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Planning Bill: Final Stage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:45 am on 23rd March 2011.

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Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 11:45 am, 23rd March 2011

It is good to see that I have such a moving effect on Members. I beg to move

That the Planning Bill [NIA 7/10] do now pass.

On 30 November 2010, I announced in the House my plans for strengthening local democracy by reinvigorating planning and local government reform. On 6 December 2010, I introduced the Planning Bill. Today, less than four months later, the Planning Bill has reached its Final Stage.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)

The Bill sets a framework for the future of planning and provides for the transfer of the majority of planning functions from the Department of the Environment to local government. That transfer will happen after new governance arrangements for councils and a new ethical standards regime for councillors are put in place. I have consulted on those with a view to legislation in the next Assembly.

When planning powers transfer, councils will work with the communities they serve to build a vision for the future of their area. They will bring forward development plans showing how their area will change. Councils will decide the majority of planning applications in their area and be responsible for enforcing planning decisions. The community can become involved at every stage of the planning process.

Councils will set out in their statements of community involvement how and when they will consult the community, and developers will be required to take account of the views of the community in drawing up applications for major or regionally significant development. Councils will be the decision-makers, and councillors will live with the consequences of their decisions. Ultimately, if communities are not happy with the way the area is shaping up, they can exercise their views at the ballot box.

The passage of the Bill is no mean feat. At 255 clauses, it is the largest Bill that this Assembly has seen.

It is an achievement of which everyone who has been involved can be proud.

Particular credit is due to the Environment Committee. The Chairperson and members of the Committee brought to the Bill their practical understanding of how planning works and were painstaking and unstinting in their scrutiny. The Committee’s success is testament to hard work and leadership, and I commend it for that. The Chairperson pledged at the Bill’s Second Stage that the Committee would not shirk its responsibilities, and he set a pace with the Committee. That relentless pace has now delivered the Bill’s Final Stage.

I was pleased to accept or, indeed, to support almost all of the Committee’s recommendations; it is good to have some diversion and not to agree all the time. Thanks to the Committee, a number of changes have been made to the Bill. The Committee sought to have uniformity on time limits for enforcement action, substantially tougher and more realistic fines, and restrictions on the introduction of new information at appeals. All of those amendments strengthened the Bill.

I also thank Members for their contributions and amendments, as well as the officials and Assembly staff who created the Bill and nursed it through the process and the many councils and organisations and members of the public who commented on our proposals. As we have had the most Bills of any Department, I want to pay particular tribute to my own team, led by Maggie Smith, for the hard work that they have done on a whole series of Bills. They have punched above their weight with the workload that they have been carrying.

The Planning Bill is an important part of the legacy of this mandate. It will be for the next Assembly and Executive to take up the challenge of strengthening local democracy by reforming local government and transferring planning powers to councils. I commend the Planning Bill to the House.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 23rd March 2011

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ar son an Choiste Comhshaoil ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an chéim dheireanach den Bhille. On behalf of the Environment Committee, I welcome the Final Stage of the Planning Bill.

As is traditional at this stage, on behalf of the Committee, I once again thank the departmental officials and the Minister for the close working relationship that we maintained throughout the passage of this Bill. That helped to ensure that the Committee scrutinised the Bill thoroughly and was able to come to agreement with the Department on most of the proposed amendments. I also take the opportunity to thank the Committee staff who worked so hard on this legislation and all other pieces of legislation that the Committee dealt with in this extremely busy mandate.

The Planning Bill is a huge Bill, not only in its number of clauses but in the impact that it will have on the whole community. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not want to go over the debates again, but I do want to touch on a few things.

The Committee has been involved in the planning reform process since way back in 2007, and members support the devolution of planning matters to councils and greater community involvement in the planning process. However, it is to be welcomed that that will not and, as a result of the Committee’s amendments, cannot happen until the Assembly is satisfied that a new statutory governance framework and an ethical standards regime are in place to ensure equality and fair treatment.

The Committee’s scrutiny of the Bill led to it making 25 recommendations. Most of those were addressed by the departmental amendments, and some were addressed with commitments from the Department to future work or legislation. I thank the Minister for that.

The amendments have significantly improved the Bill. A few concerns remain about the implementation of the Bill, not least about resources for councils. Councils are clearly worried about being handed responsibility for planning without sufficient resources to deliver effectively and efficiently. The Committee recognised that the introduction of the new planning system will result in a sea change in responsibility and behaviour for councillors and council staff alike. Much work will need to be done in the interim period to ensure that staff and councillors are fully trained to deliver the Bill.

The Bill seeks to deliver a fundamental and long overdue overhaul of the planning system, and, on behalf of the Committee, I support the Bill.

I want to say a few words as planning spokesperson for my party and as a Sinn Féin Member for Newry and Armagh. I welcome the Bill. There will be a review of the process as soon as the planning functions are fully operational, which I welcome. A lot of capacity building is required, and a lot of resources still need to be pumped into it. In light of that, I welcome the Bill. I pay special tribute to the Committee staff who have worked with me and all the Committee members over the past four years to bring forward a lot of legislation.

Photo of Danny Kinahan Danny Kinahan UUP

The Ulster Unionist Party is pleased to support the Final Stage of the Bill, and we all welcome it. I did not think that we would get there when we started, but everybody buckled down and set to completing the task. I still do not think that we consulted properly, but we may have done it as well as was necessary. Only time will tell.

It is the right thing to do. It is the right form of planning to bring through, and I congratulate the Minister on pushing it through. I also congratulate the Committee and all the staff for their hard work. We need planning, and we need the Bill in place as quickly as possible so that it encourages development and jobs and a better life for all of us, and new homes for some of us. As the Bill is now spatial, it will provide a better domestic life and well-being for all of us. The Bill is absolutely vital. However, I have similar concerns to those that other Members mentioned. There are a mass of regulations and guidelines, and I look forward to seeing all those, but I hope that they are properly consulted on, if possible, in a quick and suitable manner to make sure that we get the right answers and make the right decisions. Therefore, we want to see it in place quickly, but not too quickly.

I am still concerned that the review might not happen for three years. However, the Minister said that the Bill will constantly be looked at, and I hope that that is the case. I welcome the fact that responsibility is being passed to councils, and I welcome the fact that there will be tougher fines, particularly in respect of historic buildings and trees. I am very grateful that everyone supported the amendments that I proposed on that matter. However, I am very sad that we had to see the use of a petition of concern. I think that it was completely wrong to use it in this type of legislation.

Finally, I will voice my concerns about resources, as others have done. We need to see pilot schemes with councils, so that they know exactly what is coming their way and can trim the fat, which the Minister referred to, whilst getting extra resources if and when they are needed.

It has been a great success getting the Bill through. I hope that it all works. I look forward to seeing it going through the next Assembly, subject to my being here, or to reading about it. I congratulate everyone. We support the Bill.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, I thank the Minister and his staff for the introduction of the Bill. However, I pay particular tribute to the staff of the Environment Committee. They showed commitment to seeing the Bill through, from research to making sure that members were prepared and ready for the many aspects of the scrutiny that came before us, during what seemed to be interminable hours spent scrutinising the Bill, which needed to be properly scrutinised, even though it was done at some haste. I look to some of the officials who were involved in that committed level of work.

I will not speak at length, because we have devoted hours of contribution to the Bill at its scrutiny stages and at the Assembly. However, from the SDLP’s point of view, the key aspect of planning must be to deliver transparency, accountability and equality for all. It cannot be emphasised enough that it must be tied in with a reform of local government that delivers that equality and has proper checks and balances in there to ensure that none of the worst excesses of the past are delivered on the people of the future. We cannot see that happening.

I have to share some concern with Mr Kinahan’s point about the use of the petition of concern on third-party appeals. The petition of concern is there to protect minorities. It was unfortunate that it was used to prevent minorities in communities from gaining access to proper planning scrutiny, transparency and the various levels of accountability that should exist in the planning process.

The Bill should be welcomed in any democratic society. It will transfer powers on planning back to grass-roots level to ensure that those who know their localities and communities best can make the proper decisions for their areas, assisted ably by the professionals from the Planning Service. However, that must be done in a context that ensures consistency in application of policy right across the North, so that we do not have different interpretations of a policy, or policies that counter each other within a mile of one council area and another. Many elected representatives in the Chamber have heard about various decisions. Depending on the divisional planning office area that one is in, an interpretation may cause concern to someone who is trying to move ahead with a development, or someone who objects to a development. Overall, the Bill holds some prospect of being one of the building blocks towards a democratic, accountable and transparent society. That, in itself, is important.

We face the inevitable Assembly elections on 5 May, with the local government elections on the same day. It is crucial that the transition of powers to councils is done on a cost-neutral basis. There should be no additional burden on ratepayers, or excessive red tape that could place consequential financial burdens on applicants. We must ensure that that does not happen because there are factors, particularly with regard to requirements, that could be left to interpretation in respect of environmental impact assessments.

Much of the Bill has been dealt with in detail, and there is no need for me to go over it again. I thank the Minister for his commitment to seeing it through. He worked very well with his officials. I thank Committee members, many of whom dedicated themselves on numerous occasions to a vast number of hours of scrutiny. That has delivered, and the Bill is before us today.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

I welcome the Bill’s Final Stage. It contains many good measures to improve our planning system. I am not a member of the Committee for the Environment, but I have followed the process and the consultation, and have worked with many residents’ groups in South Belfast. The Minister is aware that the issue has exercised many residents in South Belfast who have seen the damage that overdevelopment has done to their locality.

I was hugely disappointed that the DUP vetoed the amendment for the inclusion of the third-party appeal on two occasions by signing a petition of concern, which was a total misuse and abuse of the power given to the House. At Further Consideration Stage, when I proposed a revised amendment for third-party appeal, I said that one of my constituents talked about the close relationship that the DUP had with developers. The Minister’s response was that he was in favour of development. No one in the House would dispute that we all welcome economic development and growth in our economy. However, we all want to see a level playing field for individuals and developers. We cannot always be on one side and not listening to the other. That is why the third-party appeal (TPA) is so important.

The amendment proposed by Members from four parties attempted to strike a balance between the right of individuals and the need for economic progress. The initial and revised amendments were aimed at creating an enabling clause that would have allowed the Department to consider bringing forward limited TPAs in future, with measures to prevent frivolous or vexatious abuse. Furthermore, the Department’s final regulations would have been required to be brought before the Assembly for affirmative resolution. However, the DUP totally ignored not only the support in the House for that amendment but the wishes of the many respondents to the public consultation who saw TPAs as a core issue for planning reform. They want a planning system that is fair and accessible to all, based on the principles of equality and genuine engagement, rather than one that constantly sides with developers. It is shame that the DUP blocked the chance to include third-party appeals in the Bill.

Photo of Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Green 12:15 pm, 23rd March 2011

I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council who has been involved in very many planning applications. The Bill is obviously one of the most important to have come before the Assembly. However, I am concerned about its impact over the next decades and about its late introduction in the House. The present system is clearly unacceptable, and no one — developers, councillors, environmentalists and residents — likes it, but the issue is whether this is the right way to go about addressing that.

I will raise a number of concerns. However, before I begin, I wish to pay tribute to the Committee Clerk, her staff and the departmental representatives for the amount of work and time that they put in at Committee Stage over the past two or three months. Those of us on the Committee appreciate just how much work has been done. Within a couple of days of one six-hour meeting, we were given everything in the proper form, and I felt that the work done at that time was amazing.

As I said, the present system is unnecessarily bureaucratic, lengthy, inflexible and undemocratic, and it clearly needs fundamental reform. However, I am not convinced that the Bill will provide us with an efficient and balanced Planning Service for decades to come. I have some concerns about the issue of balance. Given the Bill’s size and scope, it is disappointing that it was introduced so late in the session. I do not believe that we had adequate time to debate many of the most important clauses or to hear from the many stakeholders who wished to give evidence. Indeed, a number of community groups and NGOs approached me to express their disappointment at not having an opportunity to put their case to the Committee.

Although I support the return of planning powers to councils, it is essential that we have the appropriate safeguards in place to ensure that councillors cannot abuse those powers. We have to look back at why we have the present planning system: the previous planning system was abused, and the powers were, therefore, taken away from councillors. There will obviously be rules and regulations on what councillors can and cannot do, but I am not convinced that the culture of local councils has changed. We talk about changing the culture of councils. However, the fact is that, regardless of whether councillors want to change that culture, constituents will still approach them on the assumption that they can influence planning decisions. Some people are concerned that we might have brown envelope syndrome. As I said, I would like to see exactly how the safeguards will operate. We do not have any detail on that, but we have had a lot of suggestions, which are all going to be in the rules and regulations. However, I think that we should see those before we agree to the transfer of planning powers.

I am not convinced that we need to rush this legislation. I am not clear when it will come into operation. Quite a lot of different signals have been coming from different people, so perhaps the Minister will clarify the situation. Can the legislation be applied to the existing 26 councils, or will it have to wait until the review of public administration (RPA) has been resolved? We could consider waiting for RPA to be resolved, but it will be at least three or four years before it will be implemented. Certainly, we do not have the money to implement it at the present time. On the basis of the legislation, and given that we have to set up the procedures and shadow councils, it will be at least three or four years before we can implement it. Therefore, I do not see why we could not have sorted out RPA before we introduced the Planning Bill, unless it is going to apply to the 26 councils. As I said, perhaps the Minister will clear that up, but I think that we may be putting the cart before the horse.

Other Members talked about third-party appeals. At the present time, many people feel that the planning system is totally biased in favour of developers and that residents and the community do not get a fair deal. It is also felt that there is a right of appeal for developers, but that the actual objectors have no right of appeal. This legislation does nothing to resolve either that imbalance or the public’s perception that the system is biased against them. We note that the Assembly and the public support third-party appeals. The fact that the Minister decided to present a petition of concern is, I suggest, a total abuse of the idea of the petition of concern. Petitions of concern are meant to protect minorities from any abuse of power by the majority. In this case, obviously, the majority supports third-party appeals. Therefore, it was a total abuse of the system to present the petition of concern.

As I said, I have some concerns about the legislation, and I cannot support it in its present form. However, I again congratulate the staff who got the Bill through to this stage. I am totally in favour of the principle of returning planning powers to local government. However, I would like to see some more details on how exactly that is going to be done and how councils are going to deal with planning applications. For example, are they going to deal with applications through a planning committee, or will it be done through the full council? That is a very important issue. The change in culture will obviously have to be worked at. However, having said that, I wish the Bill all success.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

I declare an interest as a member of Craigavon Borough Council. It is very fitting that, on this, my last day as a Member of the Assembly here at Stormont, we are discussing the environment, especially the Planning Bill.

The issue has been very near and dear to my heart through all my political life. The Bill is the start of something that should have taken place a long time ago. Today will kick-start the new planning system. The Bill is designed to achieve a modern, efficient and effective planning system. Indeed, it helps to pave the way for the continued reform of the Planning Service, which I welcome. I pay tribute to the staff and to everyone who has been involved with the Bill. I also pay tribute to my colleagues on the Environment Committee, who put in a great deal of effort to bring the Bill to Final Stage.

The importance of the interpretation of the legislation has been referred to today. There are many planning applications that date back three or four years, including some in my own council area. As Mr McGlone said, that is because of the interpretation of the legislation. One big planning application, which dates back three or four years, has been passed from pillar to post, and that reflects badly on the Planning Service. If that application were approved, it would create 30 or 40 jobs. It is not about development — it is about real issues.

I want a level playing field in the Planning Service, which is long overdue. I want the red tape to be cut out and for planning to move into the twenty-first century. I hope that no obstacles will be put in the way of planning matters going to councils. At present, councillors, including me, can hide behind the Planning Service because some people are afraid to make decisions. We have to bring the issue out into the open and make real decisions to move the country forward. Therefore I welcome the Bill.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I wish to respond to Members’ comments. A number of Members raised the issue of third-party appeals and the petition of concern. They had a little whinge about it, which is surprising as most of them supported the insertion of the petition of concern mechanism into the original Belfast Agreement. Having installed that mechanism, they now complain about its use.

I will take no lectures from the SDLP, which joined ranks with Sinn Féin when the Armed forces and Veterans Bill was brought forward to ensure that veterans are not treated correctly. That was very sectarian. I will not take lectures from the SDLP on that issue —

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

— because it does not have a very good record itself. Does the Member want me to give way or does he want to make a point of order?

Photo of Conall McDevitt Conall McDevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

There are two points of order. First, is it appropriate for the Minister to respond to another Bill when, in fact, his job is to respond to the Planning Bill? Secondly, is it in order for a Minister to describe the activities of colleagues, acting in a parliamentary capacity, as “sectarian”?

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I encourage all Members, including the Minister, to return to the Bill.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Of course, those are not points of order. I am responding to the challenge that the petition of concern was abused. I am pointing out that others have abused it, including the Member’s own party. The Member may not like it, but it is a fact. He will have to hang his head in shame for the activities of his party on that occasion.

On the issue of third-party appeals, Ms Lo spoke of my support for development. Of course I support development. I respect the Amish community; however, we in Northern Ireland do not wish to go down that route. We want our country to move forward, adopt new technology, develop new buildings, encourage business to locate here, encourage new people to live here, keep our young people at home and provide new schools, new hospitals and better roads.

All of that is about development, but it all has to be done in the proper context, which is to protect our environment, our built heritage and so forth. The Bill strengthens those issues, because we are increasing the fines for offences related to tree preservation, the built heritage and listed buildings. We are increasing the punishments for developers who act inappropriately. We are not going to let developers off lightly when it comes to those issues. The Bill strengthens the conditions relating to the environment and lays down a challenge to those who wish to walk all over it and line their pockets at the price of the environment. The Bill makes it clear that we are not going to tolerate that.

We are going down a wholly different planning route that has not been used before in relation to third-party appeals, which that we will be engaging with the public at the outset. Instead of the public coming in at the conclusion of a planning process to try to change things, they have the opportunity to make changes at the foundation stage. That is a far better opportunity for the public to get involved and to influence architects and developers in order to identify changes that would be of real benefit to them. However, people cannot have it both ways. That would lead to a system that would be so elongated and prolonged that no business would wish to invest in Northern Ireland because they would have no prospect of getting an outcome for years and years. That would be damaging to our economy.

I appreciate where people are coming from on third-party appeals, but if we were to introduce them in Northern Ireland, we would have to have a much more relaxed planning system in the first instance. We have sought to tighten planning in the first instance without the check of third-party appeals. Local government will make those decisions from the outset through local councillors, who are accountable to local communities. There are only one or two votes involved when a developer wishes to ride roughshod over a local community, but there are hundreds of votes in the local community, so I suspect that councillors will withstand the pressure from developers in such instances.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I will in a moment. Belfast City Council would have given a much stronger response to developments in areas such as Piney Hills and Malone, which Ms Lo has issues with, than the Planning Service did.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

The Minister will know perfectly well that, until now, developers have been a very persistent breed of people. If they do not get what they want in the first instance, they will come back umpteen times until they do. Despite what the Minister has said about pre-consultation, can he assure the House that, given those circumstances, repetition of requests for planning approval will become a thing of the past as a result of this Planning Bill?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

People will be required to change planning applications; the same planning applications will not be accepted. That aspect will be dealt with. Most of the time, developers change applications. In one instance, I heard about a developer who changed a planning application 17 times, which would indicate to me that it was wholly wrong in the first instance.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

It was approved eventually, but it demonstrated that developers do not always get what they want. However, I believe sincerely that local councils are in a better position to deal with those issues and to identify local community need and respond to it.

Brian Wilson wanted to know what the rush was to enact the Bill. I am sorry that he is not here; he must have been in a rush somewhere on the last day of the Assembly. I know that he is leaving the Assembly, so I suppose that I should not be too hard on him today. I would never be hard on anyone anyway; I am always genteel in my activities. Brian Wilson wanted to know what the rush was, and when responsibility for planning would be handed over to councils.

The Bill could be passed to either the 26- or the 11-council model; however, it will not be transferred until we have dealt with the issue of ethical standards. We are consulting local government on establishing ethical standards, codes of government, good governance regimes and so on, and we will not transfer planning powers to any council until that legislation is in place.

Other aspects of the Bill, however, will proceed. Some powers on the uniformity of the enforcement period, which Mr Boylan brought before us this week, will be brought in straightaway, as will tree preservation orders and larger fines for people who damage or demolish listed buildings. I will be careful not to stray from what I said I would do, but I am surprised at the Green Party’s opposing legislation or saying that there was no rush to have legislation that strengthens planning powers on listed buildings and tree preservation orders.

I am delighted that we have achieved that, and I have paid tribute to the Committee for its work. This is my last piece of legislation. In the past 21 months, we have completed seven pieces of legislation — more than any other Department. We have brought forward six new planning policy statements; another three are out for consultation; and another two will be ready to go for the new Minister of this Department, whoever that may be. Much has been achieved through the work of this Department, and I am very grateful to my staff.

As the Bill is now complete, I trust that Her Gracious Majesty the Queen will see fit to give it her Royal Assent and stamp of approval, as she does on all legislation, and that it will come into force soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That the Planning Bill [NIA 7/10] do now pass.