The statutory development planning framework for the Belfast metropolitan area is provided by several plans. These include the Belfast urban area plan and the Carrickfergus, Lisburn and Newtownabbey area plans. The North Down and Ards area plan covers the North Down Borough Council area, which falls into the Belfast metropolitan area.
I shall launch the Belfast metropolitan area plan shortly. It will provide a planning and policy framework for future development up to the year 2015. It will take account of the draft regional development strategy, any subsequent amendments made to the strategy as a result of scrutiny by the Executive Committee and all other relevant considerations.
The programme for the preparation of the plan involves the publication of an issues paper in autumn 2001, publication of a draft plan towards the end of 2002-03 and adoption of a final plan in 2004-05. I intend the plan to include widespread and inclusive consultation, involving councils, business and community interests and the public.
The intention of the issues approach is to hear the public’s views on future development in order to assist the Department to develop planning proposals and policies. The action plan has been made possible by the Executive’s allocating the resources needed to assemble the Belfast metropolitan plan. This is very good news. It was announced in the 1999 Agenda for Government and confirmed in the Programme for Government and in the draft Budget.
I am pleased that widespread consultation will be part of the process. Does the Minister recognise that there will be a need for interdepartmental co-operation to devise the necessary structures? Does the Minister also recognise that the present processes are causing uncertainty because of the ambivalent approach to the status of the local area plans?
I assure the Member that everything will be given due consideration and that nothing will be taken lightly. It is a very important matter. If there is a policy void or if some area plans reach their end dates before the adoption of the Belfast metropolitan plan, current development plans provide detailed location and planning policies for the relevant parts of the Belfast metropolitan area.
Some of the plans will reach their end date before the publication of the Belfast metropolitan area plan. The plan for north Down and Ards reached its end date in 1995; the Belfast urban area plan, Carrickfergus area plan and Lisburn area plan, which is yet to be adopted, will reach their end dates in 2001; the Newtownabbey area plan will reach its end date in 2005. Nevertheless, these will be material considerations in all decisions. The plan recognised that there are strong local identities, and it will seek to give expression to this diversity.
Does the Minister agree that adopting alternative sustainable forms of metropolitan transport, an effective railway system, for example, would be a major advance in solving the traffic congestion and pollution problems of the Belfast metropolitan area? Will the Minister and his Colleague the Minister for Regional Development co-ordinate their Departments’ policies to achieve that?
Is the Minister aware of the judgement in the English High Court on the case of Alconbury et al? What implications does that have on the metropolitan plans and on the other plans, particularly the procedure for objectors? It concerns the implications that the Human Rights Act 1998 will have on the planning system in Northern Ireland. Has the Minister considered that? Has he received papers on it, and will he make a statement on it?
I have been aware of the human rights issue for some time, and a paper has been presented to the Executive Committee. It is a complex area of law. Although the Executive are fully committed to complying with the Human Rights Act 1998, I am concerned about the implications for orderly administration. Therefore I have drawn the matter to the Executive’s attention, and it will be considered at the earliest opportunity.
I am also aware of the High Court’s judgement. It ruled that the "call in" procedures in the planning process in England and Wales and the decision making role of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions were incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998. The planning process in Northern Ireland, including the independent Planning Appeals Commission, is different from the planning system in England and Wales in several respects.
The Department of the Environment will carefully examine the judgement to see if it has any implications for Northern Ireland, and all aspects will be taken into consideration. The Department of the Environment has been aware of this issue for some time, and a paper has been sent to the Executive Committee for its earliest consideration.