Unadopted Roads: Committee for Regional Development Report

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 4th December 2012.

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Debate resumed on motion:

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.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I welcome the Regional Development Committee report, which highlights the problems of unfinished estates, unadopted roads, sewers, street lights, and so on.

In the previous debate that we held on this subject, I highlighted the plight of an estate in Coalisland, Gortview, which had similar problems.  There was never a sewer connected, yet half a dozen houses had been sold.  It is hard to believe how a house could be sold and how solicitors and others could sign up a house for sale, including getting a mortgage, without having a sewer connected, but that is the reality.  Thankfully, that estate has now been resold to a new developer; it has been progressed and is now connected to a main sewer, and some of the other problems are being dealt with.  It is important that we record similar situations right across the country where those types of actions have happened. 

Members have mentioned the legal responsibility of solicitors when they sign up a person who is buying a house and the protection that the buyer expects to have in that situation.  Hopefully, the Law Society and others will ensure that solicitors make sure that that happens when those arrangements are made. 

I am concerned about the banks.  The banks help a developer by providing the finances for the development and then the same bank provides the mortgages for those who want to buy those houses.  The same bank was involved in the Gortview situation.  It seemed that there was some easy way of transferring when all the legal requirements were not in place.  It is important to ensure that the legal requirements are strengthened. 

All the issues around unadopted roads did not happen just as a result of the economic downturn.  We have to look back a few years.  Is the Minister aware that his predecessor, Conor Murphy, set up an inquiry to find out how many unadopted roads and lanes there were across the country?  Has there been any response to that report?  Perhaps the Minister could give us that information at a later stage.

I have in front of me a report that deals with the Culbane Road in the Magherafelt area.  That road is two-thirds adopted; the other third has not been adopted.  The local people have been asked to bring the end of that laneway up to almost motorway standard, even though the rest of the road is not up to that standard.  The Department's reply was very clear.  It noted that, in many rural locations, it would not make a lot of sense to make up those new parts to a full standard in narrow lanes or existing roads where adaptation has happened.  That is the reality.  Therefore, to get a roadway or a lane adopted in a rural area, why should the local people be asked to bring it up to a standard way beyond the standard of the adopted road that they are driving on?  That all adds to the confusion.  I am sure that the Minister will come back to that issue in the future. 

I welcome the fact that we are dealing with new estates and new roads that have not been finished or adopted.  However, it is important to look back and deal with the matter equally across the board, because many lane-ways in rural areas have never been adopted.  There are also some estates in towns where the roads have not been adopted.  Sandy Row — of all names — in Coalisland has never been adopted or even tarmacked by Roads Service and it is about 100 yds from the town centre.  That is an example of where Roads Service did not complete all the tasks when it adopted those roads.

There is a similar situation in an estate in Killowen in Coalisland that was built in the 1960s.  The council took a bond but never finished the road at the time.  It has never been tarmacked or adopted, and the people who live there still have a road that has large puddles and potholes, and it has devalued their houses.  Therefore, although we are dealing with the report on the inquiry —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member's time is almost gone.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

— I ask the Minister to look back at previous experiences, and there are many of them.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

When it gets to this stage, there is not an awful lot new that one can say.  I welcome the Minister's presence for the debate and note his long service in the past as a local councillor.  He will be very well aware of the difficulties faced by constituents in this matter.  I am sure that the Minister is not happy to have inherited such a legacy from his predecessor, given that a number of recommendations within the report are amendments that can be brought forward by his Department to try to simplify the process and to hold people to greater account.

Other Members, including Mr Dickson in particular, referenced the responsibilities on the Law Society and lawyers when doing their conveyancing work and giving advice to potential homebuyers.  After all, Mr Speaker, the purchase of a new home is the largest investment that most of us will ever make.  During the Committee's inquiry, we heard horrendous stories of people having to live in developments in which there are neither adopted sewerage infrastructures nor, indeed, adopted roads.  I am sure many people will understand that the non-adoption of roads in some of the housing developments has a direct implication for the provision of local council services, such as street cleansing and the collection of bins.  In some cases, lawyers have been a bit too vociferous in their advice to councils not to collect the bins or lift litter from the streets, so there is no uniformity of advice across the district councils.

On the day that is in it, this is a very welcome debate.  It is something that can make a real difference to people's lives.  It will have a relevance to the industry, and if the Department and the Minister take forward some of the recommendations, particularly those around the amendments that are within his gift, which, I am sure he will — I am ambitious for the Minister — it will also give some degree of certainty.

I thank the Committee staff and all those who contributed to the report and gave evidence to the inquiry, not least our local councillors and local councils.  We found their advice to be very valuable, and they are to be commended.  I endorse the report's recommendations.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

In accordance with established guidance, I will provide a full and substantive response to the Committee for Regional Development's report in due course, but it is important to respond to today's debate, which I very much welcome.  I thank Members for their contribution.  I am somewhat disappointed, however, at the premature issuing of a press release on behalf of the Committee for Regional Development before I had an opportunity to address the Assembly on the matter.

Members have highlighted the issue of unadopted roads on private developments and the distress that it can cause people.  The vast majority of private street sites determined for adoption go through without the need for additional intervention from my Department.  For example, in the past five years, Roads Service has adopted some 416 kilometres of new roads in housing developments, and Northern Ireland Water has adopted sewerage schemes in 772 developments.  That said, I recognise that there are an increasing number of problem sites.  In some cases, that is a consequence of the economic downturn, but, in all cases, I think it is as a result of developers washing their hands of their responsibilities.  I am absolutely determined to tackle those developers and that legacy.

Officials in Roads Service and Northern Ireland Water have identified some 1,200 sites across Northern Ireland on which there has been no or limited progress by the developer.  That is simply not acceptable.  Officials are progressing through the list to finally deliver for the public adopted roads.  The progress involves a process with some complexity, which, I think, has been acknowledged.  Over the past four years, for example, Roads Service has issued 340 article 11 enforcement notices, which require the developer to complete necessary works to bring the roads and sewers up to the appropriate standard.

Let me be clear:  the primary responsibility for providing new roads and sewers in housing developments lies with the developer.  Although I have no immediate plans to change the private streets legislation, it does not follow that I rule out changes in the future to broaden the legislation.  Developers must have that clear warning in mind when meeting their obligations under existing legislation.  I can say with some confidence that, in recent times, the Department has been proactive in pursuing problem cases, and I want that progress to continue.

Turning to the report itself, the Committee made 10 key recommendations.  In principle, I support the policy direction that the Committee has taken.  Indeed, in a sense, I take it as an endorsement of my Department's approach.  I would like to comment on the recommendations, particularly those that fall within the remit of my Department.  The report's first two recommendations relate to the level of bonds and procedures for calling bonds in.  I fully agree that the value of bonds must be set at appropriate levels to cover the completion of remedial works if required.  Indeed, currently the bond calculation rates for new bonds are reviewed periodically to ensure that they reflect changing costs of road construction works.  I remain committed to that approach. 

I also support proposals for making procedures relating to the calling in of bonds as effective as possible.  It is worth noting that, in addition to article 11 enforcement procedures, the current Private Streets Order provides for urgent repairs to the roads infrastructure, for example where there are immediate health or safety concerns.  The most desirable solution is to facilitate the developer's completion of the roads and sewers to an adoptable standard at the earliest opportunity.

With regard to the report's third recommendation, namely that I review private streets legislation to ensure that it provides adequate measures to deal with increasing occurrences of unadopted roads, I can inform Members that my Department's Roads Service has reviewed the Private Streets Order in recent years.  Therefore, I have no current plans for a further more comprehensive review of private streets legislation, but, as I have indicated, I am prepared to broaden its scope in respect of its impact.

The fact that the current private streets legislation has served its original purpose well is evidenced by the fact that, over the years, the majority of roads in new housing developments have been better and properly planned, approved and constructed.  In due course, those roads have been adopted by Roads Service and have become part of the public road network. 

There is no doubt that the economic pressures of recent years have increased the number of housing developments that have run into difficulties.  As I said at the outset, we have some 1,200 sites pending.  In dealing with such cases, the legislation and procedures for completing and adopting the affected roads have been tested.

In summary, while I do not plan any further comprehensive review of the Private Streets Order, I am willing to consider whether any procedures followed under the current legislation need to be further reviewed to enable my Department to deal effectively with instances where the process for the adoption of new housing development roads runs into problems.  As I have said, I will not rule out changes in the future to broaden mechanisms or to hold developers responsible for completing roads and sewers in a timely manner. 

The Committee's report goes on to recommend a review of the Water and Sewerage Services Order.  In principle, I support the policy direction taken by the Committee in that regard.  I would summarise it as a desire to see all sewerage infrastructure adopted as far as is reasonable.  Nobody — I underline that word — wants to see households left without adequate sewerage provision, and I sympathise with all those who have found themselves in that position.  Nonetheless, as the Committee rightly notes, this is a complex area with potentially significant resource implications.  Detailed analysis of unadopted sewerage infrastructure needs to take place before we can confidently recommend the best way forward.  We also have to be mindful of the many demands on investment in the water and sewerage infrastructure.  We are all aware of the impact of flooding on many households this year.  Any analysis will have to examine existing policy and legislation, and identify how any necessary remedial work might be funded.  When I have considered those issues thoroughly, I will be in a position to advise the Committee of my response, particularly with regard to the funding implications. 

The report's fifth recommendation is that the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) should co-ordinate a prioritisation audit in each council area.  I would support such an exercise.  If NILGA agrees to take that recommendation forward, Roads Service and Northern Ireland Water will work in partnership with it. 

I also welcome and support the sixth and seventh recommendations, which are for improved information resources for home buyers and the inclusion of any legal opinion on property certificates that helps to clarify the position on the adoption status of roads and sewers for potential home buyers.  Officials from Roads Service and NI Water have already engaged with the Law Society on those issues.  I again pledge my Department's support for any initiatives to improve matters in those important areas. 

The report's eighth recommendation deals with procedures to effect prompt enforcement action when appropriate.  Although my Department currently has processes in place to trigger bond enforcement and to guide through the various stages to completion, I am content to have those processes reviewed to ensure that they are appropriate for the current circumstances. 

The last two recommendations relate to the establishment of a co-operation forum to agree how to deal with the issue of unadopted roads and sewers.  It is proposed that that forum would be made up of representatives of residents, statutory and local government bodies, contractors, bond providers and the legal services.  I am prepared to look at ways to take that work forward, and agree that the groups that are identified should be consulted and involved.  However, I want to be clearer on the scope and direction of any work before committing my officials and resources to such a forum. 

In conclusion, I welcome the Committee for Regional Development's report on its inquiry into unadopted roads.  The scope of the recommendations recognises that many parties are involved.  As I have stated previously, in order for private streets legislation to work as intended, it is essential that all parties that are involved play their part and discharge their responsibilities.  That includes Roads Service, Northern Ireland Water, developers, planners, bond providers, solicitors and other stakeholders. 

I will address quickly some of the issues that were raised in the debate.  The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, Mr Lynch, covered the background information to the report.  I apologise that I was not in the Chamber for his initial comments.  I got a sense firmly of his views on it and, indeed, on how things might be improved. 

Mr McCrea, rightly, indicated his thanks and those of other Committee members to the Committee staff for having produced or helped to produce the report.  Of course, he mentioned local government and his own particular areas of Cookstown and Magherafelt.

Mr Ross Hussey was very supportive of the report and also, helpfully, of the approach that was adopted by the Department and Northern Ireland Water as we seek to deal with these matters.

Mr Dallat, rightly, highlighted the issue of resources, which will be key going forward.  Mr Dickson mentioned supporting the NILGA audit, and the importance of that. One hopes that that co-operation will be available as we move forward.

Mr Easton explained the background to some of the problems experienced by householders and homeowners, and I think that all of us, on a constituency level, are aware of those issues.

Mr McAleer suggested that there should be a legal clause stating that developers should not be allowed to move to or begin work on another site until they have completed any existing work.  That may be problematic legally and, from a construction and a builder's point of view, pragmatically.  So we need to look at that very closely.

Mr Molloy welcomed the report.  He raised the issue of Gortview, which he covered in a previous representation in the House.  I am pleased that some progress has been made on that.  He also returned to the issue of unadopted country lanes and alleyways.  That was not the subject or focus of the debate, but I will attempt to update him on it.  Of course, he also mentioned that an area in Sandy Row outside Coalisland is in a deplorable state.  Perhaps if they organised a parade, things might improve — or maybe not.

Finally, as I said, I will give a full and comprehensive response to the Committee's report in due course.  I hope that Members recognise how seriously I take the issue and, indeed, my determination to address the situation through the range of measures that I announced today.

Photo of Sean Lynch Sean Lynch Sinn Féin 3:30 pm, 4th December 2012

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  First, I want to address the Minister's concern about the press release.  The report was embargoed until the commencement of this plenary debate, and I covered what is in the report.  I accept his apologies for not being in the Chamber at the beginning.  As we learned last week, we cannot be in all places at all times.

I want to thank the Chair and members of the Committee for Regional Development for their valuable contributions during the inquiry and in the debate today.  I also want to thank the Minister and Members for their contributions; those who provided written and oral evidence to the Committee; the Assembly Research and Information Service; Hansard; and, finally, the Committee admin team for its continual support and help.

I am pleased that the Minister expressed his support for the policy direction taken both here today and in correspondence to the Committee in response to the report.  The Committee fully understands the complexities of the subject matter and that the Minister and, indeed, his Executive colleagues may wish to reflect on the recommendations arising from the inquiry.  I hope, however, that that reflection is not open-ended and that the Minister and his departmental officials will bring an action plan to the Committee early in the new year, detailing the pathway they wish to take, as well as the timings, to implement the report's recommendations.  Certainly, we as a Committee, as a priority, want the legislation reviewed and improved information for residents.

I now want to respond to some of the comments offered by Members, some of which the Minister mentioned.

Mr McCrea updated the House on the day-to-day practicalities and problems faced by people living in unfinished developments, and he reiterated the need to trigger the bonds more quickly.

Mr Hussey accepted the fact that we need to move forward quickly on the matter.  He stated that, in his experience, there appears to be a reluctance to draw on the bond.  He reinforced the fact that the recommendations are pragmatic rather than complex and welcomed the development of a code of practice and a priority audit.

Mr Dallat sympathised with the Minister on the potential cost of remedying the problem and offered him his support, in particular on bringing in new legislation.  That is support that I and other members of Committee extend to the Minister.

Mr Dickson said that the report is an example of democracy at work.  When a problem was brought to the Committee, it acted, and the result was sensible recommendations, in particular the creation of greater awareness among all stakeholders involved in the process.  Mr Easton recognised that there is a fine balancing act to be struck between supporting residents and supporting developers under significant financial pressure.  He particularly welcomed the proposed changes and the development of the property certificate.

My colleague Mr McAleer recognised the pragmatic and positive nature of the report, in that it does not seek to attribute blame but rather seeks resolution through consensus.  He stated that local councils are ideally placed to undertake the prioritisation audit.  My other colleague Mr Molloy welcomed the report and questioned how a house in his constituency could be sold when the sewers were not correctly connected.  He sought information on a report conducted by the Minister's predecessor.  I am sure that if that is available, the Committee will be keen to follow up on it.  Mrs Kelly said that the process needs to be simplified and people held to account.  She also stated that there needs to be uniformity in the advice offered to residents.

We have heard a number of descriptions of the report:  pragmatic; sensible; positive; balanced; and reflective.  I thank Members for their kind words.  The Committee does not set out to find blame but rather solutions.  We did not set out to accuse but rather to advise.  We did not set out to score points but rather to make points — points that are practicable, appropriate and protective and that can be acted on.  On behalf of the Committee for Regional Development, I strongly commend the report to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

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.