Future plans on that subject are a matter for the Department for Regional Development. The regional development strategy recognises the important part that retailing will play in the future well-being of Northern Ireland, and the Department for Regional Development has agreed to issue a new planning policy statement on retailing in town centres. I understand that it intends to have a draft of the new retail policy ready for public consultation in September 2002.
The existing policy on out-of-town shopping centres is clear. Proposals for major retail development in the countryside — that is, outside development limits — are not acceptable. However, existing policy provides guidelines on what are known as "out of the town centre" shopping centres, but within defined limits. The policy for dealing with those and shopping complexes is outlined in planning policy statement No. 5, ‘Retailing and the Town Centre’, which seeks to strike a balance. There are always conflicts and tensions in what the Department does between protecting the vitality and viability of town centres while at the same time promoting choice and competition to benefit consumers. Such proposals for out-of-centre and out-of-town shopping centres are subject to detailed scrutiny and are assessed against the rigorous policy test of planning policy statement No 5.
I welcome the new Minister and hope that in time he will become known for the brevity of his answers.
I pay tribute to the outgoing Minister, Mr Foster, particularly for the attention that he paid to road safety. I have no doubt that many people are alive today who owe their existence to the increased focus of the media on road deaths here. The Assembly owes a debt of gratitude to Mr Foster for that.
Does the Minister accept that failure to implement new planning legislation, as the Republic has done, has meant that we face various problems in sustaining commercial life in many town centres? As long as his Department continues to grant planning approvals for out-of-town shopping centres where there is no established need, the problems can only get worse.
I can only repeat what I have said. For out-of-town centres to be permitted, they must pass rigorous policy tests. They will only be permitted outside a town centre if there is no suitable site in the town. Irrespective of what happens in the South of Ireland, when we look at planning applications, we consider the type of retailing that is envisaged, any existing deficiencies and whether there is a need for the shopping centre.
We also consider whether alternative sites exist and the impact on existing shopping in the particular town centre. Those are the important criteria that are considered. I shall look at particular cases in more detail if and when they come forward, but I can only deal with the generality in this case.
As the Minister is aware, the only shopping centre in the region is at Sprucefield, in the Lagan Valley constituency. The Minister’s predecessor granted planning permission for further development at Sprucefield. Will the Minister look further at the reserved matters, as the proposed development has substantially changed? It probably does not now meet the regional criterion as originally envisaged.
More specifically, with regard to question 4 to the Minister for Regional Development, will the Speaker’s Office look at the number of Members who wanted to ask supplementary questions and the number of Members who were called to ask supplementary questions? The questions related to a matter that, as the Minister said, is under investigation by the Public Accounts Committee. Many Members are deeply concerned about water leakage. However, no supplementary questions were taken from either of the two major Unionist parties to an initial question from Sinn Féin. I ask the Speaker’s Office to look at that and report to the Assembly.
I shall refer your comments to the Speaker’s Office. As you know, there are conventions on the number of supplementary questions that may be asked, but your question will be referred.