Oral Answers to Questions – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 20th November 2012.

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Planning Service: Communication

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

1. asked the Minister of the Environment what measures he plans to introduce to improve communication between his Department's Planning Service and applicants and agents who presently have to use the NI Direct (101) system. (AQO 2916/11-15)

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question.  As Members know, in 2008, NI Direct was phased in, with the Planning Service as one of the initial anchor tenants.  Some of the figures confirm that the process has bedded in well and can bed in further.  For example, between April and October 2012, NI Direct, on behalf of Planning Service, handled over 57,000 calls, with 22% of that total number being dealt with by the initial contact staff and others being referred on in the appropriate way to Planning Service.  The consequence of that, together with the planning portal that was introduced in 2012, means that citizens have much easier and better access to Planning Service and planning information than was the case previously, when they had to ring the planning office directly.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for his reply.  Does he accept that the present system causes further frustration and unnecessary delay for applicants and agents?  As a result, there is a detrimental effect on the economy, as small businesses, especially architects, struggle to bring forward projects to boost the economy.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

That is not, by and large, what agents, the planning industry and citizens tell me.  I am sure that there are always, as we know, levels of delay and frustration with contact centres, but I am not being told that that is the broad experience.  If 22% of contacts are being dealt with by the contact centre, 80% of other issues are being responded to by Planning Service within 24 hours and calls are being answered within 15 seconds of being made, all of that suggests that the new approach to citizen/agent/developer contact with Planning Service is beginning to bed in more and more.  Together with access to the planning portal, where there are over 130,000 points of contact every month, that certainly all helps the planning process.  Certainly, there will be nobody in the planning system, including me, who would not call for even better performance than that.  However, I think that that performance is working to the benefit of the development industry.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

As many of the calls to 101 result simply in a call-back request for the planner concerned, is it possible that requests could be sent either by e-mail or text and, therefore, save time?  For general enquiries about policy, fees and that nature of thing, is it possible for telephone attendants to be competent enough to deal with those issues directly with the applicant?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

As I indicated, 22% of initial points of contact are dealt with by the person who is contacted.  Therefore, given the NI Direct system and the skills of staff who manage those calls, 22% of initial points of contact on planning concerns and requests for information are dealt with there and then.  That demonstrates that, even though it is not a specialist service, one in four citizens gets the information that he or she requires at the point of contact.  As Members know, MLAs have direct access to the planning system, thereby improving communication between developers, planning agents and those who make representations on behalf of applicants. 

We intend to roll out changes to the planning system that will see applications being made online, rather than, as in the current system, through the paper process.  So, yes, we will continue to look at opportunities to roll out and improve the service, but I think that people are voting with their feet.  The figures suggest that fewer and fewer people find that they need to contact the Planning Service directly, because the response time from the Planning Service to 80% of the cases and the initial response through NI Direct to 20% of the cases are beginning to work more and more effectively.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Are there any measures in the draft Planning Bill that will actually assist planning applicants and give them confidence that there will be improvement?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question.  Yes, I believe that, as we try to upgrade the planning system and make it more fit for purpose, the Planning Bill that I would like to bring to the Floor of the Assembly in the near future will do that.  It will not just do it in the short term, but it will make the planning system more fit for purpose in the rundown to the transfer of planning functions to local councils and at the point of transfer in 2015.  How will that be done?  The Planning Bill will accelerate provisions in the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.  It will enable people other than those in the Planning Appeals Commission to conduct inquiries.  It will create statutory consultee timelines so that those who are consulted are required to respond in a proper manner within a good period of time, perhaps as little as 21 or 28 days.  It will encourage pre-application discussions between a developer and the local community, which is good in itself, but it is also in anticipation of the RPA transfer of the community planning function to local councils.  In all those ways, the planning system can be improved, but we need to improve it, and to improve it we need to have the law before this Chamber.  I hope that the Executive will sign off as quickly as possible on the Planning Bill to allow it to come to the Floor of the Chamber so that all those reforms that are in the interests of the economy, the citizen and the developer can be accelerated.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Before we go on to our next question, I advise Members that questions 4 and 8 have been withdrawn and require a written answer.

Permitted Development Rights

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

2. asked the Minister of the Environment to outline the changes he is intending to make to the permitted development rights regime as outlined in the Executive's economy and jobs initiative. (AQO 2917/11-15)

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member, for this is an important question.  If we are able to amend and reform the planning system around permitted development rights, we will simplify the planning system and make it more responsive, in my view, to the economic conditions that currently prevail.  There has been a roll-out, over the last two years in particular, of various permitted development rights, but in my view the Department has to stretch its ambition in that regard.  That is why, earlier this month, I announced a consultation on PD rights for agricultural buildings, including buildings that would hold anaerobic digesters, proposing, unlike any other part of these islands, that PD rights would extend to a scale of building of 500 square metres. 

In the near future — in the course of 2013 — I intend to roll out further PD rights in respect of non-domestic microgeneration, public utilities, telecommunications and temporary use of land for street markets, thereby creating more opportunity for quite moderate but useful development in a way that might encourage the construction industry, encourage development and respond to the needs of the wider community in terms of what should or should not have full planning permission when it comes to planning development.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer.  Further to that, what does he anticipate will be the impact on the economy of the changes that he has outlined?  Does he anticipate any legislative change for those proposals?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, there is no need for change in primary legislation, but clearly regulations will have to be issued in respect of the PD rights that will be amended.  What will the difference be?  From my conversations with the farming industry, I understand that, when it comes to agricultural buildings or buildings that hold anaerobic digesters, 500 square metres PD rights are of some significance.  That is not small-scale development, and it would be useful in allowing the farming industry to grow its opportunities.  Similarly, if we have more flexible PD rights for solar panels; ground- and water-source heat pumps; renewable technology; the replacement of telecommunication masts for the telecoms industry; and public utilities around railways, docks or harbours — all those taken together — we will free up the planning process to deal with other significant applications and free up business to have some development that will sustain their business models going forward.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

In the Minister's substantive answer, he talked about the economic conditions that currently prevail.  Given those conditions, does he have any plans to extend the rights to small and medium enterprises?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Two months ago, PD rights were extended for shops, financial and professional institutions, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and in relation to demolition.  That indicates that, although there is consultation on agricultural PD rights, for which proposals will be outlined next year, a family of PD rights has already been introduced, because that is desirable and may provide some net economic gain.  In addition to the categories already named, PD rights have been extended for domestic microgeneration and caravan sites.  We must always be mindful that permitted developments have to be within certain limits when it comes to boundary proximity, height and ground area and are subject to those necessary standards.  The extension of PD rights over the past 18 months and the further extensions that will be rolled out over the next eight months deal with the very issue that the Member refers to.

Photo of Karen McKevitt Karen McKevitt Social Democratic and Labour Party

With particular reference to the proposed changes in the area of permitted development, will the Minister outline the benefits to small businesses, particularly in rural areas?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

If you look at what has already been agreed and is in place, you will see that we have more flexible PD rights when it comes to home extensions, loft extensions, permeable hard surfaces, solar panels and various other developments.  When you take that family of PD rights and translate it into construction on the ground or the installation of a solar panel on a roof or, in future, an agricultural extension on farm property and scale it up in respect of its economic benefit to small business, be it urban and rural, and when it comes to construction opportunities and so on, you see that therein lies the answer.

Town Centres: Dereliction

3. Mr Dallat asked the Minister of the Environment for his assessment of the scope to make further dereliction interventions in town centres.

(AQO 2918/11-15)

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the question.  My answer is this: go to Portrush and Portstewart or to Derry/Londonderry in the run up to the City of Culture.  The interventions there to mitigate decay and dereliction have proven and continue to prove that that is a worthwhile investment for a moderate sum of money. 

I made a bid for moneys for Derry in June monitoring, but that was denied.  I also made a bid for moneys in September monitoring and in the recent economic package, but that was denied.  However, I think that the argument is gathering pace around the Executive table that deploying a relatively small scale of moneys to address decay and dereliction in towns and cities across the North has added value in this time of recession.  That is why, at the moment, my Department is asking all councils to bring forward proposals.  I encourage them to do that, so that, in the event of further money becoming available in the Department or through monitoring in January that has to be spent by the end of the financial year, there will be shovel-ready projects across council areas in the North in order to do what worked so well in Portrush and Portstewart, namely interventions at 20 or 25 sites of decay and dereliction that improved the appearance of that part of the world to the benefit of residents and tourists alike.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:45 pm, 20th November 2012

I thank the Minister for his reply.  I have to agree with him that some people now describe Portrush as a northern version of Kinsale, which is the highest accolade that you can afford any town.  Has the Minister any plans to roll out his successful scheme to other towns and, indeed, to encourage, if not compel, property owners to take a greater interest in property that has fallen into dereliction or is an eyesore?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I wrote to the chief executive of Coleraine Borough Council acknowledging the good work that has been done and asking him to share the best practice that was deployed and whether there was something more that we needed to do so that Portrush can be more and more like Kinsale going forward.  I indicated what I thought the ambition of this project should be.  I look forward to the deployment of, I hope, significant sums of money from within the Department or through January monitoring for projects across council areas. 

Councils have responsibility as well.  Belfast City Council uses the pollution order to good effect to deal with derelict sites and properties.  All councils should do the same, and I will write to them in that regard.  Belfast City Council has a suite of local law that deals with dangerous buildings.  Most other councils have the same suite, and they should deploy their legislative powers to bear down on developers and landowners, particularly those who are still viable and in business, to meet their responsibility to their local community and citizens to deal with pollution, dangerous buildings, decay and dereliction.  So the process is twin-track.  On the one hand, we will give money, as demonstrated in Derry, to improve the appearance of the city in advance of the year of culture, but Derry and all the other councils should deploy all the legal weapons in their armoury to go after the developers and landowners who have money and a responsibility that they are not facing up to.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Does the Minister agree that positive action in addressing dereliction in small towns such as Limavady and Bangor creates a better image of such towns and makes them more attractive to possible investors?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I hope that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is listening to that claim and that, when it comes to January monitoring, if there is money available and five, 10 or 15 councils in the North have brought forward costed proposals to spend money in the run-up to the end of the financial year, he will agree with his colleague and say that Limavady needs money to deal with decay and dereliction.

I am not saying this in a stand-and-deliver moment to the Minister of Finance and Personnel.  Without breaking Executive confidence, although that has not stopped me before, he said at a recent Executive meeting that he thought that the Portrush and Portstewart model had worked very well.  I suspect that he said that because people like you have said it to him, and he may have seen it himself.  If it works very well, has a disproportionate impact on trading confidence and the appearance of the area and may even sustain if not create trading opportunities for small and medium enterprises, it is one of the better models for spending end-of-year moneys and moneys year in and year out, to deal with decay and dereliction, improve trade, sustain local business and give confidence to people at a time of economic downturn.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

What is the Minister's assessment of the state of the planning guidelines for businesses that wish to cover a boarded-up window in high street premises with some form of advertising to highlight the fact that there is a business in the vicinity and take away the bad look of that boarded-up window?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

They should do so but in a way that is consistent with the guidelines.  That applies whether boarded-up windows are covered with advertisements or, as happened in Bushmills, paintings.  The paintings were not just of any old thing but of local people and personalities.  That was done to bring local character to derelict properties, and I encourage other councils to do that, too.  If I can provide money to help them to do that, so be it.

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

When looking at issues such as dereliction, which is what we are talking about, and considering that around 20% of our shops lie empty, we should realise that boarding up windows in places such as Belfast city centre and the other shopping areas in Belfast is not going to do it.  Surely the Minister needs to look at the real threat to the shopping cores, which is the massive out-of-town superstores with free car parking.  They draw shoppers away from the city centre and create this dereliction.  Should he not look at something such as a 10-year moratorium on out-of-town shopping centres?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

If a shop is in decay and dereliction, it is better to try to mitigate its appearance than not.  If you can board up windows in a discerning and tasteful way to reduce the appearance of dereliction, that would seem to be a good idea.  I see that the Member shakes his head.  I do not know whether he has been in Portrush or Portstewart or whether he has spoken to the councillors there.  Knocking down eyesore buildings, building urban parks and creating hoarding around derelict sites and so on has helped.  It is a moderate intervention that has, in my view, a disproportionate benefit.

If I said today that there was a moratorium on out-of-town retailers, you know what would happen.  There would be a rush to the PAC or the courts.  People would say that such a moratorium was against the law and planning policy and that the action would not be legal.  So, what am I doing?  I will make the decisions on out-of-town retail, but, as with NIIRTA, I agree on the principle of town centre first.  I will take a precautionary approach to out-of-town retail that is consistent with the law and planning policy to mitigate the risk of legal challenge, while — I have just come from a meeting at which we discussed this — developing a new PPS 5 that very much lives up to the sentiments of the Member's question.  Those sentiments are that that it is town centre first and there should be a rebalancing and reconfiguration of town centre and out-of-town retail.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty Independent

I congratulate the Minister on his initiative to deal with derelict buildings, particularly in Portrush and Portstewart.  Portrush is not quite the Athens of the north, but it is a lot better than it was.  What steps is the Minister taking to recover the costs of dereliction intervention from the property owners?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

When it was agreed with landowners or property owners that people could go on site, a provision was put into the contract that there could be clawback of moneys that were invested.  I referred to the letter that I sent to the chief executive of Coleraine Borough Council.  In that letter, I asked him to advise me further on whether and how any clawback provision should be deployed.  Given the scale of investment in a lot of the sites, it will sometimes not be very cost-effective or a good use of council time to deploy the clawback mechanism.  However, where there may have been substantial investments and where clawback was executed between the landowner and the council, I encourage the council to see what can be done.

Strategic Waste Infrastructure Programme

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

5. asked the Minister of the Environment for an update on the strategic waste infrastructure programme following the decision by the Southern Waste Management Partnership to abandon procurement of a long-term waste infrastructure contract. (AQO 2920/11-15)

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for her question, if I can just find it. 

As the Member knows, the SWaMP project on future waste procurement has, for various reasons, been concluded.  Those on the Arc21 scheme continue to have conversations, and their discussions with their bidder are in their latter stages.  However, although it was anticipated that, on the far side of some technical and environmental statement issues being dealt with, something more material would emerge by February, I now understand that that may not arise for another six months after that date.

The appointment business case for the third scheme — the North West Region Waste Management Group scheme — has been forwarded to DOE and DFP for approval.  As I understand it, if that is approved, the North West Region Waste Management Group can consider moving to preferred bidder status, with the intention of having financial closure in the early months of 2013.

I want to make it clear that I have been very vigilant on these matters, because the scale of money involved and the number of years for the contracts is so significant that there was a heightened responsibility on government to ensure that the schemes and proposals were diligently managed.  As a consequence, I have been very assertive in saying to the three procurement groups that this is the time and the place for all the issues of deliverability and affordability to be concluded.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his detailed answer.  Was legal advice given at any stage not to proceed further with the SWaMP project?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Owing to commercial confidentiality and because SWaMP was the contracting party, I have to be careful about what I say.  Any arrangements were between SWaMP and its contractor or contractor consortium.  Clearly, on concluding that particular project, SWaMP received various pieces of advice, including legal advice, that led it to believe that, for legal and other reasons, it should not proceed with its proposal.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

With SWaMP puling out, there will be a gap.  Has the Department or the Minister had any conversations with SWaMP to see how it plans to meet its waste management targets?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

All three procurement groups had and have contingency plans in place, in the event of none of the procurements getting over the line.  They needed to have those plans to satisfy EU landfill and other requirements.  That said, in a gateway review that I conducted of all the procurements, it was concluded that one or two procurements, not necessarily three, was all that is necessary to deal with the waste profile in this part of the world over the next 20 or 25 years.  Consequently, beyond the interim contingency plans that may be in place in the event that no procurement succeeds, the assessment is that one or two procurements is all that is necessary for us to comply with our landfill diversion requirements.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  Will the Minister please provide an update on work being carried out on a North/South basis in the area and remit of waste management?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question.  The South has the same issues that we have with waste procurement requirements to fulfill European obligations.  As I indicated in my statement to the House last week on the NSMC environment sectoral meeting, there is a lot of work going on and growing opportunities on the island to co-ordinate if not integrate our waste strategies.

As I have indicated, 30% of plastics on the island of Ireland are recycled, and 70% are not.  Of that 30%, 30% is recycled on the island of Ireland and the rest is recycled outside the island.

That is a clear issue for our green agenda and for market opportunity.  It is similarly so for bulky waste items such as large furniture and white goods.  Consequently, the North/South market development steering group is taking forward work in respect of plastics and bulky waste to identify how we can do more to reuse bulky plastics and, in doing so, create market and job opportunities in the island, going forward.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That ends questions to the Minister of the Environment. I ask Members to take their ease while we change Clerks at Table.