where the need for dental services is the greatest.

If we were to resource our dental students in a similar way, we might go some way to meeting the urgent need of access to dental services in Northern Ireland, particularly in those areas where there is such poor access to dental services, such as in the west of the Province. I am sure that we will hear more in this debate about how the Western Health and Social Services Board has been seeking to recruit six salaried dentists but has not managed to recruit any as yet.

As in Scotland, if dental students choose to practise elsewhere, there could be appropriate buy-out clauses in such a scheme. With the historic underfunding, and growing demands on the profession, £500,000 for training allowances is insufficient funding to allow dentists to provide training facilities for new practitioners. It costs approximately £30,000 for a new surgery — that is before one can begin to take into account the running costs of that surgery, for example, the salary of a dental nurse or the training time of a senior practitioner.

To meet the costs of training dental trainers, dental training, by nature, is conducted on a one-to-one basis and is implicitly expensive. The Minister said that it costs approximately £175,000 to train each dentist and to meet all the new legislative regulations, including the installation of decontamination rooms that are required to service dental equipment.

I support the British Dental Association recommendation that the Department should consider investing in the future dental workforce through a bursary scheme for undergraduates. The Department should further explore means whereby new practitioners service the areas of high need through an incentive scheme, as in the Scottish model. I support the motion.

Mr McCallister: It is a regrettable reality that in Northern Ireland, and throughout the United Kingdom, significant numbers of people struggle to gain access to regular dental treatment.

Dental treatment is of paramount importance to everyone in society. The quality of people’s teeth can dictate the quality of their lives. In her opening remarks, Mrs O’Neill made a very important point about the number of cases of mouth cancer that are detected by dentists. It is vital that as many people as possible get access to a good dental service.

To ensure good dental health, and good general health, people must be able to visit a dentist whenever they need to. Northern Ireland’s dental health is poor in comparison to the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and that is why we must ensure that entitlement to Health Service dental care remains universal and as cheap as possible in the Health Service. Exempt patient groupings should continue to receive free treatment.

Preventative care is crucial for the future of dental health in Northern Ireland. There is a clear consensus in the Assembly that we have problems in our dental service that must be overcome. We have a problem recruiting and retaining dentists in the Health Service in Northern Ireland, and we need to improve access to dentists for all our local communities.

We should also recognise that Northern Ireland is not alone in facing such problems. A recent report highlighted that more than 23 million people received no dental care on the NHS in the two years up to September 2007. As far back as 2004, researchers at the University of Bath highlighted the fact that the NHS needed to recruit an extra 5,200 dentists. It is obvious that Northern Ireland and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety are not alone. For decades, underfunding and an antiquated policy have stripped Health Service dental practices of an ability to provide a cutting-edge service. The current Health Minister has inherited those problems, which have been building for years and, perhaps, even decades. Current issues cannot be overcome overnight, and Members should recognise that.

In previous years under direct rule, malfunctioning services would have gone on without any Government accountability. Under a devolved Administration, however, we have a Minister to answer our questions, and I am grateful for his attendance and look forward to his response.

The current Health Minister has delivered substantially for the people of Northern Ireland. In a heated debate, the Minister, by refusing to accept the draft Budget, won extra investment for health and social care services. Equally, he has delivered an extra £50 million investment in the Ambulance Service and the Fire and Rescue Service.

The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I wish to correct what Mr McCallister said. The Minister indicated that he did not sign off the draft Budget, and that was what was in question. He had denied that he had signed off. I want to put that on record.

Mr McCallister: The Minister was after more money, and he got more money — despite the opposition from the Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

A Member: Shame.

Mr McCallister: It was shameful at the time. The very person who should have been championing the Health Service was opposed to it.

The Minister has made substantial improvements to waiting times, and he has frozen prescription charges. Those are clear and significant achievements. The Assembly should recognise that we have a very proactive Minister.

In the light of our current problems, I warmly welcomed the Minister’s announcement last year of a £4·4 million boost to the Health Service, of which £0·2 million was recurrent. That was a substantial percentage increase in funding for the Health Service. A significant amount of that allocation was set aside to help ensure an adequate supply of new young dentists into Health Service dentistry and to boost vocational training, both of which are key issues in the debate. Money was also set aside to increase equality of access.

While it is recognised that more must be done, and we still have serious problems, it should be recognised that we are in a very different climate. The Minister can be held to account by Members in the Assembly, and he is proving that he is capable of responding to the major issues that face our health and social services.

I welcome and look forward to the Minister’s response. I support the motion.

Mrs Hanna: I thank those who moved the motion. As has already been said, my colleague Tommy Gallagher and I previously brought a similar motion to the Floor, but unfortunately the situation has not improved for people trying to access dental services. It has already been stated that Northern Ireland has the worst levels of oral health when compared to the UK and Republic of Ireland, and we know that poor oral health has a negative impact on people’s general health and well-being.

Dental health is an integral part of the National Health Service, but over the years we have seen that function being privatised by stealth. That is unacceptable because, like medical treatment, it should be free at the point of use, on the basis of need. The British Dental Association (BDA) says that, unlike GPs — who get 90% of their surgery costs reimbursed from the public purse — dental surgeries have to pay their running costs for premises, equipment, staff, professional insurance and the like, and that the reimbursement they receive from the NHS is not sufficient to cover those costs, which is why more and more dentists are opting for private practice. However, dentists are not private professional businesses, like, for example, an accountancy or legal practice. When people go to a chartered accountant or solicitor they go on a wholly fee-paying basis, with no public subsidy. Dentistry is not like that. It provides an essential public health service, and those who provide it need to be reimbursed fairly, but not exorbitantly.

I need to know the situation. What are the facts and figures? There are almost 800 dentists in Northern Ireland: what are they earning? Have reimbursement fees kept pace with inflation? Can those practices that opt for 100% NHS work be reimbursed on the same basis as GPs? We are told that the application of £7·9 million to dentistry in the 2007-08 budgetary year did little to address the problems of access, and that the funding was diverted into practice allowance, meeting the cost of compliance with infection control procedures, establishing salaried dentists and supporting the training of dental graduates. The BDA has stated that the recruitment of salaried dentists has been unsuccessful. What is the reason for that? What is the salary scale? Could it be simply that dentists can earn far more in private practice?

Northern Ireland has roughly the same number of dentists as any other part of the UK. Around 40 new dentists graduate from Queen’s University each year — although there were slightly fewer last year. It costs more to train a dentist than a doctor, which is a huge investment by the taxpayer. Do dentists have an obligation to pay back some of the money spent on their training? I do not know, but it is a question that needs to be asked. Has the delivery of dentistry services been privatised? Do we need to increase the intake of dental students? Could some be trained at Magee College, in order to deal with the very bad situation west of the Bann?

Dentists complain bitterly about the grindingly — I am sorry about the pun — mundane nature of National Health Service work, sometimes referred to as “drill and fill”, asserting that it is not only unrenumerative, but professionally unrewarding. Could dental hygienists, dental nurses and auxiliary services work with the professional dentists in a broader teamwork approach? I understand that the Minister and his Department are putting a contract in place, but that must be a contract that puts the patient and clients first, that provides timely service, free at the point of need, for those who are entitled and on benefits. Very importantly, if some people have to pay, it must be affordable. Currently, that is not the case, especially for people who are just above the benefits threshold — the very people who struggle to pay for everything.

When someone breaks a tooth, or has an excruciating toothache, there has to be an available dentist. Although the dental hospital is available for emergencies and more complex work, there is really just a skeleton arrangement of pain clinics. That is just not a long-term solution, and I ask the Minister to address those issues.

Mr McCarthy: I welcome this very important debate, and thank Cáral Ní Chuilín, Michelle O’Neill and Sue Ramsey for bringing it to the House. I, like every other Member, am asked on an almost daily basis by constituents to do something in the Assembly to make regular visits to the dentist much simpler and more affordable.

5.45 pm

It has been recognised that the poor dental provision in Northern Ireland does not meet the needs of the community and results in a low standard of oral health. I am glad to see that Minister Michael McGimpsey is in the Chamber to hear elected representatives present the case, on behalf of our community, for a much better dental service that should be easily accessible to everyone.

The inadequate and antiquated contracting system within which dentists work is one reason that people experience difficulties when they want to visit the dentist. I recognise that dentists must pay bills for their premises, equipment, staff, and so forth, but the Government must provide the necessary funding to ensure that everyone, not only those with cash, can receive a good dental service when required.

I acknowledge that the Minister secured extra funding in September 2007. However, he recognised that it was not enough to stop dentists leaving the Health Service and going into private practice. Clearly, not enough has been done, and I appeal to the Minister to heed what Members have said today. I ask him also to listen to the BDA, which is best placed to know that its members are still inclined to move away from the NHS, thereby depriving our constituents of the basic dental service to which they are entitled.

Now that there is a local Administration at Stormont, Members’ constituents want, need and expect it to deliver the services of local dentists to them and their children. The Assembly must encourage people to look after their oral health, and the duty of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is to ensure that there are no obstacles in the way of anyone who wants to access a dentist.

The training of dentists in Northern Ireland was mentioned, and the Department must ensure that new dentists are encouraged, by whatever means, to stay in Northern Ireland and provide a good dental service.

MLAs were elected to the Assembly to provide people with the basic necessities to enable them to have decent lives, and those basic necessities include the service of a dentist when needed. People are not terribly interested in how the Government contract out dentists; they simply want to be able to see a dentist when necessary.

I support the BDA’s request that dentists be represented on the new local commissioning groups. I am unsure whether that has happened, and perhaps the Minister will enlighten the Assembly on that. I support the motion, and I expect the Minister to deliver a good dental service for the community as soon as possible.

Mr Buchanan: The executive summary of the primary dental-care strategy that was published in September 2006 contained the damning statistic that Northern Ireland has the worst oral health in the UK. It highlighted the need for equitable access to dental services, which should be located across Northern Ireland to enable those who are less affluent and people with disabilities, who may rely on public transport, to receive care within a reasonable period of time.

However, two years after the publication of the report, which listed many recommendations and set many targets, the situation is so much worse that in some areas it is practically impossible to access an NHS dental practice.

As was mentioned earlier, the west of the Province has a shortage of dentists, but despite a recruitment drive by the Western Health and Social Services Board, not one of the six posts has been filled. A few weeks ago, a constituent from Trillick in west Tyrone went on radio to highlight how it was impossible to access an NHS practice — one simply could not be found. That is because all the dentists are walking away from the NHS and entering private practice.

Those constituents are angry and frustrated; they feel let down and discriminated against by the Department of Health and by the Minister of Health, who is responsible for rectifying the disparity in rural areas. His cheerleader John McCallister likes to blame everything on the past — and on the other Departments; however, it is the Minister who has failed on this occasion. Of course, it is nothing new to the people of West Tyrone to be on the receiving end —

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Buchanan: No, you will have your chance.

It is nothing new to the people of West Tyrone to be on the receiving end of inequality in healthcare provision. If this trend is allowed to continue, NHS dental practices will soon be extinct, especially in rural areas where they will be a thing of the past. I challenge the Minister to tell the House whether he will allow this to happen on his watch or whether he will do some­thing about it. Why is this happening, why are more dental practices going private, and what is wrong with the new NHS system? The answer is simple and twofold: first, the service is underfunded; secondly, it is unattractive. Many dentists have left the NHS, and many of those who remain are considering walking away because they find it difficult to make their businesses viable and because they must deal with the bureaucracy that surrounds accessing money from the NHS.

The affordability of dental practice infrastructure in the Health Service is a significant issue. Dentists cannot afford to locate, renovate and equip premises to provide dental care with the funding that they receive from the Health Service. Although NHS dentists receive a fee for the treatment that they provide and an annual allowance, they still have to meet the practice costs, which include premises, equipment and staff. The result is that experienced dentists and newly qualified graduates are being lost to the Health Service.

Mr McCallister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Buchanan: I know the Minister, and his response will —

Mr McCallister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Buchanan: You had your chance. I know the Minister, and his response will probably seek to highlight measures that he has taken to address this matter. However, like other Members, I remind him that that is not working because we do not have dentists in rural areas. West Tyrone is a prime example. As the motion states, we urgently require an action plan to address this matter.

The time for fine words and fair speeches is over. We want action, and we want the Minister to deliver. I support the motion.

Mr Deputy Speaker: When Members indicate that they do not wish to give way, one should not persist.

Ms Anderson: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Carál Ní Chuilín, Michelle O’Neill and Sue Ramsey for tabling the motion. The Stand up for Derry campaign has made improved health provision one of its central demands, and I would like the Health Minister to support the campaign on this issue.

I support the motion and want to draw attention to the situation in Derry, which is nothing short of a crisis. Not one dentist in Derry is accepting new NHS patients. Indeed, in the whole north-west, the only practice that accepts new NHS patients who are not on benefits is in Dungiven. All other dental practices in Derry, Strabane and Limavady have closed their doors to new NHS patients on benefits and are seeing new patients on a private basis only. One can get dental treatment in Derry — but only if one pays for it. That has placed an intolerable burden on many low-income families, who are being forced to take out loans in order to pay for essential dental treatment. Others are forced to suffer excruciating pain because they cannot afford to pay.

It is abundantly clear that the oral-health strategy for the north-west is not working. The Health Minister needs a strategy to attract dentists into the NHS so that something can be done, especially for people in the north-west.

Reports have shown that we have the worst level of oral health among children in Europe. That situation will not change unless drastic action is taken to get more NHS dentists in places such as Derry. As has already been mentioned, dentists leave the NHS all the time in favour of private practice. Therefore, a way must be found to keep them in the system.

The Western Health and Social Services Board recently advertised for six new Health Service dentists after receiving funding from the Health Department. It interviewed dentists for the posts in January, but it has not been able to make any appointments. It is, therefore, obvious that the Department must look seriously at how it intends to attract new dentists into the NHS.

Will the Minister consider funding existing dentists in the city in order to allow them to carry out NHS work one day each week, for example? Sinn Féin has met with several dentists in Derry who say that they are prepared to offer that service if the necessary funding is provided. There is no doubt that immediate intervention is required. That has been evident in the remarks of all Members who have contributed to the debate. Such intervention is essential if the problem is to be dealt with. Like other Members, I urge the Minister to introduce an action plan as soon as possible. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Easton: Many people enjoy good health, and their visits to medical practitioners may be few and far between. However, that is not always the case when it comes to their oral health and dental treatment. Most people agree that both emergency and regular access to dental treatment from dentists and supporting professional services are a necessity that should be available universally to the entire community on an equitable basis.

Northern Ireland’s population has the worst oral health in the United Kingdom. The average household in Northern Ireland spends more money on cigarettes, confectionery and sugared soft drinks than any other region in the UK. Northern Ireland also has to face the additional problem that it is the most deprived part of the United Kingdom. Research shows that we are inclined to eat fewer fruits and vegetables and brush our teeth less frequently. Deprived and materially disadvantaged people in the community are at greater risk, and they are the people who attend dental surgeries least often. Such matters require a considered response. The Assembly must pressurise the big drinks’ producers to develop a more responsible attitude to their products.

In spite of that, the Province’s dentist-to-population ratio is favourable to that of the rest of the United Kingdom. Sound oral-health strategies that target the young are in place. They are an important means of moving resources away from the treatment of disease and emphasising the importance of prevention. It is vital that there is equitable provision of, and access to, Health Service dental treatment across all board areas. Sadly, that is not the case. In the new Northern Ireland that it seeks to create, the Assembly must ensure that where people live, how much they earn, or their age should not determine the health- and dental-services that they receive.

I am aware that much work has already been done to analyse the situation and to determine the challenges that are faced. The situation is far from satisfactory. The primary dental-care strategy and the oral-health strategy for Northern Ireland, which were introduced in November 2006 and June 2007 respectively, are to be welcomed, along with applications for additional finance to tackle the most urgent problems.

Dentists, like any other professionals, are free to make decisions. One cannot blame them if they prefer to do private work. In such work, they earn more money, and the higher rates that they charge enable them to spend more time with patients and to do a better and, perhaps, more satisfying job. Health Service practitioners say that current rates prevent them from spending as much time as they would like with individual patients. They are under pressure because so many people need to be seen. Often, those dentists cannot devote the attention that they would like to specific patients. The outcome is that private practice is increasingly attractive for dental practitioners, but it is reducing the availability of inexpensive dental treatment for a considerable number of people in Northern Ireland. Of course, the people who suffer are those who live in disadvantaged or in rural areas, which have smaller populations.

The Assembly must make it more attractive for dentists to carry out Health Service work. Perhaps those dentists, who receive many years’ training at the expense of the public purse, should be contracted to treat a proportion of Health Service patients for a set period of years after they qualify.

6.00 pm

The differential access to treatment across various health and social services board areas is a matter of serious concern. We urgently need an action plan that addresses that problem.

I want to address some of the points that the Member for South Down John McCallister made. He forgot to mention that it was the Minister of Finance and Personnel who found the extra money for the health budget, not the Minister of Health, Services and Public Safety. He would do well to remember that.

Mr McCallister: Will the Member give way?

Mr Easton: No, I will not. While Mr McCallister was still in nappies, the Member for Strangford Iris Robinson was, for many years, fighting to secure funding for the Health Service and good causes in that sector. She has achieved a lot more than he ever will. If the Ulster Unionists took the health mandate seriously, they would turn up to the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, but they do not bother. Whenever they do attend, they come in late and go home early.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Mr Easton: If they wish, they can check the records in the Business Office. I support the motion.

Mr B McCrea: I welcome the opportunity to join this extended meeting of the Health Committee. I can assure Mr Buchanan or Mr Easton that, if either wants to intervene, bring it on, lads. If they had wanted to show their commitment to health, they would have picked it as a Department. It is the biggest, toughest, hardest job, and we took it on because we care about running this country. You lot sit there —

Mr Easton: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: No, I will not give way, because he would not give way to me. I will give way shortly, because I promised to do so.

For the record, I want to congratulate Mrs O’Neill on her excellent introductory speech. It was delightful that she was able to make a 10-minute speech in about six minutes — well done. Other Members should take heed of that.

I want to point out to Martina Anderson that I did not call for a point of order whenever she referred to Cáral, Michelle and Sue. It is nice to be polite and friendly when we are talking in the Chamber, unlike the Members to my left, who are incessantly trying to make party-political points.

Indeed, it was Carmel Hanna who made by far the best intervention, and asked some interesting questions. Mr Buchanan, however, seemed to say that we cannot keep blaming problems on the past — so is he going to blame them on the future? I have never heard such incoherent rubbish. We have a Health Minister who is on top of his brief, who knows what he is doing and who is delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. No amount of sniping or petty party-political posturing is going to change that.

If Members want to take me on, go ahead — I will take interventions. Let us see what they have got to say for themselves — or are they stuck to their seats?

Mr Easton: Will the Member explain why Members of his party do not attend Health Committee meetings and why, when they do, they leave early?

Mr McCallister: Does my friend want me to answer that point?

Mr B McCrea: I will take an intervention from my colleague.

Mr McCallister: Mr Easton’s question is more relevant to me, since I am a member of the Health Committee. The last time that Mr Easton raised that same question, he missed the next Health Committee meeting. It is strange that he has become the self-appointed attendance officer for the Health Committee. Sometimes, Members are prevented from attending Committee meetings because they have other matters to attend to. My attendance record is not much different from the majority of other members of the Committee. [Interruption.]

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member must make his remarks through the Chair. I remind Members that we are having a debate on the dental service, not on the goings-on of the Health Committee.

Mr McCallister: That is excellent advice, Mr Deputy Speaker. The attendance officer for the Health Committee should understand that. Does my honourable friend find it strange that Mr Buchanan snipes about underinvestment in the Health Service, and yet supports the draft Budget?

Mr B McCrea: I could not agree more. I cannot understand why Mr Buchanan talks about underinvestment when it was indeed his Minister who denied our Minister the resources that he needs to deliver the world-class service that our people want.

When will the DUP stop sniping from the side and start doing the job for which it was elected?

Mr Easton: Will the Member give way?

Mr B McCrea: The Member would not take an intervention, yet he wants to make one.

Mr Easton: Does the Member agree that an extra £500 million has been given to this year’s Health budget?

Mr B McCrea: Yes, and I wonder who opposed that position. The Ulster Unionist Party has been honest and true; we have come out and said what is required. We know that there are challenges facing the provision of dental health. The Minister has brought forward proposals, and I look forward to what he has to say on the issue. I particularly look forward to hearing details of the 10-year plan that is coming through now.


Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure that comments were made from a sedentary position.

We want to find out what will happen next on dental provision, and I am confident that our Minister is delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. I will not accept any lecturing or hectoring from people on Benches who do not know what they are talking about, whether they are on the Health Committee or not. We need to see action, and we will get action. The Ulster Unionist Party and our Minister is in charge and will deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Buchanan: It will be the first time that we have seen delivery from the UUP.

Mr Deputy Speaker: If any more remarks are made that are not directed through the Chair, some Members will find themselves going walkies.

Mr G Robinson: I will focus mainly on two specific groups that have been highlighted by various reports: disabled people, and the least wealthy people in society. Those two groups seem to have the greatest difficulty in accessing dentists and, therefore, the dental problems that they suffer are numerically greater than those of any other grouping. As an Assembly, we must recognise and tackle that.

I pay tribute to the staff at the dental unit of the Causeway Hospital in my constituency of East Londonderry. Given his recent visit, the Minister will be aware of the efforts that are made by those staff, and I am sure that he will agree that their contribution to aiding people with disabilities has been tremendous. Their dedication has given dental pain relief to many; it is an example of how those with a disability can be treated with the additional care and patience that is often required. I ask the Minister to pay special attention to recommendation 5.1 of ‘An Oral Health Strategy for Northern Ireland’, which was published in 2007.

The people who attend the clinic at the Causeway Hospital are the lucky ones. Many more people with disabilities have great difficulty in accessing dental care. In some cases, that has meant years of suffering; that cannot be allowed to continue. Units such as the one at the Causeway Hospital must be developed to ensure that disabled citizens can be treated in an effective manner. Everyone must be able to access dental facilities when they need to, especially for the relief of pain. On occasions, that treatment has not been available out of hours without great inconvenience or expense to individuals. One gentleman recently told me that he was expected to travel from Coleraine to Ballymena by taxi to receive treatment at 9.00 pm. If that had been a disabled individual, how could emergency dental treatment have been secured? That is a case for the development of out-of-hours services, which is a recurring theme for me.

I turn to the problems that face people who are the least materially advantaged in society. There is a direct link between social status and dental problems. I fully acknowledge the good work that the Department has already done, but a way must be found to ensure that dental problems are no longer linked to social status. I am not referring to some Dickens novel, but to Northern Ireland in the twenty-first century, so social status should not a barrier to dental treatment. Part of that must entail an educational message, perhaps using schools as a point of delivery. It should be tied in with overall health programmes such as those, promoting dieting or discouraging smoking, which are currently running. In the most deprived part of the United Kingdom, those messages are of even greater importance. That would also be an excellent mechanism for delivering the message early in an attempt to shift the emphasis to a preventative model of dental care.

That would tie in well with recommendation 3.3 in ‘Oral Health Strategy for Northern Ireland’, which was published in 2007.

I appreciate that the Minister must ensure that the value-for-money criterion is applied to any programme that might be developed; however, in order to ensure that standards are raised to the level that we all expect, some leeway should be granted to the two groups that I mentioned.

Mr Shannon: I congratulate the three Members for tabling the motion. It is an issue that concerns everyone in the Province.

It is not a full year since we last highlighted in this Chamber Northern Ireland’s problems with dental-care provision. At that time, the Minister assured Members that a strategy would be implemented to address the problem. However, the problem has clearly not lessened, and that is why we are having this debate. In my constituency as in others, the problem has grown. The Minister must tell us what improvements have been made since the previous debate as a result of the additional £2 million that he set aside in June 2007. Who benefited from that extra money?

Em poasitivly shair that Strenferd hisnae seen oany benefit an wud be ang shis tae ken whor tha change his’ bin wroucht.

Hoo dae a’ ken that Strenferd hisnae seen oany benefit? ‘Weil’, simpla frae tha amoont o’ fowk whau ring my offich in despair, as they canny fin a NHS dentis.

A hae tried my best tae sen fowk tae dentists that hae new patients, but they caun jist provied a’ servis tae sae mony. An whiel a’ tak oan boord tha point that was maed in tha las debate, that ther er mare dentists per heed in tha proavins than in Englan a’ feel a’ hae tae stress tha point, that mare fowk in tha Proavins need dental caer, mare than tha fowk in Englan a cause o’ tha fact we hae tha worst oral hygien in tha UK.

I am positive that Strangford has not been the beneficiary, and I am anxious to know where the change has been wrought. How do I know that Strangford has not benefited? I know by the sheer volume of constituents who ring my office in despair because they cannot find an NHS dentist. I have tried my utmost to refer people to practices that accept new patients; however, those practices can only provide a service to so many people.

Although I take on board the point that was made in the previous debate — that there are more dentists per capita in the Province than in England — I must stress again that, because we have the worst oral hygiene in the United Kingdom, more people in the Province require more dental care than people in England. Consequently, our dentists are consistently busier and work on more people than dentists in England.

For example, in my constituency, I know of a self-employed young man, with a wife and five children, who, because his previous dentist was struck off and having searched for an NHS dentist for more than a year, eventually found a dentist that could squeeze him in for an appointment. He began the process of having his teeth sorted out, including the costly procedure of having a bridge fitted; however, the dentist was so much under pressure and in demand that my constituent’s next appointment was more than a month later. In that time, the root of the bridge broke, and the work was rendered useless — £200 worth of work, done for nothing.

I know of young constituents who struggle to pay for dental provision, and, given that even on the NHS they cannot afford to pay for a crown, they have teeth removed instead, which leads to a situation in which many people will require dentures before the age of 35.

I concur with my colleague George Robinson’s comments about people who do not have the financial wherewithal to visit a dentist. That is intolerable, and I am anxious that such prohibitive costs should be examined. Saying that, I am well aware of the many exemptions from paying for dental care, which are good, and I welcome them. Nevertheless, the income threshold should be reconsidered in order to ensure that a 19-year-old person who is paid minimum wage and has problems with his or her teeth must not choose between paying for teeth that will last into the future and paying the car insurance premium that he or she requires in order to get to work.

During the debate last year, I highlighted the fact that neither children nor parents are taught about the benefits of preventative care, and that was acknowledged by other Members. Does the Minister’s proposed strategy bring to the fore the necessity of ensuring that the next generation does not have the worst teeth — which our generation must grin through and bear — in Britain? Although it is imperative that people get a dental appointment immediately if they are in agony, it is also essential that the next generation is taught and, indeed, bombarded with information that will stop the vicious cycle in which we are caught.

I am aware of the pressure that the Minister is under; however, this problem is clearly escalating towards a crisis, and a strategy must be implemented urgently. The Minster must provide the House with information and updates that demonstrate what has been done thus far and which outline the short- and long-term strategies.

Many of us have been blessed with good teeth, but this is a serious and painful issue for those who have not. It is the duty of Members to ensure that their constituents receive the care that they need and the necessary information to teach their children and grandchildren good dental care. Members want to see healthy, happy and smiling faces, and to ensure that people smile with their own teeth, now and in the future.

6.15 pm

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Mr McGimpsey): I welcome the opportunity to update Members on access to dental services. I acknowledge that registering with a Health Service dentist is increasingly problematic for many people in certain areas of Northern Ireland because of the drift by general dental practitioners towards private dentistry. That problem exists despite Northern Ireland having the highest number of dentists per 100,000 of the population out of the four UK home countries, and despite a significant increase in income for Health Service dentists over the past year.

Members may be aware that there are no contractual arrangements to compel general dental practitioners to accept patients — irrespective of their personal circumstances — for Health Service treatment. However, in most cases, dental practices continue to provide Health Service dental-care provision for adults and children who are exempt from charges. General dental practitioners who are independent contractors can choose to provide general dental services or private dentistry, or a mixture of both. Therefore, dentists can set up practices where they want and treat as many — or as few — patients under the Health Service as they want. They can also walk away from the Health Service at short notice.

My Department published a primary dental-care strategy in November 2006, which aims to modernise dental services and ensure that everyone has access to a dentist. To deliver on those reforms, the Department is negotiating with the British Dental Association to develop a new contract for Northern Ireland. A new contract was introduced in England and Wales in April 2006, but it has not been popular with the profession. That has resulted in a lack of Health Service dental services in certain areas. Therefore, we are developing a bespoke dental contact for Northern Ireland with the BDA and are working to avoid the problems that we have seen with the GB dental contract.

The new contract will give health and social services boards more control over where dentists locate their practices and whom they treat, thus improving access. It will also focus more on preventative care and will provide guaranteed out-of-hours service. Importantly, the contract will provide improved pay and conditions for Health Service dentists, which is a key area of concern that the profession has raised. Despite the best efforts of the Department to speed up the formulation of the new contract, progress has been slow. That is disappointing, but the Department is determined to agree a new contract, and I ask the British Dental Association to co-operate fully with my officials to deliver the contract for the benefit of patients.

On 17 September 2007, in the Assembly, I announced a substantial investment of almost £8 million in Health Service dentistry to address the concerns of the profession over funding for Health Service dentists. That investment comprised an additional £4 million for practice allowances to help our 361 dental practices with their overhead costs. That means that a committed Health Service dental practice receives almost £30,000 a year from the allowance, which can be used to hire staff, buy equipment or refurbish premises. That has been welcomed by the profession and has helped to boost morale among Health Service dentists.

I was also able to invest a further £3 million to help with the purchase of cross-infection control equipment to reduce the risk of infection to patients, which means that our dentists have received more funding in that area than their counterparts in rest of the UK. That also ensures that standards in our dental practices are among the highest in the British Isles. However, that investment has not drawn dentists back into the Health Service.

I also announced a significant investment in the vocational training scheme for our graduate dentists, and £500,000 was invested to incentivise dentists to train our new graduates.

In financial terms, this means that trainers — those dentists who train — receive an extra £10,000 a year. In total, the training grant is almost £19,000 a year in grants and allowances — almost double that of England and Wales. In addition, trainers get to keep the trainees’ gross earnings, which on average amount to £40,000 a year. The Department also pays the trainee’s salary of £29,000 a year; that makes the training of new graduates an attractive and profitable proposition for dentists. Although there was a modest increase in the number of trainers this year — 33 compared to 30 last year — we are optimistic that those numbers will continue to increase, a sentiment that is supported by the postgraduate dental dean. I hope that the profession will respond positively to the considerable increases that I have made to the training scheme.

The Department has given £400,000 to the northern and western health and social services boards to employ salaried dentists. The Northern Health and Social Services Board required three salaried dentists and has successfully recruited two, who are busy and practicing successfully. The board is on the point of recruiting a third salaried dentist.

However, the Western Health and Social Services Board has not been so fortunate. It received approval to recruit six salaried dentists to be employed across its area, and it is a matter of great regret to me that, to date, it has not yet been able to fill those posts.

It has been difficult to attract dentists to the west of the Province; however, that is not a situation that I can accept. It is my aim that everyone in Northern Ireland should be able to access Health Service dentistry no matter where they live or their circumstances. The problems of recruitment are not because the Western Health and Social Services Board was offering small salaries; in fact, it was offering salaries of up to £53,000 per annum per dentist yet received no applicants. That demonstrates that dentists in the western area are earning more than £53,000 per annum, which is a reasonable salary.

However, the concept of salaried dentists is worth pursuing. It enables the health boards to ensure that Health Service dentistry is available where it is needed, and the Southern Health and Social Services Board and the Eastern Health and Social Services Board are submitting similar business cases for salaried dentists.

That represents an additional investment of £7·9 million in Health Service dentistry in the last financial year alone, at least £7 million of which went straight into the bank accounts of our 361 high-street dental practices. The figure that Mrs Robinson quoted of the number of dental practices dropping from 362 to 349 is not correct. There are 366 practices and 361 claimed the practice allowance. However, the fact that we are having this debate today illustrates that even this unprecedented additional investment in Health Service dentistry has not been enough to turn the tide.

Mr Easton: The Minister said that my colleague’s figures were incorrect. However, they were taken from a health pack that was provided by his Department to Members.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I remind Mr Easton that it is always best to check one’s figures. In August 2007, there were 366 practices, and 361 claimed practice allowance — not the 349 that Mrs Robinson claimed.

We have had to look at another means of making dental services available. I can advise the Assembly that my officials have been actively considering a further option: securing additional dental services from the independent sector through a large-scale tendering process.

By way of brief background, England, Scotland and Wales have responded to similar problems to ours by tendering for additional dental services from the private sector. Although there is limited capacity among our high-street dentists to provide that, other interested parties in other parts of the UK represent a potential supply of additional workforce.

For example, dental organisations could offer a potential source of additional dental workforce members here. Through tendering for additional dental services in Northern Ireland, the Department wants to give private providers the opportunity to bid for the work. Such tendering exercises have been successful elsewhere in the UK, particularly in Wales, where the problem of access has been largely eliminated. In the main, those tenders have been taken up by dental corporate bodies. The main advantage of the tendering exercise is that it allows the boards to site additional services in the areas of highest access need, and contractors would largely undertake Health Service work.

Members will appreciate that as this proposal is still in its early stages, I am unable to give a firm timetable for provision. However, I am hopeful that the Department will be in a position to go out to tender in a matter of months. I will be happy to share progress on that proposal with Members as the work develops.

The introduction of additional Health Service dentists in access black spots around the country would once again give patients a choice about access to the Health Service. I am confident that the initiative has the potential to make a substantial impact on our current problems. More importantly, it will enable patients to have rapid access to Health Service dentists, thereby ensuring that the people in Northern Ireland can continue to have what most of us are determined to maintain — cradle-to-the-grave healthcare that is free for all our citizens, as envisaged originally by Nye Bevan. I strongly subscribe to that principle, as I know do most Members.

Mr McCallister: Does the Minister recall Simon Hamilton’s comment that the Minister’s request for more money in the draft Budget was outrageous? I am also glad to see that the self-appointed attendance officer of the Health Committee is back in the Chamber — I was wondering who would mark the roll. If Mrs Robinson’s contribution to the health sector over the last 10 or 15 years had been so immeasurable, why has the Minister had so many problems with which to grapple in his first year of office? Perhaps she should get another hobby, such as gardening.

The Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: I have finished.

Ms S Ramsey: As someone who has no more interest in gardening than I assume the Chairperson of the Health Committee does, I think that John, Iris and other Members should engage in a proper debate about Health Service dentists. Sitting through this debate was like watching football, a Gaelic match, or teeth being pulled. We must focus on the issues that must be dealt with and move away from those others matters.

I thank all the Members who took part in the debate, and those who supported the motion. I also thank the Minister for his attendance. In most instances, the debates are sensible because we are dealing with the impact of poor health on our society, whether it is poor oral health or poor health in general.

I also thank the Chairperson of the Health Committee, who, on behalf of the Committee, supported the motion. When proposing motions, it is useful to have the support of the relevant Committee. Indeed, as others have said, my colleagues and I who tabled the motion sit on the Health Committee, and we have a right to raise issues in the Chamber. Like other Members, we get lobbied daily, indeed hourly, by our constituents on issues. For Mr Basil McCrea’s information, that was the reason why the motion was proposed. It was not proposed to get a dig at the Health Minister — I think that the Minister knows us well enough to know that that was not the purpose of the motion.

Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?

Ms S Ramsey: I will give way in a moment.

Neither was the purpose of the motion to get a dig at the Ulster Unionist Party or anybody else; it was to ensure that we bring the relevant issues to the Chamber so that we can debate them, and, if need be — and where possible — make the Department, the Minister and senior civil servants accountable for their actions or inactions.

I appeal to Basil McCrea to avoid getting us into a slanging match.

6.30 pm

Mr B McCrea: I thank the Member for giving way. I began my contribution by thanking the Members for tabling the motion, and my reaction led other Members to attempt to turn an important issue that is worthy of the attention of the House into a political football.

I am sure that Ms Ramsey agrees that access to dental services is an important issue that needs to be sorted out, rather than be used in a game of ping-pong. The Minister deserves — and expects — the support of all for his budget and for his efforts to make progress.

Ms S Ramsey: Absolutely, and for the record, we supported the Minister in his appeal for extra money. In fact, the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety pushed to ensure that an equality impact assessment was carried out on that budget.

I am glad that Basil is actually settling, because at one stage, I thought that he was going to lose either his teeth or his dentures. [Laughter.]

There is concern about others turning access to dental services into a bigger issue. The lack of access to Health Service dental treatment across all board areas is affecting the most vulnerable in society. Members who spoke previously have stated that people with disabilities, including children, adults, older people and people living in rural constituencies, are hit hardest by a lack of dental treatment. Other Members said that children living in the 20% most deprived wards in the North are twice as likely to experience dental decay than children from the 20% most affluent.

The Minister touched on prevention and the need to take a proactive approach. It is crucial that the Minister and his Department target resources towards those who have greatest need. The motion calls on the Minister to introduce an action plan to address those needs. If we were told what the action plan is, we may not need to return to the issues so often. If we are told about specific proposals and their aims, the Minister would get my support and, I am sure, that of the Health Committee during scrutiny.

A similar motion was debated in the Assembly last year, and since then, nothing appears to have changed. In fairness, the Minister gave additional money, which Sinn Féin welcomed. I think that John McCallister is happy that I am welcoming the money.

However, since the previous debate, and even with the additional money, there do not seem to have been any changes on the ground. We must examine that. It was not that long ago that people were telling local radio stations and newspapers that the situation was getting worse. Thomas Buchanan described a case where a young lad from his constituency had to travel to Strabane in severe pain because no dentist would treat him. Anyone who has ever suffered a toothache knows that when they are in that condition, they must have access to dental treatment.

In response to a question from my colleague Pat Doherty, the Minister admitted that there is a lack of treatment in the Omagh and Strabane area and a lack of dentists who are willing to accept new Health Service patients. The Minister went on to say there was no obligation on dentists to accept a patient for Health Service treatment.

That may be the reality, but we have to change it. There must be an onus on dentists to accept Health Service patients. If we say that healthcare is free at the point of delivery, we cannot say that about just part of it.

I accept that the Department is involved in negotiations with the BDA, which has a role to play. In its manifesto, the BDA states that it wants the Assembly to ensure that all patients have access to dental care. I could not disagree with that, but it is not happening. It wants to address Northern Ireland’s poor oral and dental health record; I could not disagree with that either, but it is not happening. The BDA wants additional funding for all dental services to enable an increased focus on oral health promotion and prevention; I could not disagree with that, but it is not happening. It wants to safeguard and develop the community dental service to protect its role in providing care to society’s most vulnerable; again, I could not disagree with that, but it is not happening.

We must adopt a responsible attitude to what the BDA says that it can provide — and I think that it can — and towards the Department. We must push resources in that direction.

I welcome the additional funding. However, my colleague Martina Anderson stated that no dental practices in Derry are willing to take on new Health Service patients. The nearest practice that will take on those patients is in Dungiven. Martina went on to say that the situation is placing a further burden on low-income families who are being forced to take out loans to pay for treatment. Furthermore, no dental practices in Strabane, Omagh or Fermanagh are willing to take on new Health Service patients. Therefore, the situation seems to be getting worse, and the most vulnerable are being targeted. We must address equality of treatment and equality of access to treatment, and we must ensure that people do not have to travel hundreds of miles to receive that treatment.

The Minister and other Members mentioned the oral health strategy. I do not know whether it is working, or whether the primary dental strategy is working. The BDA is not meeting its commitment to ensure that all patients have access to dental care. Dentists are leaving the Health Service in favour of private work, but we must find a way of encouraging them to remain with the Health Service.

The Chairperson of the Health Committee mentioned the Scottish model and others. We should not be ashamed of looking at best practice elsewhere in the world, taking the bits that suit us, and designing our own strategy.

We must consider funding dentists to allow them to carry out Health Service work. It has been suggested that a short-term solution would be for dentists to spend one day a week working in the Health Service. Others suggested that there should be more community dental teams and clinics. They also suggested that we should actively consider a recruitment and retention strategy. It has been almost a year since Members last debated the issue and its effect on their constituencies.

If the boards are given more control, out-of-hours services are improved and prevention strategies are put in place, that is to be welcomed. However, a time frame must be put in place for the delivery of such an action plan. That will enable us to act as the conduit between the Minister and our constituents, and to deliver to our communities. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses concern about the lack of access to Health Service dental treatment across all Health Board areas; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to urgently bring forward an action plan to address the problem.

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

Aggregates Mapping Programme

Mr Deputy Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Mr Cobain: I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the finite nature of aggregate resources in Northern Ireland; and calls upon the Minister of the Environment to introduce an aggregates mapping programme to ensure the sustainable future of the aggregate and construction industry.

I am sure that some Members are more concerned about another type of aggregate tonight — I hope that the score is 2-0 to Barcelona.

Sustainable development has become something of a buzzword for our generation of politicians, journalists and environmentalists. Most people are now concerned about, or aware of, sustainable issues, and people are beginning to understand and act in a more sustainable manner.

The secure future of our society and the environment are inextricably linked. If this generation and the next are to have economic and social success, we must develop within the confines of our natural resources and the environment’s capacities. Creating a balance among economic, social and environmental success is paramount. Although individuals and groups are becoming more enlightened, the Executive are repeating the words and sentiments of sustainable development, but they are failing to incorporate their ideas into mainstream policies. In order to make that change, we must be able to make informed decisions.

The motion intends to help the Executive — and future Executives — to make informed decisions on valuable and finite natural resources that are critical for the economic and social development of society. Moreover, the ability to make informed decisions about aggregates extraction will enable us to better protect the environment and wildlife.

The aggregates industry in Northern Ireland comprises a substantial part of the economy. In 2005, the Northern Ireland quarry products industry produced almost 26 million tons of aggregate from 160 quarries — 11% of the total production in the United Kingdom. The industry employs over 5,500 people, many of whom are from rural areas. The bulk of mineral commodities, such as natural sand, gravel, crushed rock aggregates and rock for cement, are obtained through quarrying.

The development of transport infrastructure, homes, hospitals and businesses relies on those quarries and products. However, the current development and planning system does not pay enough heed to the finite nature of those resources. With ever-increasing pressure on land use in Northern Ireland, we must ensure that mineral resources of economic and developmental importance are not needlessly sterilised by other development. That is particularly important because, unlike other developments, it can only occur at particular sites. Therefore, the integration of an aggregates mapping system into planning and development decisions and plans in Northern Ireland is essential.

In England, Scotland and Wales, aggregates mapping systems are integrated into development and planning systems. These provisions lead to the identification of areas of aggregates existence, and the extent and nature of the sites provide reasoned justifications for either developing or not developing them.

In England, such work occurs periodically under Minerals Planning Guidance Note 6, which deals with planning for the supply of aggregates. That helps the mineral planning associations to include aggregates mineral policies in development plans and to consider individual planning applications for the extraction of aggregate minerals or the review of planning conditions at existing sites.

That is a comprehensive system that tracks the regional supply-and-demand figures in England and allows the process of aggregates extraction to be sustainably managed. No equivalent process or system to estimate regional aggregates supply-and-demand figures exists in Northern Ireland. Therefore, local planning and more expansive development are not informed and constructed with the sustainable future of aggregates resources and the construction industry in mind.

Local mineral resource mapping work is under way in Northern Ireland, and pilot projects have been carried out in the Limavady area. The Tellus survey from the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland has conducted excellent work. That survey has contributed a great baseline of knowledge about mineral resources in Northern Ireland. However, it is only the first piece in the jigsaw. We need an integrated, encompassing, long-term programme. In Northern Ireland, the Planning Service is the mineral planning authority, and, therefore, the Department of the Environment must introduce that crucial programme.

The aggregates industry has consulted with the Planning Service to develop Planning Policy Guidance 19, which creates a sustainable aggregates industry that demonstrates corporate and environmental responsibility. An integrated aggregates mapping programme should form part of that planning policy.

Mineral planning policy in Northern Ireland operates locally, with no real regional connection; that system must be overhauled. That approach only incorporates environmental factors on each site, with no regard for the overall environmental or supply-and-demand picture. A strategically led aggregates mapping system that is integrated into the planning system and development plans is the best way to ensure the environmentally friendly and sustainable future of the aggregates industry in Northern Ireland.

The Quarry Products Association believes that funding for a Northern Ireland-wide mapping programme could be collected from an aggregates levy sustainable fund. That fund would be derived from the payments of aggregates levy and is under consideration by the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Environment and Heritage Service.

The current Executive have, in numerous policy documents, pledged their commitment to sustainable development. The sustainable development strategy for Northern Ireland states that sustainable development:

“involves safeguarding and using existing resources in a sustainable way to enhance the long-term management of, and investment in, human, social and environmental resources.”

Similarly, in the regional development strategy, the Executive acknowledged that today’s society requires construction aggregates. Without such minerals, there would be very little development in Northern Ireland.

It is time that the Minister and the Executive, instead of offering fine words, made some meaningful decisions and took definitive action to integrate sustainable strategies into Government policies.

6.45 pm

For too long, Northern Ireland has been considered a special economic and environmental case. With the return of devolution and local governance, we can no longer rely on those arguments as an excuse for inaction and for being out of step with our British and European counterparts on business, social and environmental concerns.

Yesterday in the Chamber, we debated the need to reduce unnecessary regulation for businesses. However, today we are asking the Minister to introduce policies, provisions and guidance that the aggregates industry is crying out for. We need regulation that has the potential to ensure the sustainable future of the construction industry, our future economic success, and the Executive’s social and health projects. I urge every Member to support the motion, and I urge the Minister to take action, in consultation with her Executive colleagues, on this important issue, because whatever action she does or does not take will affect generations to come.

The Minister should push for an aggregates mapping programme to be incorporated into the future planning policy 19. That should not be a controversial action; it would be a progressive action that the Minister could easily take.

Mr Ross: The proposer of the motion said that we might have other aggregates on our minds. I suppose that one could be forgiven for thinking that we are about to debate the merits of the away goal. Without wishing to steal Mr Kennedy’s gag, during an earlier vote, there was some lobbying for Ulster Unionist away votes to be worth double, which might have helped them.

I must admit that, when I read the title of this item of business on the Order Paper, I was not entirely sure what it meant — and I may not be the only Member who was in that position. I have sought to educate myself on the topic, and I recognise its importance and the importance of mineral safeguarding. I am also aware that, in England and Wales, mineral safeguarding areas are required to be shown in all development plan documents, in order to draw the attention of any prospective planning-permission applicant to the existence of valuable mineral resources.

It seems that there is some overlap between the responsibilities of the Department of the Environment and those of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment on certain matters, and it would be interesting to have the latter’s input on the subject.

As Northern Ireland continues to see economic growth and significant development, it is important that we introduce measures similar to those in England and Wales. The Planning Service has a significant role to play as the minerals planning authority for the Province. It must strike a balance between protecting the environment and the need for minerals.

What must we do? It is important that we recognise the importance of our natural resources and the importance of minerals and aggregates, not only to farming, but to construction and other industries. That is particularly important to people living in rural areas.

Aggregates mapping is not a new concept, and it has its merits. I understand that substantial work has been done in that area. A comprehensive study that would produce a complete resource map of Northern Ireland would certainly be beneficial to several agencies. As I said, much of that type of work has been done in GB, and if Northern Ireland were to follow suit, decision-makers would avail themselves of the information relating to minerals that might be contained in planning policy statements, as Mr Cobain said. I note, however, that in proposing the motion, he made no reference to the time that it might take to produce such studies, or the cost. Perhaps the Minister will be able to provide such information to guide the House.

The various regions of the United Kingdom have funded aggregates-mapping research in different ways. If we were to examine the possibility of using aggregates mapping here, we would need to determine the most appropriate way in which to fund it. Back in 2002, the Chancellor announced that a levy on the sale of primary aggregates would be introduced. However, the intro­duction of a similar levy here might create difficulties, given that our economic competitors in the Irish Republic share a land border with us. There was some discussion about the possibility of establishing an aggregates-levy sustainability fund in Northern Ireland. Again, perhaps the Minister will tell the House what stage that has reached.

In closing, aggregates mapping would be beneficial for Northern Ireland. If we introduce it, the information must be fed into the policy framework, and steps must be taken to safeguard minerals for local needs. I support the motion.

Mr Boylan: Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It is just as well that Arsenal is not playing in the Champions League tonight, or the motion might have been withdrawn.

I thank the Members who proposed the motion, I agree with their view that our aggregates resources are finite.

Our natural resources are not infinite; that is a major environmental concern not only in Ireland but globally. We must take positive action on environmental concerns such as climate change and renewable energy.

Aggregates are the most commonly used construction material in Ireland; it is impossible to construct any major building or infrastructure without them. For centuries, natural sand, gravel and crushed rock have been removed from our landscape, with the vast majority used in the construction industry. The quarrying of aggregates is a major rural industry and a leading component in the economy in the North. Mr Cobain mentioned the number of jobs that it creates, and, indeed, there is a large quarrying industry in my constituency of Newry and Armagh. No one should underestimate, or disregard, the importance of the aggregates industry or its relationship with the construction industry and general economic development.

However, we must examine the impact that the aggregates industry has on our environment and landscape. Mr Cobain also mentioned that, in 2005, 26 million tons of aggregates were produced from 160 quarries. Members do not require a degree in maths to work out that such a level of production is unsustainable. Eventually, we must assess the viability of new sources for the aggregates industry. The Tellus survey, which began in 2004, made the North of Ireland:

“one of the most surveyed parts of the planet”.

That project should inform us of further reservoirs of resources.

The quarrying projects of old were necessary, but their legacy must be addressed. The Minister of the Environment, members of the Committee for the Environment, the Minister’s Executive colleagues and Members of the Assembly must impose greater control on quarrying and its effect on the environmental landscape. We must strive to cause as little harm as possible to landscapes and habitats.

Quarrying is a temporary use of land, although I accept that it can last for many years. It should be a legal requirement that land is capable of being fully restored and brought back into use for the wider community at the end of its working life. I encourage the increased use of recycled aggregates, where possible. Waste from demolition or construction sites, asphalt planings from resurfacing roads and railway track ballast are among the materials that could be recycled.

I appreciate the importance of the aggregates industry to our economy. We must safeguard its sustainability, but not at any cost. Indeed, the issue highlights, once again, the need for an independent environmental protection agency to monitor future projects. I support the motion. However, if the Minister introduces an aggregates mapping programme, she must strike a balance between sustaining the aggregates and construction industries and protecting the environment. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Attwood: I welcome the debate and congratulate Mr Cobain for tabling the motion on mineral resource mapping.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Attwood: Thanks.

The objectives of the motion are suitable for both the industry and the Assembly. This issue has a disproportionate effect on the society and environment of Northern Ireland, in that 11% of total aggregates in Great Britain comes from Northern Ireland.

However, we must attempt to ensure the quarry industry’s sustainable development and increase its corporate social responsibilities. The Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland acknowledges that those concepts are as of much concern to them as to the House. I urge the Minister — when she is driving back to Fermanagh tonight or when she is driving up the M1 tomorrow — to look at what is happening to the Black Mountain in Belfast. That will inform her — and, in turn, the Department — of the consequences of quarrying without sustainable development or social corporate responsibility.

If, as she drives in, the Minister takes a good look to her left at the Black Mountain, she will see a gaping hole in the side of one of the city’s major assets — one of the mountains that embraces it. If one climbs to the top of the Black Mountain, one will see a growing hole created by quarrying, which stands in marked contrast to the beautiful vista from the mountain over the city of Belfast and Belfast Lough.

The motion has enormous merit. However, the quarrying industry must be challenged as never before on its responsibility to develop in a sustainable fashion.

The Minister should — for want of a better word — bore into what has happened in west Belfast around the Black Mountain to see an example of the worst practice in planning mineral extraction and quarrying in the North of Ireland. The minerals and quarries unit of the Planning Service approved permission for the quarries, but thereafter washed its hands of its responsibility to sustainable development and to making sure that quarry owners fulfilled their obligations to society. The Planning Service laid down a wide range of conditions in respect of the Black Mountain, but the vast majority of them were ignored. The service stated that the top of the mountain had to be protected; that quarrying in certain directions was prohibited; and that the plant had to be removed from the front of the mountain. All those restrictions were ignored.

For decades, people such as Terry Enright — and Members who represented West Belfast in this Chamber — have campaigned for the Black Mountain. Former Northern Ireland Minister Richard Needham visited the mountain at one stage and landed by helicopter; he almost ordered quarrying to stop because of the unjustifiable rape and pillage of the mountain.

The problem is not over. The Minister’s predecessor in a former mandate, Sam Foster, confirmed that there is planning permission and sufficient aggregrates on the Black Mountain for another 40 years’ quarrying. What sort of planning and sustainable development allows a mountain to be taken down ton by ton? A beautiful asset is being destroyed in the process.

If the motion is to mean anything, the Minister should learn from the abuses that took place on the Black Mountain.

Mr Weir: I am happy to confess that this is not a subject on which I have a great deal of expertise — I bring to it a healthy ignorance. As Members will testify, being completely ignorant of a subject has not stopped me from contributing in the past. Today is no exception.

I do not question the bona fides of Members, but there have been far fewer interventions in this debate than there were in the debate on local government — that is not a challenge to Basil McCrea to intervene. Like other Members, I am keen to observe events tonight at the “theatre of dreams” and to see United move towards a third European title.

There was a suggestion during the debate on the Local Government (Boundaries) Bill that the Mournes might have to be levelled, and Roy Beggs seemed to call for the levelling of the Antrim Plateau. Given that, it is appropriate that we are discussing aggregates.

The last Member spoke passionately on the subject; I have never heard him so passionate without mentioning the word “collusion”.

With respect to Mr Attwood, although we are keen to ensure that there is proper protection of the environment, we should not be too harsh about the good work that the construction industry and the Quarry Products Association are doing for the economy.

7.00 pm

The cliché is that “there’s no business like show business” — I think that in practice there is no business like the construction industry and the quarry products situation, which have made a very strong contribution to the debate. [Laughter.]

When I first saw the motion on the Order Paper, its importance initially escaped me. However, having looked into the matter, in the words of KT Tunstall: “Suddenly I see” the importance of the issue.

Mapping has been implemented in England successfully, and there have been some preliminary test cases here. DETI has been working in Strabane, Omagh and Limavady, and the programme used there could be rolled out. There is no doubt that the advantages of having a mapping system that operates across Northern Ireland are clear; the least possible strain should be put on social and environmental parameters. The benefits to Northern Ireland from an ecological and an economic point of view are manifest, and I welcome that the matter is under consideration, through PPS 19 and mineral developments. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on the subject.

As an aside — regarding the long-term strategy of mapping — Queen’s University ended its geology degree around 10 years ago, so there may be problems in ensuring that we have enough expertise. That also needs to be considered. My colleague Alastair Ross highlighted that the advantages are clear. However, consideration must be given to ensuring that the financial back up exists to ensure that we retain the necessary expertise.

Looking at the aggregates levy, on which firms in Northern Ireland receive tax relief, it is clear that given the financial pressures that the construction and quarry industries are facing, it would be wrong to try and pass any additional costs on to the industries at present. That means that, whether it is a question of looking at sustainability funds or making a business case to the Department of Finance and Personnel, there should be something that can be of benefit, not simply to the economy and to the environment, but in producing something sustainable for future generations. I welcome the proposals.

Some Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Brolly: Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. The Quarry Products Association has a slogan which states that minerals can only be worked where they are found, and it is unfortunate that rock can only be quarried where there are rocks. It is also unfortunate that rocks tend to be found in environmentally sensitive areas, due to their visual beauty and for many other environmentally sensitive reasons. It is very important that we realise how important it is that the quarrying industry can only be allowed to survive within the environmentally friendly parameters that should be set for it. This is what the quarry industry has in mind. It has no desire whatsoever to offend the environment.

I am happy to say that the Lagan Group, one of the biggest quarrying and aggregates firms in this country and across the water, has previously been awarded certificates for the environmentally-friendly way in which it conducts its businesses.

The news is not as bad as Alex Attwood would have us believe. Black Mountain defied planning regulations, but if Members want another bad example they should drive across the Glenshane Pass towards Dungiven, and they will find the ugliest quarry in Ireland on their right-hand side. It is not in use, but it may begin to work again — hopefully under better and more environmentally friendly conditions.

We need aggregates, however; without them there will be no construction industry. Most people say that the construction industry is now our biggest industry; bigger than agriculture, which, traditionally, was accepted as the biggest. As businesses have to be environmentally friendly, the opportunities to quarry are limited. They are even more finite than they might otherwise have been. Quarry people are determined to obey the environmental demands that are imposed upon them.

We are limited to rocks that are not pretty or in environmentally sensitive areas, but which are essential to prosperity and quality of life for us all. Without those rocks, the construction industry could not exist — as I said earlier. The construction industry is important, and we only realise that now when it is beginning to wane. I spoke to the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) this morning, and it is very concerned about the industry. That highlights the importance of the issue and how important it is that the aggregates industry continues.

The industry produces £300 million worth of products per year and provides jobs, largely in rural areas where other sources of employment are hard to come by. Some 75% of the areas in which the industry provides jobs have been designated as TSN areas by the Government.

The mapping programme will have two main advantages, one of which is that it will accept or reject quarries, sources of aggregate — sand and gravel — in areas which fulfil environmental conditions. Therefore it will make it easier for those who want to go into the business to get planning permission when the time comes to put their hands in their pockets, and there are many such people. Many of them are stymied by the terrible Planning Service. The Assembly must examine that issue seriously; otherwise people will continue to be constrained from getting into business. It is taking some people five years to receive planning permission to extract sand and gravel.

The other side is that the aggregates industry will be sustainable, and the Planning Service will not have to grant planning permission for other types of construction or buildings in the area.

The Minister of the Environment (Mrs Foster): I thought that we were going to get through a debate without an attack on the Planning Service, but, alas, it was too much to ask. The understanding of Northern Ireland’s natural resource base is fundamental to planning and sustainable development issues and to ensuring the sustainable future of the aggregates and construction industry.

The proposer of the motion was correct when he talked about the new buzz phrase — and I am not talking about the Manchester United match. When Peter Weir mentioned the United match, I thought that he was talking about Leeds United, because that is the only United that is allowed in our house. I was talking about sustainable development, and Fred Cobain will know that sustainable development used to be the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, but it now sits in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It also impacts, as most Members will know, on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Finance and Personnel, to name but a few.

Just this week, I wrote to the junior Ministers about setting up a ministerial subcommittee on sustainable development, since most of the issues surrounding sustainable development are cross-cutting. I hope that the House will welcome that move.

Mr Attwood mentioned the Black Mountain, which, as he knows, has a nineteenth-century quarry, so it has been in operation for some considerable time. Nowadays, we have environmental impact assessment regulations, higher environmental standards; the rehabilitation of quarries has been made a condition of planning consent and there has also been the Review of Mineral Permissions (ROMPs). Furthermore, rehabilitation can involve environmentally friendly public-good uses, such as the successful bird sanctuary in Castle Espie, County Down. However, those factors do not address the enforcement issues that Mr Attwood raised. I hear his passionate plea regarding the Black Mountain, and I am happy to speak to him about concerns that he has regarding the breaking of planning conditions.

Returning to the motion, I am aware of the valuable contribution that minerals — and aggregates in particular — make to the prosperity of the Province and to its quality of life. The aggregates industry provides employment, often in rural locations as Mr Brolly pointed out, and produces a wide range of products for a variety of purposes — in construction, agriculture and industry. ‘A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland’ contains the regional planning policy for mineral extraction. That policy requires that an assessment be made of the need for a mineral resource, balanced against the need to protect and conserve the environment. It also recognises that minerals can be worked only where they are found, although there may be a choice of sites for common minerals such as aggregates.

The Department is preparing PPS 19, which is a planning policy statement on mineral developments. As part of that process, there has been engagement with all the relevant stakeholders, including representatives from the industry and the Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland. Planning policy statements are expressions of regional policy and normally do not include spatial information nor do they map areas. Introducing a programme of aggregates mapping was raised through the stakeholders’ forum as part of the normal PPS process. That stage of the process was recently completed, and this matter will ultimately be contained in the normal scoping paper that goes to me as Minister.

It is worth noting that Planning Service has commissioned reports of that nature, specifically to aid the production of area plans for locations with concent­rations of quarries and aggregates resources. Colleagues in the geological survey section of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment were commissioned to produce mineral resource information for the districts of Strabane, Omagh and Limavady. Discussions are ongoing about how best to develop that work for other areas and about potential funding options.

Mr Cobain also mentioned the Tellus programme, the launch of which I attended last year and which is also very useful. The reports produced to date by the geological survey section of DETI delineated and described important sand and gravel resources in the areas that they examined, set against national environmental designations. They provided information to assist with mineral policy formulation, local plans, and with decisions on individual planning applications.

However, there is a growing need to understand the entire resource base of Northern Ireland. Introducing a programme of aggregates mapping as a one-off exercise would benefit policy development, local plans and decision making. Geological information already exists in various forms and at different levels. Colleagues in the geological survey section could use their existing database along with additional work as part of the programme to map, sample and compile information to produce detailed aggregate maps that would allow evidence-based decision making in the future.

In additional to collating natural resource occurrences, an aggregates mapping programme involves logging geological information along with environmental designation, spatial strategy data, area plan information and any other relevant policy data in a geographic information system. Close examination of those data could inform decisions to ensure that mineral development is permitted where it infringes least on social and environmental parameters. Such an approach has been completed for many parts of England and Scotland and is about to commence in Wales.

The result has been that the planning authorities are informed where the optimum locations for quarries occur, not only from an environmental and social perspective, but also as part of a fuel-miles carbon-reduction strategy.

7.15 pm

How long would it take to produce the aggregates map? The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland has indicated that it will need to augment its data before bringing in expertise from the British Geological Survey, and it is estimated that the work would take about one year to complete.

Mr Ross asked how much it would cost. That can be answered only when the normal tendering process is complete. The cost of producing a methodology to do that work will not be part of the cost to Northern Ireland, as it has already been carried out in other areas such as England and Scotland.

The Government funded the studies in England. More recently, in Scotland and Wales, the funding was received from the aggregates levy sustainability fund. The aggregates levy is an environmental tax on the commercial extraction of aggregates in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we have a similar tax relief scheme — the aggregates levy credit scheme. Operators must apply to join that voluntary scheme to be eligible for 80% relief, and, in return for the tax relief, members must agree to carry out continued environmental improvements.

The aggregates levy sustainability funds were formally launched in England, Scotland and Wales in 2002 with the aims of reducing the environmental impacts of the extraction of aggregates, both on land and from sea, and delivering benefits to areas subject to those impacts. It is those sustainability funds that were used to pay for the aggregates mapping programmes in Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland has not yet set up a sustainability fund. However, the planning and environmental policy group in my Department submitted a business case for the introduction of an aggregates levy sustainability fund in Northern Ireland to DFP. Following discussions with DFP, the business case is currently being revised with a view to setting up a fund in 2008-09, subject to the request for funds being successful.

My Department is actively pursuing the option of introducing a programme of aggregates mapping to support the planning policy statement on minerals, to support future local plans and to aid decision-making. However, I cannot currently commit to a final decision until I have fully explored the funding options for progressing the programme in the absence of an aggregates levy sustainability fund. I assure Members that that will be examined as a matter of urgency.

Mr McCallister: I have been informed by my colleague that I have two minutes to make the winding-up speech. Therefore, I intend to take 10 minutes. I am pleased that the debate has proven to be such a crowd-puller. There are two Ministers in the Chamber, so it has been worthwhile. Luckily my team — Rathfriland Swifts — is not playing tonight.

Mr Cobain opened the debate by laying out some of the facts about how important the quarrying industry is, with 5,500 employees, and the influence that it has on our entire infrastructure, building the case for mapping, planning and sustainable development.

Like other Members, Mr Ross confessed that he did not know a lot about the motion. That was obvious to me earlier today, as many people asked me what the motion was about.

Mr Kennedy: Were you able to answer them?

Mr McCallister: I would be now that the Minister has so eloquently explained it.

All Members accepted the importance of the quarrying industry to the economy. Mr Attwood mentioned that 11% of the total UK product comes from Northern Ireland. Given Northern Ireland’s size compared to the rest of the UK, that is a huge contribution. He then talked about local issues, including environmental damage and poor decisions. Follow-up and enforcement issues are vital if we are to avoid the type of environ­mental damage that Mr Attwood mentioned.

Me Weir confessed to a healthy amount of ignorance. However, he was not going to stop at that. He acknowledged the good work of the Quarry Products Association. It is amazing how football, a pop singer and collusion can be referred to in one speech during a debate about aggregates. [Interruption.]

Mr Weir has had a very long day, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Financial backup is important, as it will guarantee that the programme can be put in place without additional cost to the industry. Although the Minister indicated that finances for it are not available at the moment, I was pleased that she said that she will consider the proposal.

After hearing Mr Weir’s point, I wonder whether the aggregates mapping programme will have any impact on council boundaries, given the earlier debate about whether some councils will get more resources than others. Mr Brolly gave his grasp of —

Mr B McCrea: His quality impact assessment.

Mr McCallister: I know. We were told that the ugliest quarry in Ireland is near Dungiven; Mr Brolly is working hard to get that re-opened. [Laughter.]

Rocks are essential to the economy. Mr Brolly mentioned the figure of £300 million, and he made the very serious point that the programme would provide employment in rural areas, many of which are areas of social need. Mr Brolly also asked why it takes five years to get permission from the Planning Service.

The Minister mentioned that sustainable development was an OFMDFM matter. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes the news that the Minister is pressing for a subcommittee to be set up to consider sustainable development. The Minister highlighted some of the issues concerning enforcement, and she acknowledged the contribution of the industry.

I was encouraged to hear that the Minister is considering the aggregates mapping programme. She told us that it would take approximately one year to complete and that she is trying to secure the funding and not put any costs on to the industry. I support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes the finite nature of aggregate resources in Northern Ireland; and calls upon the Minister of the Environment to introduce an aggregates mapping programme to ensure the sustainable future of the aggregate and construction industry.

Motion made:

That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]


Regeneration of the Sandy Row area in South Belfast

Mr Deputy Speaker: I remind Members that the proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak. All other Members will have approximately eight minutes.

Mr Spratt: I promise not to mention football, and I promise to get everyone away as quickly as possible.

I thank the Business Committee for providing the opportunity to debate this topic this evening. Sandy Row is an area that is known throughout the Province. It is close to Belfast city centre, and it is one of the 10% most deprived wards in Northern Ireland. As a working-class Protestant community, it was subject to the task force that was established by the then Minister with responsibility for Social Development, John Spellar, to address the needs of such communities.

Sandy Row was rightly identified as an area that is in need of major attention. Long gone are the days when Sandy Row was a community that benefited from the employment that heavy industry created and from the thriving small-business ethos that had always been part of the area. It could no longer stand on its own two feet; it needed — and continues to need — Government assistance.

I welcome the Minister for Social Development to the debate this evening. I believe that she can, and will, address issues of concern for the area in the future. First, the social housing stock in Sandy Row must be considered. It must be assessed as to whether it enables a stable family nucleus to develop in the area.

The task force report of 2004 highlighted that 59% of Housing Executive homes in the area had fewer than three bedrooms. It is clear that if a community is to be sustained by keeping families in the area, the provision of three- or four-bedroom family homes is essential. Furthermore, it is important people in the area can afford those new units.

The low uptake last year by elderly folk from Sandy Row for places in Ulidia House highlighted the need for costs to be deemed reasonable for local people. We must also ensure that local people are informed of ways to get on to the property ladder to increase private home ownership in Sandy Row as a means of creating a stronger community ethos.

The concept of a Living Over The Shop (LOTS) scheme has been pursued in order to upgrade the main Sandy Row frontage. That is a positive initiative, and the Minister should do all in her power to bring the scheme to fruition.

The people of Sandy Row are, quite rightly, proud. They want to see their area look well for visitors and for the many hundreds of commuters who go through the area every day. If one were to walk or drive along Sandy Row today, one would see excellent businesses fronting the area, but many derelict sites and empty shop units could also be seen. The Living Over The Shop scheme would help to address that issue.

Following on from the LOTS scheme, we must also examine local business and see what can be done to entice economic development into the Sandy Row area. We must also ensure that the community has the services that it needs and deserves. In July 2004, of the 108 units that made up the Sandy Row shopping area, only 69, or 64%, were in use by businesses. We must ensure that any assistance that is required is given to those who wish to start up, expand or redevelop in the area.

The task force identified a real area of concern concerning adult literacy, and the low levels of adult literacy in Sandy Row must be tackled head on. Some measures have been taken to tackle that problem, but we must ensure that all that can be done to improve adult literacy is done.

I realise that work has been done to tackle some of the issues in Sandy Row. The house builds for the Charter Youth Club site and the Lilly Bar site are welcome — particularly the emphasis on family homes. The recent improvement scheme to existing stock is good, but more can and must be done to improve housing standards in the area.

The neighbourhood warden service, which was introduced in response to the ministerial task force report, is also welcome and of great benefit to the community, which makes very good use of the service. Furthermore, the provision of a community house in Sandy Row for the local residents’ association is a positive step, and we thank the Housing Executive for that.

The funding crisis that faces the Kids into Education and Training (KITE) Project has been raised in recent weeks. That project helps many children in the Sandy Row area. It is a vital service that is doing a fantastic job, and I hope that the Department of Education will help to sustain that project. I urge the Minister for Social Development to assess whether she can do anything to help that project in any way — the folk in that area would be most grateful.

I recognise that the Department for Social Development has made some good opening moves to help the community of Sandy Row in recent years, particularly since the task force report. However, much more can and must be done. Further environmental schemes must be completed, and more must be done to improve the frontage of the Sandy Row area, given its close proximity and importance to the city centre and the Shaftesbury Square area. That can be done by ensuring that the correct assistance is given to businesses, particularly those wishing to start up in the area.

I am glad that other MLAs from South Belfast are in the Chamber. I hope that we will all be able to sing from the same hymn sheet and work together.

7.30 pm

Having scored the great victory, if you like, in the Village area, and seeing that project now coming to fruition, it is important that we continue to look to areas such as Sandy Row so that our entire city can be included in the vibrancy that we see in Belfast daily. We want to be able to encourage people — visitors in particular — to the area and to show that there are small businesses and many other facilities there for them to use, in the same way that in other cities throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and throughout Europe, there are specific areas that have something special about them. Given some Government forethought, we could make this an important area for the city centre.

Mr McGimpsey: I endorse Mr Spratt’s remarks, and I thank him for securing this Adjournment debate. As someone who has represented Sandy Row on Belfast City Council and in the Assembly for the past 15 years — my constituency office has been based there for the past 10 years — I am intimately acquainted with the area and its needs. It is a disadvantaged community in inner south Belfast that has suffered a great deal, particularly through redevelopment, and it displays all the conditions that one would expect in such an area in issues such as health and education.

People from Sandy Row want several issues to be dealt with. A number of years ago, the Sandy Row Community Forum was formed, and it can speak for the community there. In the past year, activity has increased, as has expectation in the local community, which has seen the return of devolution and a local Minister in place. The community has seen how well it has done through the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, and it is now able to articulate the many needs of the area.

Before redevelopment, Sandy Row had a community of some 12,000 people; now it has a population of some 2,500 people. When the area was redeveloped, most families moved out, leaving only an elderly population. Houses were then redeveloped, primarily for that elderly population, leaving a high proportion of two-bedroom houses and flats. Therefore, the community age profile does not fit with the rest of Northern Ireland. The Housing Executive must intervene, and I have had a number of important discussions with it, which, to date, have not borne fruit. However, over the past couple of years, with the establishment of the Sandy Row Community Forum and the task force report that addressed the needs of working-class Protestant communities that produced recommendations, there appears to be some hope about implementation.

Investment is needed, which does not need to be massive. It is clear from the shop fronts that, not untypically, redevelopment took place in the housing core, and the commercial core was abandoned. The population shrank because of the Troubles and the difficulties that Belfast city centre went through, and there were business failures in the shopping core, which illustrate a level of neglect and underinvestment.

Developers are also buying and holding — that is, buying a property and waiting for the price to rise. One of the best and most valuable sites in Northern Ireland, at Hope Street and Wellwood Street, which is now the location for one hotel, was taken over 10 years ago, given to a developer by the Housing Executive — and there the site sits. It was to have been fully developed within five years to a plan agreed between the Sandy Row Community Forum and the developer, and overseen by the Housing Executive, but that enormous site is just sitting there in the city centre.

The site was intended to provide important linkage for traffic flow and planning between the city centre and the community. That is a further example of Government intervention going wrong and having a negative impact on the community.

A primary school is required, and primary education, in general, needs investment. Education is vital to the area, and I was profoundly disappointed by the lack of funding for the after-school Kids into Education and Training (KITE) project in Sandy Row. I cannot think of a more disadvantaged community from which funding could be removed — but it happened.

The community has a strong cultural tradition. Areas of north Belfast have been defined as cultural quarters, and it is an excellent idea to similarly define Sandy Row as a cultural quarter of south Belfast. It sits cheek by jowl with Belfast city centre and beside the intense economic activity of Great Victoria Street.

Many visitors walk through Sandy Row because it is a well-known area but, sadly, they do not stop. Help and investment is needed to ensure that visitors stop and spend in Sandy Row. It is one of the most famous areas in Belfast, if not Northern Ireland, and the name of Sandy Row rings throughout Northern Ireland. The South Belfast Cultural Society, which is based in Sandy Row, could play an important part in the area’s being identified as a cultural quarter.

Sandy Row could become an urban village with a strong local identity at its core, and it could also integrate with the city centre and the rest of south Belfast. As a cultural quarter, it would be warm and welcoming to visitors and place a strong emphasis on tourism and attracting investment that works for the local community. Such an opportunity gives us reason to anticipate success.

Sandy Row is among the best commercial areas in Belfast, as it is so close to the city centre, and it seems absurd that retailers there do so badly. The problems are not overwhelming, but the Minister must lead a co-ordinated approach, including DSD and the Housing Executive, to focus on redevelopment and make the area more attractive to commercial investment. She has already shown her commitment to similar initiatives in areas such as the Village. The area and the community will respond magnificently to such an initiative, which would benefit not only Sandy Row and south Belfast, but the city centre and Northern Ireland.

Mrs Hanna: I thank Mr Spratt for securing the Adjournment debate on the regeneration of Sandy Row in my constituency of South Belfast. I think of Sandy Row as the area from the Boyne Bridge, over the railway line, to the bottom of the Lisburn Road. However, too many years ago, when I came to train to be a nurse at Belfast City Hospital, Sandy Row was bustling and thriving. It was full of small shops and businesses that offered a myriad goods and services.

Regrettably, after decades of the Troubles, badly needed housing redevelopment, depopulation and economic decline, the community of Sandy Row is a shadow of its former self, and its continued viability is threatened. If it is to survive as a community, the local population must be helped to adapt to change, and the Assembly must work with those who want that change.

Companies that were part of the former anchor industries, such as Murray’s Tobacco Works, the Linfield Mill and the Albion Clothing Company have long since disappeared. However, I am glad to say that some businesses, such as Reids Shoes, adapted to the changing circumstances, and they remain and continue to prosper.

Sandy Row is part of the Shaftesbury ward, and, by my estimate, there are little more than 600 people on the register at present. That means that the population of the area, including children, is probably just over 1,000. The ward is the twenty-third most deprived ward in Northern Ireland out of a total of 582, which places it in the top 5% of deprivation. That placement is based on the statistics for income, employment, health deprivation, disability, education, skills, training, crime and disorder. Only 15% of school-leavers go on to higher education, compared to 30% for Belfast as a whole. The percentage of the post-primary population that is entitled to free school meals, and the percentage of adults who are claiming income support and incapacity benefit, are twice the Belfast average.

Those statistics present a challenge to the Assembly and the Executive. I have every confidence that the Minister for Social Development will tackle those problems as vigorously and as proactively as she did in dealing with the nearby Village area. A taskforce of senior DSD civil servants has been established to deliver a neighbourhood renewal strategy. I know that the Minister will work with those people who want to see the best for their community. I urge the Minister to liaise with the Education Minister to ensure that everything is done to help Blythefield Primary School. As has been said, a lot has already been done. There is a new community resource centre on Sandy Row; there is the new multi-purpose sports ground beside the Charter Youth Club; and there have been more than 230 homes built since 2000. A departmental task force has been established.

Sandy Row has many advantages on which, in the right circumstances, it can capitalise. It is situated only a few hundred yards from the city centre. We are told that the city centre is enjoying a boom in tourism, so I hope that, being so close, Sandy Row can capitalise on that. There has been significant private-sector investment in the area, such as Days Hotel on Hope Street, the redevelopment of Linfield industrial estate, and the Whitehall Square apartment and shops development at the end of Sandy Row. I commend these investors, and encourage others.

Unfortunately, Sandy Row is polluted with murals that support paramilitary organisations such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters. I cannot think of a bigger turn-off for tourists newly arrived in Belfast than that awful mural at the corner of Sandy Row and Linfield Road which depicts a masked man with a rifle and proclaims that “You are now entering loyalist Sandy Row”. Frankly, the murals that proclaim support for violence, which are painted by shadowy men, have no part in our society; I wish that those who put them up would learn a lesson from other places where such murals have been replaced with those of famous footballers and the like. There are many who have made their mark in the Sandy Row area, including Tommy Dickson, of Linfield Football Club, and John Stewart Bell, who made a great contribution to physics. A lot that is positive has yet to happen in Sandy Row.

Ms Lo: I want to thank Jimmy Spratt for raising this subject. I endorse all the views that have been expressed by the other MLAs, and I share their concerns about the area. It is a shame that a once-thriving community and business area should have been allowed to decline to become one of the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland.

I was reading the Sandy Row Community Forum’s strategy, ‘Sandy Row: 2015’, which has a vision to make Sandy Row a prosperous and attractive place for people to live, work, visit and invest in. Within the document, there are strategic objectives to promote Sandy Row, to improve the environment, to generate social and economic development, and to create a vibrant and renewed community life through partnerships.

I certainly agree with and endorse all the other Members’ pleas for a co-ordinated effort to promote the area, led, perhaps, by DSD.

Now that there is peace and stability, it is about time that efforts were concentrated to revive that once prosperous and viable community, which has been blighted by the Troubles and by economic decline.

7.45 pm

There is a great need to generate a positive identity for Sandy Row. Belfast City Council’s neighbourhood development funding forum has taken forward a recommendation from the strategic plan for a marketing and promotion strategy. Much good work has been done, aspects of which Members have already mentioned. Sandy Row should be included in the branding programme to make Belfast city a place to visit and in which to invest, and it should be part of the regeneration strategy to promote tourism in Belfast. It is only a short distance from the city centre and can be a gateway to south Belfast, which has many attractions, amenities and diversity.

Sandy Row has become quite run-down. I support the call in the strategic plan to create a positive and attractive physical environment that will encourage people to come to the area to live, to shop, to visit and to invest. The area is rich in cultural and historic points of interest, with its involvement in, for example, world wars and local industries, as well as the many lively stories of local characters. With pride in its heritage and its forward-looking vision, a Sandy Row cultural quarter could be a reality, as Mr McGimpsey said earlier. Other cities throughout the world, such as New York and San Francisco, are made up of many different quarters that offer a variety of perspectives and cultural diversity.

I endorse other Members’ comments that there is a great need to have more social housing for families so that they can stay in the area and ensure the community’s sustainability. The LOTS scheme, which Jimmy Spratt mentioned, is a worth­while pursuit to consider, as it will help to regenerate the area, not only to contribute to the daytime and evening economy but to provide sound investment opportunities for local retailers and developers.

The Kids Into Education and Training project is another worthwhile initiative that helps families and young people. It enables women to return to work and helps young children with homework and social development. The provision of continued funding for that project must be considered.

As other Members said, the area has been uplifted in recent years — in the past year, four new specialist shops have opened in the area; a lay-by creation scheme is also in operation to help shoppers with parking. All those good initiatives should be built upon. Other Members referred to plans for the community resource centre and multi-sports facility. Therefore there is hope that the area will experience regeneration, not only in economic spheres but in social and cultural spheres as well.

The Minister for Social Development (Ms Ritchie): I thank Jimmy Spratt for the opportunity to discuss the regeneration of Sandy Row; I also thank the Members for South Belfast for their contributions to this important debate. If my response does not address each of the points that were raised, I am happy to write to Members when Hansard is available.

As part of the south-west Belfast neighbourhood renewal area, Sandy Row is a recognised area of deprivation. People who live in such areas are more likely to be out of work or, when they have jobs, to be poorly paid. The economic stresses of unemployment and low incomes can be linked to social problems, such as poor health, low educational achievement and high crime rates.

I agree with Mr McGimpsey that the people of Sandy Row deserve better from our devolved Administration. Economic deprivation can also lead to environmental problems, characterised by poor housing conditions, derelict buildings, undeveloped sites and poor services. There is no quick fix to deprivation. However, through the work of my Department and in conjunction with my ministerial colleagues, I am determined to tackle it in all of its forms across Northern Ireland.

Successful regeneration of the area must include progress on all those fronts and must actively engage with and involve local communities throughout the process. Mr Spratt raised the issue of housing, particularly from the aspect of family and affordable housing. I say to Mr Spratt and the Members of the House, that Sandy Row will continue to witness significant housing renewal in the coming years.

Ulidia Housing Association will build three large family homes on the Charter youth club site, and next year BIH Housing Association will start a major new development at Albion Street. The Housing Executive has made significant progress on a number of fronts in the area. For example, it is carrying out a comprehensive environmental improvement scheme, which has had a positive impact on not just housing, but on the surrounding environment in Sandy Row. It has worked closely with Groundwork NI and the community itself to deliver a communal garden at Blythe Street, a small community garden in Sandy Row and a play park at City Way.

In partnership with the Sandy Row community forum, it is pursuing the introduction of the LOTS scheme as part of a regeneration strategy for the main Sandy Row frontage. I agree with Mr Spratt that the scheme can help to further regenerate the frontage of Sandy Row.

The Housing Executive has also provided a community house in Sandy Row and introduced a neighbourhood warden service to the area. I was pleased to hear that Mr Spratt welcomes that service. Of course notwithstanding Mr McGimpsey’s concerns, the Housing Executive has built up an excellent relationship with most community representatives, and I am confident that that relationship will continue. I want it to continue, and I am determined to ensure that it will.

I visited Sandy Row at the end of last year and had the opportunity to listen to the concerns of the people working and living in the area. Over the past few years there has been, and continues to be, a range of initiatives focused on helping to regenerate the area. Members will be aware of the cross-departmental task force, to which all Members who contributed to the debate today referred. That was set up in 2004 to identify and examine the particular problems that Sandy Row faces. It resulted in a report containing 156 recommendations, of which 125 have already been implemented to bring about real improvements to the people. The outstanding recommendations have been incorporated into the south-west Belfast neighbourhood renewal partnership’s action plan. I am confident that Sandy Row will benefit from that plan. In fact, my Department had already committed almost £500,000 in the last three years towards improving the economic and social environment of that community.

I have referred to the importance of partnership arrangements in achieving success. I agree with Mr McGimpsey that the community has a vital role to play in helping Government interventions in Sandy Row. The south Belfast partnership, the south-west Belfast neighbourhood renewal partnership and the Sandy Row community forum have all contributed positively to our work in that area.

I want to assure Mr Spratt and the other Members for South Belfast, and all other Members of the House, that DSD will continue to work with all of our partners to tackle deprivation and deliver real change for that community.

The planned development of the former Lilly Bar site and the recently completed programme of environmental improvement schemes along Sandy Row are just two examples of the role that my Department already plays in the area.

Mr McGimpsey’s idea for a cultural quarter, to which Anna Lo also referred, is interesting, and I will ask my officials to explore that, in conjunction with our neighbourhood renewal partnerships. I can also report that I have approved funding of £756,000 for the multi-purpose sports pitch and changing facility at Blythe Street. I know that the community is looking forward to the day when it can use that high-quality sports facility. Along with the community and the local public representatives, I want to see that happen and I want to be with them when that happens.

My colleague Carmel Hanna referred to Blythefield Primary School. I am happy to talk to my ministerial colleague the Minister of Education about that issue because I believe that other Ministers have a role to play and a commitment to Sandy Row. There must be cross-departmental and cross-ministerial responsibility to the area.

Jimmy Spratt raised the issue of family housing. The waiting lists reflect a fairly low demand for family-sized housing in Sandy Row. However, that will be addressed by the Albion Street scheme. Mr Spratt, Michael McGimpsey and Anna Lo mentioned the KITE scheme. That scheme is not funded by DSD; it is funded by the Department of Education until the end of the 2008-09 academic year, and it hopes to source money from elsewhere after that. The neighbourhood renewal action plan for the area should assist in prioritising future services and needs for Sandy Row, but I will ensure that the Minister of Education is aware of the issues in relation to that project that have been raised this evening.

Mr McGimpsey raised the issue of shop frontages. Through a pilot exercise, my Department is currently exploring the possibility of providing technical or funding assistance to improve shop fronts and streetscapes. Although that initiative is still at an early stage of development, it may provide scope in the future for developing shop fronts in other areas of Belfast.

Anna Lo mentioned the ‘Sandy Row: 2015’ strategy document. I commend the work of the Sandy Row Community Forum in publicising its strategy for 2015. I am aware that the forum is progressing a number of recommendations in the report. Carmel Hanna referred to the long industrial history of Sandy Row, of which we are all aware. I am conscious that Members want to see the revitalisation that has already begun in the area to continue. My Department subscribes to that.

I thank Members for their contributions, and I assure them of my continued support for the regeneration of the Sandy Row area. Many years ago, I visited Sandy Row — as a young student at Queen’s, I used to go to the butcher’s shops and the greengrocers, and I found it to be a vibrant community. I know that it is the earnest desire of Members for that type of activity to be revitalised and to provide a sense of vibrancy to the community. Hopefully, as an arterial route into the centre of Belfast, that will continue.

On a final note, I hope that we will have further good news to report on the Village project, adjacent to Sandy Row.

Adjourned at 8.00 pm.

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