I am aware of concerns about the growth of apartment developments on such sites in south Belfast. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the demand for small unit housing, including apartments. My Department has been seeking to clarify the planning policy context for dealing with those proposals.
The Member will be aware that the regional development strategy seeks to promote more sustainable forms of development through a two-pronged approach of encouraging compact urban forms and promoting more housing in existing urban areas. New residential development can, however, threaten local character and identity. The strategy also requires that densification should be achieved without town cramming — the forcing of overdeveloped and unsympathetic housing schemes into established residential areas.
Planning policy for housing is set out in my Department’s Planning Policy Statement 7 (PPS 7) ‘Quality Residential Environments’. That statement requires developers to provide high-quality housing proposals on both brownfield and greenfield sites that are sympathetic to the character of an area, in order to avoid a level of intensification that can adversely affect local townscape character and identity. Sensitive judgements are required so that the correct balance is achieved between ensuring that proposals are sympathetic to their context, and have respect for local amenities, and seeking to achieve the target in the regional development strategy of increasing housing provision in existing urban areas.
Particular sensitivity is required in the primarily residential parts of conservation areas, and in areas of townscape character, where planning policy is to grant proposals involving intensification of site usage only in exceptional circumstances. PPS 7 also points out that the demolition of property will not create a presumption that permission for far more intensive and high-density development will be granted.
My Department has also issued draft supplementary planning guidance in the form of Development Control Advice Note 8, ‘Small Unit Housing. New Development in Existing Residential Areas’, which it intends to publish in final form in the near future. That document provides more detailed guidance on proposals for small unit housing in existing urban areas. Although it does not set policy, it gives guidance to developers on the physical form of housing development, including apartments, and on the relationship with surrounding properties.
I thank the Minister for his lengthy statement; it certainly clarifies many matters. Does he agree that the conservation area announced last year by his predecessor, Sam Foster, does not seem to have stopped the rot? The announcement of a conservation area in such a large area of south Belfast was very welcome. However, developments — and the threat of large developments — are still taking place.
Only last week, there was publicity surrounding a house in Ashley Avenue that was previously occupied by the poet Séamus Heaney. That house appears to have been left to rot and decay to the point where it will be demolished and replaced by an unsuitable block of flats. I am sure that the Minister has seen many of the sites in south Belfast, but I would be glad to invite him to inspect that site, either with or without my being present. There is a major issue to be resolved, as was highlighted by the case of Séamus Heaney’s former house in Ashley Avenue last week.
I smile about the invitation to come to south Belfast. As and when my diary permits, I can and do make visits.
I am visiting a constituency on a different matter with someone from the Member’s party. That is how life is in politics. The loss of built heritage in the Malone area has escalated, and the Government designated it a conservation area in 2000. Therefore, express consent must be given for the demolition of any building, and new development must comply with PPS 6, which protects the character of conservation areas. That has been the Department’s response.
I have noted that we managed to deal with only four questions, which is somewhat unfair to those coming behind. I will return to the issue, and I will examine Hansard to see if I was guilty in any way of prolonging the questions and answers, but I do not think that I was. Four questions was not very good.
On a further point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I refer to the operational advice notes in the Standing Orders handbook. I have placed two questions for written answer — AQW 2344/01 and AQW 2345/01 — to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Following numerous telephone calls, faxes and promises, I still do not have answers to those questions, which are now two months overdue. According to the handbook, questions should be tabled "ten clear working days" before they are due for answer. How can I get answers to my constituents’ concerns?