3. asked the Minister of the Environment if he agrees that opportunities to develop an intergovernmental approach to rural planning must be encouraged, and if he will encourage a holistic approach to planning issues so that rural generation has the support and encouragement of all relevant Departments, agencies and cross-border bodies.
Many strands of Government have a role to play in rural planning and regeneration, and a holistic approach is certainly to be encouraged. I can assure the Member of my support for such an approach to planning and cross-cutting issues.
I welcome the Minister’s assurance. Coming from a rural area, he understands better than many the particular problems of the rural community and how the planning laws, as they are presently interpreted, impact on the rights of people. The most basic right of any individual after the right to life is the right to shelter. At the moment, families on low incomes are finding it exceptionally difficult to bid for those sites that are available.
The Minister has acknowledged the difficulty in obtaining planning permission in rural areas and how this threatens the lives of rural schools, churches and shops. It in no way helps the regeneration of rural communities. I welcome the Minister’s statement. I do hope that he exercises control over all his Department so that this very serious issue is addressed in the future.
Coming from a rural area, I am well aware of the problems in the countryside, and Mr Dallat made mention of those. It is important that Departments work together on this. I also endorse the concept of a living and working countryside as set out in the draft regional strategic framework and agree that we should seek to promote a strong mixed-use rural economy. For example, in 1999-2000, 86% of applications for new houses in the countryside were approved. This represents more than 4,000 new dwellings in the countryside.
However, we have to be very careful that there is a good balance, that we marry one with the other. We do not want the countryside spoilt. I know that there are issues concerning rural areas and the people feel very strongly about them. These are taken into consideration in our planning policy.
Is the Minister considering any measures that would relax the stringent and at times oppressive planning controls in the countryside, especially when farmers are seeking planning permission for additional rural dwellings? Will he assure the House that he will examine ways to relax such stringent control?
There is provision at this time for extra houses in rural areas so long as they are not within an area of special control or a green-belt. In those cases special circumstances must prevail for permission to be granted. This has been referred to as a cross-cutting issue, and I must emphasise the responsibilities here of both the Department for Regional Development and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which is responsible for general rural development. The Department for Regional Development will be responsible for preparing a planning policy statement on the countryside. My Department will contribute appropriately to the development of these policies. We will work in conjunction with them.
As regards rural regeneration, the Department of Agriculture and Rural development, through its Area Based Strategy Action Groups, is encouraging farmers to diversify. These farmers find themselves coming up against the planners, who are putting difficulties in the way of their efforts at rural regeneration. I support what Mr Paisley Jnr has said with regard to housing, but will the Minister give us an answer with regard to actual regeneration in the business sense?
As I have said, my Department will contribute appropriately to the development of these policies, along with the two Departments referred to earlier. It is likely to be parties such as the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, rather than the Planning Service, that would initiate rural regeneration projects, including those involving agricultural diversification, but success can depend on a holistic approach being taken by a number of public and private-sector interests. The Planning Service is generally confined to a facilitating role within the confines of rural planning policy. As a local councillor, I have every sympathy with the farming community in many aspects; but we adhere to policies. We do facilitate, but only where it is the proper locating and design of a development. We will help where we can, but we have to adhere to the policies that already exist.
The Minister expressed sympathy for the rural community and planning in the rural community, and yet he is almost satisfied with the statistics put out by the planning department for the number of permissions given. Some rural areas in Northern Ireland are dealt with more severely than others, and my view is that those statistics shield that. Does the Minister agree that centralist Department strategists have an urban mindset which militates against the rural dweller being able to live, work and rear his children in areas of special control and outstanding natural beauty? These classifications make it fairly difficult for farmers to look after their families properly in those areas. Does the Minister agree that what we all need to do is to inject more of the rural thinking into the Department’s decision-making?
I thank the Member for his statement. I am not so sure what the question was. I am fully aware of the difficulties, and I sympathise with them, but we have to work as far as we possibly can within policy. The rural planning strategy also contains policy statements which aim to facilitate economic development and diversification in the rural economy, particularly in agriculture. There still is, within the policy, room for a retirement bungalow to be built on farmland. Sometimes one gets the impression that we are stifling every development. I know how difficult it is. I have stood at site meetings in the countryside, and I have questioned various decisions. However, I also take into consideration that people are adhering to planning policy. We do try to facilitate building where it is suitable, appropriate, and does not despoil the countryside.