I am glad to see that the topic that I put forward has been selected. It appears to be a very popular topic, judging by the response you have received. It is a very important subject, even if the impact of an Adjournment debate is somewhat limited, as indicated by Mr Foster. Planning covers a wide range of issues.
On a point of order, Mr Initial Presiding Officer. I have just noticed that the clocks do not appear to have started. Whereas sometimes I feel as though I am speaking in some form of suspended animation, it seems that it has become real, for once.
The response to the motion shows that a wide range of planning issues can be dealt with. For example, there are problems with planning permission in rural areas, and, to some extent, there is a clash between that and property development in green belt areas. In view of the wide range of issues, I intend to confine my remarks to one that has caused great concern in my constituency of North Down and across the political spectrum of North Down, albeit that the parties in that area would not be enough to form an interest group.
There has been controversy about property development in North Down recently. Examples are the proposals in relation to Seacourt, Ballymacormick and Helen’s Bay, which are being discussed at a meeting today. I was told today that there are planning problems with an application in the Ballyholme Road.
The instance that I want to draw to the Assembly’s attention relates to a property at 97-99 Clifton Road that was known as Ardmara. It was a beautiful Victorian building. Towards the end of last year, proposals were submitted by a property developer, Mr Bill Wolsey, who owned the site, to develop it to create a set of apartment blocks.
At that time the local residents, to their credit, fought vigorously against the proposal, arguing that the architectural heritage of that part of Bangor should be preserved. As with most towns, Bangor has a limited stock of Victorian houses. Most of the build in North Down is relatively new, and what heritage we have must be jealously guarded.
Early in the year, the strong efforts and lobbying of local residents seemed to have been successful. It seemed that the property developer’s proposals would fail, and he consequently withdrew his planning application. Representations to the local residents suggested that he would not be going ahead with it, and that he would be minded to seek a compromise that would retain the integrity of the building.
Unsurprisingly, the residents concluded that they had secured a victory of sorts, and that their pressure had been successful. Unfortunately, and much to the shame of the developer, this proved to be merely a ruse. On Saturday 13 February at about 6.00 am the property developer moved onto the site with bulldozers and a group of what can only be described as "heavies" and destroyed the Ardmara building. What he did was within the law. No one can quibble about that. There is a clear gap in the law in that, while planning permission is required to build, in circumstances like this property can be demolished and nothing can be done about it.
The demolition greatly distressed the local residents, and it was a clear case of environmental and architectural vandalism which showed the developer’s contempt for the feelings of the people of North Down. Problems attended the destruction. Electricity was still being supplied to the building, and in the process of demolition the developer cut some cables, causing a power cut in the area and creating great inconvenience for some residents.
We must learn from the Ardmara situation. There are a number of ways in which buildings can be protected. The first is by way of listing a building, but this has a number of drawbacks. The bulk of Northern Ireland’s listed buildings were designated as such prior to 1972. It is a fairly lengthy process. When the Ardmara situation first arose, enquiries were made to see if it could be listed, although it was made clear to the residents that it would take about six months before that could be done.
One of the problems with listing is that as soon as anyone shows any interest in having a building listed, the Department of the Environment immediately contacts the owner of that building to inform them, and that gives the unscrupulous property developers the opportunity to do what might now be described locally as a "Wolsey" and come in and demolish it. Until a building is listed, there is no protection.
Another avenue would be to create a conservation area. In the long term I would like to see a chunk of the Ballyholme and Clifton area described that way, but that is a lengthy process and can take years. It is extremely costly for the Department of the Environment to pursue this option, and it does so reluctantly. However, it does provide much immediate protection for a building under threat.
There needs to be a wider look at Northern Ireland’s planning regulations. One partial solution which has been suggested and has worked quite well in Belfast would be to designate parts of a town which have a particular character or are of architectural or historical significance as areas of "townscape character." Twenty areas in Belfast have been so designated, and, although it does not have the same statutory effect as listing or designating a conservation area, it at least puts down a marker to potential developers that the area in question will be one of those considered by the planning authorities when an application is made.
In a recent case in the Knockdene area of Belfast the High Court held that ground there could be taken into consideration, and I understand the local council has plans to declare part of that a "townscape area". A greater degree of strength needs to be given to such a proposal, since it currently has no statutory effect. Indeed, outside Belfast it is of questionable value because of the fact that it is not contained within any of the area plans — unlike Belfast.
The lack of consideration for the wishes of the local people and the fact that they are not formally involved in the process cause great problems in respect of planning matters. A greater degree of planning control should be devolved from this body or from the Government to councils to ensure that decisions are taken by people who know best how to protect their own area.
One other move that should be considered in trying to rectify planning legislation would be to make some kind of formal community involvement an important consideration in major planning development cases. Certain environmental cases currently have to be subjected to an environmental impact assessment. For example, it would determine the impact of a sewerage works on a local community. For major planning developments, we could have a sort of community impact audit as part of the criteria.
In the wider context, in North Down certainly and leaving aside planning, a greater policy issue is population movement. There has been pressure to create more dwellings, but part of that has been the result of an exodus from Belfast over the past few years. An examination needs to be carried out to ensure that there is greater regeneration in areas of Belfast that could accommodate a greater number of people in affordable housing. We have to avoid the problem of so-called infill in which, in areas such as Bangor, too many people are chasing too few properties.
The Government or this devolved institution should carry out a major review of Northern Ireland’s planning legislation so that fresh ideas are considered to ensure that the heritage, particularly architectural, environmental heritage is given proper protection.
I thank Mr Weir for telling the Ardmara story, for it allows me to get straight to my point. Without doubt, the issue of planning and development has for many years caused tremendous problems for people, planners and politicians. The Ardmara issue and other, similar cases, not only in North Down but throughout Northern Ireland, are coming to the fore.
I was at the protest just after the new year. I stood outside Ardmara to praise the architectural beauty of the building and to protest against its demolition. About 100 men, women and children were there. A couple of weeks ago, I was at another protest, at night, in a field in Ballymacormick, and apparently, there were about 500 people present. At that event a reporter came up to me and said "What is going on here? This place is known as "Apathyville". How come hundreds and hundreds of people are going into the fields and on to the streets to complain about these issues?".
People do that not just because they care about green belts or historic buildings but because they realise that in this new climate of democracy in government it is possible that their voices will be heard. They are going out there and starting to shout, and that is excellent.
It is plain that the legislation in this area is far, far too weak. It has too many loopholes and it is not working. We need fresh ideas and new legislation, and we need to respect the rights of the people who are living in the vicinity of these development areas. We need legislation that will take proper account of the needs and desires of local communities in the planning and development process. We need laws that will put the care, safety, health and happiness of the very young and the very old first.
We need housing estates with playgrounds. I will not say what should happen to those who in the past thought of building 21,000 houses and not one swing. Why are there housing estates with no playgrounds? Why are there roads with no cycle paths? Why are there no traffic-calming measures on roads in the vicinity of schools? Why are there shopping precincts and offices with plenty of car parks but no crèche facilities? Who is making these plans? Who is thinking about all of this? We need change.
We need legislation to protect our heritage and the natural space in which we live, and there is no time like the present. We are about to have a new Government and new powers, and we are about to enter a new millennium.
I call for a millennium preservation order. Such an order would prohibit the demolition of any building or tree over 100 years old, and it would oblige planners and developers to take account, as Mr Weir has rightly suggested, of the views of the communities living in the locality of a development site. Under such legislation, development plans would not be acceptable unless they included a community-impact assessment. It is wonderful that, while we in the constituency may not agree on certain things, we are all agreed on that.
Europe insists on environmental-impact assessments. Before a project goes ahead we must determine how it will affect the birds, the bees, the trees, and the grass. There is nothing that obliges us to consult with people living in the area, or to note their views.
I am sure that Mr Wilson will agree with me that is not enough. The majority of letters in our in-trays are from individuals complaining about planning applications and about their voices not being heard. It is obvious that whatever was started then must be finished, and finished properly.
This issue is important because it will give local people a sense of ownership of the project, and we are talking about inclusion. The Women’s Coalition stands for inclusion, and this is inclusion at grassroots level.
A millennium preservation order would list all buildings erected before 1990 in a new category between a conservation order and townscape character criteria. It would allow for the sympathetic development of a building which responded to the needs of an ever-expanding population in the twenty-first century but also respected our heritage. It would introduce steep fines for those who broke the law and destroyed a building or tree which was more than 100 years old except, of course, under exceptional circumstances and after agreement with experts and the local community. Those fines could be used to fund organisations such as the Conservation Volunteers or the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society to enable them to continue their valuable work. Such an order would also strengthen current legislation and introduce measures such as spot-listing. Why do we not have spot-listing, which occurs in England. Why could we not have spot-listed Ardmara?
We must have townscape character and conservation areas to ensure that laws are enforced correctly, and we must have a safety net, a third-party appeals system which would allow people to have their voices heard.
That would promote greater awareness among the population of the value and importance of preserving our built and our natural environments.
As people know, I have served with the Housing Executive from 1979 and was confronted by many planning problems. One of them was a lack of power and that situation exists now to an even greater degree. An example was the destruction of Ogle Street in Armagh, even though the relic of St Malachy showed it as an historic place. It was ruined one weekend by the "terrorist activity" of a developer who simply brought in bulldozers and knocked the whole street down. Mr Wolsey did exactly the same on Saturday in Bangor. I strongly recommend that the Assembly considers this matter at the earliest opportunity.
Those who read ‘The Sunday Times’, a paper that sometimes contains disobliging news will have seen what has happened in Dublin, and where Mr Redmond — a good name — has got to now with corruption. We may have to look at that.
I thank the Assembly.
A millennium preservation order would be a simple and timely solution to an age-old problem, and the new millennium will give us an opportunity to introduce such a measure. If a 100-year order were put to the people in a referendum, it would get 100% support. I suggest that if such legislation is introduced, it could be called the Ardmara order as a tribute.
The recent calamity at Ardmara is a symptom of a wider problem — the present state of the planning laws and their effect throughout Northern Ireland. Bangor is an interesting place and probably one of the most rapidly developing locations in the Province. Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of houses are built, and new estates are being formed on the outskirts of Bangor. Over the past five years there has been a massive increase in the number of houses.
Young couples come from elsewhere and buy expensive and smart houses on the edge of the green belt. But after about nine months they look out, and, lo and behold, the diggers have come. They suddenly discover that the little bit of roadway at the end of their cul-de-sac, which nobody appeared to own — it was not on their plans, and they could not understand that — is the property of the builder, and that he intends to use it to put up the next estate.
They find that they are in a string of estates, which all join up together. The area becomes a rat-run which is covered with cars every morning as drivers try to negotiate an outer, outer ring road around Bangor in an effort to get more quickly to their work in Belfast. People are fed up with that.
Those who build such estates do not seem to take children into account, because they build them without greenfield sites or amenities such as swings. That results in kids kicking their heels around the estates and a marked increase in vandalism. It is too far for them to go into the centre of Bangor so they go around writing on walls and causing chaos.
North Down also has the problem of the disposal of sewage. Because of the additional people, there is extra waste. We have had an investigation that has lasted over two years, and three sites were all objected to. We currently have four more, and an adjudication on those is due in the next two weeks or so.
All those problems are symptomatic of the lack of co-ordination. The North Down and Ards Area Plan (1984-95) is an outstanding document by the Department of the Environment. It has come to an end, and there is nothing to replace it, so no one has any idea about what is supposed to happen, not just in Bangor but in Ards and everywhere else. The thing is in complete limbo and it seems to have given rise to an open season on challenging.
We have, at the moment, several challenges in Bangor. Mr Weir mentioned Ballymacormick where someone is trying to build an entire estate between Bangor and Groomsport that will join the two places up. That is totally contrary to the ‘Shaping Our Future’ document which came out last year and which said that all such villages should be kept separate.
Firms are seeking planning permission, trying to get round the limitations of what was understood to be a green-belt area. In Helen’s Valley another organisation is trying to build an entire village between Crawfordsburn and Helen’s Bay, on the site of Mr Geddis’s farm. For those Members who know that farm, this proposal would probably represent an improvement. Mr Geddis, when refused planning permission, took umbrage and caused absolute chaos by turning his farm into a complete tip. Last year he threatened to buy the submarines that were sunk off the coast of Donegal at the end of the Second World War and put them on his farm to spite people further. I think he is hoping that this will all go away with this new Helen’s View, but it will join up areas that, according to ‘Shaping the Future’ should not be joined up. These areas are a worry.
In Belfast there is an agreed plan that 50% of new build will be on brown-field sites — existing sites where the rubble has been removed. I understand — and I am going by hearsay — that, somehow, the DOE planners were nobbled. The big construction companies seemed to have got at the planners as only 20% of new build was on brown-field sites. This should not be allowed to happen.
In North Down it is popular to buy a large house. The buyer may or may not renovate it, but he definitely sells off the garden where a developer can build at least two more houses at over £100,000 each. I am not talking about my garden, I hasten to add. That is only for those who have the money to buy such houses.
Another favourite ploy of developers is to build flats. At Seacourt, permission was given to build houses and, lo and behold, along came a developer, again trying to get past the planning regulations, who wants to build flats. This row is still going on.
One possible answer is to seek townscape status where an area is deemed to be of such unique character and special status that it warrants extra protection. This may or may not work. Clearly, some areas do not qualify for such protection. If a house such as Ardmara and other houses in Bangor do not qualify for such protection, then it is open season for a developer to come in and knock them flat.
As Mr Weir said masked workers came on the Ardmara site at 6 o’clock in the morning and flattened the building without switching off the electricity. As a result, the rubble started to burn, and the surrounding area was left without electricity. Such action is sheer vandalism.
These examples show that the present planning system is not working. I urge the new Minister and the Committee which will be looking at planning matters to sort out this Province-wide problem.
There are several items that I want to draw to Members’ attention.
First, I should like to refer to planning in relation to private matters. There is something terribly wrong when owners of land and property are restricted with regard to development because of petty bureaucratic rules administered by those who have no ownership rights. For example, churches have to apply for permission to erect a notice board. Another example is that of the homeowner who has to apply for permission to erect a porch. Such matters should be dealt with expeditiously without all the red tape that is presently involved.
Worst of all is the plight of the farming community who are unable to get planning permission to build a house for a member of their family to keep them on the land and in this country or to build a retirement home for themselves after many years of working the land. That is the effect of repressive planning bureaucracy. It is like saying "You may own a tree but you cannot climb it, eat its fruit, cut any of its branches for firewood or put up a tree house." In such circumstances, what does ownership mean?
Secondly, I should like to deal with planning in relation to business enterprise. For many years the expansion of Comber has been hindered. Government cuts and planning restrictions have combined to leave Comber like a ghost town, with expansion and development taking place outside it.
An opportunity has arisen in that a private consortium is seeking to meet housing demand, provide community facilities and build, as part of its development, the long-awaited Comber bypass. The developers have called it the community village project. However, such is the petty procedure of planning, that it may take some time to get off the ground. I take this opportunity to call on the Minister to cut the red tape and allow this project to proceed as quickly as possible. It was in that vein that I recently wrote to the Minister.
Another development is that proposed for Newtownards. A group of developers have submitted plans for a £50 million development. It is for a scheme that will stop leakage to other areas; will increase business in Ards; will not cost the ratepayer a penny; will give business opportunities to locals; will provide numerous jobs; and will give us the roads service that the Government have failed to provide. It has taken about two years to get the idea down on paper and lodged with the Planning Service. We shall have to see what it does with it.
The scheme has the support of Ards Borough Council and the traders in the town. However, the scheme could be thrown into chaos if it is proposed to develop commercially at the former Scrabo High School site. That would inevitably lead to a public inquiry and delay development in Ards town centre for a number of years before permission is granted — if it is granted. Meanwhile, other schemes in other places will continue to take trade away from the town centre.
Until now Newtownards has not had a business park. This proposal will provide one. Wearing my hat as a councillor, I can say that in Castlereagh, we on the board of Dundonald International Ice Bowl had to wait two full years for the result of a public inquiry to learn whether we could go ahead with an innovative and exciting scheme on council land. That was a totally unacceptable delay, and considerable interest and economic investment could have been lost if it had been delayed further. It is imperative that the whole Planning Department is taken over by the Assembly, and that its rules, restrictive practices and operations are examined in depth and revised where necessary.
Thirdly, the report that was passed by the Assembly has separated planning from regional development while urban renewal is placed in social development. It seems to me, and to other Members, as noted in last week’s debate, that there needs to be a revision of the placing of various matters. It would make more sense to have a closer link between those departments which cover planning and development so that, after devolution, Members are not guilty of applying the same bureaucratic red tape that we have long complained about.
A Chathaoirligh, in the Assembly and, I suppose, at council level one always finds that there are two levels to such debates. One relates to what Iris Robinson has spoken about, and the other relates to how people can demolish buildings because regulations are not strong enough. I will try to address the matter in terms of agricultural and rural areas. There are major problems with property and planning development in areas such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone. It is affected as much as any other area, and perhaps more so.
The public perception, which I think is correct, is that there are great difficulties in working with the present planning controls and policies in trying to secure development in rural areas for both inward investment and family dwellings. The public and members of councils have been greatly frustrated in recent years by the severe constraints imposed on development, especially of domestic dwellings and small industry in the countryside. This difficulty is due mainly to the planners’ interpretation of the green book, which relates to the raft of regulations. The local planners’ interpretation of the regulations determines whether someone can proceed with development or build a house in the countryside.
There is also input by the Department of Agriculture, and it works out badly against those who are trying to build houses on farms or anywhere in the countryside. It uses figures which state, for example, that one must be a full-time farmer, but many are now coming to the point where it is becoming a part-time practice, and that is not taken into account. Farmers have moved with the times, but the Department of Agriculture has not. I should like to see changes that would allow some flexibility. The Department is as bad as the planners in working against farm level development.
Everyone understands the need for vibrant rural communities. The European concepts in relation to European funding include rural regeneration; rural development; a living, working countryside; sustainable development; economic regeneration; and halting rural decline. While all that is laudable, and in many cases forms the basis of the aims and objectives, people pay only lip-service to it. None of this means anything to ordinary people if they are not allowed to develop and live in rural areas.
I recognise the need to preserve what is rich and beautiful in the countryside, especially in areas such as Fermanagh, the Sperrins and many others. There are many, perhaps too many, bodies with a conservation agenda which hold powerful influence over planning. They include, for example, the Countryside and Wildlife Branch, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, conservationists and the Green lobbies, who are often London and European based. They have, in the past, destroyed their own areas and are now applying the regulations to us — I suppose as a cover for the damage that they have done in their own countries. Such measures bear no relation to the kind of countryside that we have. Farmers have looked after the countryside, in the North and in Ireland as a whole, well over the years. It must be well preserved.
The Government have imposed regulatory bodies such as ESA, and areas of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty making planning difficult. They are useful in trying to preserve flora and fauna and help the countryside, but they create tremendous difficulties and are used by the planners to stop people building or getting past planning regulations.
There must be planning flexibility to allow people to build in the countryside while also looking after the valuable heritage and beauty of the areas. As Members have said, farmers’ sons and daughters, need to be able to build dwellings near the family home. If this generation of young people is denied that and forced into towns and cities, the rural areas will lose those who are countryside-friendly and have an inherited love of the countryside. I do not mean that those from the cities do not love the countryside, but that indigenous people, those who have been reared in the countryside, often have a high level of tolerance to agricultural practices.
The council recently had a complaint from someone who had bought or built a big house in a lovely quiet area of the countryside, and was astonished to find, at 6 o’clock on a summer’s morning, that the place was completely taken over by farmers, machinery and silage-making equipment. They simply do not like it.
The lack of young people to work on the farms will accelerate the decline of the rural community. Areas west of the Bann are continuing to lose jobs and services which are being centralised in other areas. Areas such as Fermanagh, Armagh and Tyrone, in spite of the impact of tourism and rural development programmes, still depend overwhelmingly on agriculture. This is unlikely to change in the near future, so it is important that the rural economy be preserved.
If we are going to talk about equality, we should also think in terms of east/west equality. Some people may not enjoy hearing people from west of the Bann complaining about the loss of jobs and services. But we have always lost out, and we need investment in those areas as much as anywhere else. The condition of local roads militates against the development of the rural economy and is a considerable disincentive to companies considering bringing investment to the area. They face a situation in which it takes two hours for a lorry to travel to Belfast, or to any other port, to deliver produce for export.
Figures from the Industrial Development Board show that in certain years as few as two companies were directed towards us for new investment in Fermanagh, compared to the 50 that were directed to other areas. It is not surprising that we do not have much investment, although, of course, there is some investment that we would not welcome. We have a very beautiful lakeland environment, and we could only welcome investment which would be environmentally friendly.
Small industries may be the way forward for the rural economy. Many products that we import from other countries could be produced at home. An example of this is the meat-processing industry. The Sean Quinn group is an example of a successful local industry. It started from small beginnings, yet, if it were to start up today, it would not get past the planning stage. These are the kinds of problems faced by people in our area.
I hope that the Assembly will be able to make a difference to people in these areas. If greater powers are given to local councils, councillors will have to reconcile their differences about what should be preserved and what can be used for building. We should ensure that a correct balance is struck, and that people are not given carte blanche to build all over the place. At the same time, we should try to ensure that our rural communities are allowed to survive and, indeed, to develop.
I agree with many of the points made earlier about out-of-town supermarket developments. People often say that they create many jobs. It is my opinion that for every job they create they destroy a smaller one in a town. This has often been the case with some of the picturesque towns down South — this is a hobby horse of mine — where planners have not considered the long-term position. These supermarket chains may well rob many of these picturesque villages of their charm, as local shops close down one by one. People should bear that in mind.
Mr Foster asked earlier about the value of Adjournment debates. They are valuable and can be used to flag up areas of concern to the Assembly. Planning is one such issue. It affects people in all areas, and people feel powerless to do anything about it no matter how much they protest. People feel that they have no voice, and we in the Assembly must rectify that.
As a local government representative for some years, I have found the planning process and its implementation one of the most frustrating issues that I have had to deal with. Members all know that there must be development to cater for the housing needs that are clearly evident throughout Northern Ireland. However, planning applications must take into account the existing residents and the type of area that is being developed. Other issues which must be considered but do not seem to be are traffic, general road safety, environmental topics, such as drains and sewage, as Mr McFarland has already mentioned, and trees, wildlife and open spaces.
Increasing disturbance or change of use must also be considered, but it is clear that this does not always happen. Ardmara, Ballymacormick and the Geddis development are all currently at different stages of development and are causing Members different levels of concern. I should like to list a number of other cases to illustrate planning inadequacies.
An application was made for a funeral home and chapel of rest to be built beside a busy road junction that had a large garage nearby, and, worst of all, a primary school. The application was allowed because it satisfied the criteria of the Planning Department in relation to land and parking spaces in the area, but it did not take account of the road junction, the busy garage and nearly 300 people who opposed it. That building is now almost complete, and it is already causing problems. I dread to think of what will happen once it is in full use.
Another application currently being processed near my home is for a small shopping precinct on a wildlife area with a lake and a little forest. It is also near a busy roundabout and busy roads, and in the middle of an intensely-populated residential area. This application has been ongoing for some years, and there has been much opposition from residents. At one stage the developer agreed to a small residential development and to retain some of the environmental area. This was favoured in the area, but he then received an application from one of the large supermarket groups that Gerry McHugh was talking about, and the residential application went by the board.
I could give many examples. One matter that disturbed me about Ballymacormick was that the developer, when questioned by councillors last week about preservation of the green belt, informed the council that more houses were needed and that the green belt provision would have to be overruled. That is dangerous and neither I nor any of my Colleagues, would favour such a move.
The examples which I and others have given — and I make no apology for again referring to the vandalism and destruction of Ardmara — show that applications are not dealt with sensitively. As Sammy Wilson said, information is circulated to residents, but it is not circulated to everyone, and it is not a satisfactory process. That matter should be looked at.
When the fact that the application was being submitted was first circulated to some residents, they formed a substantial opposition group. There was a great meeting, already referred to, I think by Jane Morrice, on the Saturday morning, which was attended by many people not just from the area itself who were concerned about what was happening to Bangor. Two Saturdays later there was a completely different atmosphere when we saw the fire burning and the bulldozer moving through the remains of the building. The application had been withdrawn and councillors had been told that there would be a stay of the process — and that is what happened when we took them at their word.
It is completely unacceptable, and the first priority of the Assembly and its relevant Committee should be to review the whole planning process and the criteria for applications. Then, perhaps, people such as the residents of Clifton Road would not be put in this position. This is not an example of Nimbyism; it is a concern for what is happening to the whole ethos of our homes, and it can also set a serious precedent in north Down. In that area three further houses are under threat, and if this is allowed to continue, it will be dreadful for us.
Lobbying can be successful, as in the case of the Crawfordsburn hospital, which we prevented from being razed to the ground and which is now being refurbished. Progress can be made when there is liaison between developers and residents. Developers have been allowed to progress their aims carte blanche. That must be stopped and clear, balanced criteria set out.
Mr Weir outlined the problems with conservation and heritage processes. The Assembly must review this matter to ensure that those processes are not so long and arduous. As Mr McFarland said, North Down Council has a commitment to townscape planning. This is not a perfect situation, but it is something. It is too late for Ardmara, but I hope it will not be too late for other houses in the area. I hope that townscape planning is expedited in north Down as soon as possible.
We also have to consider setting up a community planning committee, another matter that my two Colleagues have mentioned. This is a committee to which councillors have an input, and it can deal with all applications and, especially, with the sensitive ones. The process of notification might also be strengthened by this sort of liaison.
As we approach the millennium I hope that steps will be taken to ensure more protection for our green spaces, our trees and our buildings. I would hate Northern Ireland to become like Belgium. When we were in Brussels last November I was horrified to hear of the destruction of beautiful old buildings in the city centre and of their replacement by modern glass towers.
The Assembly must look closely at planning legislation so that citizens and developers are listened to, and so that developments can go forward without opposition and acrimony. Let us make Ardmara a milestone, an example of what not to do. I support the proposal by Ms Morrice for a millennium preservation order. That would be a significant message to the likes of Mr Wolsey and to some people in the Planning Service.
The proposal for a millennium preservation order is a little strange. Ms Morrice and Mrs Bell were obviously speaking from a north Down perspective. I recently visited some constituents who have just moved out of the street next to where I live, out of houses which were more than 100 years old and had no bathrooms, no inside toilet and no central heating. They now live in new bungalows just up the road. I do not think that these people would thank Members for a millennium preservation order on their homes.
Does the Member agree that, while it is good for people to be housed in comfortable accommodation with proper modern facilities, the style of those 100-year-old houses should be kept? They should be refurbished and brought up to modern standards.
That intervention shows the diversity between north Down and east Belfast. I assure Members that a two-up, two-down terraced house, with a small backyard, in a street which is narrow and full of traffic, cannot be refurbished to a standard which is acceptable at the end of the twentieth century or at the beginning of the next millennium.
We must be careful when talking about planning issues that we do not opt for what appears on the surface to be an easy answer to a problem without looking at the complexities.
No. I have already given way.
When it comes to planning issues we can sometimes give a charter to people who do not want any changes and who do not want to see any development taking place. Nimbys have been mentioned.
There is a new branch of opposition to planning applications — the "bananas" who would build nothing near anybody. As to the kind of suggestions which have been made today, we must be careful not to swing the balance towards —
I listened carefully.
There is a need for effective planning. One has only to look at the destruction of Belfast and the surrounding countryside to see evidence of the problems associated with the absence of clear strategic planning. For example, huge traffic queues build up in the east and the south sides of the city every day and inner-city communities get the resulting pollution. In my constituency of East Belfast we suffer from the pollution and congestion that are caused by people in outlying areas who come into Belfast every day and return home to a much better environment than those who have to live with the short-term effects of bad planning.
Many problems need to be addressed, and, unfortunately, the Assembly may have created some in relation to planning organisation. Last week we agreed to put planning into four different departments: rural planning, urban regeneration, strategic planning and development control. We will have a planning nightmare.
I will give Members one example. I would like to speak more about general issues, but Belfast City Council opposed a huge development on the D5 site in the harbour estate. We quoted from the Department of the Environment’s own policies, which were written in 1996. In 1997 the Department said at a public inquiry that there was no justifiable need for any regional out-of-town shopping centres in Northern Ireland. Within six months of that, another public inquiry granted permission for a massive regional shopping centre on the outskirts of Belfast.
There are contradictions in the policy, and I agree with Eileen Bell that many of these appear to be driven by the powerful lobby which some developers have with the Department of the Environment. I hope that the Assembly will be able to address that.
There is also the problem of out-of-date policies. I recently dealt with an application from a developer who wished to build apartments in the centre of Belfast, but, in spite of the fact that most of the people who would be living in the apartments would be working just 300 or 400 yards away, the Department insisted on parking standards that would apply in the suburbs. Such matters need to be addressed.
I want to address planning from an urban regeneration perspective. We must create homes. As the Minister said two years ago, and as Alan McFarland indicated, the first priority must be to bring people back into towns. That is where the infrastructure of under-used schools, under-used community facilities, and, in some cases, under-used parks are to be found. They are not on the outskirts of the city. The Department set a target of 50%, yet it is now down to 20,000 houses, which is less than 20% in the inner city.
First, if we intend to develop brown-field land, we must make it easier for developers to build in towns and ensure that they are not held to ransom by one person who owns a bit of ground that would give them access to a large site for development. There must be land assembly. That is important.
Secondly, there must be financial assistance. At present, land costs are about £40,000 per unit, regardless of whether it is a green-field or a brown-field site. I do not remember whether it was Ms Morrice or Mrs Bell who spoke about the need to provide more green areas in these developments. The associated costs of that mean that a developer gets fewer houses per acre and, therefore, that the cost of the land for houses goes up. Ultimately the people who live in those houses either pay higher rents to the Housing Executive or higher prices to buy their homes.
That is a good question. There is a down side to that which we must address. We should not build estates without play facilities. Brown-field sites hold the key to this. Very often they are right beside under-used community and play facilities which could be better used if there were development on the land.
Thirdly, we must look at planning policies in the light of the need for urban development and regeneration. That may mean relaxing planning controls. I have mentioned one in relation to parking. Developers have asked that other issues be addressed if they are to go into brown-field sites, and we have heard about the problems with green-field sites between Bangor and Groomsport. Perhaps in future a developer wishing to develop a green-field site will be required to give a commitment to develop a brown-field site as well. That would be one way of doing it. In parts of England they have been talking about introducing green-field site taxes which would then be used to subsidise much more expensive brown-field sites in town centres.
These are all issues which I hope the Assembly will take up. If we continue simply to expand towns and allow people to live on the outskirts and travel in every day, we will not have sustainable development, and we will have many environmental problems in the future.
I will touch on a couple of issues that are important for the area which I represent.
The first relates to farmers and those who apply for dwellings. I have fought a number of cases over the years for people who were born on the land, who own the land, who have their herd numbers and who also own the farm buildings, but who, unfortunately, because of circumstances are part-time farmers. That means that they cannot apply for houses in those farm areas that are subject to special control and conditions. Those who have lived on the land for generations and who should have the right to continue to work and live there have been barred from doing that.
One of the issues that I feel quite strongly about relates to retirement dwellings for farmers and dwellings for their sons and daughters who wish to remain on the land.
In some cases the rural strategy plan states that there must be diversification and that help will be given to those who want to diversify within farming. Over the years we have found that those who live on farm holdings and have applied to diversify have been unable to do that simply because the planning regulations have been so strict.
We also have examples of farmers who have caravan parks. Strangford, the area that I represent, is one of the areas affected. Indeed, it is the second largest area in the Province for caravanners and holidaymakers.
If a farmer wishes to extend his caravan park into a small field or to an area that runs close to one that is already in use, the planners tell him he cannot do that because it is not a coastline development. Once again we have this double standard. On one hand, they say that you can diversify; on the other hand, they say that you cannot diversify because it is against the planning regulations. Those are a couple of examples of matters that particularly concern me.
As I mentioned earlier, there has been a large number of applications from farmers’ sons and daughters for farm dwellings and retirement buildings. This issue is causing the greatest consternation among people in the rural community that I represent as an Assembly Member and as a member of Ards Borough Council.
As the demands upon farmers increase, as financial pressure continues to squeeze them and as many become full-time farmers with part-time wages, the need to have their sons and daughters at home becomes more crucial. The rules and regulations set by the planning department with regard to man hours do not relate to all applications. Sons and daughters who were born and brought up on the land should have a right to return to the land, even if the holdings are smallholdings and the man hours do not satisfy the rules and the regulations laid down by the Department. Once again, the authorities seem to be putting up barriers to these people, and that must be addressed in future planning strategy.
I wish to express deep concern about the ‘Shaping Our Future’ policy document, which states
"It is proposed that a Green Belt Zone be created around the Belfast Metropolitan Area that will take in a 25 mile ‘travel to work’ area."
That 25-mile radius takes in the whole of the Ards Peninsula and a vast part of Strangford, and it will exclude the building of houses on land where there has been no exclusion before. It will mean that those people who in the past were able to build houses in certain areas, in hamlets and so on, will be unable to do so. This very strict 25-mile travel-to-work area rule will prevent them from doing so.
I wish to express very real concern about the impact that that will have upon village communities and towns. It will take away choice. While I do not disagree entirely with what my Colleague Sammy Wilson says, I feel that it is important in rural communities to maintain the right of those who were born and bred on the land to come back to the land, should they so wish. Special rules would be required to enable them to do that. The man-hours regulation, as laid down by the Department, is unfair in many instances in respect of those people who wish to return to the land.
It is important to achieve a balance. There is also the right of the people who wish to come to live in villages and on the edge of town. Why are people moving from Belfast to places such as Strangford, Newtownards, north Down and Lisburn? Quite simply, it is because it is nicer there. The grass is greener, the sun shines a little more often, and sometimes it is nice to get away from the concrete in Belfast that Sammy Wilson loves so much.
The real issue is that if people wish to live there, we have to make provision for them. The planners cannot tell someone that he cannot build a house in Newtownards because they say so. That is not how it works. People want to move to Newtownards, to the villages of the Ards peninsula, and to Comber and Ballygowan, and we want to encourage them. It is an advantage to the borough council areas because the more houses are built, the more rates are collected and the more can be spent on services for the people. If people want to come to live here, why not let them?
At the same time, there is a balance to be struck, and there comes a stage when a village is no longer a village. It becomes larger than a village, and its character and personality are lost. There is room for development but we do not wish to see a rural sprawl. Some people have talked about wall-to-wall houses. We are not in the business of wall-to-wall houses, but we are in the business of giving people opportunity and choice. That is important.
Does my Colleague agree that a clear lack of strategic planning by the Department — and certainly in the case of Lisburn, where a strategic plan that was to be produced for 1993 is still at a hearing in 1999 — has led to urban sprawl and to major traffic congestion because housing developments have been permitted here, there and everywhere, and not in any strategic way?
I agree. I was about to make another point which would have illustrated that.
The North Down and Ards Area Plan was supposed to be finished in 1996, but here we are in 1999 and it is no nearer completion today. We have been told that it might not be finished until 2002. However, we on Ards Borough Council have pressed the point that this plan must be finished by the year 2000. We believe those issues have to be dealt with.
My Colleague Mr Sammy Wilson will agree on what development will be like in the future. Gone are the days when a developer could have built houses here, there and everywhere and then gone away. In future, a builder will have to ensure that a strategic road structure is in place to take the traffic and that a traffic impact study has been done on any development. He will have to check that the sewerage system and the leisure services can cope with the extra houses. The developer will have to provide green areas within the development for playgrounds. Land will have to be set aside for health clinics and schools. In future, that type of strategic plan will have to be in place before any building can commence.
Elected representatives who have their ears close to the ground will know what local people want. Each elected representative should endeavour to do that. We on Ards Borough Council have prided ourselves on getting the opinion of local people and ensuring that what they want is the focus of our future moves.
I turn to out-of-town shopping centres. Mr Sammy Wilson mentioned the D5 development, which will affect every shopping centre in North Down and the greater Belfast area and is uncalled for and unreal. I am glad that Belfast City Council has taken a stand against it. Ards Borough Council has done likewise.
Any development should complement existing shopping facilities in town centres. It should encourage people to keep shopping there. The health of a town centre reflects the overall health of the town. A town centre should look good. It should have a good choice of shopping and not just building societies, banks and estate agents. These issues are important in the areas that we represent, because those areas are growing.
Adjourned at 4.58 pm.