I thank the Member for his question. Given the year that is in it — 2012 — and given the weekend that we have just had, with the recognition of the Titanic, this is a timely question about where we are going with draft PPS 5. As Members know, the consultation on draft PPS 5 ended some time ago. However, I was not satisfied that the draft policy was sufficiently helpful to rural tourism in its original form to enable rural tourism to grow. Consequently, we have had further conversations with stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, to ensure that the policy is not too restrictive and is sufficiently supportive of rural tourist operations.
I will give you two examples. When the final policy comes out, subject to Executive approval, there will be further opportunity, in exceptional circumstances, for significant tourism opportunities to grow than might have originally been the case under the draft policy. We will be more flexible when it comes to the location of tourism opportunities outside rural settlements. In my view, the consequence will be a more flexible policy when it comes to bed-and-breakfast, hotel and self-catering opportunities. The draft policy, as amended, will be a pathway to a more flexible, less restrictive approach to rural tourism than was the case under the original draft.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle, Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin, agus tá ceist agam dó. Further to his reply, will the Minister tell me what key planning issues rural tourism providers have raised with his Department in relation to this planning policy statement? What are the key hurdles? Is he engaging directly with rural tourism providers, such as Todds Leap near Ballygawley and An Creagán Visitor Centre in mid Tyrone?
I am sure that the local tourism industry will welcome that advertisement and rightly so. I am not protesting about that by any means. We all have an obligation to do all that we can to promote local tourism and rural opportunities, as the Member has just done.
I was inclined to broaden the scope and opportunities of the policy. Therefore, beyond the 69 consultation responses, we consulted the Environment Committee, the NITB, the Royal Town Planning Institute, NILGA and the holiday park industry in an effort to ensure that, when the draft goes before the Executive, it will have the ambition that, I believe, it should.
Let me make it clear that, given what is happening in 2012 and 2013 and given that the built and natural heritage is, as I keep saying, at the core of tourism opportunity in the North and, therefore, at the core of economic opportunity and future jobs in the North, it is important that we are not restrictive when it comes to rural tourism opportunities. That is why, in the assessment of the draft and following the consultation, moving increasing opportunities beyond settlement limits seems to be the right principle to adopt. That will, as I indicated, increase opportunities for bed-and-breakfast, hotel and self-catering providers. That seems to me the right approach to take.
The overarching strategy, as reflected in the Runkerry decision, is that, where there are significant benefits for a rural tourism proposal, that can, at the end of the day, be critical in making the right call for individual applications.
In talking about how he is going to progress matters with the draft PPS, the Minister used two subjective terms. One was “significant” and the other was “flexibility”. Can he ensure at the outset that, when we reach the conclusion of his discussions, those two subjective terms and the explanation and onus behind them will be relayed to each of the district planning offices?
I welcome the endorsement for the approach that I am taking. The purpose in making, for example, the Runkerry decision was to send a very strong message, especially in areas where we have signature projects. As I keep saying, the Causeway signature project is arguably our single biggest tourism economic opportunity. That decision was made to send out a message consistent with planning policy. Although it may end up that those terms are viewed as subjective, they are, nonetheless, informed by various other criteria included in various planning policies, not just PPS 21 and this draft policy. The message has been sent out from my Department. That message is working through the planning system and going through training around, for example, renewables, which we will touch on later. Where there are opportunities and where there is significant benefit to the tourism industry or the economy generally, the principle should be to favour that development. I hope that that position will prevail.
Without anticipating a later question, I will say that I have a simple view of the function of DOE. The function is, on one hand, to be the leading environment Ministry but, on the other, to be a leading economy Ministry. The twin-track purpose and function of the Department is to lead and be the leader in respect of environmental protection and, at the same time, to be a leading economy Department. That is the perspective that I try to bring. Therefore, to answer the question, when it comes to article 31 applications in respect of tourism or wider economic projects, it is the Department’s role to demonstrate that it can assist the environment and the economy going forward. In my view, through the efficient deployment of the Department’s planning policies, whether in respect of PPS 21, draft PPS 5, when it comes out, or the development of area plans — I hope to have an announcement in the near future on the long-awaited BMAP proposal for the city of Belfast — we can remodel opportunities for tourists and the economy, consistent with sustainable environmental standards.