Tuesday 23 May 2006
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Madam Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
Madam Speaker: In accordance with the Northern Ireland Act 2006, the Secretary of State has directed that the Assembly should sit on Tuesday 23 May at 10.30 am to consider business as it appears on the Order Paper.
Mr Burnside: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My point of order concerns the conduct of business in this Assembly. We are at an interim stage where business is set by consultation between the Business Committee, the authorities within the House and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was previously Leader of the House in the House of Commons, and the Government have a reputation for having contempt for Parliament, and the House of Commons, in setting future business.
If this House is to establish any dignity and authority and move away from being a talking shop, as it is at present, business should be announced by this House to its Members, and not on the airwaves of Radio Ulster in the morning — I use the example of the possibility, or probability, that a devolution committee may be set up in this House. I ask you, Madam Speaker, to represent this House and to try to give it some authority in its relations with the Secretary of State, or it will be treated with the same contempt as the House of Commons.
Madam Speaker: Thank you, Mr Burnside. Your comments will be passed on, both through the publication of Hansard and by the Business Committee, to the Secretary of State.
Private Members’ Business
Rural Planning Policy
Madam Speaker: Before I call Mr McGlone to move the motion, I wish to clarify how I propose to conduct the debate. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. Speaking times will be as follows: the proposer of the substantive motion and the proposer of the amendment will each have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes for the winding-up speech, and all other Members who speak will have between five and seven minutes each.
When the debate has concluded, I shall put the Question on the amendment. If the amendment is made, I shall put the Question on the motion as amended. If the amendment is not made, I shall put the Question on the substantive motion. If that is clear, I shall proceed.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The House could sit to 5.00 pm — is that not correct?
Madam Speaker: This House will sit until the conclusion of the debate. We have not decided at this stage whether that will be at 5.00 pm.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: Further to that point of order. Why are the times curtailed? If we can sit until 5.00 pm, why do we not do so and give people time? This is a very important debate on planning, and we should use the time at our disposal and not be cut off.
Madam Speaker: As I said, the debate may well go on until 5.00 pm. We will listen to everyone who wishes to speak, and no one will be curtailed. Five to seven minutes is more than enough. We would go past 5.00 pm if we allowed any more than that.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: Further to that point of order. Surely this Assembly should take the time at its disposal? We have been curtailed. We get into criticism from the press because we come and go, but here is an opportunity, because of the fallout of things, to have a full debate. Why can people not have time to put their case?
Madam Speaker: As I said before, this House can sit until 5.00 pm if necessary. Last week, the Business Committee agreed that there would only be a morning debate. However, this week it has been decided that the debate should go on as long as necessary, even if it takes until 5.00 pm.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley: Madam Speaker, that is not the issue. If we finish at 4.00 pm, then we go, because you have limited the time. The time should be unlimited up until 5.00 pm.
Madam Speaker: We will proceed and see how we get on with that, Dr Paisley. The Business Committee meets at lunchtime. We will debate until then, and come back after lunch for as long as it takes.
Dr McCrea: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that the 10-minute time restriction on this debate was not decided at any Business Committee meeting? Also, what part of the minutes of the Business Committee confirms that it was five minutes for others?
Madam Speaker: You are quite right. There was only a general discussion last week, and a decision was taken about a morning session. The length of the debate is at the discretion of the Speaker with the help of the Business Committee. Five to seven minutes has been the norm in other debates, and I hope that that will be enough. As the debate goes on we shall see. Every Member who has indicated a wish to speak will get the opportunity to do so. That is all I can allow for.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you advising us that if things proceed in a particular way, Members speaking at the commencement of the debate might only have five or seven minutes while later contributors could have 10 or 12 minutes to speak? Surely that is unfair on those who made early contributions to the debate?
Madam Speaker: That is not what I meant. I meant that if there are other Members who wish to speak, they may do so. I do not want to restrict anyone, but the convention is that five to seven minutes is more than enough for any debate.
Mr Dallat: On a final point of order, Madam Speaker. Would it not be a good idea to get on with the debate?
Madam Speaker: That is what I have just asked for, Mr Dallat. [Interruption.] Order.
Mr McGlone: I beg to move
That this Assembly condemns the unilateral method by which the document ‘Draft Planning Policy Statement 14, Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ was introduced and calls on the Secretary of State to cease implementation of PPS 14 pending a comprehensive review of rural planning policy to develop a balanced policy for the sustainability of rural society and the environment. That, in the interim, all rural planning applications received since 16 March 2006 be considered under the application policy: A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland (1993).
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ar an chéad dul síos, gabhaim mo chomhghairdeas pearsanta leat as ucht do cheapacháin do do phost úr sa Tionól.
Madam Speaker, on my first opportunity to do so publicly, I congratulate you on your appointment as Speaker of the Assembly.
The nature and purpose of our business is to get straight to the point, to do what the people want and to meet the requirements of society. There should be no veneer or pretence that this Assembly has a competence or has powers that it has not.
The Planning Service often dismisses it as the rural remainder. For those of us who grew up — and still live — in the country, on land where generations before us have lived, it is home, pure and simple. However, with that comes the clear sense of attachment, belonging and being part of a community. That strong identity is replicated in rural communities across the country. That is the way those communities are, and it is the way that rural Ireland has evolved over centuries.
It was never an ‘Emmerdale’ of small rural chocolate- box-style villages and hamlets with a number of scattered, outlying farms. That, coupled with the need for a most basic human entitlement — the right to a home — is why over 300 people turned up at a public meeting in Cookstown that I was recently privileged to chair. They were people from the land, who wanted answers about Shaun Woodward and Lord Rooker’s drastic Draft Planning Policy Statement 14, which is wrongly entitled ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ — because that is the last thing it will achieve.
Allegedly in draft form and out for consultation, the document has been implemented for any applications acknowledged as valid by the Planning Service after 16 March. That raises issues, but there are more fundamental questions, such as why the authors of the document, the Department for Regional Development, cite, among other issues, overdevelopment of rural areas, or bungalow blight. Another issue is preservation of the environment, and in relation to what Mr Burnside said previously I note the attempt to ambush the debate on that matter on Radio Ulster this morning. All those important issues must be considered.
First, the policy prior to 16 March, ‘A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland’ (1993) is empowered to address planning and environmental concerns. Proper control of sewage from dwellings does not require a major lurch in planning policy, merely an alteration to its implementation. The onus is on the applicant to provide satisfactory septic tank arrangements, to show that the proposed dwelling is integrated in the rural setting, and to safeguard the integrity of the countryside, while simultaneously providing for its most valuable asset, its people, without whom there is no so-called sustainability.
The mindset of the document interprets “rural” as equalling farming or, specifically, those mainly or exclusively engaged in viable farm businesses. The media slant put on the document is that farmers and their sons and daughters will be catered for and that, therefore, the rural community is all right. A farmer’s son or daughter, living and probably working — inevitably part-time — on what is determined by the Planning Service under Draft PPS 14 not to be a “viable” farm business, will simply not receive planning permission. Both the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (NIAPA) and the Ulster Farmers’ Union have highlighted that to me. Moreover, those engaged mainly in farming will find it nigh on impossible to get planning permission where a site has already been disposed of from a farm holding for a variety of reasons, some of those dramatic.
Will the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) please enlighten its Civil Service cousins at the Department for Regional Development about the economic body blow suffered by the farming community over the last number of years? Many farms are no longer so viable as to support full-time occupation, let alone support sons and daughters in the farming business.
The main point is that the overwhelming majority of country people, now including many sons and daughters of farmers, have not been catered for in that document. They will be among the many who will be forced to leave family lands and, in many instances, the whole rural support network — be it family, cultural or sporting — that forms part of it.
The document provides an insight into the knowledge of its authors, whose perception of areas beyond Glengormley is more informed by watching ‘Emmerdale’ and listening to ‘The Archers’ than it is by getting out of Belfast to meet the real people who are affected.
One of the absolute ironies of Government policy is that one Department — the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development — supports community-led rural development policies, while another — the Department for Regional Development — will, through Draft PPS 14, undermine any efforts at rural development. What is there to develop if the rural community is having its most valuable asset — its future generations — removed? The irony is that Lord Rooker had ministerial responsibility for both rural development and planning.
A major issue now facing rural dwellers is where this leaves the British Labour Party’s commitments to affordable housing. House prices have already soared in Mid Ulster, which I represent. Supply and demand is an issue; demand exists among a growing young population, yet not enough land has been zoned, even in villages. Land price increases have had a knock-on effect on the overall price of a house. Many people have relied on developing a site on family land to keep down overall housing costs. At least through the tradition of passing a site to a son, daughter or grandchild, overall costs are confined to the construction of the dwelling. Draft PPS 14 has removed that option. Any available individual sites that are for sale have already rocketed in price — in some cases by £40,000 to £50,000 — thanks to Lord Rooker’s Draft PPS 14.
There has been a similar rise in the cost of development lands in towns and villages that is far beyond the reach of most people, who simply cannot afford to pay £150,000 for a site and then build a home on it.
We have now reached a stage where 40- and 50-year mortgages are being presented to those who, while they are employed and interest rates remain stable, can afford to pay them. This concept raises the spectre of a lifetime of debt, with, conceivably, debt being inherited. Little thought has been given to how a person could repay such a mortgage on retirement, when their income would be much reduced.
I proposed the motion at the request of many constituents from all backgrounds. I have consulted and listened to the major concerns of rural organisations, including the Ulster Farmers’ Union, NIAPA, the Rural Development Council and the Rural Community Network. I am a member of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), within which Draft PPS 14 has unified political opinion across the spectrum, as elected representatives know that it will sound the death knell for many of our rural communities. No more houses — that will be the effect of Draft PPS 14; it will have drastic long-term social and economic consequences for our rural areas. Schools, community organisations and the strong, often extended, family support network that is integral to rural areas will all disappear, and that will further affect churches. I recently met senior representatives from An Cumann Lúthchleas Gael — the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) — who voiced their concerns about the effect that this will have on many of their clubs. Other rural-based organisations will share similar concerns.
Last week, this Assembly rightly devoted a good part of its time to looking at the local economy. The domino effect of Draft PPS 14 will bring rural post offices and local shops to their knees. It will also have major consequences for employment, small building firms and their suppliers, for whom construction of single houses in the countryside is the lifeblood of their business. It has been estimated that Draft PPS 14 could lead directly to the loss of 10,000 jobs. The document shows no knowledge of our rural communities, displays no awareness of rural society and no consciousness of the sense of place and belonging that goes with those communities.
In conclusion, I call for an immediate statement to review the content of Draft PPS 14 from the new Minister, who has triple responsibility for regional development, the environment and rural development. I trust that by the time the review has been completed we will have full devolution of powers.
Members will have heard these concerns from their constituents, so please let us reach a consensus and pass the matter for action to the Secretary of State, with whom it rightly rests. Molaim an rún.
Mr Wells: Madam Speaker, I beg to move — [Interruption.]
Mr P J Bradley: Did my fellow Assembly Member for South Down discuss the opposition to the motion with councillor William Burns, or any other DUP councillor who supports rural committees and farmers in the area?
Mr Wells: Madam Speaker, I suspect that that was not a point of order.
Madam Speaker: I could not hear Mr Bradley, but I thought that you were giving way to him. That was not the case.
Mr Wells, you may proceed.
Mr Wells: I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “Assembly” and insert
“notes the publication of the Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ and calls upon the Business Committee to establish a working party to develop a balanced policy for the sustainable development of the countryside and the protection of the environment.”
I will accept reasonable and sensible interventions from Members opposite, as it is their motion.
After Lord Rooker made his announcement on 16 March, someone telephoned me and asked whether it was true that Lord Rooker had stopped all applications for building bungalows. I said that it was true. That person said “Thank goodness” because all his planning applications were for two-storey houses. He did not realise the significance of what was being announced.
The policy attracts a very diverse range of views — there is no question about that. At a public meeting held by the Draft PPS 14 team, a farmer said that he owned the land and that if he wanted to build 20 bungalows on his land, he had every right to do so.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Wells: With friends like that, who needs enemies? At another public meeting in Banbridge, a lady said that the damage to the countryside was so pervasive that all outstanding outline consents should be rescinded. I do not think that too many people would support that view.
Perhaps the most telling statement to come out of those public meetings was from a lady who owned bed and breakfast accommodation. A Dutch tourist who was staying in her accommodation said that she was going home early because she felt that the countryside had been destroyed through indiscriminate development. She was appalled at what had happened to the countryside since her last visit. The subject attracts various views. However, we are all agreed that something had to be done to prevent the indiscriminate loss of our countryside through speculative development.
The statistics are frightening. Each year, planning permission given for single dwellings in the countryside is equivalent to the size of Coleraine. Northern Ireland has 1·7 million people, yet we pass three times more individual buildings in the countryside than England, Wales and Scotland put together — and they have 58 million people. There is an imbalance in that statistic.
The regional development strategy set a policy of 60% brownfield development — old industrial sites and areas of inner-city dereliction — for Northern Ireland. The Assembly supported that target when the regional development strategy was agreed in 2001. Last year, more than half of all houses built in Northern Ireland were single dwellings in the countryside. How on earth are we to meet our brownfield development target of 60% if more than half of our developments are single dwellings?
There has been a rise in the number of multiple applications in recent years. One landowner in my constituency has 42 sites for sale, and a gentleman down the road has 17 sites for sale. In the Down District Council area — as the hon Member for South Down Ms Ritchie will know — 49 applicants have lodged 238 applications for single dwellings.
Mr Kennedy: They must have big families.
Mr Wells: Big families, indeed. [Laughter.]
Mr McGlone referred to the needs of the ordinary rural dweller. How can someone with 42 sites for sale be meeting the needs of the ordinary rural dweller?
Mr McGlone: I also represent a largely rural area. Forgive me for saying that Mr Wells’s experience may be peculiar to his area, but it is not my experience. People who contact me about sites are from the land; they want to live where generations before them have lived. The Member is saying that the exception should form the rule; those are the exceptions in my area.
Mr Wells: The Member makes a valuable point. The Holy Grail — the problem that we are all trying to solve — is to develop a policy that allows the ordinary rural dweller to continue to live in the countryside but which stops the speculation that I refer to.
Some Members: The Da Vinci code.
Mr Wells: It would be more difficult to solve than the Da Vinci code.
It is such a complex issue that the best way forward is to set up an all-inclusive working party to thrash out a sensible policy. I believe that that can be done, and I hope that the hon Member will support me, because it is the best way forward.
Until a decade ago, there were between 2,000 and 3,000 applications per annum. The system met the needs of rural dwellers, the farming community and those who wanted to look after disabled relatives. There were few problems, and it was sustainable. However, over the past decade, there has been a massive rise — a threefold increase — in the number of applications. Last year, the figure was 8,500.
Generally, those applications do not meet the needs of the rural community, as many are speculative. For example, in Ballyroney, which is in my constituency, a site was sold on Thursday for £183,000. Was that site sold to a local rural dweller? It was not; it was sold to a Belfast commuter. That is the problem, and that is why we need a working party to consider the issue. In recent years, applications have trebled, and the £100,000 site has become the norm.
This Assembly needs to be careful. Members of the previous Assembly passed the regional development strategy in 2001, which set out policies for the sustainable development of the countryside. All parties, including Mr McGlone’s, supported it. The strategy set out a method whereby the countryside could continue to thrive, but in a way that would not lead to the destruction of the goose that lays the golden egg, and was to be achieved through the development plan process. However, in the intervening period, there was such a massive surge in speculative applications that the Department for Regional Development had to step in and take action, otherwise the regional development strategy would have been totally negated.
The motion tabled by Mr McGlone looks fine until you read it carefully.
Mr McGlone: The price of sites has been grossly inflated as a direct consequence of Lord Rooker signing Draft PPS 14.
Mr Wells: The hon Member fails to realise that sites were already selling for over £100,000 in the east of the Province before the introduction of Draft PPS 14 in March. Those sites are not being bought by local rural dwellers; they are being bought by commuters, and that is doing nothing to sustain the countryside.
Mr Paisley Jnr: Will the Member give way?
Mr Wells: I said that I would give way to the Opposition. [Laughter.]
Mr Paisley Jnr: Surely the Member is not trying to sustain an argument that the countryside is exclusive to those from the countryside and, by virtue of that, that cities and towns are exclusive to those from towns and cities? This country — Ulster — is ours; it is everyone’s to share and everyone’s to enjoy.
Mr Wells: Yes, indeed. Ulster is ours, and Ulster will be ours. However, our countryside should be protected primarily for rural dwellers, who should not be squeezed out by commuters. The problem with Mr McGlone’s motion is that it calls for Draft PPS 14 to be set aside and for all applications to be treated under the old policy. If that happens, there will be a tidal wave of speculative applications throughout the country, which will completely clog up the planning system and cause utter chaos in the Planning Service.
Mr McGlone: Will the Member give way?
Mr Wells: No. I only have a minute and a half left, and I have been quite generous.
I agree that a review of the policy is needed. We need to think about it very carefully, but we must be careful that our attempts are not completely negated by the time the review is completed because of the massive surge of speculative applications.
I am sure that Mr McGlone is aware that 2,500 applications poured in to Omagh divisional planning office in the three months leading to the Minister’s announcements — simply based on a rumour of a change in policy. The situation will become absolutely unsustainable if the policy is brought crashing to its knees and the situation returns to a free-for-all.
Let us get round the table as MLAs and thrash out a policy that keeps rural communities thriving, but stops the speculation that is destroying our countryside.
Mr Cree: Madam Speaker, this is my first opportunity to speak in the Assembly, and I congratulate you on your appointment.
As a townie who lives in the rapidly diminishing countryside of North Down, I feel qualified to speak on this issue. The two Members who have spoken have given the different sides of the argument, and they are equally valid. As with many of the issues that have been and will be debated by this Assembly, rural planning policy and Draft PPS 14 demonstrate that Northern Ireland needs devolution. Without any input from locally elected representatives, an unaccountable direct rule Minister opted for a quick-fix approach to a serious environmental and community problem and arbitrarily imposed on Northern Ireland’s rural communities an artificial one-size-fits-all approach.
That is how direct rule misgoverns Northern Ireland. As long as politics in this part of the United Kingdom remains in complacent talking-shop mode, the flaws and weaknesses seen in Draft PPS 14 will also be seen in numerous other direct rule decisions impacting on the social and economic fabric of our society. If this Assembly is sincere in saying to Northern Ireland’s rural communities that it acknowledges the flaws of Draft PPS 14 and that it would act differently, then we should be moving beyond the complacent acceptance of direct rule and preparing to restore devolution.
There is little doubt that the aims of Draft PPS 14 should be supported. Protecting our rural environment through a sustainable approach to rural development is in the interests of rural communities and Northern Ireland as a whole. The countryside is a precious resource for the tourism industry; it contributes importantly to the quality of life in this part of the United Kingdom; and it sustains living, rural communities. Haphazard, random development threatens this, and it is right that rural planning policy should protect the fabric of our rural environment and rural communities.
However, if the aims of Draft PPS 14 are worthy of support, its mechanism is not. Draft PPS 14 is far too blunt an instrument. I have already described it as a one-size-fits-all approach. It fails to recognise the different contexts of, and challenges faced by, rural communities in different parts of Northern Ireland. The crude imposition of this measure — although typical of direct rule governance — ensured that the consent and consensus of rural communities and the farming community was not forthcoming. Again we see the arbitrary nature of direct rule failing to acknowledge the views and concerns of citizens and local communities.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of the direct rule Administration’s imposition of Draft PPS 14 has been the manner in which this has unnecessarily and artificially placed the desire for vibrant rural and farming communities in conflict with the commitment to environmental protection and sustainable development. The partnership between rural and farming communities and environmental organisations has been a positive and welcome development over recent years in Northern Ireland. It has reminded us that the stewards of the countryside and the rural environment are the rural and farming communities. If a locally elected Assembly with legislative powers had been making the decision on rural planning, that productive partnership would have been reflected in our proceedings and determinations. We would have ensured that the need for planned growth in rural communities proceeded in a sustainable manner, protecting Northern Ireland’s rural environment.
The motion calls for the development of a balanced policy for the sustainability of rural society and the environment. Many Members will have their doubts that the previous policy, contained in the 1993 rural planning strategy, represented a balanced approach. That is why as an alternative it would be wise to consider the amendment rather than give — as the motion does — a blank cheque to all rural planning applications received since 16 March. That said, the arbitrary imposition of Draft PPS 14 fails to provide a planning policy that has the confidence of rural and farming communities across Northern Ireland. The protection of the rural environment is not served by this flawed approach, and I urge the Assembly to support the amendment.
Mr McCarthy: Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 comes after a ministerial statement in January 2005 by the now departed cross-channel Ministers Angela Smith and John Spellar, which affected part of my Strangford constituency. Rural development in the Ards Peninsula has already suffered as a result of that statement, and now the same rural community is faced with further impediments by Draft PPS 14.
The objectives of Draft PPS 14 are laudable and sensible; our countryside is precious, and we have a duty to ensure that nothing is done to damage the character of the landscape, nature conservation interest and our built heritage. However, I am greatly concerned about the criteria contained in Draft PPS 14 and, in particular, the restrictions it may place on the farming community, farming families and their right to sell land.
Of the 14 separate policies, the most important is countryside policy 1, which stipulates that a presumption against development will be operated throughout the countryside with very little exception. My main concern is that rural communities are not detrimentally affected, or that loopholes and unseen technicalities may permit abuse by developers at the expense of genuine rural people, which was earlier acknowledged by my colleague Mr Wells.
Rural people must not be forced away from their birthplace and into villages, towns or cities against their expressed wish. As someone from a rural background, I have real worries that Draft PPS 14 may be a way of depopulating our countryside, with detrimental consequences for schools, churches, recreation and sporting activities, and the closure of small shops and post offices, which we have all fought to retain.
Rural communities must be protected and given every assistance to thrive and prosper. I fervently believe in the creation of a vibrant, local, rural population with associated economies, and I call on the Department for Rural Development, working in conjunction with rural constituents and various agencies, to ensure opportunities to promote the social and economic development of our rural areas.
The Alliance Party supports any practical measure to sustain farm businesses and diversification of work to ensure a decent income for rural dwellers. We also welcome moves to promote affordable social housing in rural areas to sustain the number of people residing in townlands or small settlements.
We welcome proposals to improve the character of rural settlements and make them more cohesive by making the quality and design of dwellings compatible with the surrounding landscape. People who live in a rural setting shape the countryside. Those with a long history in an area have an affinity with the local landscape, and will wish to retain that particular rural character. Opportunity must be given to local people to maintain their families and communities in their own locality.
Sustainable development in the countryside should also consider the needs of rural economies and changes in working patterns. Remote working, diversification and better use of modern telecommunications bring challenges to the development of rural planning policy.
The Alliance Party, being fully supportive of all green and environmental issues, acknowledges the problem created by faulty septic tanks in rural areas. However, modern technology has overcome these problems, and we agree, in the interest of good environment, that every new dwelling in the countryside should have a modern, working septic tank, and perhaps some method for ensuring its efficiency could be instigated. However, that must not be a barrier to enhancing our rural fabric.
As I said earlier, Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 has many laudable objectives; however, it is vital that we get the balance right. We do not support a blanket ban on rural living and we look forward to a clearly revised rural development policy.
In conclusion, the Alliance Party wishes to see a lively, vibrant, rural population. We do not wish to see our countryside destroyed with huge continental-style buildings.
The planners themselves have in the past allowed monstrosities to be built in the country, on top of hills and along our coasts and shoreline — all totally out of keeping with the local landscape. We strongly oppose any move to depopulate our rural areas, and we fully support efforts to manage, expand and revitalise the existing rural community with sensible planning decisions commensurate with the needs of the local people. Is it not a pity that through the fault of some parties in this House, we, the elected Northern Ireland Assembly Members, are being denied the right to make decisions for our own people?
Mr Shannon: I welcome the opportunity to speak on Draft PPS I4. It presents a direct attack upon the rural community. I represent a rural area and am concerned by attacks upon the planning process and reductions in the number of dwellings that people are able to put forward. This planning statement has taken ownership of land out of the hands of landowners and farmers and placed it in the hands of the Planning Service and of those responsible for planning legislation and proposals. To me that is wrong. The Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Rural Development Council, and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association have also stated their concerns, and people right across the community that I represent have said they are unhappy with Draft PPS 14.
Colleagues will know that we in Strangford have already encountered the Draft PPS 14 legislation, albeit under the guise of the Ards and Down draft area plan. The heart of Strangford has become a no-go area for planning as the green belt creeps across every mile of the Ards Peninsula, but until the ministerial directive, houses could still be built in the rural remainder.
I am opposed to the current Draft PPS 14 process. Due to ill health, a farmer and landowner in the Ards Peninsula missed the three-year deadline. Under Draft PPS 14 he cannot now gain a two-year grace period in which to build a house. He has lost that for ever through circumstances of ill health. That is just one example of how Draft PPS 14 disadvantages people.
Mrs I Robinson: Will the Member agree that it is about time that the Planning Service employed within each area a person with a medical background to sit on panels when planning applications made on health grounds only are being discussed?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Shannon: I thank the Member for her comments, and I will return to that issue later. I have been a councillor for 21 years and have been involved in planning matters during that time. In all those 21 years, of dozens upon dozens of applications on health grounds, only three have been passed. My colleague is correct: we need a panel to address medical concerns. I wish that one were in place.
I put it to the Assembly that before Draft PPS 14 — and here I must disagree with my colleague Mr Wells — the planning legislation in place and the Ards and Down draft area plan were already controlling the number of single dwellings in the Ards Peninsula and the Ards borough. Eighty-five per cent of applications for single dwellings in the Ards Peninsula were refused. That figure demonstrates that the rules and legislation in place were already controlling numbers. The existing process was capable of managing applications and ensuring sustainability of the countryside. The planners were able to state where an application was sustainable, and while I did not agree with every decision they made, at least there was an opportunity under that system for people in the rural community to build a house. Not everyone was building to sell; a lot of farmers and landowners wanted to pass on that opportunity to their children.
There may be exceptions to that, but should one bad apple ruin the whole bag? I do not think that it should, and that is what is wrong.
With regard to farm dwellings for sons and daughters, I reiterate the point: Draft PPS 14 will dramatically change the opportunities for sons and daughters, and it will penalise farmers and landowners who on occasions, because of financial necessity, have to sell a dwelling or a site on their land. Under Draft PPS 14, a son or daughter will lose the right to build a house. That is what worries me about the process. Also, it is proposed that Draft PPS 14 will be retrospective regarding sons and daughters. In that case, will a farmer be able to build a house for a son or daughter in the future? I suggest that under Draft PPS 14 that will not be possible.
Mr Robert McCartney: Can the Member explain the sudden surge in the number of applications — from 3,000 to 8,500 — on the basis of farmers’ sons and daughters suddenly deciding that they require planning permission?
Mr Shannon: I can speak only about what I know. The Downpatrick divisional planning office has already seen a decrease in the number of applications. I return to my point: the Planning Service turned down 85% of applications in the Ards Peninsula before Draft PPS 14. Therefore a system had been in place.
Under Draft PPS 14 — and I refer to what planning officers say at site meetings — if an application can be changed to include minimal improvements, a replacement dwelling should be passed. I suggest, however, that Draft PPS 14 takes away the right of those who want a replacement dwelling and removes the opportunity for a landowner to have a house.
Years ago, families of six or eight children were reared in small cottages, but in today’s society the footprint needs to be larger than the cottage. Therefore Draft PPS 14 denies the opportunity for replacement dwellings of a suitable design and structure, which is important.
I mentioned health, as did my colleague Mrs Robinson, so I shall leave that matter for other Members who may wish to comment on it.
With regard to diversification into tourism, it concerns me that Draft PPS 14 will have serious implications and will tax the very core of business in the countryside. We need the opportunity to have site meetings, and it worries me that under Draft PPS 14 that is denied.
There needs to be a reduction in the power of the Planning Service; encouragement for business opportunity in the rural hinterland; and a dwelling for a son or daughter without terms and conditions. Draft PPS 14 extends to the planners a level of control way beyond their past remit and in turn forces upon the rural community legislative changes that it does not need.
Mr Armstrong: One of the most important issues facing the rural community is the severe legislation, announced by Lord Rooker on 16 March 2006, that effectively bans one-off houses in the countryside. We have a beautiful countryside in Northern Ireland, and we should preserve it. The current proposals are too sweeping, too restrictive and take no account of their potential impact on rural families.
Planning permission should not be limited to the zoned development areas. To limit development to towns, villages and hamlets would be in direct contrast to the prevailing rural character. The main problem is caused by property speculators, some of whom see only pound signs, who come into country areas and buy up small farms. They exploit the whole area. Northern Ireland is not like rural England; people here do not live in nicely defined villages. Restricted development zones, with no building in the open countryside, would result in towns and villages becoming bigger and merging, and losing any sense of individual identity. Our smaller villages are already being swallowed up by larger towns.
If such a policy is to support sustainable rural communities, however, it must provide for the planned and sustainable growth of rural communities, as opposed to stifling any rural growth. Planning laws alone will not produce sustainable communities; they require strong Government support for rural development.
A sustainable rural environment and sustainable rural communities require careful integrated planning that allows for planned growth while protecting the needs of those who already live in the countryside. It is essential, therefore, that the new planning laws allow farming families to build family dwellings on their land. Otherwise, rural areas should be deprived of young people once they reach the age at which they need to step on to the property ladder, and that would result in the death of rural communities.
We must do everything possible to keep our rural communities alive. Those communities will suffer because they are unable to offer housing to employees of expanding businesses. The proposed policy will strangle rural enterprises, and rural communities will stagnate.
The proposed legislation will damage what it sets out to protect. The inevitable result of the severe restrictions on building will be a further rise in the already record level of house prices in Northern Ireland. That will put home ownership further out of reach. The restrictions will have a devastating effect, especially west of the Bann.
Agriculture remains Northern Ireland’s largest employer, and we must encourage our young people into that industry in order to sustain it. If the proposed new planning laws are applied, more rural schools, post offices and churches will close. Areas will be unlivable, and they will become virtual deserts.
The huge attendance at public meetings has borne out that there are strong views on the matter. Unquestionably, there are rural areas in Northern Ireland in which haphazard development has further damaged our environment, marred our landscape and acted against the interests of rural communities. There are many unanswered questions to which the public have a right to know the answers. The Planning Service revealed that those applications that are still in the system could be judged against the new policy, while those deemed invalid from 16 March 2006 should be determined in accordance with the new policy.
The planning laws need to take account of the unique rural asset base and of the need to manage and protect our rural way of life in Northern Ireland. Planning policy must be joined up among different agencies and Departments, such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) in the Department of the Environment, the Department for Regional Development, the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). Those Departments play key roles, as no Department is responsible at present for rural Northern Ireland.
I share the views of one architect who said that it took the Department for Regional Development two years to reach a conclusion on the blanket ban, yet people were given only 12 weeks for consultation. The consultation period closes on 9 June.
I find it ironic that, although Lord Rooker compared figures on the number of planning applications received in Northern Ireland to those in the rest of the UK and accepted that those are not sustainable, he failed to mention that John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, supported one of the biggest building schemes approved in green-belt land — the decision, as a result of a housing shortage, to build 3,600 houses in Hertfordshire.
Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 simply fails to understand the complexity of Northern Ireland’s countryside. The planning of rural dwellings must involve consideration of a huge number of factors, but it is completely unfair for the Government to introduce such sweeping legislation with only a 12-week consultation period.
Ms Ritchie: The direct rule Administration has attempted to justify Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 as necessary:
“to manage growth in the countryside to achieve appropriate and sustainable patterns of development that meet the essential needs of a vibrant rural community”.
It will not. Contrary to what Jim Wells said, the draft policy will strangle vibrant communities.
Another objective of the policy statement is to improve:
“the accessibility of the rural community to employment, services and regional amenities”.
That is not the case: the policy is, in fact, crudely anti-development.
In his statement of 16 March, the then Minister with responsibility for Regional Development, Shaun Woodward, said that Draft PPS 14:
“proposes a presumption against … development in the countryside”.
He also stated:
“strict controls on development will operate to meet the essential needs of the rural community”.
How will the Minister’s statement help to sustain the rural way of life over the next 20 to 25 years? How can he both protect vibrant communities and block the building of houses? That is the challenge facing the Secretary of State and the rest of the direct rule Administration. The Assembly has no competence or powers to deal with Mr Wells’s amendment. The matter needs to go directly to the Secretary of State in order for there to be change. When taken with the ministerial statement, the contradictions inherent in Draft PPS 14 suggest that it is simply another example of the Government saying no in different ways.
The direct rule Administration’s programme for managing the development of the countryside has been particularly dictatorial. The Member for Strangford Mr Shannon referred to the draft ‘Ards and Down Area Plan 2015’. Speaking from a South Down perspective, the draft area plan has been implemented, as a result of the joint ministerial statement of 31 January 2005, in advance of planning-inquiry hearings that recommence next month. As with Draft PPS 14, no consultation took place on the draft area plan; it simply was written large over the rural area. The greater part of Down is now green belt, with people having to prove that they need to live in a rural area.
However, the draft area plan pre-dates 16 March 2006. The Planning Appeals Commission’s (PAC) role in the planning inquiry has been usurped, and the imposition of the ministerial statement of 16 March has rendered meaningless the consultation measures that were in place.
As we know, and as has been mentioned in the House today, Draft PPS 14 may have been issued for consultation on 16 March, but its effect is to supersede all previous planning policies for the rural area. All new planning applications that have been submitted since 17 March will be judged against the criteria that are contained in Draft PPS 14. Therefore, the consultation process on the area plan has been a total nonsense. Certain applications’ special circumstances will no longer be taken into account, and powers for areas of special control, which I know only too well from a constituency perspective, will be strengthened to prevent development within their boundaries. Not only is no prior consultation to take place with local authorities and others, but none of the normal procedures has been adhered to. In the past, public inquiries could be held when there was considerable objection to a measure. In this case, the public’s rights have been violated and totally ignored. Where is the fairness and equity in this matter for rural communities?
It is time for the direct rule Administration to recognise that the majority of rural dwellers are custodians of the countryside. They want to preserve their environment. The consequences of Draft PPS 14 will probably not be felt immediately in the countryside, but, in the longer term, Draft PPS 14 will inevitably lead to the contraction of the population.
Government policies were supposed to prevent depopulation, through “Crossroads” housing development and small-job enterprises, and through an interdepartmental approach to rural regeneration. The reverse, however, will happen. Forcing people to move to towns will lead to that eventual contraction of population. Fewer houses being built will have an impact on the viability and sustainability of the local school, shop, filling station and car-repair outlet, and on church attendances.
Parents will be forced to find someone else to look after their children after school or during school holidays, because the children’s grandmother or aunt now lives too far away. Is that sustainable development? Do we want that to happen? Pending restoration of the institutions, we must ensure that we send a message to the Secretary of State to withdraw this document, which included no mechanism for consultation.
For many years, the Department of the Environment and the Planning Service have been totally inconsistent in their approaches to rural-planning applications. That has led not only to an unequal and unfair approach to the distribution of development in the countryside but to a presumption in some parts of favouring an “anything goes” policy — Members have already referred to that fact — and giving planning approval to Spanish-style villas while not allowing small alterations to bungalows, or even the building of bungalows.
Pending the restoration of the political institutions, the Secretary of State must withdraw Draft PPS 14; that is the message that we must send to him today. If people want to bury something, they create a committee. Do not let the Secretary of State off the hook. Do not allow him to fob off the problem under the pretence that this Assembly has powers and competence over building or strategic planning matters; it does not. We must keep it simple. We need to tell the Secretary of State that this Assembly wants Draft PPS 14 withdrawn, and he needs to go back to the drawing board to prepare a planning policy that reflects the needs of rural and farming communities and sustains the rural way of life.
Mr Paisley Jnr: I welcome the opportunity to debate rural planning, which has been afforded by the motion and the amendment. Many points have been raised. Indeed, the amendment allows me to reflect on the charitable view of my colleague that we all have our “Jim Wells” to bear. We bear with him on this issue, and I heard what he had to say. There are important issues to consider.
The motion should not be concerned only with Draft PPS 14 and the manner in which it was introduced. It should also address the fact that Government policy on the treatment of the countryside and countryside planning is fundamentally flawed. As Ms Ritchie rightly said, there are policies in place, which, if implemented consistently, would lead to good practice across the country.
Many of us deal with planning applications in our constituencies. Similar applications will be submitted, and the same planning officer will take a different view on how he or she interprets the policy and how it is implemented in practice. Members visit neighbouring constituencies and find that planning officers are not implementing policy consistently. It is a question of ensuring that policy and practice are consistent across rural Ulster. If we achieve that consistency, we will have made progress. The Planning Service should put its mind to achieving that consistency.
There is no doubt that rural and urban planning are in crisis. There are a number of reasons for that. The number of planning applications has increased, but it is not at the level given by Lord Rooker. Lord Rooker told a lie in Draft PPS 14 when he stated that there were over 9,500 planning approvals in one year. There was nowhere near that number of approvals in one year. He was absolutely wrong. In many cases, he triple counted.
Lord Rooker also failed to take account of certain factors. He said that the high number of planning applications was destroying the Planning Service’s ability to process them. However, far more planning objections than planning applications are launched in Northern Ireland. Last year, 55,000 planning objections were launched, irrespective of planning applications. A further 30,000 objections were lodged against the published area plans. Staff in any planning office — be it in Coleraine, Ballymena, Downpatrick or Omagh — will agree that such a flood of objections, many of them from professional objectors who object for the sake of it, slows down the planning process and destroys many development opportunities in the countryside and across Northern Ireland.
The Planning Service has failed completely to implement its policies on time and on target. For example, the Roads Service’s target is that 65% of all applications should be returned, either approved or rejected, within 15 days. In 75% of cases, the Roads Service misses that target by 35 days. The Water Service is the only service that is consistently on time. The Environmental Heritage Service, the supposed guardian of the countryside, has the worst record of all; over 88% of EHS responses to applications are 94 days late.
The planning crisis is not due to the number of applications but to the Planning Service being unable to handle the planning process. Some officials and professional objectors take a ruinous approach, with the result that economic development has slowed down completely. Planning does not sit all on its own; it affects our economy, our people and attempts to make Northern Ireland work as a whole. Statistics show that because the planning process is not working, business opportunities are being ruined.
A report published by Investment Belfast, ‘Investing in Regeneration: Unlocking the Belfast Opportunity’, makes a critical point. It states:
“Delays … in processing major planning applications”
— meaning planning applications for business and job opportunities —
“are unacceptable and will lead to investment opportunities being missed or directed elsewhere.”
The report also states that during the past two years, Northern Ireland investors spent £1 billion, not in Northern Ireland, but in GB or the Republic of Ireland. Opportunities are missed, which is a disaster for job creation. Planning is at the heart of the issue, and if we do not get planning right, we will ruin our economy. That is why I object to Draft PPS 14. It is ruining business opportunities and prospects for rural development.
Mr S Wilson: Will the Member give way?
Mr Paisley Jnr: Of course I will give way, but do not be flippant. [Laughter.]
Mr S Wilson: I am never flippant. I am not renowned for that at all. [Laughter.]
Does the Member agree that tourism is a big economic growth area? If Northern Ireland is to capitalise on its tourist potential, it is important that our natural heritage is not destroyed. For that reason, sensitive rural areas must be protected.
Mr Paisley Jnr: The Member makes a quite brilliant point, and I welcome that. He also made a brilliant speech on this issue in the House of Commons recently; I recommend that Members read that speech in Hansard.
The Member is absolutely right. When tourists visit Northern Ireland, we must ensure that they have something to see. Tourists also need somewhere to stay, but there are not enough bed and breakfasts or hotels. People do not have enough to do when they visit. The Member’s point is that we must have balance, which is critical.
A couple of points are absolutely critical —
Madam Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but the Member is out of time; in fact, he has gone over his time.
Mr Elliott: It has been suggested that the debate could continue until 5.00 pm. Given the flow of some Members, the debate could well go on until that time.
I reject the Draft PPS 14 proposals. They are too restrictive and will destroy the countryside and the rural community’s way of life.
I support the amendment, provided that the suggested working party is a genuine attempt to create a positive, balanced approach, which I trust is integral to the amendment.
There is a lack of consistency throughout the Planning Service. That has been highlighted during this morning’s debate. There is also a lack of consistency in the Planning Appeals Commission, which regularly overturns planning decisions that were possibly perfectly correct. It does not substantiate appeals that should be allowed to continue.
However, if this policy is to support sustainable rural communities, it must provide for the planned and sustainable growth in those communities that we need in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that that is contained in Draft PPS 14; I am not sure whether it is contained within the old planning strategy for Northern Ireland either, and that is why we do need a balanced and effective policy in this Province.
I also support the protection of the assets of the rural environment and the promotion of sustainable development, and I understand the pressures and threats to Northern Ireland’s countryside caused by the increasing demand for single rural dwellings. That is a result of many factors, not least the Department’s plan-making process, which has triggered a rush to secure the planning permissions before the shutters come down. We are realising that throughout Northern Ireland.
PPS 14 has been submitted in draft form for discussion, but simultaneously a policy of presumption against new development in the whole of the Northern Ireland countryside has been implemented, with very limited exceptions. The identified pressures and the flood of applications that result when a tightening of policy is imminent would suggest that this is a holding policy, pending a detailed consideration of the new rural policy after the consultation period.
The clear purpose of this policy is to urbanise the rural population of Northern Ireland, and that is an unacceptable basis for the changes to rural policy proposed in the Department for Regional Development’s Draft PPS 14. Many areas of Northern Ireland, such as Fermanagh, are remote from the population pressures of the Belfast metropolitan area. They do not exhibit the characteristics of an urbanised countryside but are areas of large extensive countryside with a low population density and perhaps only one sizeable town.
The characteristic countryside areas, with their small fields, farmsteads, isolated individual houses, dispersed rural communities, “Crossroads” housing groupings and small settlements and villages — together with the rural-based buildings for religious, social, sporting and business purposes and activities — are all part of the network of human and natural interactions that make up the very important and continuing cultural landscape of our rural areas.
I suggest that there is an opportunity to provide for regional circumstances in this situation through the local area plans and to remove the one-size-fits-all policy throughout Northern Ireland, which is detrimental to all areas of the Province. For far too long, we have had Government-produced policies that may be good for urban areas of Northern Ireland but are harmful and negative to rural areas, and indeed, it may be the other way round.
The legislation as proposed will damage what it sets out to protect, and the inevitable result of the severe restrictions on building will be that house prices in Northern Ireland rise from their already record levels. That will put home ownership, particularly for first-time buyers, almost out of reach. Those restrictions will have a devastating effect on the entire Province, but in particular, on the west of the Province.
If Draft PPS 14 has not confused the public enough, a question-and-answer session is published on the Planning Service website that confuses the public even more. I must say that it is with disquiet that we look at those questions and answers. I shall quote from one answer on the website:
“When published in its final form it is intended that the designations green belt, countryside area and dispersed rural communities will be withdrawn. The designation of exceptional landscapes, where there will be a strong presumption against any development, will be retained and these will be referred to as Special Countryside Areas.”
That is even more confusing than what we already have. That statement suggests that the final PPS 14 will retain the general presumption against rural development throughout Northern Ireland.
Is the consultation merely an exercise in commenting on the wording of specific policies in the draft document rather than a proper forum for discussing its more fundamental aspects? That is what I hope that the working party will actually do.
Draft PPS 14 justifies its restrictive policy on rural development on environmental protection and sustainable development grounds, but it also appears to be an exercise in ensuring that targets are met and books balanced with regard to housing figures and housing growth indicators. It especially appears to be an exercise in achieving targets for increasing the overall percentage of regional housing development within existing settlements. The agriculture and farming community of Northern Ireland will drastically suffer if Draft PPS 14 continues to be implemented.
Mr Morrow: I welcome the debate. I suspect that no other issue in Northern Ireland has generated so much debate and concern, not only here in this Assembly but in most rural councils, if not all 26 councils.
We must first recognise that there has been a problem with planning in the countryside. If we claim that everything is perfect with regard to planning in the countryside, we will fool not just ourselves but the people who live and work in rural areas. Those of us who do not support this policy are not arguing for one second that there should be a completely free rein on building in the countryside. Anyone who thinks that there should be can look at the failures in County Donegal, where there is a bungalow blight. This issue is about ensuring a sensible level of development instead of an overzealous prohibition of virtually all building in the countryside.
The aims and objectives of Draft PPS 14 state that the proposals are to manage growth in the countryside; to meet the needs of a vibrant rural community; and to allow a sustainable rural economy. No Member in this House would disagree with those aims. However, it seems that the Minister has published a draft strategy that will do its best to defeat them. For example, the section outlining the assessment of farm viability states that:
“The onus will be on the applicant to show that the proposed occupant is sufficiently involved in farming, to be considered mainly working in agriculture on the farm, and that it is essential that he or she should live there, for the working of that farm. Proposals for dwellings associated with “hobby” farms or enterprises where the proposed occupant’s main source of income is from another job or where he is semi-retired, will generally fail because of the viability test.”
The Northern Ireland agricultural census for June 2005 showed that there are just over 18,000 full-time farmers here. However, Draft PPS 14 would immediately categorise the 14,400 part-time farmers as hobby farmers, simply because they may not be sufficiently involved in farming to be considered as mainly working in agriculture. Draft PPS 14 is supposed to be a document that will deliver a vibrant rural economy. I am not for one second suggesting that agriculture is the sole economic driver in the rural community, but it most certainly is the most significant player.
Draft PPS 14 also seems to actively contradict other Government policies designed to reinvigorate the rural economy. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development recently launched a policy to encourage young entrants into the agriculture industry. As a party, we have called for such a scheme to be introduced and welcome the move towards helping to restructure the agriculture industry. This policy requires applicants simply to “have an economically ‘viable’ holding”. They need not be considered as mainly working in agriculture because, I assume, of the recognition that many young people starting out in agriculture will be involved in other employment.
Those young people, who were encouraged to enter the agriculture industry, could now find themselves unable to build a house to live in. Having been told that they were viable farmers by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, they are now being told by another Government Department that they are only hobby farmers. It seems that joined-up government is not functioning very well.
I use agriculture as an example because many people find it difficult to understand how this policy could support a vibrant rural economy when it may be detrimental to the agricultural economy. This is a policy that has heavy-handedly tried to solve a problem. As I have said, there may well be a problem regarding development in the countryside, but it will not be solved by Draft PPS 14, which will create more problems.
The Government have not only managed to create opposition to this policy, but, by the way in which they have attempted to drive it through, they have created more and more suspicion. This seems to have been the only Government policy in recent years that had so-called public consultation events for which the public and elected representatives were required to pre-book. Why was that introduced solely for this policy? It does nothing other than create the impression that the Government are determined to drive this through while hearing as little opposition from the public as possible.
Draft PPS 14 will have an impact on other issues. Madam Speaker, there are literally thousands of people on the housing waiting list. There is a housing crisis out there. The Housing Executive has taken its eye off the wheel and has fallen asleep. It refuses to acknowledge that there is a real housing crisis. Can anyone for a moment imagine how Draft PPS 14 is going to exacerbate that whole situation and make it infinitely worse?
Mr McCarthy: The sooner you get back there, the better.
Mr Morrow: I hear what you say, Kieran. [Laughter.]
I have also with me today a copy of the ‘Northern Ireland Quarterly House Price Index for Quarter 4 2005’. This was published before Lord Rooker made his Draft PPS 14 announcement. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, average prices rose by over 30% in that quarter. The average overall price for a home in Fermanagh and South Tyrone is just short of £161,000. That was before Lord Rooker’s Draft PPS 14. Can anyone for a second imagine the impact that his policy will have on house prices?
Madam Speaker: I must ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.
Mr Morrow: Yes, I will. I spoke to an estate agent last week. A former Housing Executive house in Dungannon is now selling at £176,000 and rising. I think, Madam Speaker, we have to agree that people are going to go out of buying altogether. First-time buyers are not going to get a chance.
Mr D Bradley: Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom díriú ar an toradh a bheas ag ‘Dréachtráiteas Polasaí Pleanála 14’ ar scoileanna beaga tuaithe. Mar is eol do Chomhaltaí, tá cuid mhór dár scoileanna beaga tuaithe faoi bhagairt cheana féin. Tá sé ag cur crua orthu fanacht ar oscailt faoi na cúinsí atá i bhfeidhm faoi láthair.
Madam Speaker, I would like to draw attention to the effects that Draft PPS 14 will have on rural schools. As Members will be aware, many rural schools are already under threat and are finding it increasingly difficult to stay open under present circumstances. The rural school is a unique feature of country life and an integral part of the local rural community. Schools in rural communities play many roles. They are part of the community’s shared history and tradition, and a hub for many of the community’s activities.
Chomh maith le bunoideachas a chur ar fáil, is ionad í an scoil d’imeachtaí sóisialta, cultúrtha, spóirt agus gnothaí eile pobail. Tá sé deacair ag pobal maireachtáil mura mbíonn scoil ann. Bíonn an scoil mar shiombail aitheanta de phobal neamhspleách beo.
In addition to providing for basic education, rural schools serve their communities as social and cultural centres. They are places for sports, amateur drama, music and other civic activities. A school is essential to the survival of a rural community.
Ní amháin go gcuireann scoil oideachas ar fáil do phobal, cuireann sí fostaíocht ar fáil i gceantair ina mbíonn easpa fostaíochta de ghnáth: fostaíocht do mhúinteoirí, fheighlithe, chócairí, agus lucht glanta.
Schools not only meet the educational needs of a community; they are a source of employment for residents where jobs are usually extremely scarce — jobs for teachers, cleaners, dinner ladies and caretakers.
Tá pobail tuaithe á gcrá ag dúnadh a gcuid scoileanna le 20 nó 30 bliain anuas, agus is léir titim thubaisteach ar a líon le linn an ama sin. Cuirfidh ‘Dréachtráiteas Polasaí Pleanála 14’ le luas na titime sin. Tá sé bagartha ag an Státrúnaí Peter Hain agus ag an iarAire Oideachais Angela Smith go ndúnfar tuilleadh scoileanna. Cibé is féidir linn a dhéanamh le scoileanna tuaithe a choinneáil ar oscailt, is beag is fiú ár saothar mura mbíonn na daltaí ann le freastal orthu.
School closures have been the bane of rural communities for many years. The number of rural schools has fallen drastically in the past 30 years. Draft PPS 14 will accelerate the decline of rural schools. [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Order.
Mr D Bradley: Both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, and the former Minister with responsibility for Education, Angela Smith, have threatened that further school closures are on the way. Whatever we have to do to keep rural schools open, there is little we can do if the pupils are not there to take up the places. This draft policy statement will ensure that they will not be.
Tabharfar ar theaghlaigh feirmeoirí nach mbeidh cead acu tithe a thógáil ar a gcuid talaimh féin dul a chónaí sna bailte móra, rud a fhágfas go mbeidh líon na bpáistí faoin tuath — a bhfuil scoileanna tuaithe ag brath orthu dá mbeo — ag dul i laghad de shíor. Dúnfar níos mó scoileanna dá bharr.
Farming families who cannot build on their own land will be forced to live in the towns, thus decreasing the pool of pupils rural schools have to draw upon. The inevitable consequences will be the closure of more rural schools.
Cé go ndearbhaíonn an Roinn Talmhaíochta agus Forbartha Tuaithe go ndearna sí an tionchar a bheas ag an pholasaí seo ar shaol na tuaithe a mheas, dealraíonn sé go raibh an Roinn dall ar an drochthionchar a bheas ag an pholasaí. Má tá an saol tuaithe le mairstin, caithfear impleachtaí an pholasaí seo a athmheas, go háirithe i bhfianaise an drochthionchair a bheas aige ar scoileanna tuaithe. Mura ndéantar amhlaidh, déanfar slad ar scoileanna agus ar phobail tuaithe.
Although DARD claims that Draft PPS 14 has gone through a rigorous rural-proofing process, many of the negative effects of this policy on rural communities seem to have been ignored. Its effect will be the wide-scale closure of numerous rural schools, which will have a devastating effect on rural communities. It is for those reasons that I commend the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat.
Mr Poots: Madam Speaker, I congratulate you on your appointment. On reflection, I am glad that I was so kind to you when I was Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, but then I am just an inoffensive individual by character.
I welcome today’s debate and the fact that Mr McGlone has brought it forward in a competent manner, unlike last week’s lead speaker for the SDLP, whose contribution was inept. I also note the absence of Sinn Féin from this important planning debate. It is fairly good at planning, however; while Bill Clinton was making his first visit here, it was planning on blowing up Canary Wharf. During the 2004 negotiations, it was planning the Northern Bank robbery, so, in its absence, we wonder what it is planning today.
Mr Weir: Does the Member agree that the party that sits opposite, but is absent today, is much more adept at demolition than at building in the countryside?
Mr Poots: It certainly has an absence of constructive things to apply to Northern Ireland.
We hear much about sustainability. The document must be judged on its sustainability in relation to rural policy. The three measures of sustainability are whether the economy is improved, whether society is helped and whether the environment is protected. Using those measures, the document fails miserably.
I will talk first about the economy. Traditionally in Northern Ireland, there has been a presumption in favour of development. That presumption should remain, and, setting other conditions to one side, Draft PPS 14 has the ability to do that. Countryside policy 11, on rural character, states that:
“Planning permission will be granted for a building in the countryside where it does not cause a detrimental change to, or further erode the character of an area.
A new building will be unacceptable where:
(a) it is unduly prominent in the landscape; or
(b) it results in a build-up of development when viewed with existing and approved buildings; or
(c) it does not respect the traditional pattern of settlement exhibited in that area; or
(d) it creates or adds to a ribbon of development”.
That sets out the generality of rural character. The DUP has no issue with that. The problem is that the Planning Service has not been applying that over the past number of years. There has been a lack of consistency. Because of the Planning Service’s inability to apply its own criteria, it is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut by introducing a policy that discriminates against an entire rural community.
The DUP can also live with countryside policy 10, which concerns the integration and design of buildings in the countryside. It states that:
“A new building will be unacceptable where:
(a) it is a prominent feature in the landscape; or
(b) … lacks… natural boundaries…
(c) it relies primarily on the use of new landscaping.”
The DUP has no problem with all those issues. The problem is with the idea of a blanket ban, whereby exceptional need must be demonstrated before development in the countryside is allowed. I know many farmers who will not be able to develop properties on their land for their families. There is a substantial area of green belt in my council area, and I understand exactly what will be applied throughout Northern Ireland.
Mr S Wilson: Does the Member accept that some farmers have, however, abused the system? It is quite common to hear people say that they have six, seven, and sometimes 19 permissions. That is clearly development for more than just their family.
Mr Poots: Absolutely, but those are exceptions rather than the rule. Why should everybody be persecuted because individuals abuse the system? Why should they be persecuted because of the Planning Service’s inability to stand up to those who are abusing the system and tell them that they will not get, and do not need, 19 sites? The Planning Service should use countryside policy 11, as set out in Draft PPS 14, against those individuals, because 19 sites on 50 acres of land is not appropriate and would not be allowed if that document were properly applied.
A Member mentioned tourism earlier. We met the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to discuss the awarding of grant aid. We discovered that around £7·5 million in Building Sustainable Prosperity (BSP) grants had been awarded for rural diversification and tourism. However, £2·5 million had to be handed back because planning permission could not be obtained. Where is the joined-up government when the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development awards a grant because it identifies a good scheme that will help business and tourism and improve the Northern Ireland economy — yet the Planning Service rejects the scheme?
On reflection, that was before Draft PPS 14 was introduced, when 30% of Northern Ireland was green belt. Now virtually all grant applications will be rejected because that policy document will not allow the development of rural diversification into tourism or other business opportunities. That will not help Northern Ireland’s economy.
The case was made that tourism is an essential growth area for Northern Ireland. Tourism revenue in the Republic of Ireland and Scotland accounts for 7% of their respective gross domestic product; in Northern Ireland, the figure is between 2% and 3%. How can tourism growth be generated without allowing development? Development is a critical driver. It has helped the Irish Republic’s economy, along with foreign direct investment and the establishment of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Development has been a critical aspect of the improvement in the Irish Republic’s economy.
Stifling development in this country will lead to an economy that stagnates and suffers. It is critically important that development be allowed to continue in Northern Ireland. The Planning Service has a job to do in protecting the environment and allowing development that is sympathetic to the environment. It is not its job to stifle growth and to create further stagnation in Northern Ireland.
There are many derelict buildings in the countryside that are eyesores, but replacement of them is not allowed. As a result of Government policies, BSE, foot-and-mouth disease and a range of other issues, many farms are derelict and falling down. Ultimately, it would be better to revamp those properties and turn them into rural businesses.
If this policy is implemented, and if the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development continues to implement its current policies, the farming community will be discriminated against. Many farmers have substantial units, and I have been present with farmers when officials from the Department have said that no need for a second dwelling on the farm has been demonstrated.
Madam Speaker: Members will know that the Business Committee has arranged to meet at lunchtime today. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.30 pm to allow the Business Committee to meet at 12.30 pm.
I have had to do very little curtailing this morning, and I thank Members for their co-operation.
The sitting was suspended at 12.06 pm.
On resuming (Madam Speaker in the Chair) —
Mr P Ramsey: Madam Speaker, like other Members, I congratulate you on your appointment. I wish you well, and I hope that you can make that job much more sustainable for the Assembly.
There was a good debate in the Chamber this morning and a consensus for the way forward on planning. The SDLP would like the Secretary of State to acknowledge, respect and take account of this debate. There is no point in debate unless there is something meaningful at the end of the process.
Draft PPS 14 is an attempt to reverse a pattern of dispersed rural settlements that has characterised the Irish countryside for years. It will have major implications for rural society if people are forbidden to live where they were born and reared and instead are directed into towns and cities.
It is clear— even from a Derry City perspective — that previous planning policies have been harsh on deferrals, and the incidence of planning office meetings in Derry in respect of single dwellings is high. The discussion this morning highlighted the level of inconsistency from town to town and from one planning officer to another. The parties were united in their thoughts on the planning process.
Draft PPS 14 will have a major knock-on effect on rural life, especially in the price of affordable housing and in the quantity of available housing. Members have said that the cost of sites has rocketed since Lord Rooker’s announcement. That will be compounded by the effect of industrial derating, particularly in border towns, as was discussed in our first debate on the economy. Existing rural companies and businesses will be forced to move across to Southern Ireland for cheaper rates, and that will have a negative impact on the range and quality of services, such as schools, shops and post offices, available to people in rural areas. The overall effect on rural parishes, including sporting and cultural organisations, is incalculable.
The present chaos in retail planning is having a detrimental effect, and there will be further unforeseen consequences for small businesses, most notably in construction and in local commercial developments. Architects and building suppliers, whose businesses are predominately dependent on single houses in the countryside, are already concerned about the potential downturn in their businesses.
The new Minister should, as a matter of urgency, release a draft retail planning policy with immediate effect. Lord Rooker would have been better placed to make decisions had he put more human resources into the planning process so that the obvious inconsistencies in the various council areas could have been dealt with.
The planning appeals system is not able to cope with demand, as it does not have the human resources to prepare and advance its arguments — unlike some of the bigger developers.
In my own constituency, I hope that the planners will honour their agreement to relocate a number of homes in the Eglinton area that have been affected by the safety works at the City of Derry Airport. The homeowners were promised relocation prior to the introduction of Draft PPS 14, and, although it has been announced that state aid has been resolved, it is hoped that that decision will not be reneged on or delayed any further.
We must engage specialist planning opinion before making a formal response to this draconian ruling by Lord Rooker, who has embarked on a solo run to save planet earth without any regard for public representatives or public opinion.
A fundamental error of judgement is that only farmers should have to justify living in the countryside. The rural community is further made up of many families whose roots are there and who are equal partners in its regeneration. In fact, 80% of the rural community is not involved in the agriculture industry. There has been no formal consultation with the hundreds of stakeholders and groups who have been rebuilding rural communities that have been devastated by decades of decline.
The countryside has become a more attractive place for people to live in recent years, but this policy will price out many rural people. Local councillors are aghast that this moratorium has effectively cancelled the right of rural dwellers — and their sons and daughters — to live in the countryside. It has caused a great deal of anger and frustration among people who have not exploited planning regulations and seek nothing more than for their sons and daughters to live in the area where they were brought up.
The Secretary of State must take into account Members’ opinions on planning law. Unless he does, there is little point in the SDLP participating in debates in this Chamber. Other important debates, on a range of issues, are pending. We need a quick response from the Secretary of State to cease implementation of Draft PPS 14.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Berry: First, Madam Speaker, I wish you well in your new role, as many Members have done.
I welcome the debate, and have found it helpful. I support the amendment and wish to record my total opposition to Draft PPS 14 because of the undemocratic way in which it was announced. The Government, and especially Lord Rooker, thrust it upon the community and elected representatives, who have had to bear the brunt of it. The announcement has caused considerable concern, mainly in the rural community.
We do not sympathise with the developers and those who have strangled the rural community over the past number of years, but with those who have been brought up in the countryside, not only in the farming community but those living in single dwellings, with children who also wish to live in the countryside. With Draft PPS 14, the Government are forcing young people from the countryside into towns and villages. That will have a detrimental effect on the rural community: on churches; community halls; schools; and the entire rural system.
Several Members mentioned soaring house prices, which have been at an all-time high in recent years. A developer recently told me that he intends to build 70 houses in a village in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, and 300 people have put their names down for them. House prices will go through the roof as a result, and first-time buyers will find it impossible to get on the property ladder.
A balanced approach is needed. If the implementation of Draft PPS 14 ceased today, I would be seriously concerned that the floodgates would open and developers could throw in applications. On this month’s planning list schedule for Armagh City and District Council, one developer has submitted six applications. Those people have caused the Government to force this policy upon us.
Areas of concern in Draft PPS 14 include countryside policy 2, which deals with farm dwellings, and countryside policy 3, which concerns dwellings for retiring farmers, where a farmer must demonstrate that no dwellings or development opportunities have been sold off from the farm holding. That has caused considerable concern for farmers, who have been under immense financial pressure for several years. Some farmers have abused the system, but a vast number have had to sell sites for genuine and financial reasons, just to keep their heads above water. We have been aware of that situation for a number of years.
I know of farmers in my constituency who have had permission refused because of ribbon development and build-up caused by people from the towns buying sites in the countryside. Then when the farmer wants to get a house passed for his son or daughter it is refused because there are too many houses in the countryside. Such issues must be addressed, and the Government must take notice of that.
In summary, Madam Speaker, a common approach is required. The Government must dramatically revise this policy. I support the establishment of a working party in this Assembly. The working party must send a clear message to the Government stating that it does not accept the way in which the process was carried out and how it was thrust upon the community. The proposed working party must also convey to the Government that it does not appreciate the disrespect shown to the elected and public representatives of Northern Ireland. That message must be given to the Government: we do not accept the policy, and it must be revised.
Mr Weir: Madam Speaker, may I take this opportunity to congratulate you and welcome you to the Chair. It is good to see someone from the finest constituency in Northern Ireland appointed as Speaker — a sentiment which will, I am sure, be echoed across the Chamber.
Mr Morrow: That is not relevant to the motion.
Mr Weir: I do not hear the Speaker shouting me down.
The key word in this motion is “balanced”. Clearly there is a need to protect the countryside and our natural resources; the fundamental problem with Draft PPS 14 is that that balance has not been achieved. There is a lack of realism in Draft PPS 14, because it does not take account of the needs of the rural community or of what is beneficial from an economic sustainability point of view, and it avoids the obvious question — where will people live?
According to ‘Shaping our Future’ an estimated 377,000 people live in the open countryside in Northern Ireland. If Draft PPS 14 is to be carried through unchanged into the future, where will the sons and daughters of those people, not just the farmers, live? That is the lack of realism that lies behind Draft PPS 14.
I have been aware of this issue on two levels. First, through NILGA; as Patsy McGlone said earlier, rarely has an issue excited such a level of support across the community — indeed, across councils — as the effect of rural planning. I must express my disappointment that one of the parties that has been concerned about Draft PPS 14 at NILGA has not deigned to be here to express those views.
Secondly, despite the fact that North Down is often perceived as a suburban constituency — as you will know, Madam Speaker — that does not give the full picture. North Down is not simply the “gold coast” of Cultra; it takes in a lot more than that. It is not the urban jungle that people sometimes see it as. There are a reasonable number of farms in the area — indeed, there is a rural community. At local council level, I have seen a number of cases where Draft PPS 14 and an overly restrictive attitude by planners have created problems on a day-to-day basis for residents.
Members should not see this as a rural/urban divide, because — as Members have already said — Draft PPS 14 has a knock-on effect on the whole community. When undue restriction is imposed on building in the countryside, it leads to increased pressure for building in towns and cities, which results in town cramming and pressure to move beyond development limits and build on green belt land. In a general sense, it also leads to pressure on the housing growth indicators, an increase in house prices, a reduction in the availability of social housing, and increased prices so that first-time buyers in particular are unable to afford new homes. It is not simply a question for the rural community, therefore, but for the entire community.
Again, it is an example of the level of imposition that was produced by Lord Rooker — I am sure we are all very disappointed that he has left that post. When local government representatives were negotiating with the Department and the Planning Service on the issue, for example, of site meetings, an imposition was brought down. Similarly, an imposition has been brought down on rural planning. It is yet another example of the failure of joined-up government in Northern Ireland.
My colleague from North Antrim Mr Paisley Jnr highlighted the contrast between Government spin on rural sustainability and the impact of Draft PPS 14, which will actually damage rural sustainability. We have seen the contrast between Government support for the position of low-cost housing and the effect of Draft PPS 14, which will be to increase house prices. We have seen the contrast between the Government complaining that a range of changes had to be made to the Planning Service to clear the massive backlog, while at the same time cutting its funding by 19%. We often accuse the Planning Service of inconsistency — and there are different approaches in different areas — but that simply reflects what happens in Government as a whole.
There has been at times a contrast made between Northern Ireland and England. An article in the ‘Local Government Chronicle’, dated March 2006, refers to sustainable policy killing villages; to the system causing rural housing shortages; to developers circumventing affordable housing rules by limiting applications; and to young people being priced out of the market. All of those apply to Northern Ireland, although the journal writes about what is happening in England. The problem is that the Government have failed to learn from their mistakes and are imposing on Northern Ireland the same measures that have failed to work in England.
The article gives an indication of the impact on rural schools. I an involved with one of the education boards and am aware, as we all are, of the falling demographics that are likely to lead to pressure for school closures. That is a tough enough environment for schools to operate in, but when schools do not operate on a level playing field, when growth is restricted in an area, when there is an inability to build housing for young families, the death knell for many rural schools will be sounded, and that is a great shame.
We need to strike a balance on this matter. There must be recognition that farming has changed, as indicated by the introduction of the single farm payment scheme and the cutting of the link between agricultural support and agricultural production. A flexible approach is necessary. There must be recognition that a proactive approach is needed with regard to replacement dwellings and a realisation that dwellings in the countryside are not solely for the farming community but for other key rural workers. We must ensure that nurses and doctors are there too.
I am pleased that we are having this debate. I support the motion.
Mr P J Bradley: Madam Speaker, I join with others in wishing you well and hope that we may meet here often and regularly in a official capacity, sooner rather than later.
The ill-considered policies of the current crop of direct rule Ministers, and in particular the decision to put a blanket ban on development in the countryside, must be challenged at every opportunity, and the Secretary of State must be tested on the anti-rural and anti-farming contents of Draft PPS 14.
Everyone present in this Assembly today has views on the document, and from what I have heard this morning and so far this afternoon, it is fair to say that the majority view is that Draft PPS 14 is an anti-rural and anti-agriculture document. My views are in keeping with most of the comments, and I too recognise that something must be done to address the rural problem. The imposition of a blanket ban, however, is not the answer, and if it is implemented, the current housing crisis that applies to young people, urban and rural alike, will increase greatly.
The Department for Regional Development has issued a public consultation document seeking comments on the draft public planning statement 14, or Draft PPS 14, as it is better known. I appeal to every rural organisation, including school committees, church committees, GAA clubs and sporting organisations, rural community groups — indeed, to all groups that depend on the local community for their membership and survival — to respond to the consultation document. A strong rural front cannot be ignored; or perhaps I should say, “should not be ignored”, because we have only to look at the Minister’s attitude to the review of public administration and his decision to ignore the wishes of three of the four main political parties that have concerns for our rural residents.
I am not opposed to the consultation paper. I agree with its aims and objectives, which are outlined on page 19 of the Draft PPS 14 document, but I am totally opposed to the blanket ban on rural dwellings that the Minister imposed on 16 March 2006.
It is wrong to impose such a ban when no contingency arrangements are in place. It is morally wrong to deny all young rural couples the chance of providing an economically viable home. It is regrettable that the direct rule decision-makers cannot be challenged. I am confident that if we had a Minister of our own, a blanket ban would not have been forced upon us. Do those in the Assembly who put party politics above the needs of those whom they represent — and I ask the same question of those who are absent from the Assembly — know who would gain if the Assembly were up and running? Is it too much to ask that question? Our farmers and rural communities would be among the first beneficiaries.
The Government’s decision to change the remainder of rural Northern Ireland into a green belt is short on vision. If the entire countryside is to be formally designated as a green belt, what kind of countryside will we have in the future? I predict that in less than two decades there will be few children to brighten our countryside. The current occupiers of the family home will reluctantly have to say goodbye to their children as they depart for distant areas to settle and raise a family. Time will pass, and the rural owners will drift into retirement and eventually pass away to their eternal reward. The home will most likely be handed on to a son or daughter, who is by then 50 or 60 years of age, and every 20 years or so the cycle will be repeated. Rural Ireland will be denied the vibrancy of youth, and the customary ties that children provide in linking one generation to the next will no longer exist.
Northern Ireland’s topography means that it is difficult to devise one-policy-fits-all guidelines. The flat lands of the Ards Peninsula and the level spaces of Fermanagh are so different from the rolling hills and drumlins that are found in most other areas in the North. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that there can be a responsible outcome to rural development matters.
In my response to the consultation paper, I will suggest that where there is attachment, need or family ties to a place, applications that concern that area should be considered favourably. I concede that sites that have roadside frontage have accumulated in many areas to such a degree that action has to be taken. It is therefore important that the Planning Service and the Roads Service give local farmers the opportunity to build on sites that are well back from main thoroughfares and major rural routes or along private lanes or on loanans and boreens. In such cases integration is less likely to be a problem, and seclusion from the eyes of tourists, about whom someone expressed concern this morning, and city-based day trippers would be easier to attain. Thousands of brownfield sites remain hidden in Northern Ireland, but the Government have yet to recognise that.
In my response, I will say that restriction on size and design will be considered acceptable to those whose basic requirement is to build, near to the place of their birth, a modest dwelling in which to rear a family.
I again appeal to those who have rural interests to impress on all rural organisations the necessity to challenge the blanket ban and to join with others in making a pro-rural response to the consultation document. I remind them that the closing date for comments is Friday 9 June 2006.
If Mr Hain and company are listening, I ask them to note that four of the five main parties — the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Ulster Unionist Party — are united today in their opposition to Draft PPS 14.
Mr Storey: Madam Speaker, I concur with the words of congratulation on your appointment as Speaker of this Assembly. As the Member for Lagan Valley Edwin Poots said, the representatives of Sinn Féin/IRA are absent. Of course, the Member rightly mentioned that the planning history of that party is something of which we should not be unmindful.
I also draw Members’ attention to the republican policy that has left a legacy of ethnically cleansed rural farming communities along the border. Indeed, in my own North Antrim constituency, republicans left a legacy of murdering a member of the part-time Royal Ulster Constabulary Reserve who was also a farmer.
The rural planning policy should contain special provision for those families and give them recognition.
There can be no doubt that Draft PPS 14 will pose the rural community significant problems if it is implemented in its current form. Ours is a fragile rural economy, and it is understandable that those who live on farms have grave concerns about such a policy being imposed on them. Farmers in all constituencies see the rural economy disrupted. The rate of change that Draft PPS 14 proposes will hurt those farmers and their families rather than help to sustain them. In some cases, there are good grounds for claiming that those families’ assets will, at the very least, be greatly reduced and that farmers and their families may even be disenfranchised. The farming community believes that it is the key stakeholder in Draft PPS 14, yet it feels isolated and alienated from the process. Indeed, a recent publication by the North Antrim Community Network (NACN) in my constituency stated that the draft policy would impact negatively on many farmers and farm families who are trying to diversify and avail themselves of farm work to maintain the family farm. The network also stated that the criteria cited for farm families were unclear and that the use of the term “hobby farm” was totally inappropriate.
Draft PPS 14 clearly intends to put a stop to the continuation of building in rural areas by introducing what amounts to a blanket ban on planning policy.
It is responsible of the Minister to want to be seen to be protecting the rural environment, but extreme legislation, with excessive conditions, is more likely to hinder than improve the benefits of the countryside. It has come to something when farmers’ families can no longer build their homes on family land unless DARD is satisfied that they intend to farm it as well. If the Government were so concerned about maintaining the farming industry, they should have taken firm steps to protect the farming community in Northern Ireland.
Mr Kennedy: Does the Member agree that a major problem for landowners and farmers is that, when DARD is approached for permission for a planning-application site, it often replies that the farm is not viable? That is very unsatisfactory.
Mr Storey: I agree with the Member. One has only to search the DARD website to see that no information on Draft PPS 14 is available. The Department has failed the farming community abysmally on the issue. It has provided a clear example of there being no such thing as joined-up government. It is a misnomer.
I urge the Minister and the Department to look again at the draft policy. Why should we use, as other Members have said, the proverbial hammer to crack the proverbial nut? The draft policy requires review and amendment before it will achieve any reasonable objectives. We should debate further the Department’s own figures, as outlined by the Minister, in the House. Any rational, objective consideration of those figures will show that the Department is far off the mark and less than accurate.
The countryside in my constituency, as in other constituencies with a rural community, is speckled with many top-quality rural dwellings. That has led to an influx of many new householders and families who continue to revise the make up of our rural communities. There can be little doubt that that has been beneficial to local economies at a time when the farming industry has been under continual pressure. Why would farmers not want to sell some of their land for new builds if planning permission indirectly encourages it and if the Government’s farming policy limits them from exploring other options?
A more important question hangs over the diversity of the Department of the Environment’s agents’ interpretations of planning policy. The Department continues to take an alarmingly inappropriate approach, through disproportionate allocation and, indeed, through a draconian interpretation of subjective policy. As Pat Ramsey, a Member for Foyle, reminded the House, that situation is compounded further by the fact that this is not a new project for the Department. The situation with ‘Planning Policy Statement 5: Retailing and Town Centres’ was absolutely disgraceful. Three years ago, the consensus was that PPS 5 was totally inappropriate and, to this day, the same Department that is pushing Draft PPS 14 has done nothing to improve that situation.
Sir Reg Empey: In an intervention, Ian Paisley Jnr, a Member for North Antrim, said that the countryside belongs to urban as well rural dwellers and that, likewise, people from rural areas share the urban environment. In a sense, therefore, the issue is shared space, so everybody, whether an urban or a rural dweller, has a key interest in the subject. The Ulster Unionist Party has chosen to support the amendment because, although there is significant consensus in the Chamber, more refinement is required to ensure that we are clear on the exact message that we send to the Government.
We have heard the views of those Members who have been in the Chamber today. We do not, of course, know the views of those Members who were absent. However, although Sinn Féin was able to stay away from the Chamber, it could not stay away from the issue. Its spokesperson presented herself in the Great Hall earlier to give television interviews on the subject. That indicates the significance of the matter and that it cannot be ignored.
However, we are anxious about one point: it is not clear how working groups to develop balanced policy and so on are to be established, or if they are to be established. Rather than lose the consensus — or what we think will be a consensus — it might be useful to make the point that, in the absence of a committee, there should be a fall-back position, whereby, on a cross-party basis, Members could discuss the issues and, if necessary, form a joint delegation to meet the Minister. I hope that a mechanism that is consistent with the amendment can be found, and we will support that. However, Members should not lose sight of the fact that if that is not possible, the issue should not be allowed to fall, and we must be allowed to express our opinions.
In moving the amendment, the Member for South Down referred to land values and speculators. There are horses for courses. Mid Ulster and areas that are on the edges of South Down or in the commuter area around Belfast may be affected differently by certain situations. Members know that the rate at which the Department of the Environment makes decisions and the evident inconsistencies in them varies from area to area.
There is an enormous amount of work to do, which is why the amendment provides a less drastic option than the more blunt instrument that is proposed in the motion. Nevertheless, we must make it clear that we should lose no opportunity to send out a message on which all of us agree. If the committee route is not open to us, other mechanisms should be found at an inter-party level. We could then go to the relevant Minister and express our considered opinions.
Mr Dawson: Members across the Chamber will agree that the countryside is one of Northern Ireland’s primary assets. It excels in beauty and splendour and is promoted for its unspoilt freshness and environmental excellence. Members will know that my constituency of East Antrim boasts many areas of outstanding rural and coastal scenery.
Undoubtedly, the countryside is appreciated by those who live there and by those who pass through it, either as visitors or, increasingly, as tourists, as my colleague Sammy Wilson pointed out earlier. However, the very beauty and attractiveness that give the countryside its strength may also lead to its desolation and destruction. That issue is at the heart of today’s debate.
Across the Chamber, we have heard — rightly — criticism of planning that pre-dates the publication of Draft PPS 14. We have also heard many criticisms of the contents of Draft PPS 14. I do not know of any organisation that is completely happy with the contents of Draft PPS 14. It is not accurate that the debate be expressed as the rural or urban community versus the environmental community, or as the rural community versus the urban community. People outside the Chamber might characterise the debate in that way, but that demeans the argument.
I received a mailing this morning from the Northern Ireland Environment Link, which states that it has identified legitimate concerns among farmers about Draft PPS 14. As Members, it is imperative that we listen to the planning needs of the agricultural community and of those who live in rural areas. We should not allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that the primary concern of developers is the rural way of life; it is not. Members should also bear in mind that uncontrolled rural development will lead ultimately to increased service costs that we in the Chamber might have to deliver at some stage in the future.
Just as a bungalow in every field cannot be the way forward, neither is a blanket ban on development in the countryside. However, those extreme viewpoints have not been expressed today. Urban and rural policies and developments must be measured against sustainable criteria. Officials who deal with planning and development should be able to demonstrate that they have considered and balanced the competing needs of the economy, societal issues and the environment. One element should not be allowed to dominate the other, and competing needs should be balanced and treated equally. Current rural planning does not do that, and it does not meet sustainability criteria. Draft PPS 14 does not meet sustainability criteria either; it is a very blunt instrument.
It would be easy for us simply to reject Draft PPS 14. However, I see no real benefit in doing that without at least attempting, by way of a review, to come to a common position that we can all support. There has been criticism today of the actions of the direct-rule Minister who introduced and implemented this policy. I see little merit in simply using the Chamber as a “wailing wall” without taking the opportunity to issue advice to another direct-rule Minister as to how he might proceed.
It is for those reasons that I support the amendment.
Mr Dallat: Listening to the debate, I believe that there is no reason for the House to divide on the issue of rural planning. Indeed, it is important that the House does not divide, because we do not want departmental bureaucrats gleefully claiming that there is no agreement among elected representatives on the need to undo the terrible harm that Draft PPS 14 is beginning to inflict on the human rights of rural dwellers.
Just what does Draft PPS 14 mean to the rural dweller? So far, several Members have outlined its consequences, but allow me to focus on one rural community that has been hit hard not once, but twice, by new planning policies. Let us take Glenullin in my constituency as an example. After the launch of the draft area plan, a blanket ban was imposed that deprived many people of the right to apply for planning permission. Glenullin has been whacked for a second time by this panic measure from a planning body that is out of control.
What are the implications for those who live in Glenullin? A primary school that has faithfully served the community may not have a future because a whole generation of young people will not be allowed to build homes on their land.
Mr Shannon: Will the Member confirm that he objected to a development at a fairy tree in Kilrea on behalf of the fairies?
Mr Dallat: I have no recollection of that. Perhaps the Member will tell me about it later.
Even an application for 12 community houses was turned down, despite the full support of Coleraine Borough Council. Those houses would have allowed young people to own their own homes at a reasonable cost, but that was not good enough for the planners.
I am glad that Mr Shannon enjoyed his little intervention.
The staff at a modern, thriving community centre, which was built through voluntary effort and supports football, camogie and hurling teams, are concerned that there will be no new players to replace those who have to leave. A new resource centre, which is publicly funded by various bodies, is providing an excellent outreach facility that is second to none. However, in future, will there be anyone to participate in the courses and activities that it runs? Not in the long term if Draft PPS 14 is to take root and kill the very lifeblood of rural people.
Rural dwellers have been very wrongly and unfairly presented as polluters of the environment. In the rural community of which I speak, the Glenullin and Agivey Conservation and Regeneration Group, a cross-community body, has done much to enrich the countryside for those who choose to visit the area for walks on the hillsides. They have fought to save their bog land and have done much to ensure that the character of the countryside is not spoiled for future generations. I invite Friends of the Earth to meet those people, to join them on environmental trails, and to begin to understand reality.
Finally, although I have focused on Glenullin, there are other similar rural communities that will be badly affected by the draconian efforts of a Department that has fallen hostage to bad decisions and failed to recognise the uniqueness of rural dwellers who have the right to live in their own environment, as they have for generations. They have no intention of being hounded on to reservations on the periphery of some large town with which they cannot cope and where they do not wish to be.
This argument is not about septic tanks; it is about the rights of people to follow a tradition of living in the countryside. If we cannot accept that, it is only a matter of time before there will be campaigns to stop maintaining rural roads, providing rural transport, connecting people to water and electricity, and so on. Indeed, the arguments have already started. How many rural areas have been told that they will no longer have a library service? How many schools are closing this year, or have been threatened with closure over the next five years?
Let there be unity on this issue and let the Secretary of State live up to his promise to deal with this matter. We must not go to him from a divided House, but from one that is totally united in its determination to defend a rural community that feels ever more beleaguered as faceless policy-makers create impossible conditions for staying on what is, essentially, their homeland.
Mr Simpson: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the future of rural planning. My constituency of Upper Bann contains significant rural areas, and I am concerned about the implications of this policy on my constituents.
The implementation of Draft PPS 14 will go far beyond the simple question of where people can build houses. It will have an impact on the sustainability of the rural economy and rural communities. The state of the farming industry in Northern Ireland is well known: once, a farm could provide the main source of income; today, many farmers have to find other ways of making money. It is clear what impact this policy will have on the ability of those working in the farming industry to diversify: it is one thing to seek to prevent the exploitation of land simply to make money from selling building sites; it is quite another to have a situation in which economic growth is hindered. That destroys the rural economy and has the potential to ruin the rural community. I do not believe that those who have drafted the policy have thought through the long-term impact of this policy. If the policy results in fewer buildings being constructed in the countryside and the demise of the rural economy, it will not be judged a success.
The need to work in the countryside is not limited only to agricultural enterprises; many other businesses operate in rural areas. Anyone attempting to establish a business in the countryside faces many problems, as planners try to curtail such businesses to towns and villages. Draft PPS 14 will add to this policy, and people will have difficulty proving that they need to live in the countryside near the businesses in which they work. If such an application were to be granted, the dwelling would have to be located on the site of the business. That may well be suitable for some businesses, but the trouble with this section of Draft PPS 14 is that it seeks to impose a one-size-fits-all solution for all rural businesses. There is no scope to allow a dwelling to be built beyond the confines of the business site.
The policy seeks to exclude the need to provide security at a business site by having someone living there, and that seems to show the absolute reluctance of the draft policy to grant any application for a dwelling at an existing business. The policy claims that an application to build a dwelling at an existing business site would have to prove that it is necessary in order for the business to function properly. However, it seems that there are few, if any, circumstances in which the planners would envisage such a situation.
If this policy were to be implemented, there would be severe implications for the rural economy. An urgent review of the measures is required, so that a policy can be put in place that will take account of the needs of the countryside and the rural economy as well as seeking to protect the nature of the rural environment.
I hope that the Government will take account of what is said here today so that, when the policy is finally formulated, the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland — the people who will be affected by this policy — will have been addressed.
Mrs D Kelly: Madam Speaker, I join with other Members in congratulating you on your appointment. I wish you well in office.
As a former health and social care worker, I am only too aware of the needs of people with disabilities and the needs of older people. We live in an ageing society. In recent months, and before the introduction of Draft PPS 14, planners had already refused applications from carers on the grounds of the existing policies. How can we sustain rural communities and community cohesion if people who work full time cannot live near ageing parents, when the provision of social services, home-help services and help for carers is being retracted? Those people can no longer live beside their families. At the other end of the scale, there are the informal carers — the grandparents — who will be denied the opportunity to help their children to look after their grandchildren. They will lose many of their family ties.
There is a general a lack of creativity within the Planning Service. As many Members have said, Draft PPS 14, as introduced, represents a draconian measure and a blanket ban. We have not seen any proposals — nor am I aware of any — to improve efficiency measures for septic tanks, for example. There are efficiency measures for energy, such as the introduction of solar panels. Why could there not have been much greater creativity to meet the demands of the community for environmentally friendly processes?
Some Members have made reference to our absent colleagues. Perhaps they are drawing up a definitive rural planning policy, because — as we have seen in the press in recent days — their policy changes on a monthly basis. Let us hope that there are not too many suspensions, such as that which Mr Molloy had to endure. [Laughter.]
Is it not more apt to describe Draft PPS 14 as a cover-up for the Government’s failure to implement their existing policies? I ask the hon Member Jim Wells how many of those approvals of the 42 sites for one landowner, or how many of those 19 approvals, on analysis, would not already have contravened existing policies, had they been properly and consistently implemented.
Is Draft PPS 14 not also a cover-up for the inadequacies and failure of the Environment and Heritage Service? How many enforcement notices have been issued and acted on?
The lack of investment in infrastructure within the Water Service is also well known, and indeed, all parties present are opposed to water charges. However, who are the greatest culprits who pollute our environment? The Water Service.
I contend that Draft PPS 14 is nothing more than a cover-up for failure, inadequacy and inconsistency by a number of Government Departments.
Madam Speaker: I was conscious, Mrs Kelly, that that was your maiden speech, so I did not bring to your attention that, generally, it is not the convention to name another Member, but you will know that in future.
Dr Deeny: Madam Speaker, this is my maiden speech, and I welcome you to your position. Like me, you are in a new position and I wish you a healthy, happy and long time in it, like myself. [Laughter.]
That is in the hands of others, I hasten to add. I am also conscious of time and I am learning, as I get into politics, that I have only five minutes to get my points across. Those of us who are GPs are told that we have 10 minutes to complete a consultation, so I should have no problem in saying what I have to say in five minutes.
I thought that my first speech would concern health, but — as many other Members have said — I am delighted to be allowed to speak on an issue of importance to all of our constituents throughout Northern Ireland. Rural planning — and planning across the board — is connected to health. What issue is not? As a GP, I have seen health problems related to planning, such as family and community break-up, depression, and emotional or mental health problems. Difficulties with planning and people’s inability to build their own houses have a negative impact on health.
I have listened intently to all Members, and I take what they have said on board. People come to me about 40-year and 50-year mortgages. That is a horrific situation in which people end up paying four and five times the cost of their house. That is a major task to undertake, particularly for young people who have just got married.
I take on board what the proposer of the motion, my Mid Ulster colleague Mr McGlone, said, and I agree with him. I also agree with the amendment tabled by my colleague from South Down, Mr Wells. There are not too many speculators in my area at the moment, but that day may come.
We have tourism here in abundance, which we deserve. If a settlement can be reached, hopefully we will have more tourism. I worry that places such as Tyrone will become the victim of speculators — those who are looking for planning for the purpose of making money, who will have nothing to do with rurality or maintaining the countryside and the lives of our country folk.
I noticed in both the original proposal and in the amendment the use of the word “balanced”, which many Members have mentioned today. “Balanced” is the important word here. I have been in general practice for 20 years, and it seems to me that when a policy is wrong, we as human beings go full circle. We go into complete reverse. I remember some years ago hearing that we should not discipline children. Now we have gone full circle — we do not discipline them at all — and we have seen the result of that in society. Excuse the pun, but to go from a situation in which we literally have an “open house” policy on planning to one in which we have none at all is ludicrous. The solution must be found in the middle.
During the debate this morning, the Member for Strangford Mrs Robinson talked about medical personnel being involved in planning decisions. That is a very good idea, which brings me to another important point: like everything else in life, human beings abuse things. That is our nature. I mentioned this to my colleague Mr Berry, whom I welcome to the independent ranks of the Assembly. I do not feel alone any more.
Let me give as an example the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) debate. DLA makes a noble, worthwhile and valuable contribution. It is a necessity, but it is abused, and for that reason many people do not now receive it. The same applies to planning. In the debate this morning we heard examples of people looking for planning — while others entitled to the benefits of rural planning are being denied.
I also took note of the comparisons that were made during the debate, which alarmed me. I am very proud to live in the country, and I love the countryside. We have a wonderful countryside here. I heard about the building going on in Coleraine every year, which is horrific. It was mentioned to me in this House yesterday. To use a medical description, if one looks at Ireland from above — both North and South — it appears to have measles, because there are houses dotted all over the place. We cannot allow that to happen.
It may not be rife in Tyrone at the moment, but it is certainly the case in Donegal. We should not blame the people of Donegal, because if you listen, every second accent up there is a Belfast one. People are buying houses there to make money and to have their holidays.
Mr Kennedy: Leaders of parties. [Laughter.]
Dr Deeny: That is right. I will finish off, as I am conscious of the time. The important word here is “balanced”. I wish to put on record that I oppose the implementation of this draft policy, and I support the proposal while taking on board the amendment. The answer is in balance. We must remember, with no disrespect to my Belfast colleagues, that while 350,000 people live there, 1, 350,000 live outside Belfast.
Mr Hay: Today’s debate has been a lively one. Rural planning in Northern Ireland raises many emotions amongst public representatives. The difficulties, however, have been compounded over the years by the fact that many of us, who also served as rural councillors, have been only bystanders to some of the decisions made by planners. As we know, local government in Northern Ireland has been allowed only a consultative role with planners.
As public representatives, we know that, for a number of years, planners have acted like dictators in relation to many applications. In my constituency of Foyle, there was an unwritten rule that when a planning application was first submitted to the council, a member could persuade the planners to meet in order to resolve issues for the applicant. Local planners now refuse to allow that; they tell us the office meetings and site meetings that they will attend. That is totally wrong.
We must be mindful that the one community that has really suffered throughout is the farming community, which has been through a difficult time, often through no fault of its own. Many are in such severe financial difficulties that they are bankrupt, and many have become suicidal in trying to resolve financial issues.
Farmers in my area, whose farms have been in the family for generations, have had to sell plots of land to housing developers to resolve serious financial difficulties. Unfortunately, that situation still exists. People continually indicate that the farming community has left that situation behind, but it will be many years before the farming community in Northern Ireland will be back to where it was.
Draft PPS 14 has undoubtedly created greater problems for rural areas than it has solved. This morning, a Member said that Lord Rooker took a hammer to crack a nut; he has taken a very heavy hammer to crack a nut in Northern Ireland. If Lord Rooker is remembered for nothing else, he will certainly be remembered for creating a huge debate about rural planning in Northern Ireland.
Rural schools, already affected, will be more seriously affected by the Minister’s decision. Those of us who are councillors in rural areas constantly see people who want to find out how they might sustain their local schools. The Government are working on a policy to determine exactly the future of rural schools in Northern Ireland. Planning policy compounds an already serious situation in the rural community.
No one is saying that there should be unchecked development in Northern Ireland, or that housing should be dotted practically everywhere, especially in rural areas.
I agree with Dr Deeny that a balanced approach is needed to resolve the issue of rural planning in Northern Ireland.
We can achieve that, but as my colleague from Foyle Pat Ramsey said, we need to make sure that the Secretary of State is listening very carefully to this debate. We must adopt a measured approach. The Secretary of State would be happy enough to see this House divide on the issue, but I think that we are big enough and mature enough to send a clear message to the Secretary of State that there needs to be a serious review of this policy — it needs to be reversed.
Mrs Foster: The effects of Draft PPS 14 are much wider than merely implementing fresh planning policy, and various Members have touched on that today.
However, I would like first to comment on the entirely objectionable way in which the policy was unilaterally introduced. While I recognise the need to cut down on the hugely impractical consultation that takes place in this part of the UK, there is surely a need for meaningful discussion on the impact of such a huge change in policy before, and not after, its introduction. Of course, the Government will say that this is a draft policy; however, we who are in touch with planners know full well that the document is now taken as Holy Writ and has been adopted as policy from the day that it was first announced.
The motion calls for a balanced policy, and I agree with that sentiment. The implications of the strategy go much wider than planning. If this policy persists, it will have a negative impact on rural populations. Consequently, as the Member for Newry and Armagh Mr Berry and my Friend from Foyle have already said, there will be a knock-on negative impact on small churches, schools and social and recreational facilities.
I and colleagues in other rural constituencies are already fighting to keep rural schools open. If this policy goes ahead, that fight will be all but lost. Schools will no longer be situated in country areas but solely in large population centres. One has to ask whether that is good for children and their communities — I think not, Madam Speaker.
The policy will also have an impact on industrial development in rural areas. Since I last spoke in this Chamber, a severe blow has been dealt to Fermanagh and South Tyrone by the withdrawal of Moy Park, formerly Ferne Foods, from Lisnaskea. That closure has had a very negative impact on many local people. In last Tuesday’s economic debate, I talked about supporting indigenous entrepreneurs. Draft PPS 14, as it currently stands, runs contrary to supporting those local businesses. New businesses will be unable to pay the rents demanded by the enterprise centres where, under Draft PPS 14, they will be forced to locate and operate. That will inevitably slow down business start-ups, which are already slowing down in the west of the Province, and would be contrary to the policy of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment — hardly joined-up government from the NIO.
Finally, as with so many other legislative changes, we must set Draft PPS 14 in a European context. Will the introduction of this policy mean that this region of Europe will have a more rigid system of planning than elsewhere? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. Government and the Secretary of State should be very careful about introducing a policy that places us at a clear disadvantage, in the ways that have been touched on in this debate, as compared to other regions of Europe.
There are many issues to be discussed and debated surrounding Draft PPS 14, not just purely planning issues. Therefore, I support the amendment, which calls for the establishment of a working party, as I believe that will enable us to move forward to deal with those many issues. I trust that Members will feel able to support such a working party.
Dr McCrea: Draft PPS 14 is important for the future development of Northern Ireland, and it is also an important issue for this debate. I congratulate the Member for Mid Ulster for bringing it to the Floor of the House. I also congratulate my colleague Mr Wells for his thoughtful amendment.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this subject today, and I hope that the debate will not only give Assembly Members the opportunity to voice their opinions on such an important issue, but also that the Government will take account of what is said.
The publication of Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 has caused a significant reaction, especially in rural areas of Northern Ireland. Few Government policies in recent years have a greater potential to change the way of life of the people in those communities. Draft PPS 14 is not just an abstract policy statement for them; it will have a significant impact on their lives and livelihoods. While it is clear that something needed to be done about planning in the countryside, the DUP does not support Draft PPS 14.
If we are to devise a policy for planning in the countryside, it is important to understand the context in which this policy has been introduced. We cannot ignore reality, and it is not possible to continue as if all were well.
Draft PPS 14 did not come from nowhere. It is a reaction — or perhaps, more properly, an overreaction — to the amount of recent development in some areas of the countryside. Anyone who has travelled through certain areas of Northern Ireland will have seen the impact of house building. It is understandable that, in circumstances where farm incomes were unable to keep many people going in the countryside, they would seek to exploit the valuable resource of the land. Although for some this has been a way of surviving, for others it has become a valuable enterprise. The present level of development in some areas is both unsustainable and undesirable. Therefore, doing nothing is not an option.
No one wants to see Northern Ireland’s countryside destroyed in the same way as parts of the Republic of Ireland, where it seems, sometimes, that anything goes. One does not need to see the official statistics to know that, in some parts of the Province, building in the countryside has reached epidemic proportions. Therefore, common sense tells us that, in those circumstances, things have gone too far.
The real cause of the problem has not been the individual farmer seeking permission for a house for his son or daughter, but people seeking multiple applications in order to make a profit. Under legislation it is not illegal to make a profit, and it should not be suggested that people do not have that right. People can make a profit in any other business, and remember that farming is a business. However, it appears that Draft PPS 14 punishes everyone.
Another fundamental problem that exacerbates the situation is the inconsistency in planning decisions across the Province. What will pass in one area will be refused in another. Any policy that is formulated must be capable of consistent application. I have been a councillor for 34 years and have dealt with planning, but I am absolutely disgusted to see so many glaring examples of planning inconsistencies. The planning process has been brought into total disrepute. Had I the opportunity to push this further, an independent inquiry would ask those officials to justify what they have done to the countryside through the inconsistent application of their planning policy.
The vast majority of people accept that the situation cannot continue. However, what is the best way to tackle the problem?
The environment, in a narrow sense, cannot be the only consideration when determining planning policy. Robert Atkins, then Minister for the Economy and the Environment, said in his introduction to ‘A Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland’:
“If Northern Ireland is to develop in a sustainable way, accommodating economic diversity and the conservation of its natural assets, there must be understanding and mutual respect for the differing interests of society. There must be co-operation in reconciling differences and in charting a way forward in the interests of all.”
Draft PPS 14 fails to take account of that, and there is a total imbalance. We must adopt a more holistic approach and consider the nature of development in Northern Ireland and how communities can be sustained. Draft PPS 14 has the balance wrong, and implementing it would result in all kinds of undesirable and unforeseen consequences. We need a system that limits building in the countryside, but does not prevent those who have grown up on a farm from staying in the countryside. That is not an easy balance to achieve, but it is clear that Draft PPS 14 will force many people from rural backgrounds into towns and will undermine our rural way of life.
Equally, there are ruins of old houses in the countryside that are more of a stain on the environment than a new house would be. Greater flexibility should be shown in this area to get rid of blights on the landscape and revitalise areas where people once lived.
The comparison is often made between the number of single dwelling applications in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. It is stark, but we must remember that Northern Ireland has a different tradition of settlement patterns than many other parts of the United Kingdom. We do not want a countryside with a house in virtually every field; neither do we want a countryside where those living there are left to stagnate. Rural schools, facilities and shops all need people to survive. We must not strangle the countryside and create a situation where the countryside becomes somewhere that people visit, but cannot make a living.
Significant areas of Northern Ireland are already subject to rigorous limitations on what can be built and in what circumstances. Green belts and countryside policy areas extend over a greater area in Northern Ireland than in recent times. Whatever the various views are in the Chamber about Draft PPS 14 and how it can be changed, this is not the best forum in which we can agree a detailed policy. We must set up a working party to consider the issues and report to the Assembly with some substantive plans. It is not enough to say that we are against Draft PPS 14; we must decide what will be a sustainable future for rural Northern Ireland. We can only do that by sitting together and getting to the heart of the issue, and then going to Government and putting what we believe to be the proper way forward to the Minister.
I hope that the Government will see sense on this issue and find some middle ground on which a wide consensus can be built. After all, it is we in Northern Ireland who will be left with the legacy of any planning decision, long after the Ministers responsible have returned home.
I appeal to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which seems to cut the feet from our farming community when an application is submitted, to show some concern for farmers. It is an insult to call anyone a hobby farmer, because farming today cannot sustain a full family — farmers need other employment as well. We want a consensus of opinion; to see how we can move forward; and put it to the Minister. The amendment proposed by my Friend Jim Wells allows us to take all the good in the motion in the name of the hon Member for Mid Ulster Mr McGlone and put forward our proposal on that basis and find a way forward. I believe that it can be done.
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Mr Gallagher: I congratulate you on your appointment, Madam Speaker.
We have heard all the opposition to the present rural planning policy. We have heard from my own party the reasons why the motion should be supported, and others in the Chamber have given reasons why the Secretary of State should be asked to put a stay on the implementation of Draft PPS 14.
The SDLP is conscious that we are sitting in a body created and controlled by the Secretary of State. Our presence is a test for him. We are putting it to the Secretary of State, who said that if a view received cross-party support in the Chamber, it would be taken into account. The motion is well thought out, clear and mindful of what the Secretary of State said. The amendment, however, is not well thought out. There are no details about this committee bar the mention of it. In fact, nobody here apart, perhaps, from you, Madam Speaker, can tell us whether we are entitled to set up such a working party.
The motion focuses on a policy that poses a real and serious threat to rural traditions.
Mr Weir: Will the Member give way?
Mr Gallagher: I will not give way. I am winding up.
The policy poses a real threat to the survival of family farms and the entire rural way of life. As a document — and we have heard it before from all sides — it is deeply flawed. I remind Members that the detailed restrictive policy set out in it will make it impossible to fulfil or achieve its objectives, some of which have been mentioned. One is:
“to manage growth in the countryside to achieve appropriate and sustainable patterns of development that meet the essential needs of a vibrant rural community”.
“to facilitate development necessary to achieve a sustainable rural economy”.
We all agree that those are worthy and laudable objectives, but how can they be made real under a policy which, among other things — and we have also heard something about this — defines acceptable use of land and buildings so narrowly that it puts a stranglehold on rural communities? It makes no allowance for the fact that increasing numbers of farmers have to take up part-time employment off-farm in order to survive, and it allows no provision for housing for key rural workers.
As Patsy McGlone said, this policy is modelled on a policy for the English countryside with its presumption against development. It is totally at odds with the needs of our rural communities.
Members must go back to the starting point and begin with wide-ranging consultations that will deliver a planning policy based on a shared vision. Farmers, families living in the countryside, schools, churches, voluntary organisations, community organisations, sporting organisations and environmentalists must all be involved in creating that shared vision.
Last week in County Fermanagh, Moy Park announced its plans to close the Ferne Foods operation and put 188 people out of their jobs. That will be the fourth factory in five years to close in Lisnaskea — a small town in Fermanagh. The company’s offer to some of those workers of jobs in Dungannon or Craigavon is not a viable option for most of them. Those workers and all the others who have lost their jobs in the past five years — and many of them are in our constituencies — have limited options, particularly in the west.
The policy, as it stands, closes down options which some workers may want to explore, namely, to set up a small business of their own, to enter into a small business partnership, or to gain employment in a small business set up by one of their colleagues. There is no provision for start-up rural businesses in Draft PPS 14. That is short-sighted; it is damaging to people’s prospects of employment and to the interests of a sustainable rural community.
Another concern, which I will want to take up again, is the criteria for farm viability that survive from the time when there were large CAP subsidies and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development encouraged farm expansion. Current circumstances demand a new approach to farm viability, one that recognises equitably the contribution of all farms, large and small, and that acknowledges the contribution that all of those farms can make to sustainable development and care for the countryside. The new approach should take account of farm diversification and agri-environment issues, the promotion of environmentally sensitive areas (ESAs) and areas of special scientific interest (ASSIs), the development of tourism, and the protection of wildlife.
Of course the developers and the speculators should be kept out. The countryside must be protected for generations to come, and the aspirations of people who live there now need to be accommodated.
I call on the Government to withdraw Draft PPS 14 and to embark on a new widespread consultation, with the aim of developing a planning policy based on the needs of people who live here.
I notice that the amendment recognises the importance of sustainable development and the protection of the environment, as does the motion. The difference, Members, is that the motion, if it is passed here and if the Secretary of State keeps his word, will stop Draft PPS 14.
Understandable concerns were expressed by the proposer of the amendment about re-opening the matter, because there will be:
“a tidal wave of speculative applications”.
That was how the proposer put it. Nevertheless the amendment will not stop Draft PPS 14; it will not stop the depopulation and the centralisation that that will bring. As I have said, it is not even clear that we can have a committee.
I recognise something in the concern expressed by the proposer of the amendment. He referred to the rush of applications if we put a stop to Draft PPS 14, but that is not a good enough reason for not stopping it.
The Secretary of State and whatever Minister is responsible should be able to introduce measures and mechanisms, for example, to screen out multiple applications, which was one of the main concerns. If Draft PPS 14 is stopped, there should be a way of overcoming the concerns that were expressed in the amendment.
The motion means withdrawal of Draft PPS 14, and I ask you all to support it.
Madam Speaker: Once again I thank Members for their co-operation and their speeches this afternoon.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 36; Noes 18.
Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Paul Berry, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Michael Copeland, Robert Coulter, Leslie Cree, George Dawson, Kieran Deeny, Diane Dodds, Nigel Dodds, Tom Elliott, Reg Empey, David Ervine, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, William Hay, David Hilditch, Danny Kennedy, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Maurice Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wells.
Tellers for the Ayes: Jim Wells and Billy Armstrong.
Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Thomas Burns, John Dallat, Sean Farren, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Kieran McCarthy, Alasdair McDonnell, Patsy McGlone, Eugene McMenamin, Pat Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie.
Tellers for the Noes: Eugene McMenamin and P J Bradley.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr Kennedy: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. To your knowledge, were any senior officials present from any of the Departments that were affected by today’s debate? If not, could you perhaps convey to the Secretary of State the House’s displeasure at the fact that he has provided us with a debate on an important issue, yet his officials are apparently not present to hear it?
Madam Speaker: I was not made aware that any officials would be coming here today. Your comments will be on the record. The Secretary of State will read them, and I will point them out to him.
Dr McCrea: Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Somebody from the Department who would perhaps be known as “Mr PPS 14” was sitting in the Gallery listening to the debate.
Madam Speaker: Thank you.
Main Question, as amended, put.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 35; Noes 17.
Billy Armstrong, Roy Beggs, Paul Berry, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Michael Copeland, Robert Coulter, Leslie Cree, George Dawson, Kieran Deeny, Diane Dodds, Nigel Dodds, Tom Elliott, David Ervine, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, William Hay, David Hilditch, Danny Kennedy, William McCrea, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Maurice Morrow, Stephen Moutray, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Ken Robinson, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wells.
Tellers for the Ayes: Jim Wells and Billy Armstrong.
Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, P J Bradley, Thomas Burns, John Dallat, Sean Farren, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Dolores Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, Alasdair McDonnell, Patsy McGlone, Eugene McMenamin, Pat Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie.
Tellers for the Noes: Eugene McMenamin and P J Bradley.
Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.
That this Assembly notes the publication of the Draft Planning Policy Statement 14 ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’ and calls upon the Business Committee to establish a working party to develop a balanced policy for the sustainable development of the countryside and the protection of the environment.
Adjourned at 4.24 pm.