I thank the Member for his question. The update is simply that a paper is in circulation around the Executive at the moment. I am going to revise that paper. With the Executive’s support, before the recess in July, the principle of legislation for national parks will have been endorsed. We will then be able to take that forward, with the intention of tabling legislation in the Chamber during the course of this calendar year. In parallel to that, the Department will continue its work to identify potential candidate sites for national park designation so that, as soon as possible after the legislation receives Royal Assent — if that is what transpires — not just one but two parts of the North of Ireland will be designated as national parks. That will firmly and confidently make the statement that our natural and built environment is important to the quality of our lives and crucial to the growth of our economy, not least jobs. A report that will be published this Thursday will definitively demonstrate that fact.
Stewart Dickson (Alliance)
I thank the Minister for his answer. I will hold you to account on the time frame for legislation within this calendar year. Will you outline to the House the economic benefits of a national park, or national parks, to Northern Ireland?
I said that we would table legislation in this calendar year. Thereafter, as is proper, the Assembly will have to go through all the processes of that legislation, up to Final Stage and Royal Assent. I would like to think that, within the course of 2013, we will have the legislation in place, and, arising from that, the process of designation.
I reassure people that any national parks legislation that the Assembly might be inclined to endorse will fit the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. It will not necessarily be in the image of legislation and practice elsewhere in these islands. That way, I hope that, if I cannot achieve consensus, we can achieve very strong majority support. In a time of economic need, national park designation can be an economic tool as well as an environmental tool going forward.
What are the benefits? Evidence suggests that, where you have national parks, you have growth in tourism. Where you have national parks, you can have better management of the natural environment. Where you have national parks, premium prices are paid for products that come from that area. For all those reasons and much besides, national parks are part of a legislative programme that will manifest a strategic leap in the North of Ireland in policy and law that will serve the economy and the environment going forward.
Gregory Campbell (DUP)
The Minister outlined the distinction between the principle of the legislation for the national park and the actual establishment of a park. Does he accept that the support of local people, landowners and interested parties in and around any envisaged national park is absolutely paramount for it to be successful?
No individual or section of the community can have a veto — that was not what Mr Campbell suggested — on the principle or designation of national parks. We have to take into account all the views, hopefully build a consensus around those views, and do what is in the public interest and the interest of Northern Ireland. A number of months ago, a certain person said to me that anyone who supported a national park for the Mournes did not love the Mournes. I gave that person cold comfort; that morning, I had been speaking to farmers who had been hostile to the principle of a park in the Mournes but were now supportive of it. They and everybody there love the Mournes as much as anybody else.
How will we ensure that the concerns that Mr Campbell rightly identified are dealt with?
If there is to be a national parks management board, we will ensure that there is adequate — I am not conceding the principle at this stage — if not majority representation from the local community to ensure that local interest is not prejudiced in any significant way. How will we ensure that local interest is recognised? With RPA, planning function will devolve to the local council, not to a national parks management board. That is the practice in other parts of these islands, and it has created worse fears in parts of this island. In that way, I believe that we can give sufficient reassurances so that the environmental and economic benefits can be maximised.
Christopher Hazzard (Sinn F??in)
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Can the Minister detail what engagement his Department has undertaken with people in the Mournes specifically on any future national park status and how that will that affect how they live, work and play?
I thank the Member for his question. Extensive consultation has informed my mind and that of the Department on taking forward the proposal. I have been to the Mournes on two occasions to speak to local people, including those who are against it, those who are in favour of it, local farmers, the Mourne Heritage Trust, and so on. On the far side of any agreement in principle by the Executive to endorse legislation, there will be a further detailed consultation with areas of the North to define precisely what the legislation will look like and to define precisely the concerns and issues that need to be addressed, if not mitigated, through the content of the legislation.
However, the best advice that I got on the issue of national parks was that experience suggested that people’s concerns were deepened and heightened in a way that derailed the potential and possibilities of national parks legislation. I do not want that to happen again because we are at a time and place in Northern Ireland where, given the scale and wonder of our built and natural heritage, given the fact that it is such a significant economic driver, and given that we have a great opportunity to expand the tourist potential of our built and natural heritage, the designation of national parks in legislation is an essential tool. I hope that all in the House will endorse that principle.
Steven Agnew (Green)
The Minister mentioned the potential for growth in tourism from national parks legislation, and we have heard politicians recently on the news vexed about the speed of the Runkerry proposals. Does he find the same sense of urgency around the Executive table when it comes to national parks?
I cannot comment on the Runkerry proposal except to make one point. It is my view that, in the next 18 months, we must demonstrate in my Department and in the Executive a strategic shift and gear change in protecting and promoting our natural and built environment. There needs to be a baseline shift of new money into DOE to protect and enhance our built and natural heritage. We need a suite of legislative interventions, of which national parks is one, to define and develop the quality of our built and natural heritage. We need to do that because, in a short space of time, upwards of 80,000 people in Northern Ireland will be unemployed. If we cannot recognise the quality of our built and natural environment as a mechanism for economic growth as well as something to be protected because it is the character for society, we will let down our citizens and our community. However, some people — very few — do not get it.