Unadopted Roads: Committee for Regional Development Report

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 4th December 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 11:30 am, 4th December 2012

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate.  The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech.  All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly approves the report of the Committee for Regional Development on its inquiry into unadopted roads in Northern Ireland (NIA 44/11/15); and calls on the Minister for Regional Development, in conjunction with his Executive colleagues and relevant bodies, to implement the recommendations.

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.  Tá mé sásta an rún ar an tuairisc a thabhairt os comhair an Tí inniu ar son Chathaoirleach agus baill an Choiste Forbartha Réigiúnaí.  I am pleased to bring the report to the House today on behalf of the Chair and members of the Committee for Regional Development.  I pass on my best wishes to Jimmy, the Chair, who is recovering. 

The Committee first received a presentation on the increasing number of unadopted roads in the North of Ireland from NILGA on 18 January 2012.  Following that presentation, the Committee agreed to undertake an inquiry into unadopted roads.  It has been a lengthy process, during which time the Committee heard some horrific stories of residents of unfinished housing developments being left liable for thousands of pounds because roads or sewers were unfinished and unadopted.

I should state at the outset that the Committee is sympathetic to developers who find themselves struggling in very testing economic times.  The recommendations contained in the report are not intended as a criticism of contractors.  Rather, the Committee believes them to be pragmatic recommendations aimed at ensuring that consumers are afforded greater protection.  I hope that the Minister and other Members will agree with the Committee on that point.

During the inquiry, the Committee was advised that there were anything between 1,200 and 3,500 unadopted roads and some 1,200 sewerage schemes in backlog.  The Department for Regional Development (DRD) and NI Water are unable to quantify the precise numbers, which the Committee believed was a serious weakness in itself.

Recommendations to negate that weakness have been made and are detailed later in the report.  It was also estimated that it would take some £300 million to bring roads up to a standard that is sufficient to allow for adoption and somewhere between £41 million and £100 million to allow for the adoption of sewerage and wastewater schemes.

As could be expected in today's economic climate, it is extremely unlikely that those levels of investment could be acquired from central government.  The Committee is not suggesting that actions cannot be taken to rectify this significant problem; rather, it believes that a co-ordinated effort by all sectors involved in the process could see major improvements in the most critical cases.

I want to discuss the inquiry's main findings.  As I said, the Department and NI Water are not in a position to quantify either the extent of unadopted roads and sewers or the cost of the remedial works that are necessary to rectify the problem.  NILGA brought that issue to the Committee, and, during the inquiry, the Committee received a significant amount of evidence from individuals and local councillors of the devastating effects that unadopted roads and sewers can have on residents and their properties.

The resources that are required to undertake the righting of all defects are not available.  However, the Committee does not believe that this should be the end of the matter, and it recommends that NILGA co-ordinate a prioritisation audit in each council area.  Such an audit should list the numbers of unadopted infrastructures and apply an agreed grading that is based on the risks to public health and safety.  That would allow for priority-based intervention bids by the Department and/or NI Water, should sufficient resources be made available.

Having briefly mentioned resources, I want to discuss the bond.  Prior to the separation of Water Service and the Department in 2006, roads and sewers were legislated for in the Private Streets Order 1980.  A number of respondents, particularly those from the construction industry, raised concerns that, as a result of that segregation, there was a requirement for two bonds, one each for roads and sewers.  The industry and bond providers claimed that, when there was one piece of legislation, the cost of providing dual coverage had risen to £7,500 from approximately £3,000.  Although the Committee does not wish to prohibit recovery in the construction industry, it has received sufficient evidence to indicate that the level of bond coverage is insufficient to cover remedial works that might be required to bring infrastructures to a standard where they could be adopted.

In addition, given that the process for calling in the bond can take a significant period of time, it is often the case that costs have been increased by a compounded inflationary figure.  That has the significant potential to expose the statutory authorities and, ultimately, the taxpayer to that burden.  The Committee recommends, therefore, that statutory providers and representatives of the construction and financial sectors agree a bond level that is acceptable to all parties and that includes an inflationary amount.

As indicated, the process for triggering the bond is lengthy and complex, particularly where a developer has gone into liquidation.  There are a number of occasions when the statutory bodies have not been advised that a developer is in liquidation until a significant period of time passed.  The Committee is also not content that the Department is waiting for up to 18 months after a developer has received the preliminary certificate. The Committee believes that, although not intentional by the Department, the process does not take into account the very significant risk of residents' safety, aside from the major inconvenience caused.  The Committee recommends that the Department review its procedures with a view to ensuring that there is a more prompt reaction to calling in the bond.  The process should be aimed at alleviating public health and safety risks to residents.

The primary pieces of legislation for the adoption of roads and sewers are as follows:  the Private Streets Order 1980; the Private Streets (Amendment) Order 1992; and the Water and Sewerage Services Order 2006.  The Committee was concerned that the legislation is outdated, being 30 years old and 20 years old respectively.  Members were also concerned that the principles of the orders do not adequately recognise the current economic circumstances or those of the consumer.

The Committee is also extremely concerned that there is no mandatory requirement in the 2006 order for a developer to submit a drainage plan to building control or even enter into an agreement with NIW over a bond.  The Committee considers those to be major flaws that need to be redressed urgently.

We considered the merits of having one order to consolidate the legislation.  However, the Committee is mindful of the fact that there is a degree of urgency with the review of the legislation and is content to recommend that the Minister urgently review the private streets legislation to ensure that it has adequate measures to deal with the increasing occurrences of unadopted roads.

In addition, the Committee recommends that the 2006 order be reviewed to bring it into line with the Private Streets Order to provide detailed plans to Building Control and close the loophole through which a developer can choose whether to enter into a bond agreement.

In all our deliberations, protection of the consumer — the resident — was to the fore.  A number of respondents raised concerns about the level of detail contained in the property certificate, particularly the absence of adequate information on the condition of roads and sewers.  That would potentially have an adverse impact on vendors should the property be resold.  In addition, there were complaints that, although the Department could be contacted frequently by developers and the legal profession, those dealing with the real impact of unadopted infrastructures — the residents — were not afforded the same access and were not privy to the same level of information.

The Committee believes that the onus to identify potential issues lies with the legal profession and is best carried out during its searches in respect of the resale of properties.  The Committee recommends therefore that the property certificate should be adapted to include legal opinion on the condition of the roads and sewers and whether they have been adopted.  It should advise potential vendors of the consequences that non-adoption will have for them.  The Committee recommends that the legal profession, in conjunction with other stakeholders, compile a guide for vendors that will include information on, for example, their rights and entitlements, resolution techniques and dealing with administration and/or bonding services.

Consumers must be afforded an opportunity to access and challenge government bodies in the same way as developers and the legal profession.  The Committee believes that if an appropriate system were in place, the Department and/or NI Water could adapt it to aid in the quicker triggering of the bond enforcement processes.  The Committee recommends therefore that a code of practice or protocol be compiled advising of the structures in place, or being put in place, to effect the prompt triggering of bond enforcement.

The Committee was struck by the number of organisations and stakeholders involved in the process, from construction to residents, and, in very many cases, beyond that.  The Committee was also cognisant that each stakeholder had its own agenda and that a collective view of, or challenge to, the problem was not particularly evident.  The Committee believes therefore that a greater degree of co-ordination and co-operation is required to address the problems associated with unadopted roads and sewers. 

The Committee recommends that a co-operation forum is established to agree how the issue of unadopted roads and sewers can be dealt with collectively.  Without being prescriptive, it should be representative of residents, statutory and local government bodies, contractors, bonds services and the legal profession.  The Committee suggests that the body define its own terms of reference but that it may wish to establish the level of bonds, compile codes of practice, protocols and information packs, and assess whether the current and future legislative provisions are sufficient.

I am sure that, during the debate, Members will recount individual instances of unadopted roads and sewers in their own constituencies.  That will provide further evidence that urgent action is needed to address the situation.  We are sympathetic to developers and the construction industry and want to see that important sector revitalised.  That is why we fully support the Executive's efforts to bolster the construction industry through investment in, for example, major road infrastructure projects.  However, we must also remember that the people who put us in this place are the very people who, through no fault of their own, are being faced with liabilities running into tens of thousands of pounds; who must drag their refuse 200 yards for collection; and who purchased their properties in good faith.  They are the people who the inquiry seeks to put first.  They are the people who should be put first.  They are the people who I believe the Committee has put first in making these recommendations.

I move the motion and hope that the House supports the Committee for Regional Development in its efforts to protect the consumer.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP 11:45 am, 4th December 2012

I welcome the debate.  I welcome the Minister and thank him for attending.  I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response to the debate.  I join the Deputy Chair in commending the Committee on the time that it spent working on this inquiry.  Most importantly, it would be remiss of me not to refer to the Committee Clerk and the staff under him who had the hard job of putting all this together and trying to guide the Committee through the process.  We are thankful for that.

As the Deputy Chair highlighted, we had evidence sessions with a number of different organisations as part of our inquiry.  We received quite a number of responses from councils across Northern Ireland.  No one will be surprised to hear that one of those was from Cookstown District Council, of which I am a member.  At the time of the report, there were around 3,148 roads that were determined for adoption but had not yet been adopted.  Of those, 107 were in Cookstown and 99 were in Magherafelt.  I will not bore the House by going through each of the 107 in Cookstown and 99 in Magherafelt, but the Minister will be more than aware of them.  I hope that those numbers will become a lot smaller in the not too distant future.

The issues raised in response to the inquiry were pretty much the same from council to council.  It is important that we highlight some of those today.

The main issue, which will not surprise anyone, was refuse collection.  In many areas, insurance was a major problem for councils, because companies either refused or put high premiums on vehicles entering unadopted roads.  As the Deputy Chair said, that brings the problem where councils decide that they can no longer enter a development that has an unadopted road.  The result of that is that people have to bring their bins to the edge of their estate, which has health and safety implications.  Those people have purchased their homes, and they pay the same rates as those who get their bins collected, yet they feel that they are, on many occasions, treated as second-class citizens.

There are many recommendations.  I will not go through them; they are detailed in the report.  I have read the Minister's initial response to the recommendations.  I give credit where it is due, and I welcome the Minister's response.  It is important that we change the way things are and ensure that bonds are used much more quickly than they have been, more so in developments where the developers have gone bankrupt and have left the estates in a mess.  It is important that we get around that issue.

As a member of the Committee, I look forward to working with the Minister as we move forward on this issue.  I assure him that I and my party will not be found wanting when it comes to trying to move this thing forward.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP 12:00 pm, 4th December 2012

I begin by pointing out that I joined the Committee on 23 April 2012, and you will note how hard they have worked since then.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the Committee's inquiry into unadopted roads in Northern Ireland.  Anyone who has a background in local government will know that this particular issue causes many headaches for those who have bought houses in developments where the roads have not been adopted and, consequently, bins are not collected by the local council from the estate but from the nearest public road.  In my constituency of West Tyrone, we have 146 unadopted roads.

Our recommendations are not overly complex, but they attempt to assist the Minister and his Department by bringing some of the long-standing issues to a head and trying to provide a framework by which we can move forward.  Clearly, this problem has been about for a long time, and it predates the appointment of the current Minister.  I thank the Minister for his support to the Committee.

On 7 February 2012, he stated:

"I recognise the concerns of local home owners who find themselves in new housing developments, where developers have left roads and sewerage systems unfinished.  Roads Service and NI Water are making use of the current legislation and procedures to address these problems but this process takes time to complete ... I will ensure Roads Service and NI Water officials are available to the Committee throughout their inquiry process."

There is no doubt that the Minister and his team did that.

As someone who has a background in financial services, I am well aware that the cost of a bond is based on the financial risk that the financial institution granting the bond has to undertake.  We seem to have been reluctant to enforce bonds.  In my time as a councillor, I found it very frustrating, when attempting to push for a resolution, that Roads Service seemed to be reluctant to force the hand of the developer in relation to the bond.  For that reason, I welcome the recommendation that the Department review its procedures with a view to ensuring a more prompt reaction to calling in the bond.  That process should be aimed at alleviating public health and safety risks to residents.

In conjunction with that recommendation, it makes sense to follow with a further recommendation for a code of practice or a protocol to be compiled, advising of the structures that are in place to effect the prompt triggering of bond enforcement.

Obviously, because of time constraints, I cannot and, I am sure you will be relieved to hear, will not be going through all the recommendations.  I fully support all the recommendations, but priority must be given to our recommendation for a prioritisation audit to be done in each council area.  That must be completed as quickly as possible, and the process of priority-based intervention must be implemented as soon as funds become available.

Many of us have problems in our constituencies with unadopted roads.  They are in various villages and towns, where people are concerned that their home is no longer their home because of problems on the roads or in the sewerage infrastructure.  That was fully evident in our report and our inquiry.  Overall, I welcome the report and urge its implementation as soon as possible.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am delighted to speak on the report today, and my first thoughts are with our Chairman, Jimmy Spratt.  Jimmy, if you are looking in — I am sure that you are — I assure you that the absence of Members does not indicate a lack of interest in the report, which affects every part of Northern Ireland.

When the report was drawn up, it set out five key objectives, and I believe that it has achieved them.  The first objective was to put a cost on bringing roads and sewers up to an acceptable standard, and my sympathy goes out to the Minister because of the money that he needs to find to ensure that that happens.  Members will agree that the concept of a voluntary undertaking or agreement has not worked.  Time and time again, Members get the runaround when trying to find out who is responsible for a particular problem.  That needs to end, and we need to find a solution, arising out of the report, to put an end to that.  The report sets out good reasons for dramatic changes that will compel property sellers to provide the most detailed information not only on the property but on the whole network of sewers and roads in the vicinity.  Very often, the problem may not be at someone's own doorstep but may be further down the road.  I am sure that most Members know of such cases.

The issue of unadopted roads and sewers has probably been about since Roman times.  I am sure that some historian will point out that the issue goes back long before that.  I suggest that the time has come to put an end to it, and, quite frankly, I do not see that happening without new legislation to enforce particular procedures to ensure that it happens.  The recent downturn in the property market here and in the Republic has brought to a head the absolute urgency of putting the issue in focus.  I can think of one terrible incident in the Republic in which a child was drowned on a site that was not completed.  I am not aware of anything like that in the North, and, please God, that it will not happen.

During our fact finding, we met a lot of people, and one of the most tetchy — if I can use that word — meetings was with the Law Society, at which we indicated that we believed that its members should be made more amenable to their involvement in conveyancing and should ensure that all the services that are supposed to be in place are in place.  From correspondence with the Law Society, I know that it was not too happy about that, but all Members here will agree that there is an onus on solicitors, most of whom carry out their work exceptionally well and professionally.  However, a few have made big bucks out of property and have not delivered, and I have no doubt that Members around the Chamber are then left with the task of trying to unravel what has been left as unfinished business, which is sometimes not easy.

I have no doubt that the Assembly will adopt the report, but I have one concern about the resources that are needed to address the problems it highlights.  As I said earlier, the Minister will have our full support in ensuring that those unfinished estates and faulty sewers, some of which have been giving problems for years on end, can be addressed in a new way.  If we do that during the lifetime of this Assembly mandate, we can claim success, despite the fact that not many Members turned up for the debate.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time is almost gone.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I welcome the report, and I place on record my thanks to fellow members of the Committee for Regional Development and, in particular, to the Clerk, staff and all who contributed to what I consider to be an excellent report.  Indeed, this is an effective example of democracy at work.  A problem was highlighted, and the Committee has investigated and made recommendations to help to remedy what is a genuine situation for many people.  We now look forward in anticipation to the response of the Minister and the Department.

That our report's estimate of the number of unadopted roads is anywhere between 1,200 and 3,500 speaks for itself about the level of uncertainty surrounding the issue.  It also highlights neglect and the fact that there has been no concerted effort thus far to co-ordinate a large-scale, multi-agency response to the problem.  The scale is immense.  We are told to never say never in politics, at least most of us are, but, at a cost of between £340 million and £400 million, it is very tempting to say that there is no chance that the Assembly will pay to bring all affected roads and sewers up to adoption standard, particularly given the absolutely dire financial situation that already affects, for example, our water and sewerage infrastructure and services. 

With this in mind, the Committee's very sensible recommendation is that the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) co-ordinate and prioritise an audit to allow for the possibility that the unadopted roads and infrastructure causing risks to public health and safety could be addressed by the Department and/or Northern Ireland Water (NIW).  This is, in my view, a sensible way for us to try to deal with the existing problems.  If investment is forthcoming from either of these sources, it is appropriate that priority be given to areas causing the most harm and damage.

We could also benefit from better co-operation and awareness from all parties involved.  We, too, were told of examples of Northern Ireland Water not being formally notified when a developer goes into administration.  We were also informed that it may enter into property agreements, unaware of the status of roads and sewers and the consequences of non-adoption.  It seems that greater awareness from and contact between the stakeholders could help significantly, so the recommendations set out in points 21, 22 and 24 are particularly welcome.

We must also look forward to putting in place legislation and measures to prevent the appearance of many more unadopted roads and structures.  It is very concerning that there is no mandatory requirement in the Water and Sewerage Services Order (Northern Ireland) 2006 for the developer to submit a drainage plan to Building Control or to enter into an agreement with Northern Ireland Water in respect of a bond.  Moreover, we note that the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 does not adequately recognise the current economic circumstances or those of the consumer.  There are major flaws that need to be addressed urgently.  Perhaps they could have been dealt with in the upcoming water Bill had there been more forward thinking from the Department, but it is clear that there is a strong case for legislative change, so I encourage the Minister to bring forward proposals as soon as possible to address the legislative failings identified in the report.

The Assembly and the Executive have a duty to assist those affected by the economic downturn where they can.  The Committee has made clear recommendations to assist all of those affected or potentially affected by the problem of unadopted roads across Northern Ireland.  As a member of the Committee, I support these recommendations.  I urge Members in the Chamber to support them, and, in particular, I urge the Minister to act on them as soon as possible.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

In Northern Ireland today, there are a number of unadopted roads.  This has a dramatic impact on the residents of unfinished developments and on the reputation of the building trade.  A balancing act needs to be achieved between the householder, who often innocently faces the consequences of residing in a development with an unadopted road, and the builders, who report a substantial rise in the cost of the required bonds.  Obviously, in these tough economic times that extra financial burden can have a significant impact on a struggling sector.

An unadopted road is defined as one where a bond has been put in place and one about which the Department is not satisfied that the street has been levelled, paved, channelled, made good and lighted.  Obviously, if a road is not deemed to have met those criteria, that will have a serious impact on residents.  There have been cases where residents have been unaware that, if they live on an unadopted road and repairs need to be made to the sewerage system, they are responsible both for ensuring that those repairs are completed and for their cost.  If the street is not properly maintained and built, there are dangers to personal safety, especially where street lighting in the dark winter months is concerned.

There are also issues surrounding what happens when homeowners want to sell their property and move on to pastures new.  Prospective house buyers may receive legal advice not to purchase property on unadopted roads, and that can have a serious impact on innocent homeowners who are not experts in the field and who have purchased houses in good faith.

I believe strongly that the vast majority of builders in Northern Ireland want to do their best for the future residents of the homes and business premises that they construct.  In the construction trade, personal reputation is often a builder's best asset in securing future work.  After all, Northern Ireland can be very small place, and bad news often travels faster than good.  For that reason, I believe that our good builders should be supported in their endeavours in this difficult economic time. 

Since 2006, when the bond system was split into two separate bond requirements, the cost has risen from approximately £3,000 to £7,500.  Against that rise, however, there is also a concern that often the bond level is not sufficient to cover the work that is required to bring the infrastructure to a state where it can be adopted.  A balance needs to be achieved in such a situation, and I believe that the report allows for that avenue to be explored further.

I support the report's recommendations, and I believe that, by implementing them and ensuring that there are closer working relationship between consumers, builders and local and regional authorities, we can continue to be confident in the construction industry.  I particularly welcome the closing of legal loopholes and the extension of property certificates to cover the condition of roads and sewerage.  Those certificates are very important in protecting the consumer.  The re-examination of the level of the bond and the burden that it places on builders at this time is also extremely welcome.  It will allow for dialogue to begin between those who are completing the work and those who have to pay when things ultimately go wrong.  I also appreciate that the proposed register, along with the recommended grading of the most serious problems, will allow local authorities to address the most serious and dangerous situations as a priority.

I support the report.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 4th December 2012

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle.  I take the opportunity to support the motion.  I commend the Committee and the officials, particularly Paul, Nathan, Tara and Alison and all the others who were involved in initiating this hugely important report into unadopted roads and housing developments.

As I found out, this is a very complex and multifaceted issue, and I am glad to note that the report's recommendations avoid attributing blame.  Their thrust aims to achieve a consensus among all the relevant parties.

From dealing with residents, I know how frustrating it can be.  People purchase a new home.  They take great care of and pride in that home, but that is completely undermined by the fact that their home is in the middle of an unfinished site, where there is no street lighting, manhole lids protrude and the sewerage system is not complete.  They may have the added complication of bin lorries being unable to enter the development for insurance reasons.  Coupled with that, the economic downturn has had a hugely adverse impact on our construction and building industry.  Unfortunately, many of the developers of those unfinished sites have gone into liquidation and do not have the means to complete the sites to a standard that is fit for adoption. 

Adopted roads and developments are legislated for under the Private Streets Order.  I support the report's finding that the Order is outdated and in need of review.  As was mentioned, there is a major flaw in it that means that developers do not have to submit a drainage plan or enter into an agreement with NI Water.  As John Dallat said, that can have major public health implications, so it is imperative that the Water and Sewerage Services Order is brought into line with the Private Streets Order 1980.

Planning Service also has a very important role to play, particularly to ensure that all the conditions are met for sewers, rivers and roads.  I consider it a major legislative flaw that a developer can get permission to start a new development even if its previous project has not been completed.  I can imagine how frustrating it must be for a homeowner who has been living for years on an unfinished site to watch while the same developer starts work on a new site up the road.  In many ways, the loophole has allowed a small number of repeat offenders to continue that practice while giving genuine developers — incidentally, the overwhelming majority — a bad name.

The legislation should be amended to include a clause that states that a house cannot legally be conveyed until the road and all relevant utilities are in place.  I welcome the recommendation to adapt property certificates to include a legal opinion on the condition of the roads and sewers and the potential consequences of non-adoption.

I also support the recommendation that councils, in conjunction with NILGA, play a central role in co-ordinating a prioritisation audit of unadopted infrastructure.  As a councillor until recently, I am of the view that no organisation is better informed or better placed to carry out such an audit in each respective district.  That will be effective only if the necessary legislation, clarity and resources are in place to act on the audit's findings. 

I appreciate that the subject of unadopted roads is very emotive and difficult to deal with, bearing in mind the number of agencies and factors involved.  I believe that the report is long overdue.  I welcome the fact that it is resolution-driven, avoids blame and places the homeowner at the centre of the resolution process.

The debate stood suspended.

The sitting was suspended at 12.22 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —