Planning Bill: Consideration Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 8th March 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty Independent 11:45 am, 8th March 2011

I call the Minister of the Environment, Mr Edwin Poots, to move the Consideration Stage of the Planning Bill.

Moved. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty Independent

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list.

I inform members that a valid petition of concern was presented on Monday 7 March on amendment Nos 20 and 102. I remind Members that the effect of the petition is that votes on those amendments will require cross-community support.

There are four groups of amendments, and we will debate the amendments in each group in turn. The first debate will be on the functions of the Department and local development plans. The second debate will be on the amendments dealing with enforcement and penalties, including time limits. The third debate will be on planning control. The amendments deal with third-party appeals, commencement, the Planning Appeals Commission and the protection of trees. The fourth debate will be on the 64 technical amendments to the Bill. Those include Assembly controls on subordinate legislation.

Once the debate on each group is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Question on each will be put without further debate. The Questions on stand part will be taken at the appropriate points in the Bill. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Clause 1 (General functions of Department with respect to development of land)

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty Independent

We now come to the first group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 to 16, 78 to 80 and 86. The amendments deal with the functions of the Department and local development plans. Amendment No 16 is consequential to amendment No 15, and amendment No 79 is consequential to amendment No 78.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I beg to move amendment No 1: In page 1, line 11, leave out “contributing to the achievement of” and insert “furthering”.

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In page 1, line 11, after “development” insert “and promoting or improving well-being”. — [The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr Boylan).]

No 3: In page 1, line 12, leave out “have regard to” and insert “take account of”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 4: In clause 2, page 2, line 7, after “prepare” insert “and publish”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 5: In clause 2, page 2, line 11, at end insert

“(3) The Department must prepare and publish a statement of community involvement within the period of one year from the day appointed for the coming into operation of this section.” — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 6: In clause 3, page 2, line 27, at end insert

‘( ) the potential impact of climate change;’. — [The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr Boylan).]

No 7: In clause 5, page 3, line 25, leave out “contributing to the achievement of’ and insert ‘furthering”. — [The Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment (Mr Boylan).]

No 8: In clause 5, page 3, line 27, leave out “have regard to” and insert “take account of”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 9: In clause 6, page 3, line 36, after “Act” insert

“and in any other statutory provision relating to planning”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 10: In clause 6, page 3, line 37, leave out “local”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 11: In clause 6, page 3, line 37, leave out “other”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 12: In clause 6, page 4, line 5, leave out “the local development” and insert “that”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 13: In clause 8, page 5, line 11, at end insert

“(7) A plan strategy is a plan strategy only if it is—

(a) adopted by resolution of the council; or

(b) approved by the Department in accordance with section 16(6).” — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 14: In clause 9, page 5, line 36, at end insert

“(8) A local policies plan is a local policies plan only if it is—

(a) adopted by resolution of the council; or

(b) approved by the Department in accordance with section 16(6).” — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 15: In clause 10, page 6, line 10, at end insert

“(4A) The Department must not appoint a person under subsection (4)(b) unless, having regard to the timetable prepared by the council under section 7(1), the Department considers it expedient to do so.” — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 16: In clause 16, page 8, line 5, leave out “(5)” and insert “(4A)”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 78: In clause 221, page 142, line 41, after “understanding” insert “of planning policy proposals and”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 79: In clause 221, page 142, line 41, at end insert “other”. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 80: In clause 221, page 143, line 8, leave out from “, with” to “Personnel,” in line 9. — [The Minister of the Environment (Mr Poots).]

No 86: Before clause 224, insert the following new clause:

Review of Planning Act

223A.—(1) The Department must—

(a) not later than 3 years after the commencement of this Act, and

(b) at least once in every period of 5 years thereafter, review and publish a report on the implementation of this Act.

(2) Regulations under this section shall set out the terms of the review.” — [Mr Boylan./Mr W Clarke.]

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar son an Choiste Comhshaoil cuirim fáilte roimh Chéim an Bhreithnithe den Bhille Pleanála. On behalf of the Committee for the Environment, I welcome the Consideration Stage of the Planning Bill.

The Bill was referred to the Committee on 14 December 2010. Although it was the largest Bill ever to come before the Assembly, the Committee was determined to conduct the best possible scrutiny in the short time available. The Committee sought a brief two-week extension but managed to produce its report a week in advance of that, thereby enabling the Department to bring the Bill back for consideration today. That required the Committee to meet all day twice a week throughout February, and I wish to put on record my thanks to the members and staff for accommodating that heavy workload.

There were 61 written submissions to the Committee’s call for evidence, and the Committee took oral evidence from 11 organisations, including NILGA, the NI Housing Executive and the Consumer Council. The Committee also held a very well-attended stakeholder event, at which organisations and individuals were encouraged to give their comments on four specific areas of the Bill. Departmental officials were in attendance to respond to the issues raised, and it proved to be a very useful way of gathering a lot of views in the short space of time available to the Committee.

The Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill led to it making 25 recommendations. Most have been addressed by the Department tabling its own amendments today, and some by commitments from the Department to future work or legislation. I thank the Minister for that. However, a few outstanding recommendations required the Committee to table its own amendments. Disappointingly, there are a couple of recommendations that the Minister originally indicated he would make amendments to address, going as far as to provide draft amendments for the Committee to see. However, between then and now, he declined to table them, without explanation.

Where that has happened, the Committee has gone ahead with its own amendments. However, I, and, I imagine, other members, find it very unsatisfactory. Where amendments could not resolve members’ concerns, the Committee sought commitments from the Minister to make sure that those concerns would be addressed. To some, he responded in writing; to others, he or his officials gave verbal commitments. I welcome confirmation of those commitments again today.

Resources were a key concern. Councils are worried about being handed responsibility for planning without sufficient resources to deliver it effectively and efficiently. The Committee was adamant that it wants to see full transfer of resources from Departments to councils for the planning functions that they are taking on and that will not be covered by planning fees.

The Committee also recognised that the introduction of the new planning system will result in a sea change of responsibility and behaviour for councillors and council staff. The Committee welcomed the proposed pilot projects that will help to inform the change process but also wants to see comprehensive capacity building and training. Token gestures and lip service to training will not suffice.

Another key Committee recommendation was for local development plans to have a statutory link to community plans. The Department told the Committee that community planning was being developed through local government reform proposals and that legislation for that process had still to be developed. The Committee therefore welcomed the Minister’s written commitment that a statutory link between community plans and local government development plans will be provided in future local government legislation.

With regard to amendment Nos 1 and 2, most respondents to the Committee’s call for evidence felt that the function of the Department under clause 1 should be expanded to reflect the desired outcome of the new planning system. They felt that it was no longer satisfactory that the Department’s sole aim should be:

“the orderly and consistent development of land”.

They wanted to see a much greater aspiration, going beyond governing the development of land to promoting sustainable development and tackling disadvantage and poverty. Organisations also sought recognition of environmental limits, well-being and other social factors such as disadvantage and good relations.

The Department insisted that duties to the environment were covered by its obligations to local, national and European legislation and that the social factors were already requirements for the public sector. It also maintained that well-being as a concept was still being consulted on as part of the local government reform consultation.

Despite that response, the Committee agreed with the concerns of stakeholders and sought amendments to improve the Department’s commitment to sustainable development and well-being as a way to recognise the full aspiration of the new approach to planning in the North. As I alluded to earlier, the Department initially agreed to an amendment in relation to sustainable development but again I note my disappointment that the Minister will not now bring that amendment forward. I hope that he will explain to the House why he will not do so.

Regardless of the Minister’s decision, the Committee was clear and unanimous: sustainable development should be at the heart of planning, underpinning decisions. Although members accepted that it was unrealistic to expect the Department or councils to secure sustainable development, it was perfectly reasonable and right to require them to further sustainable development. There should be a clear direction to do so in clauses 1 and 5, and I support amendments Nos 1 and 7 on behalf of the Committee.

The Department refused the Committee’s request for an amendment on well-being. Although it may be true that the concept is still being consulted on as part of the local government reform consultation, that should not rule out its inclusion in the Bill. We were assured that the local government reform legislation will be implemented in tandem with the Bill. If that is truly the case, there should be no nervousness about introducing a concept now that will eventually fall into place, and I urge the House to support amendment No 2.

On amendment Nos 3 and 8, the Committee recommended that the Department remove any risk of misinterpretation regarding the obligations of the Department and of councils to policies and guidance issued by the Department for Regional Development. The wording of clauses 1 and 5 is inconsistent with that of clause 8, and the Committee supports the Department’s amendments to address that.

On amendment Nos 4 and 5, the Committee was concerned that, although there had been an obligation on the Department to produce a statement of community involvement since the Planning Reform Order was published in 2006, one had never been produced. To avoid repetition of that situation, the Committee recommended that a time limit be placed on the production and publication of the Department’s statement of community involvement. The Committee welcomed the Department’s commitment to do that through amendment Nos 4 and 5.

On amendment No 6, the Committee was keen to place a requirement on local authorities to take the potential impact of climate change into consideration when conducting surveys of districts, and the Committee asked the Department to consider amending clause 3 accordingly. However, in its response, the Department indicated that it did not believe that it would be possible for councils to collate the necessary information from the sectors that produced emissions in their region to enable them to meet such a requirement. The Committee maintained that that was not its intention and that it wanted councils to look at best practice and guidance on taking the potential impact of climate change into consideration and to factor those into their district surveys accordingly. In the absence of such an amendment from the Department, the Committee agreed to table its own amendment at Consideration Stage.

Having conducted an inquiry into climate change for the best part of a year, Committee members are aware of its importance and of the impact that planning has and could have on it in future. There is huge potential through the Bill to tackle climate change at a local level and to ensure that all councils are actively working to introduce climate change measures through local plans.

The Committee felt that councils should be required through the legislation to take the implications of mitigating and adapting to climate change into account in their surveys. That would not necessarily require councils to collect and collate detailed local emission information, but it should necessitate the consideration of long-term flooding predictions and an observance of best practice in reducing carbon emissions etc. On behalf of the Committee, I support amendment No 6, and I urge the House to recognise its importance and to support it too.

I cannot comment on amendment Nos 9 to 14 on behalf of the Committee, because, during Committee Stage, Committee members were content with the relevant clauses. However, the amendments do not appear to alter the policy principles established in the relevant clauses.

On amendment No 15, there was considerable concern among the stakeholders who responded to the Committee about the proposal in clause 10 to enable the Department to appoint an independent examiner. Some stakeholders felt that it would give the Department inappropriate control. Others suggested that, if the Planning Appeals Commission could not meet its requirements, it should be tasked with appointing an independent examiner, thereby ensuring that the independence of the PAC is extended to the independent examiner.

The Committee was concerned about the allocation of costs for the process. Members were concerned that, although the cost for the PAC to carry out its duties is covered by OFMDFM, there is no indication of how an independent examiner would be paid. The Department later confirmed that it would pay for independent examinations conducted by an independent person that it appointed. That clarity was welcomed, as was the fact that the costs would fall to the Department rather than to individual councils.

On the appointment of an independent examiner, the Department stressed that the PAC would be the first choice to conduct independent examinations. However, if it was unable to do so within the appropriate timescale, clause 10 would give sufficient flexibility to appoint an alternative examiner. The Department insisted that it was important to retain the option, but it agreed, through amendment No 15, to strengthen its position that the appointment of an independent examiner would be done only in exceptional circumstances and only when necessary to meet a council’s timetable. On behalf of the Committee, I welcome amendment No 15 and encourage support for it and for amendment No 16, which is consequential to it.

I move to amendment Nos 78 to 80. A respondent to the Committee’s call for evidence suggested that clause 221 should be strengthened by the inclusion of a requirement for bodies in receipt of planning grants to further the understanding of planning policy proposals. The Committee asked the Department to consider such an amendment and was content with amendment Nos 78 and 79 accordingly.

Amendment No 80 removes the requirement for the Department of Finance and Personnel to be consulted before grants can be awarded. That was another suggestion made by the Committee on the grounds that the requirement was no longer necessary and was out of keeping with similar grant-awarding processes. I support amendment No 80 accordingly.

The final amendment in the group is amendment No 86. As a result of its scrutiny, the Committee expressed concern about how the process will roll out, and it asked the Department to consider the possibility of introducing a review period following the implementation of the Act. The Department did not agree to that on the grounds that reviews can be instigated at any stage, and the Committee agreed not to pursue the matter.

Having spoken at length on behalf of the Environment Committee, I will now say a few words on this amendment as a representative for Newry and Armagh. I am disappointed that the Minister has not taken on board the point about carrying out a review. Yesterday in the House, we talked about maturity and common sense, and the Minister was willing to take forward a review in respect of the matters debated then. Yet, when we ask for a review in respect of planning policies being transferred to local government, he has refused to take that request on board. I want to make some points about a review.

At present, the e-PIC system has not reached its potential but is vital to the future of the Planning Service and how it rolls out. There are teething problems with the system. As the Minister is well aware, we asked for a rural design guide, and there has been no sight of that. Also, professional and technical members of staff from the Planning Service are being redeployed. Although it is recognised that planning receipts are down and the number of applications is not as high as in previous years, it is understood that the workloads are being transferred to those in the Planning Service at this time. It would not be appropriate, having not brought forward a workload programme, to transfer this policy in its current state without a mechanism to review how that planning process will operate and be implemented on the ground. The Minister should take that on board seriously and look at exactly what we are going to transfer to local government.

If the Minister is minded to support a review, we could look at the amendment’s reference to five years and the requirement to publish a report. If planning policy were to be split and if we could look at what will be delivered through development planning and development management at local level, we could get the Department to come back with a suggestion about exactly what we would need to review. I do not think that it would be an overall review. I think that there are ways of keeping an eye on it and checking it. This issue could be considered at Further Consideration Stage, if the Minister is willing to bring it forward and if the Members across the Floor are concerned about the type of review we are suggesting.

We asked for a review of PPS 21, which the Minister agreed to previously. If we properly define the type of review that we want to have, it would not be difficult to ensure that proper planning policy is rolled out, that proper resources have been given to local councils and that accountability exists. Many Members still sit on councils and are well versed in the planning process. If we are going to lift this policy from the Department and set it down in local government, we need to have a review. This is also relevant to other clauses. Also, as part of the review, maybe we could look at a third-party appeal process, if the Minister was keen to bring that forward.

With that in mind, I support a number of the amendments. My party colleague Willie Clarke will give the Sinn Féin view on the amendments.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP 12:00 pm, 8th March 2011

I very much welcome the chance to speak at Consideration Stage. Before I start, I thank the staff from the Committee and the Department for the long hours that they put into the Bill. Without all their hard work, we would not be able to make any of the comments that we make today. I am sure that they worked long hours and well past midnight many times. I thank them for all the hard work.

When I first spoke about the Bill, I was concerned that we were dealing with it too quickly. I shall be brief, before I get on to the amendments, but I am still concerned that we are doing this too quickly. Only time will tell. We know that there are 17 or more sets of guidance to come through and that this is really an enabling Bill. I want to ensure, both today and at Further Consideration Stage, that we get the right checks and balances into the Bill to make sure that the next Assembly has some control but, at the same time, is able to hurry it all through. We do not want the Bill to be sitting for ages without being implemented. We know that there are regulations to follow, we know that we have to get RPA in, and we know that RPA failed to get there the last time. There is a great deal that we need to get in place.

I am also concerned that, with such a large Bill with so many clauses, however human any of us are, we can start off for the first 25 or 50 clauses with full concentration, but, after two or three hours, concentration has lapsed and things are getting more complicated. Without the help of the Department and Committee staff, we would never have got through it, and I congratulate everyone on all of their hard work.

We need to change our planning system, and the Bill is absolutely vital to that. Therefore, the Ulster Unionist Party will support most of the amendments. The group 1 amendments deal with the functions of the Department and local development plans. I hope that Members do not go through each amendment one by one. I will go through, as quickly as I can, the few that I think are necessary.

We very much welcome amendment No 1, which replaces “contributing to the achievement of” with “furthering” in relation to sustainable development. I hope that the legal side that is advising us and will be advising councils makes sure that we find a nice, comfortable way through that that councils can afford.

We welcome amendment No 2. It means that we are taking well-being into account, and I welcome the fact that it will allow us to plan our walkways and our use of parks, forests, rivers and all sorts of things. It will be a challenge for councils to find a way of interpreting it, and we will need good guidance from the Department on that.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I appreciate the sentiments behind amendment No 2. However, does the Member not envisage a bit of a problem? Well-being is not defined in legislation, so there is a danger that, if it is contained in this legislation, we will be affording a duty but people will not know what they are supposed to be doing. Is there not a technical problem with that?

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

I thank the Member for that comment. I agree that there is a problem with defining well-being, but given that the legislation is going to be there —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

On that very point, surely, if the sequence of events is that we have reform of local government first and the legislation to enable that is first, those powers of well-being and the definition of well-being should be included? The Planning Bill and the transition of those powers should follow that reform of local government. Therefore, a definition should be in there by the time any transition of powers for planning takes place.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

Again, I see the Member’s point. We need good guidance on the definition of well-being. However, the review system proposed in the last amendment in this group is one way of looking at how we define well-being and take it forward.

It is absolutely right that we put the onus on councils and the Department so that well-being is part of the future. We have to find a way of defining well-being. We want walking routes and pavements in the local development plan in order to encourage people to walk, enjoy the countryside and get fresh air. There is a whole lot more to it, and it is, therefore, right that well-being is put in the Bill. However, we must find a way of defining it in the future, and we all need to work on that.

Amendment No 3 proposes that the Department “take account of” policies and guidance. Amendment Nos 3, 4 and 5 are technical and ensure that the Bill is tidied up, so I will not to go into them in great detail.

Amendment No 6 proposes that councils take account of the “potential impact of climate change”. It is rather like the amendment that deals with well-being. It is absolutely meet and right that that is in the Bill. We know that climate change is happening, whether we believe that we are responsible for some of it or that it is natural. I am very concerned about the possible massive costs to councils. We will need good guidance from the Department and good discussions — particularly in the review, if we have it — of what we mean by climate change.

We can pinpoint the easy issues, such as flooding and not building on flood plains, but there are the other impacts, such as the grit from road gritting going into gullies and poisoning the ditches or sheughs and the impact of snow, if we continue to have longer cold spells. Another easy point is transport and trying to get people out of their cars and lorries. Northern Ireland relies very much on its transport system, and that puts an onus on the Department and councils to keep an eye on climate change.

Amendment Nos 9 to 14 are technical. I agree with them, so I will move on.

With regard to amendment Nos 15 and 16, I welcome the ability to bring in an independent examiner. I particularly welcome it as it will help councils to timetable. I see this as a learning process. As councils produce their surveys and pull their local plans together, they will need as much help as possible. It is absolutely right to have an independent examiner to help things to move quickly, as long as the Department is not too heavy-handed, and I have faith that it will not be. There will be backlogs, and we must find our way through. The more people we have helping councils, the better.

Amendment Nos 78 and 79 will allow the Department to give grants, and that is another good idea. However, I am slightly concerned about giving grants to bodies that are not-for-profit, as most bodies are there for profit in some way. I am not sure how that can be defined, and maybe the Minister will clarify that. I also welcome amendment No 80, as it removes the oversight role of DFP.

Amendment No 86 is extremely important. As Members heard, we had much discussion about that in Committee. We need a review mechanism in place, and we have heard all along that a lot of the legislation is based on legislation in England and Wales and that they, too, are constantly learning. It is absolutely right that we have something in place so that we can constantly look and see how well we are doing. If there is to be a review once in the first three years, will that be done with a body that is there all the time collecting information and advising us how to do better, or will a new body be brought in in the third year? My feeling is that it should be the first option, because it is probably more cost-effective. I like the amendment because it forces us to have a review, no matter who is Minister and no matter what Assembly we have. It is absolutely right to do that. I hope that the Minister will look at the amendment and that, if he does not support it, he will find a way of putting something in to act as a check and balance in the future. The Ulster Unionist Party supports all the amendments in group 1.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:15 pm, 8th March 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Today, I am reminded of why we are discussing the transition of powers to local authorities. After the Macrory report and the 1973 reform of local government, those powers were taken away from local authorities because they had been abused. In any normal society, it is accepted as the norm that local councils — parish councils, district councils or whatever they are in other western democracies — deal with planning and have various other powers. As we well know, however, the North is not the norm.

The challenge for us as politicians is to move to a society in which local politicians reflect the community and perform their duties and functions in a role of absolute commitment to equality, transparency and to the removal of the barriers to exclusion. As the Committee scrutinised the Bill, usually in the Senate Chamber, it became increasingly apparent that the Bill had been rushed through and was out of sequence. The document on the reform of local government is merely out for consultation at the moment. That reform must be in place before the Bill in order that —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty Independent

Order. I thank the Member for setting the context for the debate. I would like you now to address the amendments in this group, please.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I appreciate your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker and, indeed, your forbearance. However, without one reform setting the context, we will get the other reform absolutely wrong. If the Planning Bill is dealt with outside the context of the reform of local government, the issues to which I referred — the lack of transparency, openness and equality and the failure to protect against discrimination — will be repeated. Those were pivotal to the errors of the past, and that is why I set the context.

The SDLP broadly supports the first group of amendments. I have no intention of going through each amendment individually. Mr Kinahan highlighted the issue of well-being in amendment No 2. It is important for that term to be defined. I hope that, as part of local government reform, it will be defined.

I, like the Chairperson of the Environment Committee, sat through an important inquiry by that Committee into climate change. Therefore, I welcome amendment No 6, which requires councils to take into account the “potential impact of climate change” when conducting surveys of their district.

Amendment No 15 provides for the independent examiner to be appointed by the Department. I welcome the recognition by the Department that the independence of that examiner is pivotal and must be beyond reproach. Therefore, the Department was asked by the Committee to tighten up the conditions under which that independent examiner might be appointed, and the amendment is welcomed accordingly.

Moving quickly though the amendments, I welcome amendment No 86 and thank Committee Members for tabling it. It is important because, as I outlined earlier, the progress of the Bill, local government and reform should be monitored. It is an important amendment that allows us to keep a close watch on whether progress is made.

It would be wrong and remiss of me not to reflect the fact that local government welcomes progress. It also welcomes the powers and the oversight role that it is so necessary to deliver equality. Likewise, it wants to make sure that it is not sold a pup by having to bear the costs of the transition and the handover of those powers and that the process will, in effect, be cost-neutral, not because the Department bumps up prices but because a smooth transition is made. The Department must ensure that there is compatibility when planning powers move from central government to local government and that ratepayers are not lumbered with excessive rates bills as a consequence. I know that the Minister has spoken about that issue before, but the Environment Committee got mixed messages about it.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for your forbearance. However, before I forget, I would like to pay tribute to the Committee staff who punched in very long hours and to the departmental staff who put pedal to the metal virtually every day to make sure that all of the information was brought before us as efficiently as possible. I would like to pay tribute to and thank them because, quite often, that goes unrecognised.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I welcome the Bill’s Consideration Stage. We support the first group of amendments except for amendment Nos 1 and 7. Clause 5 says that the Department must carry out its functions with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development. However, those two amendments would change the wording to say that the Department must carry out its functions with the objective of “furthering” sustainable development. We believe that the amendments dilute the Department’s commitment to sustainable development and water down the legislation to achieve that. We, therefore, oppose amendment Nos 1 and 7.

Photo of Willie Clarke Willie Clarke Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Amendment Nos 1, 2 and 7 put sustainable development at the heart of the planning system and link that to the well-being of people in the North of Ireland. At Committee Stage, I felt that the Planning Bill needed to be more robust in promoting sustainable development and well-being. Sinn Féin believes that there is a huge opportunity to move away from a land-based planning system to one based on spatial planning, with people and communities at its core.

The Member who spoke previously said that the amendments on furthering sustainable development will dilute the Department’s responsibility. However, Sinn Fein’s opinion is that the amendments will actually strengthen that responsibility, because they ask local authorities to go further than they normally do. That is what we are trying to get at with “furthering”.

Other Members touched on the definition of well-being. I think that it is widely know what is meant by “well-being”. It has already been pointed out that that is out for consultation as part of the local government reform process, of which well-being is a major plank. The Planning Bill, which deals with well-being and sustainable development, is a driver for real change by lifting people out of poverty, affording them better mental health and ensuring that they have a better quality of life, all of which will have great significance for Departments’ budgets. By putting planning at the heart of people’s lives, we will make greater savings in the long run. We have heard the debates about the health budget not having enough resources. If Members think about this strategically, they will realise that we are looking to front-load the system in order to make savings in the long run. As I said, by giving communities a greater sense of well-being, people will have better mental health and self-esteem and will make a contribution through their taxes to this establishment.

The Department rejected the inclusion in the Bill of the concept of well-being, because it said that there was no precedent for it. I reject that. If there is a will, there is a way. The Department is being very dogmatic about the issue. As I said, the local government consultation refers to well-being, and it should be in the Bill. The majority of responses to the Committee supported having sustainable development and well-being in the Bill. We have a duty to ensure that, when the people speak, we listen. There is no point in putting things out to consultation and people asking for major change if we then decide not to implement those changes.

Sinn Féin supports amendment Nos 4 and 5, which strengthen the requirement for statements of community involvement. We also support amendment No 3.

Amendment No 6, which Sinn Féin also supports, makes the link between the planning system and the need to tackle and respond to the impact of climate change. The amendment would make it a requirement for councils to consider the impact of climate change when carrying out surveys of their district. There is a need for local authorities to factor in best practice. That is what we are talking about. We are talking about using the best practice from around the world that helps to mitigate the impact of climate change. We are not asking local authorities to carry out emission surveys on a global level. We are asking that they gather the evidence and let that formulate their views on implementing or designing local plans. We are talking about using best practice to reduce our carbon footprint and emissions and to combat flooding, which has a major impact on the island of Ireland.

Sinn Féin supports amendment No 15. The Department gave clarification on the appointment of an independent examiner, saying that he or she would be appointed only in exceptional circumstances and that the PAC would always be the first choice in an examination. I welcome the clarification that OFMDFM would cover the cost of the independent examiner.

Amendment No 86, proposed by my colleague and me, calls for the Department to carry out a review within three years of the implementation of the Bill. It is Sinn Féin’s opinion that that is a sensible thing to do, so that any problems that may arise can be addressed and greater comfort can be given to local authorities.

At this point, I declare an interest as a councillor on Down District Council. Local authorities are nervous about the number of powers that are coming down from the Assembly, and they feel that resources will be a problem, no matter what the legislation is, be it the High Hedges Bill, the Welfare of Animals Bill or the Planning Bill. We need to give comfort to local authorities and their umbrella support groups, such as NILGA, which were very supportive of a review. As the Chairperson outlined, we are willing for the review to be flexible, if there is a willingness in the Department for that. That would be sensible, as it would help the Department, communities and local authorities. If things are not working or need to be tweaked, there would be an opportunity to do that.

Also outlined was the opportunity to look at third-party rights of appeal. That is the subject of an amendment that does not have a snowball’s chance in hell of going through because of the petition of concern. Tabling a petition of concern is an abuse of power, because it was not designed for this type of legislation. Planning impacts on everybody, not just people on one side of the community or the other. This petition of concern is a total abuse of power. We should be mature enough to debate what we want in a Planning Bill. I hope that we get that maturity, and I hope that, if and when there is a review, we can look at that again.

Obviously, there are problems. There is front-loading of the system, a lot of community involvement and a lot of community planning. I accept that. However, if there are still problems with ordinary citizens having their rights heard, there is an onus on us to ensure that their voice is heard.

I will finish by speaking about sustainable development, the key deliverer in this Bill. It will add to a low-carbon economy in the North and provide good job opportunities. Companies throughout the world that are seeking to relocate are aware of their carbon emissions and carbon footprint. If we are ahead of the game and leading the way, those companies are more likely to set up their businesses in our part of the island of Ireland.

We need to look seriously at the renewables industry. I know that I am going off slightly, but we need to ensure that everything that we do is sustainable in the best possible manner. By putting that in the Bill, we are saying that that will be the framework that the public sector and the private sector work off. That will be the skeleton, and it will be up to the rest of the sectors to put flesh on the skeleton.

Every Department says that it makes a contribution to sustainable development, but no one ever leads that work. Through the Planning Bill, there is now an opportunity for the planning sector to lead the rest of the sectors in that regard. It will help to improve community life and well-being. It will cut down on emissions and on people travelling in vehicles. Instead, jobs, schools and opportunities will be relocated in neighbourhoods. For too long, housing developments have been pushed out of the way to the outskirts of towns — the problem is out of the way. Then you see major difficulties, with people underachieving and having major health problems such as obesity and mental illness. This is an opportunity to address that. I will leave it at that.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty Independent 12:30 pm, 8th March 2011

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm. The first item of business when we return will be Question Time.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.38 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —