I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Planning Bill [NIA 17/11-15] be agreed.
I thank the Business Office for enabling the Second Reading to occur today. Subject to the will of the Chamber, I wish the Environment Committee well in assessing the contents of the Bill, which are, by and large, very familiar to them given the passage of the Planning Act in the previous mandate.
Reform in the North has served us well, as I have said before in the Chamber. The character of our Government and of much of our society is a result of the benign and positive consequences of reform. The North could benefit from a further phase of deep and radical reform. I do not only say those words; I try to judge myself against them in the time that I have as Minister. It is in that context that I see this Planning Bill and many other aspects of planning reform, which I will touch on before I deal with the Bill itself.
My priority as Minister on the planning side has been to take a twin-track approach, on the one hand to achieve real-time change and reform in the character and content of the planning system and, at the same time, to work through deeper and radical change and reform that will sustain good planning in the rundown to RPA and thereafter. I would like to think that there are positive indicators that corners are being turned in real-time change and reform. I will not deny that there are still corners to be turned when it comes to the planning system. Indeed, I have been saying to the senior planning management staff, over the past two weeks in particular, that, if there has been a measure of positive change over the past 18 months, now is the time to push on with further and deeper change, both in the planning system as it works in real time and in longer, deeper and radical change and reform. At all times, the purpose is to ensure that the planning system works in a way that protects our heritage and environment and delivers outcomes from economic opportunity. Yesterday's debate on the economic value of the historic environment demonstrated and, in my view, captured very effectively how our heritage can be protected and positively developed. I believe that that approach should inform the wider planning system generally. I do not think that you can divorce the contents of the Bill from the wider architecture of the planning system. Therefore, I want to touch on some of that architecture and on the wider changes in the planning system before I delve deeper into the Bill.
When I came into this job, there were in and around 60 article 31 applications. Decisions have now been issued for over half those applications. For a further nine, decisions have been made, but notices of opinions have not been issued. Therefore, a substantial body of what were the article 31 applications before the Department has now been managed. Indeed, among those that have come into the system over the past 18 months, there are good examples, including the police college and the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society's (RUAS) move to the Maze, of applications being handled consistently with the Programme for Government (PFG) aspiration to ensure that 90% of large-scale investment planning decisions are made within six months and applications with job creation potential are given additional weight.
If you looked at the planning system's performance on small, intermediate and major applications — those being managed in the divisional planning offices — you would see that figures from the last quarter confirm that minor applications were processed three weeks faster than in the same period last year: from 15 weeks to 12, exceeding the target of 14. You would also see that intermediate applications were turned around two weeks faster, going from 20 weeks to 18 weeks, again surpassing the 20-week target, and that the number of decisions issued against renewable energy applications doubled, increasing from 88 to 177, with 92% being approved. I am now telling my planning system that, if that is the standard of achievement for renewables, intermediate and minor applications, I want to push on and below the target figures that are being surpassed. Historically, there have been about 1,000 renewables applications in the planning system for wind farms, wind turbines and anaerobic digesters. Given the direction of travel, in that 177 applications have been approved, that is also an area to push on in.
I acknowledge the 22 councils that have now agreed to departmental proposals for streamlining. Under those proposals, 75% of applications that are not deemed to be strategic or article 31 applications will be accessible to the streamlining process. Again, that is an example of empowering local people to make local decisions and of doing so, subject to public and political input, in a streamlined way.
I also acknowledge — this was touched on by the Culture Minister in one of her last comments — that greater use is being made of pre-application discussions for significant and major proposals. Yesterday, I met the IFA about the Windsor Park proposal. It was able to make its application in December because of the pre-application discussions that are being piloted on that proposal and as a result of the requirements that have been laid down on the football authorities for community consultation, advertising the proposals, convening community events and so on and so forth. Subject to the consultees' view, that application may be handled well within the six-month target. I want to acknowledge what the football authorities are doing on that, and I encourage the GAA authorities to deploy the same practice, which they are doing, for the Casement Park proposal.
I have, in various ways, referred to the House proposals in respect of permitted development rights. They are too numerous to mention, but I want to acknowledge my predecessor, who initiated that work, and I hope that I am now accelerating the work, including the consultation on a proposed permitted development right allowing farming accommodation to be increased by up to 500 square metres by including the provision of a renewable anaerobic digester plant, which concluded just last week. I hope to make an announcement in that regard.
At the same time as that ongoing, real-time, active, robust management of the planning system, which, subject to people's view, is producing some results, the Department — this is where I come back to the Bill — has been engaging in a series of summits on critical issues and ongoing strategic issues that, in my view, require further attention by government, Departments and the wider community, in terms of things such as heritage crime; beach summits; community benefits; enforcement; blight; urban decay and dereliction; and so on. The outworking of all of those summits has informed not just planning policy but wider policy within the Department. That is not to discount further proposals that will come forward on fees, especially fee reduction for third-party charitable organisations and for the renewal of existing planning permissions, as well as a broad range of work in respect of planning policies, with which I will come to the House in the near future, across four or five different areas.
Behind all of that there is an elephant in the room. We are 800 days from the transfer of significant planning function to councils. As Members will be aware in the rundown to RPA, the biggest element of government function that will be transferred is the planning function. Anybody who has been in this job, responsible for the Planning Service and making decisions as planning Minister, will know that, day and daily, your day could be occupied with issues around individual planning applications and development plans. That responsibility — some might see it as a burden, but I see it as an opportunity — will transfer to councils in 800 days. That responsibility — in terms of the many individual applications, in terms of having responsibility for local development plans and in respect of the new community planning function — is a deeply significant and challenging one but one that is full of opportunity.
In the rundown to RPA, we must not only ensure that the transfer happens but that it happens on the right terms, in the right way and with the right funding, handing to the local councils a planning system that, on the far side of RPA, will see local ratepayers — business and domestic — see, in the function of councils, real change and real benefit when it comes to the future shape of the council clusters. That is where the Planning Bill comes in. It accelerates the substantial elements of the Planning Act from the last mandate. Rather than introducing them with RPA, as was proposed, which is now to be in 2015, it is to create the new planning architecture intended by the Planning Act but create it now in the rundown to RPA so that, when RPA happens in the late spring of 2015, councils will inherit a planning system that has already gone through the reform and, consequently, is more fit for purpose. That is what the Bill tries to capture. It takes the elements that will be put into place and puts them into place now in order to ensure that the councils and councillors have a better planning system that is more fit to serve the interests of ratepayers post 2015.
So, what are the elements captured by this Bill that are to be introduced in advance of RPA? There are six or seven, and I will touch on them only briefly because I am mindful of the weather conditions. There are a number of principles that are given expression through the Bill in various planning proposals. The first is that there will be faster processing of planning applications. The Bill outlines measures that are designed to capture that aspiration, and I will name some of them. First, although the issue may not arise so often, the Bill will grant to independent third parties the capacity to conduct inquiries and hearings into major planning applications, sharing that responsibility with the Planning Appeals Commission but giving it to independent third-party persons who are appropriately qualified and capable of conducting those sorts of inquiries.
Secondly and critically, the Bill will create a statutory duty for the first time in Northern Ireland law on statutory consultees — the Bill will create more statutory consultees than there are currently — to respond to consultations within a prescribed timescale. The indication is that that prescribed timescale will be 21 days. That will be taken forward by regulation on the far side of this legislation. However, if it is not straying too far, I want to establish now that I do not intend to wait until the Bill completes its passage to take forward the work on the regulations. If we are going to have new architecture for the planning process in advance of RPA, we need to do that sooner rather than later. Consequently, we will take forward work on the regulations in advance of the passage of the Bill, subject to the views expressed by the Committee for the Environment, because I would not want to step on its toes.
Thirdly, in pursuit of the faster processing of planning applications, we will put into law the capacity of the planning system to say that a particular proposal is non-material when it comes to a change in respect of a proposed building. So, if accommodation has planning permission and the applicant changes what is being proposed, there will be a process whereby that could be deemed to be non-material and, consequently, will not require a full planning application, the processes therein and the fee that that would attract. There are a range of proposals for faster planning applications.
It is important that, consistent with good evidence, proper process and good law, we have fairer and faster appeals. Those elements in the original Act are now being captured by the Bill in order to introduce them in advance of RPA. What are the headlines when it comes to fairer and faster appeals? First, the period in which a person can appeal against a planning decision will be reduced to four months. Secondly, there will be restrictions on an appellant's ability to introduce new material at an appeal. There will be some narrow exceptions to that, but the principle will be established. The Planning Appeals Commission will have the opportunity to award costs on planning appeals in a way that will mark applicants who make an appeal without any real ambition of being successful and avoid those who might use the planning system in ways that do not represent a healthy way to proceed.
Thirdly, we will enhance the environmental aspects of planning. That will be expressed in a number of dimensions. For example, where there is a proposed development in a conservation area, it will be a legal requirement that it should enhance the character and appearance of the area. At the moment, the test for any proposal is that it should do no harm. We want to put the test more positively to ensure that the proposed development in the conservation area should enhance the character and appearance of the area. That is the right principle to adopt. Given the scale and wonder of our heritage, including our built heritage, expressed through our listed buildings and our conservation areas, we should seek to improve, not diminish, the appearance of those buildings and those areas. That is what the Bill will do.
This is captured in clause 2 of the Bill. Clause 2 states explicitly that, in carrying out the Department's general duties in respect of development of land and in respect of the work of the Planning Appeals Commission, the duty on both will be to fulfil the objective of furthering sustainable development and promoting or improving well-being. Those are very important principles that are captured in the early clauses of the Bill and in the Act that was passed during the last mandate, which restate that, in carrying out their general functions, the Department and the PAC have to do so with the objective of furthering sustainable development and promoting or improving well-being. Those are very important principles. I will speak later about new clauses in the Bill that were not in the original Act, clauses that have attracted some interest. It is very important that, in looking at the totality of the Bill and the conduct of the planning system, people appreciate that, in carrying out the functions, the planning system does so with the objective of furthering sustainable development and promoting or improving well-being and nothing in the Bill takes away from those proposals.
I have just referred to the fact that there are two clauses in the Bill that are additional to what was in the original Act. They are clause 6 and clause 2. When it comes to planning policy and planning applications, the Bill will reflect that which is already in policy statements, namely the objective of promoting economic development, paying particular regard to the desirability of achieving good design — that is, in respect of planning policy. When it comes to the determination of planning applications by the Department and, in future, by the councils, material considerations will include a reference to any economic advantages or disadvantages that are likely to result from the approval or refusal of planning permission.
I want to spend some time in respect of those two clauses, because they are new, they have attracted some interest and they will, no doubt, be interrogated by the Department in going forward. So let me repeat: there are two aspects to the new clauses — one in respect of planning policy and one in respect of planning applications — but both revolve around the same principles. Let me make it very clear what I understand all that to mean. Previously, I attracted some criticism when I, to borrow a phrase, suppressed PPS 24, which was a draft planning policy that I inherited from the previous mandate. The essence of PPS 24 was that, when it came to, for example, deciding planning applications, economic considerations would be given determinative weight. That was the impact and consequence of PPS 24 as drafted. As I indicated, I was not minded to proceed with that draft. I did so for a range of reasons, including my view that the draft was very vulnerable to multiple legal challenges. Given the character of the development community in the North and others, I felt it was very vulnerable and likely to be subject to legal challenge. In any case, on a greater point of principle, it was not the right policy approach. Giving determinative weight to an economic application would stretch the planning system in a way that could create conflict with the wider duties of the planning system, including sustainable development. I want to make it very clear that, whatever else the Bill proposes, it does not state, as PPS 24 suggested, that economic considerations should be given determinative weight. That is not the intention of the Bill.
I spent two hours on Saturday afternoon in Belfast city centre. I have not spent that length of time in the city centre —
No, and I was not counterprotesting. I was doing what a lot of other people did on Friday, Saturday and Sunday: reclaiming the streets of the city centre for their true purpose; namely, to shop, have a drink, have a coffee, eat and do some business. Many others did the same. I was struck, when walking the streets of downtown Belfast for a couple of hours in lawful activity, by the scale of vacancies. It is only when you spend time on the streets that you see the scale of it. Without compromising the wider purposes and principles of the planning system, it is timely, appropriate, reasonable, necessary and legal to send a message through the Assembly and the Planning Bill that economic considerations are material when it comes to a planning application or a planning policy. That does not give determinative weight to economic considerations in a planning decision but means that they will be a material factor, along with the other material factors that are part of the planning system. That is what the Bill states; it does not state more than that. Going forward, the law will have to be read in a way that is consistent with the adopted planning policies, case law and the other legal requirements that inform planning decision-makers. Ultimately, it will fall to them to make decisions, be they on applications that are currently in the custody of individual planning officers — soon to be in the custody of councils — or those that are in the custody of the Environment Minister in respect of article 31. In making a decision one way or the other, he, she or they will exercise judgement in consideration of all the material factors: the law, precedent, the evidence and good process.
I felt it appropriate, after conversations with Executive colleagues — one or two in particular — that to put that type of clause in the Bill was timely and reasonable. I want to make it absolutely clear that that does not subvert, derail or in any way diminish other material factors when it comes to planning considerations. I would like to make the point firmly —
I thank the Minister for giving way. He has raised a very interesting subject around economic development. I accept that it will not have any greater weight than any of the other aspects in the Bill, but, as the Minister stated, it will obviously be up to an individual, more likely, or a group to make a subjective decision on what will carry most weight in any decision on a planning application.
However, I assume that the Department will bring out further guidance that will help to determine what weight each aspect of each individual application is given. Can the Minister tell us when we can expect to see that guidance?
I will reply to that in a number of ways. First of all, the Member is absolutely right: it will fall to he, she or they to make the ultimate judgement, bearing in mind, among other things, the material considerations. I was about to say, before I took the intervention, that I would not be arguing for this clause to go into the Bill if I felt that there were a tension between that clause and, for example, that which I have been entrusted to do in making article 31 applications. In my view, the clause is entirely consistent with the function that I have been fulfilling over the last 18 months in, as Mr Elliott just referred to, making the judgement on the weight to be given to the various material factors when making decisions.
I do not want to anticipate next week's debate but when it came to Rose Energy, for example, in my view, the material factor of the impact on the environment had greater weight than some other material factors. Conversely, in the case of Runkerry — I do not wish to anticipate the outcome of the judicial review of that decision — while I recognised the material features and factors in respect of the environment, in my view, building infrastructure on the north coast and the economic material factor in respect of that planning application had greater weight.
Therefore, I think that I have tried to demonstrate that, when he, she or they come to make a decision, they have to weigh in the balance all these material factors, policies, laws, evidence and precedents and come to the judgement call and ensure that that judgement call is entirely consistent with —
I will answer this question and then come back to Mr Agnew.
Secondly, I will make a point that relates to the body of the Bill. When it comes to the material factor of economic impact, the Bill states that an assessment should be made of the economic advantage and/or disadvantage. When it comes to the economic benefit or otherwise of a planning application, a judgement has to be made in the round as to both the economic advantage and disadvantage that might or might not arise. In that regard, I have also made decisions where I have made a call and given advice to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) in respect of what I think is the appropriate retail policy for the greater Belfast area, bearing in mind the economic advantages and disadvantages that might attract in one venue or another.
If good process and good judgment prevails, this clause sends out a positive message but does not in any way compromise the wider planning system. Before Mr Agnew comes in, I will confirm that Mr Elliott is absolutely right. Beyond the law, there will be a requirement to have a further policy if not guidance.
I have just come from a meeting with the Royal Town Planning Institute. What was the purpose of that meeting? It was to work with the institute in the rundown to April to have a summit convened by the institute but with an input from the Department to look at the proposal for a single planning policy statement. We have multiple planning policy statements in Northern Ireland, far too many to mention. If you go to Scotland and Wales — Wales started this process — you will find that they have a single planning policy statement. What does that do? It captures, in a smaller number of words and in a more accessible format, a guide to the planning system to ensure that those who have an interest in it — whether a developer, an applicant, a citizen or a community — have a pathway through the planning system, rather than having to look at multiple documents and try to work out which is the most relevant to their interests.
We are working with the Royal Town Planning Institute and on our own to work up a single planning policy statement, which, in my view, has to be in place by the time of a transfer of functions to the local councils to ensure that the planning system is more intelligible and more of an aid to all those who have an interest in planning generally or specifically. That is where a lot of the further working-out of the law will have its place, but I am mindful that, in the interim, the planning policy statements, the guidance, the High Court decisions and so on will be the architecture around which the law will revolve.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I intervene to say, first, that the weather conditions are getting worse outside and, secondly, that it might be beneficial if the Minister finishes his introduction and then allows Members to speak? The Minister has a right of reply at a later stage rather than taking interventions continuously during this part of the debate.
As I said, I am prepared to take all questions, but I do not want to frustrate or impede the debate in any way. I will be guided, as other Members might be, by your observations. Whether that was a ruling or not, I do not know, but it was certainly an observation.
My answer to Mr Agnew is that you could ask the same question about clause 2(1) because that reiterates the previous legislation and states that, when the Department or the Planning Appeals Commission exercise any function, it must do so with the objective of "furthering sustainable development". I got advice, subject to correction from the Attorney General, that that might not be the best legislative approach and that you do not have to repeat in subsequent legislation that which is in previous legislation. I happen to disagree with that advice. If a good principle needs to be articulated in subsequent law, let us articulate it even if it has been articulated in previous law. The Scottish Government have put into their Marine (Scotland) Act 2010, for example, the duty of sustainable development of the marine. They did not have to do that because it exists in previous legislation. However, I think that they were right to do that. I am trying to do the same in our Marine Bill, which might be one reason why it has not got to the Executive table yet. No harm or violence is done to good principles of law to reiterate them, and I have no doubt that Mr Agnew will welcome the principle of furthering sustainable development or promoting and improving well-being as principles of the Bill. Therefore, he or anybody else do not need to get upset by the reference in clause 2 to "promoting economic development". That is my answer, but I will give way if there is further —
The clause will be interrogated by the Committee, which I welcome. However, that is my understanding of the thinking behind it, and I am comfortable with it. It is not an offence to anybody's interest but sends a good, strong, positive message to the world, even those who doubt me, that this place is open for business.
I have just two further comments on the Bill. The Bill contains a requirement for enhanced community development. As I mentioned, we piloted the pre-application discussion and community consultation on the GAA proposal for Casement Park and the IFA proposal for Windsor Park, and those have been done well. I have heard a very positive report about Windsor Park, and I will be a bit more cautious about Casement Park because it is in my constituency. The pilot worked well, both on the positive side and on what some might think is the negative side, and it will be built into the Bill. As part of that, the Department will publish a statement of its policy for involving the community in the delivery of planning functions. It will do so no later than a year after Royal Assent, although I would like to think that it would happen much earlier. A draft of that policy has already been prepared. It will require subordinate legislation, but it will give life to the principle of involving the community in the delivery of planning functions. Very much like the IFA model, it will deal with how and when consultation should take place, and so on. When the IFA submitted its planning application for Windsor Park in December 2012, it also submitted a report on how it had conducted community consultation, with whom it had spoken and where, where it had published its plans, what the conclusion of that conversation was and how its proposal had been adapted and amended to reflect community input. That is a very powerful way of empowering the community and the citizen in taking forward planning functions in the North.
I will touch on two final matters — there are only two more. I have always said that the flip side of good planning is robust enforcement. If I were to be self-critical, as I tend to be, I would say that one of the areas in which I have not been able to get as much over the line as was my ambition is that of enforcement. Yes, we have upgraded the staff of the ECU and I urged my permanent secretary to empower the ECU more on environmental crime, but there is a lot more that the Department can do on overall enforcement. In the near future, I will try to take forward the conclusions of an enforcement summit that we held last June.
The Bill will take forward proposals in the Act to raise fines by the courts to a maximum of £100,000 where, for example, a stop notice has not been complied with. It will introduce fixed penalties whereby rather than going through the length and cost of a court prosecution, people will be able to take a reduced fine for a fixed penalty. There are many who risk building and then come to get retrospective approval. I understand that, at certain times and in certain places, people decide to take a chance, and they feel that they are not acting with anything other than good intentions. However, there are many examples of people who think that they have the measure of the planning system, and so they build and then seek retrospective approval. Again, to drive discipline into the planning system, if such individuals apply for retrospective approval, they will pay a multiple fee rather than the single planning fee that might otherwise have been relevant to their application.
In very broad terms, because I am mindful of Members' travel requirements today, that captures some of the shape of the Bill, and I will reply to other matters in my response to the debate.
I try to push officials very hard at times, and that has been the case with the planning system. So I want to acknowledge that, time after time, I found that the senior management in planning offices were up for the challenges and took some of the criticisms. In my view, they have pushed reform and change in a positive way. That is captured in two ways, and this is how I will conclude. Last year, the planning system in the North received a special award from the Royal Town Planning Institute for the unique contribution made by planners to Northern Ireland. Everyone in the Chamber knows of the unique contribution of the political community — for good or ill, some might say — over very difficult years. Public service is what this is all about, whether we are talking about elected people or civil servants. The planning system, corporately, won the award in recognition of its public service in very difficult times. The system recognises that it can do better, and I think that it has demonstrated that it is doing better.
In conclusion, I refer to the final question asked of the Culture Minister at Question Time. In December 2012, the planning system in Derry received special recognition at a Europe-wide planning awards ceremony in Brussels. Why? It was because, in very quick time, working with the council and Ilex in Derry, it was able to turn round the planning approval for the Peace Bridge.
Ebrington would not be Ebrington, and Sunday night would not have been Sunday night, had the planning system not turned round that particular application in your own home town, Mr Speaker, as quickly as it did. I think that this reflects the importance of planning with respect to wider community confidence, changing the profile of the city, creating economic development and sending out a very strong message, in these very difficult times, that there is much good in the North and in the planning system.
I welcome the Second Stage of the Planning Bill; quite a bit later than expected, but welcome nonetheless.
As the Minister outlined, the Bill will make legislative changes to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning system that is available to the Department in advance of the transfer of planning functions to councils.
The Committee welcomes the intention of the Bill: to modernise and strengthen the planning system by providing faster decisions on planning applications; enhanced community involvement; faster and fairer appeals; tougher and simpler enforcement; and a strengthened departmental sustainable development duty.
Members were briefed on the Bill at the Committee meeting on 10 January. Departmental officials informed members that the Bill is intended as an interim measure, most of which will remain in place only until it is possible to fully commence the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, at which point it will be repealed.
Importantly though, the Bill will introduce additional provisions to underpin the role of planning in promoting economic development and good design. These are new policies, which were not part of the extensive consultation conducted prior to the introduction of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 which underpins this Bill. The explanatory and financial memorandum indicates that the new provisions will be subject to consultation during the Bill’s passage through the Assembly, so it will be up to the Environment Committee to ascertain the thoughts of the public on them. I assure Members that, although the Committee does not want to see any further delays in the process, it would be remiss of us if we did not carry out thorough scrutiny of those new elements, and I intend to come back to the House to seek an extension to the Committee Stage to allow people enough time to reply to the call for evidence.
On the issue of promoting economic development, I asked officials why that had been added after the withdrawal of planning policy statement (PPS) 24, as I felt that it may put additional pressure on planners. The Department stated that, though economic considerations had always been material in planning, it has been included in the Bill to give clarification to planners by putting it on a statutory footing. As stated previously, the Committee will go into this new provision in more detail once the Bill enters Committee Stage, and I imagine that that particular provision will be the one that generates most comment.
The Committee welcomes the provision for enhanced community involvement with developers having to consult communities before submitting major planning applications. I am sure that all Members have had planning applications where the community has not been consulted and that has led to objections being raised and the planning process being slowed down considerably. Communities need to be involved from the start to identify any concerns that they may have and to resolve those with the developers from the outset. As a result, we should see applications being turned around faster, creating a smoother process for all involved.
Any attempt to ensure a faster processing of applications is to be welcomed, particularly in the current economic climate. All too often, we see applications suffering major delays due to the failure of statutory consultees to respond in a timely fashion. Therefore, I welcome the introduction of a duty for statutory consultees to respond to consultation within a prescribed time frame. We can no longer afford to delay applications because a response has not been received, and this provision will ensure that, if no response is received within the timescale, the application proceeds. That seems very fair to me.
However, I must sound a note of caution. The Committee has been told that there are currently only two statutory consultees identified in legislation with whom the Department must consult before determining an application for planning permission: district councils in whose area the land that is the subject of the development proposal is located; and, in certain circumstances, the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland. For this new provision to deliver shorter planning times, it is essential that that list is extended. However, although many would assume that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency should be added to that list, as the agency is legally considered to be part of the Department of the Environment, it cannot be identified in statute as a separate entity and, legally, the Department cannot statutorily consult itself. That anomaly will, of course, not be resolved when planning functions pass to councils, because the Department will remain the planning authority for a limited number of regionally significant applications after the transfer.
I welcome the measures towards a faster and fairer planning appeals system. The provisions to restrict the introduction of new material at appeal and to allow the Planning Appeals Commission to award costs where the unreasonable behaviour of one party has left another out of pocket are sensible and should help to ensure that appeals are genuine, rather than their being used as a stalling tactic.
I welcome with caution the time limit for submitting appeals being reduced from six to four months. I fully understand the rationale for its introduction and welcome it accordingly. However, I know that it was tried in England and led to a significant increase in appeals, so that, in fact, they have now reverted to the longer time limit of six months. We will, therefore, need to keep a close eye on the outworkings of that provision.
Enforcement has always been a major issue for the Committee, and any legislation is only as good as the enforcement that follows. The measures to make enforcement simpler and tougher are, therefore, to be welcomed. Raising fines for a series of offences, introducing fixed penalty notices as an alternative to costly and lengthy prosecutions through the courts and introducing multiple fees for retrospective planning applications should help to ensure that planning permission is sought in advance of development and offenders are dealt with quickly and penalised financially.
I know that the previous Committee was very keen to see higher maximum fines introduced into the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 in order to ensure that the penalties for offences gave a clear message that planning offences are taken seriously and not just treated as another cost to be factored into the price of the development.
In conclusion, as soon as the House commends the Bill to the Committee, we will call for written submissions from interested organisations and individuals. Members will be extremely interested to hear their views, particularly on the two new aspects of the Bill. I look forward to a good ongoing working relationship with officials to ensure that my Committee is able to scrutinise the legislation properly. On behalf of the Committee, I support the principles of the Bill.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has set sustainable development as a clear goal of government in its sustainable development strategy. The principle of sustainability is defined in the regional development strategy 'Shaping Our Future' as the ability to:
"meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
The principle is also set out in PPS 4, which:
"seeks to facilitate and accommodate economic growth in ways compatible with ... social and environmental objectives and sustainable development."
When draft PPS 24 went out to consultation, it was overwhelmingly opposed by more than 70% of respondents. It was eventually — due to the good sense of the Minister — withdrawn by the Department. That is why I am at a loss to see how the new additional provision underpins the role of planning in promoting economic development. It is also extremely concerning that the new policy will not be subjected to extensive public consultation, unlike the comprehensive consultation for the 2011 Act. Whether the absence of such a process may be deemed to be lacking in legal standing, it is certainly not best practice. It may also be criticised as trying to sneak in such a fundamental shift in planning principle through the back door.
The Committee will do its best to consult. However, it will not have the same scope as a full public consultation organised by the Department. I have to say that I am annoyed by the Department's leaving the Committee to carry out that consultation. We have only a team of four staff to carry out that full consultation within a very short period. The Department has an entire unit to manage consultation.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
If the aim of the Bill is to streamline and speed up applications, I am worried that giving extra weighting to promoting economic development may give rise to more potential for legal challenges and disputes, thereby having the opposite effect and, in fact, being counterproductive to that aim.
Businesses may not see any benefit from planning reform if challenges are going to cause serious delays to planning decisions. I see the reasoning behind the emphasis on the importance of good design. Nobody would argue with that. However, I am uncertain as to why specific provisions for promoting economic development are necessary.
Clause 6 will amend an article in the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 and a section in the Planning Act 2011 by inserting the provision that material considerations in the determination of planning applications include a reference to considerations relating to any economic advantages or disadvantages that are likely to result from the granting or refusal of planning permission. Basing the decision on a planning application on whether it is economically advantageous or disadvantageous can, no doubt, be a minefield.
It would be fair to assume that, in many cases, the deciding outcome of an application could benefit one party while leaving another in an economically unfavourable position. One example of that could be an application for an out-of-town shopping centre versus opposition to it from town centre retailers. Larger developers who have the means to develop sophisticated economic arguments can profit from such projects. For a resident or a small community, such as those that many MLAs represent, proving economic gains or loss could be costly, and they could lack the necessary expertise to do so.
Another potential dilemma for planners could be a future planning application for hydraulic fracturing in Fermanagh, with the Department weighing up the economic advantages and disadvantages rather than determining the application purely on an environmental impact assessment and material matters. We do not have an independent environment agency, and we have already seen examples of applications, such as the one at Runkerry, being approved by the Minister against the advice of NIEA.
The strongest economies in Europe have robust planning systems. Have we not learnt the lessons from overdevelopment both here in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, where economic factors were allowed to outweigh other considerations in the appraisal of development. I would be curious to know whether a comparison with other jurisdictions on economic development in planning has been carried out. To the best of my knowledge, stipulating economic development as a policy in planning is not common practice. In fact, I would be very surprised if it were.
Our planning system must have a long-term strategic policy on sustainable development, delivering on its duty to uphold the public interest. We in the Assembly have an obligation to future generations to preserve our natural and built environment. Yes, we need economic growth, but the balance must be struck here to ensure that the Bill does not put on a statutory footing a bias in favour of economic development, with less regard for the impact that such economic gains may have on people, communities and the environment in the longer term. I urge the Minister to reconsider carefully the new provision in the Bill on promoting economic development.
On behalf of the DUP, I broadly support the Bill and its Second Stage. As a member of the Environment Committee, I will have the opportunity to go through the Bill in some detail, so I will try to keep my remarks brief. I had hoped that the Minister would also keep his remarks brief. To be fair, he spoke for 46·5 minutes, which, by his standards, is extremely brief. I have rarely heard him speak so succinctly.
I want to touch on a few of the Bill's provisions. As was stated, although there are new aspects, it builds on the 2011 Bill. That Bill stretched to over 230 clauses, while this one, although highly significant, stretches to only 28 clauses. I do not know whether that means that it will take a shorter time to scrutinise, but at least it will be more manageable.
Clause 6, which deals with the economic determination of planning applications, will arguably be the most controversial and significant element. We will receive evidence from groups that have concerns about that. I was a little dubious about the Minister dropping the previous PPS, so I have a different concern. It is important that we give proper weight to economic considerations. I have to say, with the greatest respect, that it would be wrong if economic considerations were the only consideration in a planning application. However, we have to give sufficient weight to them because we cannot remain aloof to economic conditions. It is something of an ivory tower approach to say that no thought at all should be given to economic considerations when we are in the midst of a recession and people are unemployed. The Bill refers to:
"considerations relating to any economic advantages or disadvantages likely to result".
Again, to be fair to the Minister and to the Bill, it is not saying that that is the only aspect that will be looked at.
Also, and far be it for me to defend the Minister, out-of-town shopping centres were mentioned. The Bill refers to economic advantage and disadvantage, and I would have thought that that is a clear case that we should try to weigh up the economic advantage to see whether that is appropriate in those circumstances. When a ministerial determination is made, it is important that officials give advice to the Minister, but I am sure that the Minister accepts that the buck very much stops with him. I have disagreed with a number of ministerial decisions. We will probably debate one of those decisions — on Rose Energy — next week. If any of my colleagues from Lagan Valley were here, I suspect that they would say that they were not overly keen on the decision, or at least the draft proposals, about the impact of John Lewis. I certainly believe that, at times, the Minister will get it wrong. Ultimately, it is for the Minister to make that decision. He cannot simply be a slave to whatever his officials bring forward; rather, he has to have a somewhat independent mind.
My test of clause 6 — I will be interested to hear the criticisms — is whether it is fit for purpose and properly and appropriately promotes economic implications. We have to look at getting that balance right.
I welcome the references in some of the earlier clauses to community involvement and pre-application community consultation. There was a very lively debate on the previous Bill about third-party appeals. My party and I were certainly hostile on that front. We took the view that it would be much better to try to resolve problems at the earliest possible stage. I appreciate that that was not necessarily a popular view in the Chamber. However, given where we are, surely all of us agree that getting a planning application right at the start and, when possible, dealing with the community's concerns by way of community involvement and proper consultation would be beneficial. It is about ensuring that there is a correct balance: there must be genuine and proper consultation but it must not be so overly bureaucratic that it simply creates additional delay in the system.
A number of proposals in the Bill are sensible, particularly those on timescales, some of which were mentioned by the Chair of the Committee. A criticism often levelled at the planning system in Northern Ireland is that it is too slow and cumbersome, although the Minister indicated improvements. A number of aspects of the Bill can lead to more timely, and, hopefully, more correct, decisions. There is, for example, a reduced time limit for appeals and an attempt, in clause 10, to free up the system by allowing a bit more flexibility in who can chair public inquiries. That is a useful proposal.
I take on board what the Chair said about the duty to consult. A concern often raised is that the Planning Service turns things around quickly enough but is hamstrung by waiting for responses from others. It is important to look at the organisations and statutory bodies bound by the duty to consult and make sure that it is fit for purpose. So there is a range of changes. Similarly, as someone who has dealt with concerns from local residents, particularly in North Down, that not enough weight is given to, for example, conservation areas or areas of townscape character, the provisions are to be welcomed.
There is a lot of detail in the Bill, although it is contains 28 clauses as opposed to, I think, 234 in the previous Bill. I see some First World War veterans of that Bill dotted around the Chamber. This is an important Bill that has the potential, if we get it right, to move planning forward in Northern Ireland and improve the situation. I look forward to the detailed scrutiny and, therefore, I support its passing Second Stage.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom labhairt ar son an bhille seo. I also support the Bill. There are just a few issues that I would like to bring up. Most importantly, what we need to get right is what we are trying to pass down to local authorities. Anybody who has experience of councils knows that planning legislation is open to interpretation. We want to try to shore up the gaps to create the best possible legislation so that the decision-making process in local authorities will be that wee bit better.
I want to pick up on some points raised about the principles of the Bill. I know that we will undertake clause-by-clause scrutiny in Committee. Minister, the issue of the duty on statutory consultees raised its head. Concerns about that were raised during the passage of the Planning Act, when the likes of NIEA was mentioned. I agree with the 21-day response, but we still have a responsibility to try to reach all those consultees. Sometimes, that sits outside the scope of the Department, and it will sit outside the responsibility of a local authority as well, but we must look at how we address the issue of respondees because, until now, they have held up the process. Maybe you would like to touch on that a wee bit because it is an important point.
I agree with the publicity arrangements under clause 4, but we need to get that process right from the start. It may be that it is not inclusive under this clause but will be under the required subsequent legislation. Although they may not come under the heading of publication, we should look at the likes of site notices and neighbour notification. That would also help the process.
Another issue that raised its head, and it came up during Committee Stage of the Planning Act, was that of mineral sites. I would support clause 14, but it refers to a condition being imposed on those sites. I am somewhat concerned that there may be some existing sites, such as the older sites, on which conditions may not have been imposed. I would like us to look at how we could replenish or rejuvenate some of those previous sites.
The other issue relates to clause 12; the introduction of new material at appeals. Mr Weir talked about third-party appeals and everything else, and about getting the process right from the start. I want us to talk about how we look at the application process because that is key to providing new information. You said in the clause that there will be exceptional circumstances or circumstances in which it cannot be foreseen to introduce it. However, having a proper application process at the start would clear the lines in respect of how people submit the application.
I have only two other points to make. I want to make a point about the good-design issue. I agree with that but I would like to see an opportunity for new design and for people to incorporate new ideas in the future. There is a design guide for rural planning. I hope that we will provide opportunities for new design in that regard.
The last point that I want to talk about is the economic issue and clause 6. I heard the Chairperson articulate her points about that. I am supportive of that. Clearly, it outlines the advantages and disadvantages. The Chairperson spoke about the issue of out-of-town shopping centres as opposed to in-town ones. Minister, surely we should be looking to the applicant to bring forward his or her arguments on that debate. You give the advantage if there is job creation, but you have to look at the impact that that would have on the local area or community. That would be a disadvantage. If there is going to be an impact, applicants should be given the responsibility to clearly outline the advantages and disadvantages of the economic argument. There is no point in saying that we will allow a business to create jobs if that will displace other jobs and businesses in other areas. I do not know whether the intention of the Bill is to include this in the application process, but perhaps the responsibility being put on the applicant in that regard is something for consideration.
I support the Bill. No doubt we will have a bit of a debate in Committee about the economic argument. I look forward to that. The Bill is not as bad as the 224 clauses or whatever number of clauses there were in the Act. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Bill. I appreciate Mr Molloy's sentiments about helping some of us with longer journeys to get home earlier, but I am concerned that that would stifle debate to some degree. Obviously, we are at a legislative stage, and it is always useful to have the debate when the issues arise. The Minister has never been backward in taking interventions and articulating his side of the debate, but I understand the rationale.
I start with a quote from Committee:
"Good planning and quick decisions are key to economic growth and new jobs."
It is vital that we develop a planning system that will serve us for many years to come. We have had significant problems in the past. Many of them have been because of inconsistency in the planning process. I have had this discussion with the Minister in the past: certain areas and divisions seem to take a different view on some aspects of planning policy than others. That leaves it very difficult, particularly for us, as elected representatives, when we hear colleagues in another area say, "Well, look, we would not have much problem getting that passed. I don't know what your issue is". We want to have consistency, and good planning will obviously be right at the heart of that.
I support absolutely the faster processing of applications. Earlier, the Minister talked about enforcement, such as fixed penalties. People who build at their own risk without planning approval will pay multiple application fees when they apply for retrospective approval. I do not support people who do that, but sometimes you can understand their rationale. Business people in particular have been frustrated. First, they have lost business and the opportunity for economic development in the past, simply because the planning system and the bureaucracy it entails have been far too slow, time-consuming and totally out of step with any economic progress that business would like. That is why some such people have been almost forced to go ahead. I am not saying that I support their doing that, but, quite clearly, there is a understanding among some in the wider community about why it happens. If we can make it better and fix it, that should resolve the issue. That is why what the Minister is suggesting is a good idea. However, we must ensure that we have the system properly fixed, so that it will not be a bureaucratic mess for those who want to develop and for economic developments in particular. Making satisfactory progress on that will, I think, resolve quite a number of issues.
I note the suggestion, which nobody has picked up on and the Minister did not refer to, that costs could be awarded against a party by the Planning Appeals Commission. I understand that the rationale for that might be to avoid cluttering up the process. However, I am concerned that that would militate against those who cannot afford to go to appeals or to make their case there. I would like to hear some more detail around that, because that measure might say to the public, "Well, the appeals system is only for the rich". I hope that that is not the position, but, from what I read in the clause, it seems to be. The Minister may put me right when he makes his winding-up speech. I hope that everybody would have a fair opportunity to make their case at appeals. That right is vital for the person who is appealing the planning decision and those who support it.
The Bill contains enhanced environmental aspects. The Minister referred to the conservation areas and said that the test of a development should be that it will enhance the area. We have some difficulties, which I have referred to in the past, around conservation areas and townscape character areas, where you are not allowed to remove a building. Sometimes, that building is allowed to rot. What does that say for an area? Is that enhancing an area where there might be plans to take down and renew that building, even with a similar facade? I think that there have been some very poor decisions in some such instances here. I know of an instance in my constituency, where an applicant was getting funding from the International Fund for Ireland — I think that it was in the region of £150,000 — to build a new structure to put in place some shop or industrial units — I cannot remember which — with some things above it, and it was stopped by Planning Service, simply because he needed to remove the entire old building and replace it. He even agreed to replace the former facade with an almost identical one. Those are the types of planning decisions that do not give people any confidence in the system.
I note the Minister's comments on enhanced community development. We already have the pre-application discussion (PAD) system, which I think has been working extremely well. I know people who have engaged in it and development proposers who have actually taken part in that. They found it very useful, from their point of view. It means that, when they come in with a full application, it is much more relevant and they do not spend time changing it. So, the new community development system will cause maybe some concern among those putting in for development, simply because they will see it as an opportunity for people who object to make their case at an early stage and try to stop the proposal before it even gets to application stage. There will need to be some confidence-building measures among the wider economic world in that respect.
That takes me to my next point, on economic development. I had an exchange with the Minister on this. It is quite an interesting aspect. Obviously, it is a subjective decision from those who have to make the decision. It is very subjective as to what carries most weight. The Minister mentioned the Rose Energy one. I know that he and I may disagree over the significant economic weight that that should have carried. His decision or opinion would be different from mine, but he ultimately makes the decision. So, quite clearly, it is very subjective. That is why I would like to see some guidance on that before the Bill finally goes through, just to establish where the perimeters are for the people making those decisions. Most of us here have served on councils at some stage. I can imagine quite a debate on the council floor around whether a planning application should carry more weight from environmental aspects or economic aspects. I can see some very fiery debates around that. I am not, by any means, saying that I am opposed to it. All I am saying is that we need some clarity and guidance around it.
The economic development clause will certainly be supported widely by the economic world and those in industry. They feel, by and large, that their views have not been taken account of. I know some guidance was brought out some time ago, which was, I think, then legally challenged. Maybe the Minister will keep me right, but I know planners got some guidance in the past, and I do think that that went to a legal challenge.
I also note the issue around a single planning policy statement. It would be very helpful if that could be progressed by the Department and the Minister at an early stage. We have a number of planning policy statements and, sometimes, to me, some of them seem contradictory to each other. I hope that that single planning policy statement can be progressed, sooner rather than later.
I will leave it at that. I am happy to help the Bill progress to the next stage. Obviously, we will have significant debate in Committee and, indeed, even at further stages here in the Chamber.
As someone who has to get over the Glenshane Pass tonight, I will attempt to keep my remarks quite short.
Since the day and hour the Minister came into office, it has been clear to people that he is not only a reforming Minister but a Minister who is prepared to make decisions. He has proven that he is prepared to make decisions in support of the environment and also in support of the economy. He has made very balanced decisions and has been able to show his independence in that regard. I think that that may go some way to proving some of the arguments around the economic clause.
The Bill paves the way for planning powers to transfer to councils in 2015. It is designed to make the Planning Service faster, more decisive and more in tune with the needs of the environment, our communities and the wider economy.
Many improvements have already been made to the Planning Service. There is a PFG commitment to ensure that 90% of large-scale investment planning decisions are made within six months.
When the Minister took up office there were 60 article 31 cases. Now, 31 of those decisions have been made, with a further nine already announced. Many of the applications had been with the Planning Service for many years prior to the Minister taking up office.
Only last week, statistics were published showing improvements in planning performance for the second successive quarter. That is largely due to a new focus on active case management, the implementation of a good practice guide and a reduced requirement for documentation accompanying planning applications. Minor applications were progressed three weeks faster than in the same period last year, intermediate applications were progressed two weeks faster, and the number of decisions issued on renewable energy applications has doubled, with 92% of those being approved.
Guidance has also been issued to staff on the need for consistency in decision-making right across the board. That points to some of the questions that Mr Elliott raised. There has also been an increase in the number of streamlined applications. That is a system that was piloted in my constituency in Derry, and it has greatly improved efficiency in the planning application process right across the board. We have also had increased response times from statutory consultees, but clearly things can still improve a lot. That is what the Bill is about. It is designed to build on those achievements and others made to date. It will underpin the role of planning in promoting economic development. It will allow for implementation of reforms contained in the 2011 Planning Act. It is also now intended that those reforms will be enacted and tested before powers transfer to councils.
Although the Planning Bill is intended to enhance economic development alongside sustainable development and to ensure that planning is not an obstacle to investment, it is also designed to allow local communities to become more involved in the planning process at a much earlier stage. Developers will be required to consult the community before submitting major planning applications. That will allow the community to become involved at an earlier stage than happens currently.
There will also be further measures to encourage sustainable development, with new protections for conservation areas and wildlife. The appeals process will be reformed to ensure a faster and more effective system, and there will be a comprehensive consolidation and review of existing planning policy right across the spectrum of policy areas. The Bill will also ensure tougher enforcement procedures for planning offences. There will be a new maximum fine of £100,000 where an enforcement or stop notice has not been complied with.
The Bill will enable the planning system to be faster, more accountable and more focused on economic development, but it will also be tougher on those who flout planning legislation and is designed to enhance further our natural and built environment. I support the Bill.
I listened with rapt interest to Mr Eastwood. I must say that he has a tremendous grasp of the Bill. I do not think that the Minister could have done better himself in selling the Bill, so "Well done" to him. The Bill's aims and objectives are indeed very laudable. They are first class, as a matter of fact, but I suspect that it could be said of most Bills that go through the House that their aims and objectives are very good, and there seems to be a determination written into them, backed by a determined Minister, to make things happen, in this case as far as planning is concerned. As my colleague Mr Weir said, my party supports the aims, objectives and principles of the Bill, which, as I said, are laudable. However, I want to comment on some of the things that are in it.
Clause 2 makes clear what the Bill is trying to do. It states:
"Where the Department or the planning appeals commission exercises any function under Part 2 or this Part, the Department or, as the case may be, the commission must exercise that function with the objective of ... promoting economic development."
I suspect that not one MLA will object to that. The issue has been mentioned from two perspectives: Tom Elliott came at it from a slightly different angle from that of the Committee Chair, which is good. All of us will say that we should promote economic development in a measured and balanced way, not in an abusive way. As MLAs, we want to ensure that the balance is correct.
Clause 2 mentions "furthering sustainable development", which is a theme that runs through the Bill. I have no problem with that, because it is a good thing. Clause 3 deals with the meaning of "development", which is interesting:
"a structural alteration of any description of building specified in a direction given by the Department for the purpose of this Article, where the alteration consists of demolishing part of the building."
Let us imagine, for example, that a decorative chimney is taken from a building. What does the clause really mean by the phrase "demolishing part of the building"?
We are all conscious that, from time to time, abuses occur. All of us, particularly those who have served on councils over the years, have garnered some experience and knowledge. I know that the Minister is no different in that respect because he served his time as a councillor and cut his teeth there. He would have come across all that in his work as a councillor.
Tom Elliott made an interesting point when he talked about an incident in Enniskillen, I suspect — County Fermanagh, anyway — in which a developer wanted to do something but was held back by the planning authorities, who would not let him replace an existing development with something very similar. That has happened in Dungannon in my constituency, where we could have had a very enterprising and exciting development, but, because of planning rules, we now have a street on which development has been restricted. The economic downturn happened, and opportunities were missed and lost. I hope they are not lost permanently, but, sadly, they may be lost for a long, long time. In the past, the lack of moving on with planning has stymied things. I suspect that the planners will defend themselves by saying that they needed further information and there was no joined-up thinking in the Departments. If there was a wee bit more joined-up thinking between Departments and consultees, we could see things happening. I am not sure that the Bill will achieve that. I am not sure that it cites it in the same determined way as it cites other things, and I would like to have seen it in the Bill.
Planners and the Department sometimes get blamed for things of which they are not guilty. Then again, we are all in that category. As MLAs, we sometimes get blamed for things of which we are not guilty. Decisions should be made on the basis of the information that is available, and planners should not have to run around the country getting more and more information if what is required is clearly determined and outlined. If the information that is needed is there, they should get on and make decisions. The Minister is a man who is not afraid to take hard questions sometimes, so I hope that he will comment on this. Has he or his Department done any study of the time that it takes to process a planning application here, compared with, for instance, England, Scotland and Wales? How do we fare in comparison? My opinion is that we do not fare very well. The Minister might tell me that I have got that wrong and we are ahead of them. That would be great, but I will let the Minister comment on that.
Mr Eastwood said that he thinks that the Minister takes the tough decisions and is not afraid to call them. Yes, we have noted that with the negative decisions on John Lewis and Rose Energy. There is no doubt that some of us looked for different decisions, but those were the decisions that the Minister took. No doubt, he will stand by them, defend them and say that they were right.
Clause 16 deals with an increase in certain penalties. The explanatory and financial memorandum says:
"This clause also increases the maximum level of fine, on summary conviction, for a range of offences relating to breaches of planning control or consents from £30,000 to £100,000."
When you read that, you think that a £100,000 fine is, by anybody's standards, a lot of money, but is it? Is it? If there was a development on a site that cost £100 million, would £100,000 be a deterrent to the developer? I suspect that it would not. I think that that works out at about 0·001 of 1% of the contract price, so I do not see it as a great deterrent. I would like not only that deterrent to be put in the Bill but one with a percentage relating to the contract price. The Minister should give some consideration to that. I believe that, when you get to that stage, you have a deterrent that will stop the breaches.
Clause 18 speaks of the control of demolition in conservation areas. We have seen that happening, too. Clause 19, which ties in with that, relates to tree preservation orders and now also preserves dying trees. It is hard to put the tree back after you take it down, is it not? It was there for 100 years, 150 years or 200 years, and it is gone overnight. I suspect that this clause will not stop that, but I am pleased that it is there. I think that it will act as a deterrent, but I suspect that it will not stop it.
The Minister should take another look at where there is demolition in a conservation area — where it has been raped — and maybe even beef it up a bit. There has to be clearly defined legislation to tackle situations in which a clearly defined conservation area has been raped.
I want to talk about a situation in which the Department is dealing with a planning application. We are supposed to live in an age of transparency in which everybody is equal, though some of us are not convinced. The Minister should consider the inclusion in the Bill of a timeline for the determination of an application. We have looked at applications in the past that had been sitting for years. I am not in any way saying that that is the fault of the planners, but I am saying that a planning application that was submitted in 2004, 2005 or 2006 and has been sitting there for up to 10 years will be affected by the many things that happened during those 10 years, which means that the application is not as relevant as it was on the day it was submitted. Planners might come back and say that they asked for A, B, C, D and E and never got it. A determination should be made on that planning application on the information that is available. If more information is required, has been requested and is not forthcoming, I would proceed and make a determination. Ten years is far too long for an application to be kicked around, amended and changed. The Minister should set a timeline for the processing of a planning application. If that was in the Bill, it would be even more fit for purpose. I hope that will be given due consideration.
I hope that we will have an enforcement policy that is fit for purpose and will deal with those who flout the law and go ahead with developments. The Minister made reference to that, and I was pleased to hear it. Those who go for planning permission in retrospect cannot take it for granted that all is well and they will get it. The planners take a sensible line on that. I have spoken to planners, and they have told me that, when employment is involved, they go the extra mile — those are more my words than theirs — to facilitate an applicant. In principle, I do not have a problem with that, and I do not think that the Assembly does. However, I strongly believe that those who deliberately flout planning legislation have to be dealt with.
Those are the matters that I look forward to the Minister dealing with. I look forward to the Bill coming to the Committee. We will get our hands on it and try to shape it. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate all that we are doing, because we are doing it for his good, the Department's good and our constituents' good. It will be good at the end of the day. Mr Eastwood said that he thinks the Bill will deliver at the end of the day, and I hope that he is right. We, as Committee members, will try to ensure that that is the case.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. First, this is a good opportunity to have a debate. I was not trying to stifle Mr Elliott earlier; I was just trying to follow the normal procedures. I can understand why people thought that we were already into the debate, because the Minister was some time in explaining the Bill, but that is OK. Thankfully, Mr Eastwood is here, because it was important that someone spoke up for the Minister.
We have had reformed Ministers here of all kinds, including church ministers. We had Mr Rooker, who was here for a time and left behind a legacy that has taken some time to overcome. We need to be cautious about reform and what it actually means.
In general, it is beneficial to see on paper some of the ideas in the Bill and the clauses that we will go through. In Committee, I am sure it will take some time to get through that. It is important to caution that this does not become another Bill that will simply curtail people and put more power in the hands of a future Minister, whoever that might be. The present Minister needs to remember that he will not always be there and that someone else will interpret what he has said.
We have heard various opinions about what this is about. Like all Ministers, the Minister will often have to make the final decision. Remember that that is just the Minister's opinion — it could be right, or it could be wrong. Over the years, one of the inconsistencies in planning was that we heard various people's opinions on what was good planning, what was bad planning, what looked well, what was good design and what was not. I pay tribute to all the planners that I have dealt with at local government level over the years. At the end of the day, they try to accommodate and facilitate. Sometimes architects and designers are as much at fault as planners.
It is also important that we look at what is being proposed and get the responses back on planning. I am a wee bit concerned that we will appoint persons to carry out an inquiry who are not necessarily Planning Appeals Commission staff. How sure can we be that those who are appointed will be independent of the Department and have an open mind and objective opinion that takes into account the needs of the area and the applicant and the different environmental concerns?
There has been a lot of talk today about the economic benefits of sites and developments. I take it in good faith that the Bill will promote that. Clause 2 talks about:
"(a) furthering sustainable development;
(b) promoting or improving well-being; and
(c) promoting economic development."
However, I have to say that that has not been my experience to date. Hopefully, the legislation will change that. This Minister has certainly not changed it. This Minister has not followed that line. I have concerns about whether what is in the Bill will be reflected by any future Minister.
I will give the example of a factory outside Coalisland — the Minister knows it well. It is trying to develop an old sandpit on a brownfield site, which will create jobs. In fact, the factory proposes to double its workforce. It has been trying to get planning permission on that site for the last six years. It has made a very determined effort in the last two years. That development would provide jobs in an area of very high unemployment, an area that is renowned for its engineering experience and exports materials across the world. In fact, 82% of the world's mobile crushing and sand and gravel equipment is made in that area of east Tyrone. Yet, a factory that wants to double its workforce cannot do that because the Minister is holding the application on his desk, despite the fact that the planners have already approved it.
I am concerned about what will happen in reality. Maybe a new Minister or somebody else will make a different decision, but factories cannot wait that length of time. Developers who are signing contracts and trying to get business into an area cannot wait years for planning permission. They have to be able to say that they are going to produce a, b and c and that they will do it next year, in six months or whatever the case may be. To be held up and not even know whether they will get planning permission is soul-destroying. It is also deprives local people of jobs, and that is what is happening in that area at this time. That factory could double and possibly treble its workforce because it is possible to expand on the site. We need to have a vision of what is possible and how we can improve the well-being of people in the area and the environment of the area. The factory will be developed on what is currently a brownfield site and a site of dereliction. New factories can give people confidence. It is very important that the Minister proves himself with actions as well as in the Bill.
There are proposals for more public consultation on developments, which is very important. However, in considering economic factors, what weight do we give to serial objectors? What weight do we give to the people who simply do not want anything like factories or even schools and play areas in an area because it is too close to them? What consideration do we give to that and what consideration does the Department give to the fact that it grant-aids those objectors through Supporting Communities? What assessment does it make of objections and whether they are valid or are simply from serial objectors?
In that same area, a serial objector, who is also a councillor, has objected to four factories, including one proposed by one of the biggest engineering companies, Terex, which exports all over the world. You are talking about 500 jobs, and we will send those jobs elsewhere. Why do we fund Supporting Communities to very often go against the decision of the planners? The Department is funding the objectors through Supporting Communities, and the planners then make the decision to approve. Where does it end? We are in a new situation, and I see that the Minister of Finance and Personnel does not even have to approve it now. Is it like legal aid? Is some sort of assessment made of whether objections are valid or are simply from objectors? Some people object to any change whatsoever and do not want any noise, for example, in an area. We need to look at what we are funding. It is important that communities that need support get support, but it also needs to be valid. There needs to be an assessment before you simply throw ratepayers' money into fighting something.
Sustainability has been talked about in a strong way, and my belief is that, particularly in the rural community, you cannot have sustainability without economic development. You sometimes have to change the community and the make-up of the area to create that. Often, the best place for factories is in the rural community because they need access and space around them to do things, and it does not work to put them into development lines or into town centres because of the effects in those areas. We have a great opportunity, through our local Assembly, to make decisions that are relevant to the local area. However, if we get into a situation where party politics in local areas can influence Ministers to object and to hold back progress, we bring into question how good our local Assembly is at delivering for the local community. Does it support the local community, or does the local community support it? Is it a small section of the community? We need to look at all aspects of the Bill. Are we talking about a fair planning process or one that can be controlled and managed and have political input?
The Bill will hopefully take us through to the point where local government will have more control over planning. It is important that, if we hand the power of planning to local government, we give the councillors and the local community the power to do that. The consultation process must be genuine, and the Minister should not, in the future, step in, take a planning application out and hold it up and stall the process. If local government is to have power, we should give it power and not curtail it in any way. We may have to deal with article 31 applications, but I am not talking about those. I am talking about normal planning applications that should be dealt with in the normal way, and it is important that, at local government level, the local community has the opportunity to have an input. We now have an opportunity to draw up area plans that, with community planning, involve the local community in developing the area. In the past, area plans were handed down to us from on high in the Planning Service and were fought over between barristers in the courts, and the local community had very little say on or input into them. If we are to give the local community power to have an influence, we need to look at what weight is given to that and take it into consideration. It should not be the be-all and end-all. There have to be compromises to make sure that we get a proper new planning system that will benefit everyone in the future.
The proposal that a response to a consultation has to be made within 21 days is very important, because, as the Chair said earlier, the planners may only have to consult with councils and a couple of other bodies and do not have to consult nationally with NIEA. Often, the planners hold up processes in various ways because there is no consultation back from NIEA until the last minute. In a recent planning application that I was involved in, it only arrived the evening before the case was going to court. Therefore, NIEA and other bodies need to respond by a certain time. If they do not respond by a certain time, they must have nothing to say, and the planners should move on. Over the past number of years, it has not been my feeling that that is the way that they have operated. The consultees have held up the process, sometimes indefinitely and without any real cause or justification for that. It is very important that we get a response back in time. It is also important that we get a response back in time from the planners so that it is not stretching for 10 years, as Lord Morrow said. Also, where the Minister intervenes, it is important that there is a response time from the Minister on the decisions that have been made.
Hopefully, the Bill will be improved by the time that it comes out of the Committee and that the various aspects can be dealt with there. It is a very important step forward, and it is important, in this document, we have the three aspects of furthering sustainable development, promoting and improving well-being and promoting economic development for the future.
I am very pleased to see the Bill coming before us today, and I am especially pleased to see movement in planning. It was something that was close to my heart a while ago when I was on the Environment Committee and we scrutinised a Bill with whatever the number of clauses that it had. It intrigues me that we were told then that there were 16 to 18 other pieces of legislation or guidance that were yet to come through, and I am aware of this as maybe only the second or the third. I know that RPA was one of them, so I ask the Minister: where are all of the other pieces that need to be fitted to the jigsaw for that Planning Bill, which we all put so much time and effort into, to start to work? It is good to see a Bill that is bringing in speed and a quickening in our planning process.
One matter that has just been touched on and concerns me but from the other side is that of the conflict that arises between councils and the Assembly. When I was a council member, I sometimes felt that we were making planning decisions that purely suited the local area and not necessarily the whole of Northern Ireland. Francie raised a good point, but it has to be looked at from both points of view. We must make sure that things are being done for Northern Ireland as a whole and yet somehow keep the balance with what is needed locally for the councillors who are on the ground.
I am concerned, and I know that the public is because it is often raised, about the old backhander or paper-bag rumour that went around that money was meant to be changing hands. I have never heard or seen any example of that, but it concerns me that that is what the public think of planning; that, somewhere in the system, there is a way of corruption playing its hand. I want to hear from the Minister how he feels that we can ensure that that is corrected so that the public do not go away with that. I am aware of a story of an official being laid off due to corruption. We need to make sure that that is absolutely knocked out of the system and that it does not exist. I do not believe that it does exist at the moment.
Most of this Bill is tidying up, and I welcome that. I particularly welcome the appointment of other persons to help through the Planning Appeals Commission, because that was one of the areas where matters were being slowed up. I congratulate the Minister on many of the areas where he has tried to speed things through quicker, knowing that, in some cases, others will not be happy with his decisions. The effort was there to try to get things through, and we did have our say.
One thing that has always bothered me in the planning process is that we somehow always end up designing everything so that we have a battle between two sides, neither of which wants to give way. I long to see a system which encourages people to sit down and discuss their differences and try to find the right way forward, so that it is not a planning process which is constantly having to be fought out in court. Runkerry is an example. It is extremely sad that it has ended up in court. We know that we need the jobs and that we would like to see a good golf resort up there. Those involved in it know that, when you build a golf course, it brings the wildlife back. It can be done in such a way that everyone benefits, and that is what I would like to see coming out of these planning changes —
Thank you for that clarity.
I also support the raising of the penalties, although I thought that we had put those in place a year ago. I was pleased when we managed to achieve the raising of penalties from £30,000 to £100,000. I note Lord Morrow's comments on that matter, in that, at the time we discussed the percentage idea but were unsure as to whether it was manageable.
We also looked at the problem of dying trees. It was pointed out at the time that, once you are born you are getting closer to your death and, therefore, you are dying and it is the same with trees. We are all dying and, therefore, it is vital that protection protects all dying trees.
I welcome the fixed penalty notices coming through into the system. However, if we go by the small matter of fixed penalty notices on litter, at the moment, different councils interpret them in different ways and, therefore, I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we will get fixed penalty notices on a much grander scale into the system so that every council and every system treats them in the same manner.
The major battle, which many Members have touched on already, is finding a balance between promoting economic development and furthering sustainable development. There, I think, lies the nub of one of the most difficult matters. I look forward, but feel some sympathy for the planning people left to make the decision. I go back to my earlier point: we really want to see people sitting down and trying to find a solution to a matter, rather than fighting it out.
Another area of concern is community involvement. When I asked a year ago what we meant by "community", I was told that it was the people who live there, those who work there and all those who drive in and out and go through it. And it becomes huge; it is everyone. Again, it has been asked how we stop the serial objector from holding up the whole matter. I look forward to seeing in the Bill how we will deal with that, and how we will get proper consultation in the local community that gets them all on board. Maybe that will deal with my other concern about always fighting a battle, instead of finding a nice joint way forward.
I will enjoy watching this from the Education Committee, and I wish all the rest of you in the Environment Committee the best of luck as you go through this Bill clause by clause. I congratulate the Minister on bringing the Bill to the House.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an Bhille, agus ba mhaith liom diriú ar an chuid sin den Bhille a bhaineann go háirithe le forbairt eacnamaíochta. I welcome the Second Stage of the Planning Bill, and as other Members have said, its aims, objectives and overall principles are honourable.
I want to focus in on a couple of specific areas. I welcome the fact that there is a commitment to the faster processing of planning applications, but maybe concentrate now on the whole area of promoting economic development. Other Members who have spoken have cited specific examples of how, in their direct constituency experience, they have encountered what might be described as bad planning, which disabled economic development, rather than enabling or promoting it. Even where environmental concerns were taken into account, still the correct balance was not achieved.
I have a distinct recollection of my time on Omagh District Council between 2000 and 2010 when a very thorough attempt was made by councillors across all the political parties represented on the council to work together to establish an enterprise park in Fintona in County Tyrone. It is the largest centre of population in the Omagh district and the most socially deprived and socially disadvantaged town where unemployment is at its highest. A local community group emerged and people began to show leadership locally to tackle the issues of the day, and their priority project was the establishment of an enterprise park.
Omagh District Council was able to gift or transfer to the local community an area of land where the enterprise park might be developed. IFI grant aid was achieved and 12 anchor tenants were ready to go. Planning Service explained at the time that it was a finely balanced decision and one where it might exercise discretion. However, in that instance, there was no approval and it was a refusal. The community was demoralised. Local government, in its wisdom, had backed it strongly. That was one of the worst examples that I ever witnessed of Planning Service using its discretion to effectively disable economic development in an area where jobs were being created. I want any future decision-making on planning legislation to be informed by that experience.
In the same broad area of promoting economic development is the vexed issue of directional signage — what is allowed and what is not allowed. In the recent past, I tried to support local business — a plant hire company near Dromore in County Tyrone, a small bed and breakfast facility in Drumnakilly, a creative arts business in Omagh and, more latterly, a gymnasium inside an industrial estate. Planning Service is taking exception to modest signage pointing people to a gym in an industrial estate, which is way off an A-class road and a B-class road. Those are examples of where Planning Service could be a lot more flexible and a lot more supportive to the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises.
OK. I am trying to give individual examples of bad planning in the past to inform good planning in the future so that it will influence the Bill as it develops.
Primarily, I am concerned about the words, "promoting economic development". In an area of social disadvantage, there should be a greater will to establish the principle, for example, of an enterprise park and then get on to the business of discussing design and accommodating Planning Service with design.
At this time, job creation and job retention should be a central consideration when the Department assesses applications. At a time when people are crippled by rates and a rise in fuel and other costs, Planning Service can do more to promote economic development.
I want to raise a number of issues about the Bill, and I will do that as succinctly as I can. First, I have a concern about the threat to the independence of arbitrators in respect of Article 31 inquiries referred to in clause 10.
Article 31 inquiries, which deal with significant planning applications, are an important part of the infrastructure of the planning process. They are also an important part from the point of view of public confidence in the planning process. They have evolved, in that when there is a major planning application upon which the Department is, ultimately, to make a decision, the system has been devised under article 31 that farms it out to the Planning Appeals Commission to hold a hearing and make a recommendation, and the Department stands back and carefully considers the independent advice that the commission gives.
I think that that is right and necessary. There have been some criticisms — I have had occasion to experience them myself — when, despite the recommendation of the Planning Appeals Commission, the Department has done its own thing on an article 31. But if we undermine that introduction of an independent role in article 31 by bypassing the PAC, without explanation as to why we need to do so, and have the Department appoint someone else to hear the application and conduct the article 31 inquiry, we will undermine the process. Remember that the Department is a party to an article 31 inquiry. It is one of the combatants in the article 31 arena — it, the applicant and the objectors. In any such arena, it is bad practice for one of the parties to get to choose the referee, so to speak. Therefore, it is a flawed approach in clause 10 to say without explanation — we have heard none from the Minister as to why it is necessary — that it will circumvent the procedure in article 31 whereby the PAC conducts the inquiry, and choose someone of its choosing to conduct the inquiry. Why? If they produce a report that the Department does not like on an article 31, will that be the last time that that person is asked to chair such an inquiry? It has to be seen to be independent as well as being independent. So I do question that, and I have a suggestion —
It would not be a bad habit to develop, to agree with me in respect of certain matters. I appreciate the point that the Member has made. It is the point that I was coming to: that there have already been occasions when the Planning Appeals Commission, because of its workload, has asked someone else to undertake an inquiry.
"a person appointed by the Department for the purpose", why not regularise that by saying "a person appointed by the commission for the purpose", and thereby retain some semblance of independence, which the present wording surrenders? I put that suggestion to the Minister.
I will now move to what clause 12 brings upon us in respect of matters that may be raised in appeals under article 32. Article 32 appeals, as we all know, are the regular, run-of-the-mill planning appeals. Here we have the introduction of a provision that nothing new may be introduced to the appeal. Clause 12 states that:
"a party to the proceedings is not to raise any matter which was not before the Department at the time the decision appealed against was made unless that party can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the planning appeals commission -
(a) that the matter could not have been raised before that time; or
(b) that its not being raised before that time was a consequence of exceptional circumstances."
I have to say to the Minister that my experience of planning appeals is that they are a very important outlet, not least for objectors. Departments may come along to hearings with very skilled and experienced planning officers or even legal representatives. Applicants may come with equally skilled representatives to fight out a planning appeal. However, the party, if there, who often comes with the least expertise is the objector. He or she usually turns up for the first time in that sort of forum without legal or other professional representation and tries to do the best that he or she can to fight their corner.
It would be punitive in respect of justice being seen to be done, for objectors in particular, to introduce a provision that states that you cannot bring in anything that has not previously been before the Department. That would be far too rigid and far too hard on objectors. I also question whether it is compatible with article 32(4) of the existing 1991 Order.
I will remind the Minister what that article states:
"Where an appeal is brought under this Article from a decision of the Department, the planning appeals commission, subject to paragraphs (5) and (6), may allow or dismiss the appeal or may reverse or vary any part of the decision whether the appeal relates to that part thereof or not and may deal with the application as if it had been made to it in the first instance."
In my experience, that latter terminology has been used by the commission to justify the receipt of fresh information and to say, "This is an appeal, but we will deal with it as though it were made to us in the first instance."
How does the provision in clause 12 sit, if it sits at all, with article 32(4) of the Planning Order? The Minister needs to look at the compatibility of that and at the new proposition about whether it is compatible with article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights? Is it consistent with a fair hearing of an appeal issue if you have legislation that states that the PAC can deal with an application as though it was made to it in the first instance, but you want to bring in other legislation that states that someone — I take the example of an objector — cannot raise an issue that has not been before the Department heretofore? I question whether that is consistent, and I think that the Minister needs to look at it.
I will move on to deal with some other points very quickly. This is somewhat related to my concerns about the issue of objectors: the power to be introduced by clause 21 to award costs in respect of planning appeals. I can understand that there might be a temptation to say that if someone runs and loses a planning appeal, there should be some consequences. However, I think, again, that that can be very punitive. Certainly if someone, on some frivolous basis, goes down a certain route, that person might be thought to warrant some punishment in costs.
Does the introduction of an open-ended provision that the Planning Appeals Commission may make an order on costs mean that costs regularly follow an event? If you lose an appeal, do you pay everyone's costs? How are costs apportioned when objectors are there to object, the appellant is fighting a case, and the Department is taking a view for or against? In one sense, there are two winners and one loser on the decision.
There are practicalities, and it would be particularly punitive for third-party objectors, who come to planning issues with their hands already tied behind their backs in that they have no right to a third-party appeal. If there is now the additional risk of costs, that is quite punitive.
A situation will develop, which pertains to many good potential judicial review challenges, that they can never be brought because of the fear on the part of applicants that, if they lose, they are saddled with intolerable costs. In such cases, there may be a legal aid safety net, but there is no such safety net in planning appeals. That is a draconian and unnecessary measure, and the Minister should look at it again.
The proposition in clause 2, and in Part II of the 1991 Order setting out the general guidance on planning, that, for development plans, the Department or the commission must exercise their functions:
" with the objective of -
(a) furthering sustainable development;
(b) promoting or improving well-being; and
(c) promoting economic development."
I want the Minister to clarify whether that is a single, three-pronged objective. Is the function to be exercised, as it appears grammatically to be drafted, with a single objective rather than objectives? Those seem to be three components of a single objective. Is that what the Minister intends, or does he intend each to be a free-standing consideration? As to what "improving well-being" is supposed to mean, I do not know. I think that it means whatever you want it to mean. Inserting wording into legislation that means whatever you want it to mean is not a good course. However, I seriously ask the Minister whether that is a singular objective whereby all three elements must be satisfied, or is it something different?
Clause 6 amplifies what is meant by material considerations so that it embraces the debate over economic advantage or disadvantage. Further down the road, I suspect that, when development plans evolve that take account of clause 2, they will be quite explicit about promoting economic development. That will be an essential knock-on effect of clause 2. In those circumstances, what does clause 6 add to the debate? What does the following mean:
"considerations relating to any economic advantages or disadvantages likely to result from the granting of or, as the case may be, the refusal of planning permission."?
It does not help the balancing exercise simply to state that account must be taken of one or the other. I suspect that greater assistance, if that is what it is to be called on that front, will come from the percolation through the development plans of the objective of promoting economic development. Although I feel quite positive towards that, I have to remind myself, as should the Minister, that planning is about planning, so the economic consideration probably should not be that which is paramount. It certainly has its place, but there is a balance to be struck on how that is weighed.
Clause 4 states:
"A development order may make provision requiring notice to be given of any application for planning permission".
Article 21 uses the phraseology "development order". Is that a development order as defined in article 13 of the 1991 order? If it is, how does that fit with the definition and, in particular, with the repeal of the original article 21, which was the provision whereby planning applications had to be advertised? Is it the special creature of development order that is in article 13 of the Planning Order? Is there, therefore, some effective diminution in advertising requirements? Where do we find what is defined as a "development order", as quoted in the new article 21 pursuant to clause 4? Where do we find that definition if it is not in article 13 of the 1991 order? I am sure that the Minister follows the point that I am rather clumsily trying to make.
On a similar point, clause 5 refers to a pre-application community consultation. It introduces a new article 22A, which states:
"Before submitting an application for planning permission for a development of a class prescribed for the purposes of this Article".
Where is the "class prescribed" for the purposes of this article? Where do I read that definition? Is that in the 1991 order? Is it in this Bill? Is it somewhere else? Perhaps I have simply missed it, but I have not been able to find where the class prescribed for the purposes of the article is so prescribed. Perhaps the Minister could help us with that.
The final point that I want to make relates to the introduction of fixed penalty notices in clause 20. A fixed penalty notice, by its very nature, is a one-off penalty. Under planning legislation, particularly in regard to breaches of enforcement notices, an inherent part of the penalty process is often the imposition of a daily fine: there is a fine for the breach of the notice and an ongoing daily fine until the breach is remedied. How does that sit with the option of a fixed penalty notice? Presumably, if a fixed penalty notice is issued, it abrogates the opportunity for a daily fine for a breach of an enforcement notice. Is that sensible? In other words, how would you deal with a continuing breach of planning by fixed penalty notice? I am sure that the Minister will be able to advise on all of that.
Planning is fundamental to whether we prosper as a society; it determines how we develop our homes, towns and cities. A well-managed planning system can bring improvements in health and well-being. A strong planning system will protect our environment and rural areas. An efficient planning system is vital for a strong economy. For those reasons, we must ensure that we get the legislation and planning policy right. In fact, I argue that it is more important to get the legislation right than get it quickly. No one would argue that the planning system in Northern does not need to be reformed, although we may differ on what such reforms should look like.
I have to question why the Bill has come forward, given that we had the Planning (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 as a result of the lengthy Bill that went through the Assembly's processes. What is its purpose? One explanation that we have been given is the length of time that it has taken for RPA — the 2011 Planning Bill was dependent on the conclusion of RPA — and planning, as I have outlined, is too important to keep back improvements. If that is the key purpose of this Bill, I question the decision to put additional clauses into the Bill. As we have seen, particularly around references to economic development, the additions are creating controversy around the Bill, where, had they not been introduced, there might be none. Indeed, if all that the Bill sought to do was to, on a temporary basis, implement certain measures of the 2011 Bill, it might have had accelerated or at least a quick passage through the Assembly. However, as we have heard from its Chairperson, the Environment Committee will seek an extension to the Committee Stage. So, it looks unlikely that we will see the Bill's progress through the Assembly speedily.
The Bill contains what are described as "desirable additions". Minister: desirable to whom? Who sought these additions? Why are they in there and what benefit do they bring, given the cost of how long it will take the Bill to go through?
There are certainly good aspects to the Bill, and I will refer briefly to some proposals in the Bill that I think it is right that we should seek to introduce sooner rather than later.
I thank the Member for giving way. I agreed with the Chairperson, who said that the Committee would ask for an extension of time to consider the Bill. The reason is to give it the proper process and due recognition of responses to the consultation. It is not really to delay; it is to give everybody an opportunity to participate in that process.
I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree that the reasoning for asking for the extension is sound. The fact is that the Bill has new additions without public consultation. Should the Bill be seeking to enact only something that had already been through public consultation and the Assembly processes, I think that the Minister would have a strong case for having no public consultation. That is why I again question why these "new additions" have been included in the Bill. I think, as I said, that the speedy introduction of sensible and agreed legislation does harm to that objective.
So, I welcome the enactment of some of the provisions in the 2011 Act, including the faster processing of applications. I do not think that you would hear anyone argue against that. Whether an applicant or an objector, speedy resolution is in everyone's interest, and the Minister has referred to progress that has made on that. Further progress would be welcomed.
On having a faster and fairer appeals system, I share some of Mr Allister's concerns: it may be faster but I am yet to be convinced that it will be fairer, and I will come back to that. I certainly welcome enhanced community involvement; although, again, I am dismayed that we are still without legislation for third-party rights of appeal. However, the enhanced community involvement is a step in the right direction. Simpler and tougher enforcement, again, is to be welcomed. We need to see more enforcement. The perception is that a blind eye is too often turned by Planning Service to breaches of planning regulations.
I also welcome the increase in staff numbers in the environmental crime unit. I welcome particularly the greater powers to do with retrospective planning applications; a practice that has, to some extent, brought the planning process into disrepute.
Measures to enhance the environment and strengthen the system are to be welcomed. The introduction of the clause on good design seems fairly uncontroversial. It may be uncontroversial in principle, but I suspect that, in practice, it may be very controversial. I would not like to be the person who drafts the guidance notes on how you enforce good design. However, the clause is to be welcomed. It could, as I say, cause some difficulties, but I will wait and see on that one.
Reference has been made by a number of Members to diseased trees that are under a tree preservation order (TPO). The fact that a TPO would still apply to a diseased tree is certainly to be welcomed.
Most of the benefits from bringing forward legislation sooner have been through the consultation process and agreed by the Assembly. They are to be welcomed. Again, however, I would question the reasoning for the introduction of new clauses to the Bill.
I come now to the issue of economic considerations and the clause to promote economic development. The clause has caused concern and suspicion. The Minister himself made reference to PPS 24, which he wisely scrapped, for want of a better word. That was the right decision. An overriding precedence given to economic factors could have caused many problems, even in areas such as health and safety; if economic considerations were to override health and safety, that would be very bad policy. However, because of that attempt, many see the clauses on economic considerations as an attempt to legislate where the policy did not come into force. I appreciate that the overriding nature of PPS 24 has not been included in the Bill. However, even if you accept that, you then have to question the purpose of putting it there. That came up in the Environment Committee, and an official stated that the Bill:
"gives economic development the statutory weight of a material planning consideration ... I suppose that, ultimately, legislation gives it the highest status in policy."
I have concern with the suggestion of "highest status in policy". It suggests a hierarchy. I suspect that the Minister will refute that, but, if that is the case, it contradicts by definition sustainable development. I would be concerned about that potential conflict and contradiction.
Previously, in reference to PPS 24, the Minister stated that:
"Many rightly argued that economic considerations are already a factor in planning decisions and are already dealt with in a balanced way alongside other material considerations".
That suggests, and, to me, confirms, that economic development is already a material consideration. If that is the case, I would again question why it has been put in the Bill. When I put that question to him, the Minister did mention the reference to sustainable development. If economic considerations are to be given explicit mention, I suggest that what might be more helpful would be for environmental considerations to be given equally explicit mention. If it brings no improvement in practice, I question its necessity in the Bill.
What might be helpful is an explicit definition of what we mean by sustainable development. I would not accuse the Minister of this, but, often, in Departments, sustainability and sustainable development are used as buzzwords, without being founded on an understanding of what sustainable development means. That would be beneficial in really giving weight to sustainable development, which, inherently, includes economic considerations.
I fear that the inclusion of this clause is, to some extent, a concession to those who wanted to see PPS 24 and, perhaps, an attempt to say to those who are saying that we need to see economic development because the economy is struggling — I fear that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the short-term economic situation. Knee-jerk reactions create bad legislation. Indeed, the lack of consultation on the new clauses — as well as clause 10, which I will come back to because it is a significant amendment — is bad process. I gave reasons for that earlier in my speech.
OFMDFM's 'Practical Guide to Policy Making in Northern Ireland' states:
"Proceeding with no or token consultation may appear to save time in the short term, especially in a context of limited resources, but it can result in problems later."
In fact, we are seeing that already because, whilst we may have saved time in public consultation at the start of the Bill's progress, additional time may be required for its Committee Stage. I second Anna Lo's points about the Committee's capacity to conduct public consultation compared with that of the Department.
Even if we accept that clause 2 does not give any greater weight to economic considerations, the specific reference in clause 6 to the weighing-up of economic advantages and disadvantages could have considerably detrimental unintended consequences. Those have been mentioned, to some extent, by other Members.
What we are trying to do is streamline planning, speed it up and make it more efficient, but by introducing the specific reference to the weighing-up of economic advantages and disadvantages we open up all sorts of problems. It could result in more appeals and judicial reviews and could be counterproductive to many of the other objectives of the Bill.
The Minister will know that when you have three economists in a room you will get six different opinions. I am concerned to see how that might play out in the form of legal challenges. We will inevitably have economists representing those who, whether they are applicants or objectors, have considerable vested interests. How do we make those judgements? How do we stand over them in a court of law?
Indeed, how does the Planning Service — Planning NI, I should say — make those decisions, given that there are, to the best of my knowledge, no economists in planning? They are planners; they are not economists, and whilst indeed they are experts in their field, I fear that this may put a responsibility on them that is not specific to the arena of planning.
Again, I have to ask: whose economic advantage and disadvantage? By definition, certainly in the case of commercial developments, it will be to the economic advantage of the applicant. Presumably they believe so, or they would not put the application forward. What if a development impacts on house prices in an area? Is that a material economic consideration? It has not been to date, and it is probably right that it has not been.
Again, what about competitor businesses? If an application is to their economic disadvantage, whose profit will be given the greater weight — the existing business or the applicant? Again, I am interested to hear about that in feedback from the Minister. However, I have concerns that it could turn out to be a legal minefield.
I often sit beside Mr Allister, but it is very rarely that we stand side by side. I think that he would agree with that as much as I believe it. I share his concerns about how clause 10 would enable the Department to appoint those who chair and provide recommendations on article 31 applications. I have serious concerns about the perception of the independence of the process. I think, quite rightly, that the independence of the process is compromised if, as Mr Allister pointed out, the Department is a party to a dispute and appoints the person who will referee it.
Having sufficient safeguards in place might alleviate some of my fears, but my reading of clause 10 is that it takes out the numerous safeguards that were in the original Act — the Planning Act 2011. Those safeguards were consulted on and approved by the Assembly. I very much believe that to be a significant change, and, again, there was no public consultation on it. Indeed, in his opening remarks, the Minister made little reference to it. Should the Bill go through the full Assembly processes, I ask the Minister to confirm whether that amendment will remain in place post-RPA, which is when the 2011 Act will come into force. The change is significant, and I am keen to hear whether it is proposed that it be temporary or permanent.
Another question that I have on that proposal is whether it will apply to applications that are currently in the system. If it does, that would raise further suspicions that the Minister and the Department are seeking to put through something that would give them greater power to make decisions on current applications in the way in which the Department wants.
As I said at the start of my speech, I am disappointed that there is still no third-party right of appeal. I stand over my point that, given the Bill's objective, new clauses should not have been introduced. However, if we were to introduce new clauses, introducing one on third-party right of appeal would have been beneficial. I know that the issue was debated in the Assembly and that it received cross-party support. The only exception to that support was the DUP, which tabled a petition of concern. I think that that was a misuse of the petition of concern, and it raises the question of whether the DUP, whose Members are no longer present, is the party of the developers' union. I am all for trade unions — I am a big supporter of them — but we need transparency in the arrangement between developers and political parties. Indeed, if we are to have public confidence in the planning process, it is essential that we have transparency in political funding, especially when we devolve these powers to councils. As I said, there are certainly concerns about safeguarding against incorrect decisions and councillors not being influenced by other factors.
Before I conclude, I have one further question for the Minister. Where do the Bill and the Planning Act 2011 sit with plan-led development? Is it still the Minister's intention to implement that? BMAP is a perfect example of the time, energy, finance and effort that can be put into developing such plans.
Area plans are a sensible way to take that forward, but the original intention was to give them primacy. Is that still the intention? If so, what is the timeline?
In conclusion, planning is fundamental to how our society functions. It affects our health and well-being, our environment and our economy. Planning legislation and policy is one of the most important aspects for Governments, this Assembly and, soon, for councils. We need a system that is fair, efficient, transparent and accountable. It should be, and rightly is, underpinned by the principles of sustainable development. In my view, that should not be compromised. In that regard, I have some concerns about the Bill. There is much in it to recommend; I will be happy to see it going to the next stage, but I would like it to be revised as it goes through the Assembly.
I thank all Members who spoke for their kind and not-so-kind contributions.
To begin, I want to make a wider political point but not a party political one. I sometimes think that we cannot see the wood for the trees. What I mean by that in this instance is, as I said in my opening remarks, that there are 800 days until the transfer of planning to local councils. That will be an enormous responsibility for local councils and, arguably, a burden on them.
On Thursday, I will again go to the Executive looking for funding for the transition costs for the transfer of functions to local councils and their reorganisation between now and 2015. A big element of that funding proposal is to build the capacity of councillors and management to best manage the functions that will be devolved to them in 2015 around planning applications, local development plans and community planning. I confirm for Mr Agnew that plan-led development is the best-led development, and I will come back to that theme later. Community planning will be an enormous responsibility, but it has to be done, and it has to be done right. Therefore, building up the capacity of councillors and management will be an essential element of getting it done and getting it done right. However, I am not going to hand something to local councils that I know is not fully fit for purpose. In 2015, I am not going to say to councils that they have all this planning function, and, by the way, in 2015, but only in 2015, put in place the elements of the Planning Act that have been referred to today. So although it is absolutely right to interrogate the Bill and to ask the questions that have been asked, we should be mindful that it substantially reflects the law and the democratic will of the Assembly from a previous mandate. I am mindful of that, which does not mean that you do not revisit legislation or decisions. I think that, in my time and tenure in this office, I have demonstrated that I have been prepared to take a different view from that of my predecessors. However, if we are serious about RPA and getting it right, and if we are going to get it right, we need much of the Bill to be in place in good time to ensure that there is good planning for local councils on the far side of 2015. It will be very important to bring that perspective to the interrogation of the Bill, being mindful that it reflects the thinking and will of the Assembly during the previous mandate and the urgency and primacy of ensuring that, in 2015, the people whom councils serve — business and domestic ratepayers and others — get, through the transfer of functions, a planning system that fully measures up to their needs.
It may well be that I will not be able to address all the issues raised, partly because some require further consideration and reflection by me. Some issues are technical or legal and will require further advice. There were some questions to which, despite my best efforts to work up an answer, I probably do not have the answer. However, through a further written reply to the debate and through the process of interrogation at Committee Stage, I will ensure that all those questions are answered. I will try to address some of the more challenging comments made, even some of the more unkind ones.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
I will go through all the contributions of Members who spoke. Anna Lo made a self-evident but fair point. I try to acknowledge points that are fair and, as Ms Lo will hear, I will also acknowledge points from some Members that I think were unfair, including from Ms Lo. This Bill came later than expected. That is due, first and foremost, to the new clauses. It is also because of the toing and froing and conversation between me and officials, and officials and Ministers from other Departments. That is why this came "later than expected", to borrow Ms Lo's phrase.
I was determined to ensure that we got the Bill through the Executive and to the Assembly for the reasons that I just gave, namely to hand councils something that is more fit for purpose than what we had before, and which reflected the will of the Assembly in the previous mandate through the Planning (Northern Ireland) Act 2011. I was determined that, in achieving that objective, I did not build into this Bill something that might only create multiple problems down the road. That is why there was a later than expected decision by the Executive to approve the Bill. I was determined that the Bill would not create hostages to fortune, that it would not overreach and that it would not lead to unnecessary legal challenges. People are entitled to make legal challenges, but I will certainly try to mitigate unnecessary ones. That is why the wording of the new clauses has been drafted as it has, in comparison with the previous legislation. The intention was to navigate that path and ensure that what we are doing does not overreach. I will come back to that issue in some detail.
The Bill was drafted so as not to create legal mischief, legal doubt or legal challenge. I cannot anticipate what others might do hereafter, but that is the path that I chose. In coming to the House later than expected, I have tried to ensure that we have legislation that is on the right side of all of that, but achieves the ambition of getting the new architecture in place in advance of 2015.
A point was made about consultation on the new clauses. It is a preferable model to have the type of consultation referred to, but the advice that I was given, which has not been contradicted by any legal authority in and around government, is that, despite introducing new clauses today, the processes hereafter of political and public consideration of those clauses, as well as the overall Bill, satisfy the threshold of public consultation. That is the advice that I have been given. Given the circumstances that I am in, which are that this has come later than expected, and given my ambition to get the new architecture in place in advance of RPA and to have it tested and tried, as Mr Eastwood said, even if only for a year or so, I think that, in the round, that is the best approach to take. That is why the consultation process will be undertaken by the Committee. Ms Lo referred to being annoyed that it is being left to carry out that consultation. However, when you measure all the various factors and try to balance them and achieve the best and desired outcome, I think that, given the circumstances we are in, that is how it will be approached.
On the basis of this debate, it is quite clear that those clauses, as well as the Bill generally, will be scrutinised intensely. In that way, a sufficient and satisfactory level of political and public input will be satisfied. A threshold will be reached to ensure that a proper process — it may not be the process that others would have designed — is fulfilled that sees whether it is the will of the Assembly that this legislation is passed to send out the message that clauses 2 and 6 send out in all their terms. I want to confirm to Mr Allister that clause 2 and its three subsections, themes and principles should be read together as an integrated approach rather than as selective with a hierarchy therein. I will come back to that shortly.
In the circumstances that we face, to fulfil the ambition of the original Act and to do all that in advance of reorganisation, taking into account all the comments that have been made is, I think, both politically and as Minister, the better way to proceed, even if some people do not consider that it is the best way to proceed.
I will differentiate between Anna Lo's comments as Chairperson and her comments as a South Belfast MLA. I can confirm that, in her comments as Committee Chairperson, she was quite right that having provision for statutory consultees and time frames for response does not mean much if you do not broaden the category of statutory consultees. That will be a consequence of the legislation. Not only will it be laid down in regulation what the time period might be — at the moment, we are working towards 2021 — but the range of statutory consultees will be broadened to ensure that the statutory timeline has genuine meaning and brings into the body of law and the practice of planning the rigour and discipline that might have to —
I thank the Minister for giving way. I would like him to clarify the point about the transfer of functions to local councils. Is he saying this evening that that is no longer guaranteed to happen before 2015 and that, in fact, the transfer of functions may well not now take place? I would like him to clarify that point.
I do not know why I need to make any point of clarification. I think that the Hansard report will confirm that there was nothing in what I said that suggested that anything other than 2015 remains the ambition. That is the intention. The Executive decided in November 2010 — erroneously, in my view — to have 11 councils rather than 15, and I committed to managing that decision. There is no evidence of my doing anything since that time other than managing that decision and sending out the message that the point of no return passed long ago and that this will be achieved. I hope that that intervention was informed by mischief rather than by the very clear statements that I have made in all my contributions at all times in respect of RPA.
In my view, Anna Lo's contribution in her capacity as an MLA was certainly unhelpful and probably crossed that line. Let me explain why. We have had enough in this society of what I refer to as the leadership of worst fears. It is people looking at a situation and concluding from it that the worst fears is their response. We have seen ample evidence of that in the past six or seven weeks, where decisions are taken and people draw conclusions from them that, in my view, are disproportionate. Frankly, there was that sort of thinking in Mrs Lo's comments.
I do not mind criticism of the decisions of any Minister: that is legitimate, democratic and ensures accountability. However, you have to give the full narrative. Mrs Lo drew conclusions about how the new legislation that is proposed in the Bill might work itself through for the application that is yet to come for hydraulic fracturing in Fermanagh. Mrs Lo chose to somehow apply clauses in a Bill, which I tried to explain, to the potential for hydraulic fracturing and say that, because those clauses refer to economic advantage or disadvantage, they would somehow have consequences for the proposal for hydraulic fracturing. People know how charged and sensitive the proposal for hydraulic fracturing is in Fermanagh. Mrs Lo knows that I have said absolutely every time I have been questioned that there will be no rush to fracking in Fermanagh, that all environmental and planning requirements will be upheld and that we will assess all the science — American, European and Irish. People will have noted that there was a call for evidence to a project led by the Irish Government, but involving my Department, on best practice or best science on the issue of potential for hydraulic fracking. Mrs Lo knows how vigilant and careful I have tried to be in that regard, and to try to get some casual headline by saying that it will end up with the potential for fracking in Fermanagh —
I will give way in a second.
In my view, that is worst fears politics. Yes, you can raise questions about what this might mean, but to relate it to something that is not even in the planning system at the moment is not a wise approach.
I make those comments because the other point that Mrs Lo referred to when she spoke about planning decisions I made in the past 18 months was Runkerry. I will not get into the issue of Runkerry because I will respect the authority of the court even if other people do not necessarily appear to do so. Comments were made without giving the wider narrative about decisions that were turned down because environmental standards, in my view, were of greater weight or about decisions taken on rebalancing, as I see it, in-town in favour of out-of-town retail as has happened in Derry, which is consistent with current planning policy and all the other planning requirements. I will give way to the Member.
No, I do not agree with that assertion. Whether you believe that or not, to try to relate the proposals and my comments to what might or might not happen in Fermanagh is trying to exploit fears rather than, as we are obliged to, looking in a measured, proportionate and discerning way at what legislation really means. There have been other examples, I have to say, of Ms Lo misrepresenting and mangling what the Department is trying to do for reasons that she can best explain.
I cannot understand some of the assertions around these clauses. Ms Lo said that stimulating economic development is not common practice in other jurisdictions. Subject to the Hansard report, that is a quote. Stimulating economic development is not common practice? There is a presumption of development in law. Some people do not like that, but there is a presumption of development in law. The purpose of the planning system is, working from that principle, to then mould planning policy and decisions that take into account all the other factors that properly and reasonably should be taken into account. To send out a message, from any political party in this Chamber, in the circumstances in which we exist at the moment in the North, when we are about to enter a triple-dip recession and we are about to have 20,000 more people on the unemployment register because of the outworking of welfare reform; when we are about to see two more phases of welfare cuts, as has been indicated by the Chancellor in his autumn statement, on the far side of 2015 — and, mind you, it is going to be earlier than 2015 — to send out a message that stimulating economic development is not common practice in other jurisdictions is, in my view, incredible and is not the sort of message that we need to be sending out to so many hard-pressed people at this time.
Bad development should not happen. That is why I have been making assessments based upon all the relevant factors: the law, the evidence and planning policy. Where I think something is bad, I have been saying so. I do not get that upset about the criticism, because you need to be clear-headed and clear-sighted. I have overturned, for want of a better word —Mr Poots has now gone, but he will be returning shortly or, at least, as soon as I have finished my remarks. I have overturned a view essentially in respect of the seats-for-sale restriction at Belfast City Airport because, in my view, that was not a sustainable position. It was not based upon the law, and it was going to get crushed at a judicial review. I have taken a different view from others in respect of Rose Energy. I have taken a different view in the advice that I have given to the PAC in respect of the overall greater Belfast policy.
So, where I think that something is not measured up against the law, policy or evidence and is "bad", to use your term, I think that any Minister, if they are worth their weight, should be prepared to make those decisions and live with the consequences as long as they have good law, good process and good conscience on their side. This notion of portraying what has been proposed in this legislation as some sort of advance guard for development here, there and everywhere seems to me to be disproportionate.
It reminds me — and now I am going to get into some trouble, if I am not careful, Mr Deputy Speaker — [Laughter.]
I will take that as endorsement and move on, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I have to say that I am not in the place that some in this Chamber are, where economic advantage, whatever it may be, is going to prevail. I think that there are probably some people who skirt around that argument; I must be honest with you. There are people who go close to that argument, but I am not one of them. That point was captured by Mr Weir before he left. He looked at what was proposed and used very cautious words about, if you like, the economic elements proposed in clauses 2 and 4. He said that proper and sufficient weight should be given to economic considerations, but he never used the line that there should be determinative weight given to them. That is the difference between where I am and where others might like to be. Where others like to be is to give determinative weight to economic considerations. In my view, that is disproportionate to the overall character and integrity of our planning system.
I will. There should be proper weight given to economic considerations and proper weight given to all relevant material considerations, as informed by law and policy practice. I give them sufficient weight but not determinative weight. How can people draw a conclusion from clauses 2 and 4, when I suppressed the policy that gave determinative weight to economic considerations? This is the language that Ms Lo used, and I quote her again:
"trying to sneak in such a fundamental shift ... through the back door."
Do you think that that is the sort of politician that I want to be, sneaking something in — a fundamental shift — through the back door? I will give way.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I have expressed respect for him and the scrutiny that he has given to decisions in the past. He has referred to his own performance as Minister, but, ultimately, he will not be Minister for ever. The question that I ask is this: does he believe that, when another Minister comes in, will the Bill in any way empower that Minister, under either clause 2 or clause 6, to give added weight to economic considerations over and above other aspects of sustainable development?
No — that is the answer. It does not. I have had the conversation, taken legal advice and looked at the words that have gone into the Bill, and, given that those words are not of a scale and extravagance that measures up to being determinative, I do not believe that that conclusion can be drawn. I will come back to the point and then reply to Mr Agnew's latter points.
Mr Weir also made the point about third-party appeals. My intuition and judgement is to go in the direction of third-party appeals. The South seems to have become a bit more neutral or hostile to them. I understand that the Scottish Government, who have been the clear leaders of new planning policy — in spatial planning, integrated planning, the devolution of planning function to local citizens and so forth — seem to be somewhat more uncertain about third-party appeals, but my intuition and judgement is to build them in. I made a call about a year ago — maybe it was not as long ago as that — that, given the scale of what was required for planning, given the issues that I referred to in my opening remarks and given the need to get a single planning policy statement to deal with article 31 applications, reduce the time lines around all categories of planning application, build up a robust enforcement regime, get this legislation before the House and get the architecture in place before the transfer of functions in 2015, if I were to go down the road of third-party appeals, without prejudice to the fact that there would be people who would have opposed it, I would have been overreaching. I am also of the view that the sum of the parts to which I referred had the best opportunity, in this mandate, to get planning and the twin-track or binary system that we will have after 2015 as fully fit for purpose as possible.
I want to bring forward proposals for third-party appeals, but my judgement is that, at this stage, I would be overreaching and would probably end up in a dead end. Therefore, the energies and diligence of the Department should be directed to all the other aspects to which I referred. In the Southern system, there are third-party appeals, but they come at a price, which is that citizens and communities are less involved in the earlier stages of a planning application and have the safety net of a third-party appeal at the far end. Therefore, if my judgement is that people cannot go down the road of third-party appeals at the moment for the reasons that I outlined, even though I want to and have ambitions to do that, the involvement of the citizen and the community is built up in the earlier part of the planning system — pre-application in respect of significant planning applications — and will work itself through to get community planning right as part of the transfer of planning functions in 2015. That is the strategy. People can dispute that and say that that is a strategy of folly or that there is a better way to go. I understand those arguments because intuition and judgement could have led me in that direction. However, I weighed everything in the round, and that is my conclusion.
Cathal Boylan made an interesting point. He started by talking about consultees — he referred to them as respondees — and how that would work. I think that he was highlighting the fact that there is a culture shift at the heart of this, which is crucial to the Bill and to the transfer of functions and falls to the Assembly and to Ministers. If the Bill is to make a difference to how the North develops, it is a culture shift that puts plan-led development and citizen input at the heart of things. A PAD process would have the citizen and the community given their proper position with regard to planning. When the RPA Bill comes before the Assembly, statutory organisations will have a responsibility to engage with communities and councils and have regard to what councils propose for community planning and development plans. That is why, within a year — hopefully, much more quickly than that — the Department will issue advice on the statement of community involvement in development plans and planning control functions. That is the culture shift to which, I think, Mr Boylan, referred.
Mr Boylan and Mr Allister also mentioned appeals and whether new material could or could not be introduced. Some interesting comments were made. Mr Allister was not here during the previous mandate when this proposal was passed. It would be negligent of me simply to say that that is the will of the Assembly and disregard the comments of Mr Allister and others. I owe it to him, as an MLA, and to the authority of the Assembly Floor to reflect on all that.
Let us look at the proposed new appeal system, which was touched on. The legislation will include the power to appoint other people to conduct article 31 planning appeals. If that happens at all, it will happen when the Planning Appeals Commission says that it does not have the capacity to do something. That is the purpose, and that is how it will be defined in regulations. It will be defined in regulations in consultation with the PAC. This does not usurp the PAC as the proper authority. It is not trying to say that we will appoint a friendly face to get a friendly outcome. Again, that seems to be the interpretation of what is intended. Forgive me if that misrepresents what Mr Allister said. The purpose is to deal with future situations should the economy prosper, sustainable development begin to roll out and issues arise with article 31 applications that have to go to the Planning Appeals Commission for further enquiry. Remember that of all the article 31 applications at the moment, only three are going to the PAC. I am subject to correction. One is for the North/South interconnector, and the PAC is discussing the airport, but that is not an article 31 issue. I cannot remember the third one at the moment. Currently, such matters are rare. However, in the event of a pressure point in the PAC, the purpose will be to appoint somebody, subject to the proper process and rigorous standards, in order not to compromise the principles of transparency, independence and so on, in the way that might have been portrayed in some of Mr Allister's comments.
Under the model that I propose through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to Mr Allister and others, costs will be awarded only against the appellant or the Department. At the moment, an individual citizen does not have the right to go to the PAC on the far side of a decision with which he or she is not happy. Therefore, a citizen's opportunity and the financial viability of going to appeal will be protected because costs will not be awarded against them. They will be a participant, but they will be neither the appellant nor the Department. Too right: I want the PAC to be able to award costs against a small number of people in the North who use the planning system, the PAC and the High Court and might even go beyond that on occasion to push the limits of good planning policy beyond what is best for all of us. They are entitled to do that. That is the law, and I will not deny them that opportunity. However, some people overreach when it comes to using the law, the planning appeals process and the courts. That is what I am trying to get at: it is for that sort of unreasonable behaviour that a new disciplinary regime is required to send out a message to those who overreach.
When it comes to new material, the appeal process is legitimate. I do not think that there is a contradiction between the 1991 order and the Bill. I do not think that there is a contradiction, as Mr Allister suggested, between prior legislation and the Bill in saying that an appeal process should look at what was argued previously but guidance to PAC can state that there is information that, in exceptional circumstances, might be revisited. I do not think it unreasonable to say that, if information could have been raised before, it cannot be raised later. Those are good principles to inform the process. Mr Allister has, however, made some points. I will listen to them further and come back to his points later. Do not be concerned.
Mr Elliott made the point — I will make it now as we approach 7.00 pm — that we do not want to hold people back unnecessarily. Last night, as Mr Elliott knows, he was held back until 7.00 pm because of a meeting that we were having about the RPA upstairs. Therefore, I regret it if people are being held back. He made the point about a lack of consistency. I think that he was referring primarily to PPS 21. Over the next period, I have to bring quite a number of planning policy statements to the Executive. I will not detain the Assembly with them at the moment. The purpose of the PPS 21 operational review, as I have explained to Mr Elliott, is that it was a real-time, real-life operational review that, in one way, does not have a conclusion because its purpose was to say to the planning system that there is inconsistency in planning decisions between divisional offices and that, consistent with the substance of PPS 21, flexibility should fall to the applicant. That is the default position — I am being careful now, because I do not want to get myself into legal problems — and the flexibility should fall to the applicant, as long as that is faithful and loyal to the content of PPS 21. I think that it is time to report to the Assembly on where that operational review is and what has changed. Subject to what Members might say, I do not hear the same volume of criticism about inconsistency across PPS 21 applications. I think that there has been some reinterpretation of some operations, consistent with the ambition of the policy.
Turning to Tom Elliott's point about costs being awarded by the PAC and his concern that that is only for the rich, I think that I have answered that. It will not be the "poor", for want of a better word — the individual citizen — who is at the PAC who will be awarded costs.
In respect of conservation and enhancement, the policy will be "Where possible". It will not be an absolute rule. When it comes to developing a conservation zone, we should look towards enhancement rather than anything less than that. Where that is not possible, the planning system will obviously have the opportunity to say that what has been done may not be enhancement but lives within the spirit of the policy.
I will deal with Lord Morrow's comments. He said that he thought the planning system had seen economic opportunities lost. He rightly pointed out that, as a councillor, I might have seen where that was manifest. I do not dispute that. However, this legislation creates the architecture so that economic opportunities are not lost in 2015. Let me give you the example of Clare County Council, which I always quote. Eighty per cent of the Republic of Ireland's land mass is now covered by development plans. That has been achieved in about 10 years. Serious mistakes and worse clearly arose during that period. The tribunal confirmed that there was irregularity, corruption and criminality. So, when you develop local development plans, you need to be careful that you do so absolutely right and legally. What does the example of Clare County Council tell us? It tells us that because the west coast of Ireland has the best wind, wave and tide in the world, which is advertised and dramatised through renewables, technology, and research and development, it has a self-sufficient electricity supply and is a net exporter of electricity to national grids in Britain and in Europe. That demonstrates why renewables are such an opportunity. What has Clare County Council done in its development plan? It has captured that. On the pages of the Clare County Council development plan, it says, "Come and plant your renewables on the coast of Clare, because we have the best wind, wave and tide in the world". That is an opportunity. If we get the architecture of planning right in the rundown to RPA, then come RPA, when councils are developing their local development plans, which I hope they will push on with — I will come back to that in a second — that is the sort of thing that people need to have the ambition to do — to follow the example of Clare and to say, "This is where our economic opportunity is", in order to ensure that economic opportunities are not lost.
You only have to go to Kilkeel in south Down to see a community that has lost its traditional industry and has seen a decline in traditional fishing. What has it done? It has recreated its fishing industry through added-value produce and diversification, using the fishing fleet to assist in the growth of renewables in that part of the world, following, not least, the recent decision to award a licence for offshore wind farms. So, that is where the opportunities exist and — to answer Mr Elliott's question — that is what the Bill will achieve.
I will not address all the points made but will touch on some of the matters that were raised. Mr Molloy's speech was a curious one, and I am being kind when I say it was a curious one. Mr Molloy first of all cautioned us against reform. I always knew that Sinn Féin were just a bunch of conservatives, and, on the record in this Chamber, they cautioned us on reform. That is a quote, and Hansard will confirm that. I am of the same view as Robert Kennedy, who said that he demanded the right to dissent because there was much to dissent from. In our society, that remains the case, but to be cautioned on reform is disturbing.
There was also a theme that, I am sure, Mr Molloy did not intend because he has a long record of being involved in community activism. I remember going down to Coalisland when I was Social Development Minister — you can confirm that. It was a great night. In fact, it was a night a bit like this — there was snow on the ground, isn't that right? — in December 2010. We had a great night down there with an Irish language organisation and other activities. So, I am sure that he did not mean this, but he came across as being anti-community and anti-citizen. Why, he asked, were we funding organisations, such as Supporting Communities? I think that what he probably meant was Community Places, which is an organisation funded by the Department in order to empower local citizens to assert their rights and interests when it comes to planning. Not only are we funding it, we have guaranteed it funding for the next two years. I sent out a note over the weekend to one of the officials, who is probably here, saying that I wanted that funding to pass into the next CSR because I do not think that funding an organisation such as Community Places for two years would allow for the transition into RPA in 2015-16, which is a right place to be. I will continue to fund it because it is the organisation that puts citizens and communities first when it comes to planning applications. If it is working with communities to say no to some planning application in some part of the North, I will not turn around and refer to them as serial objectors or in some way deride or denigrate the contribution they make. There should be more Community Places-type organisations because otherwise Mr Agnew's concern will be manifest. It will be manifest that those who have least resources will have the least authority and least influence around planning.
I thank the Minister for giving way. It is important that he quotes correctly. On supporting communities, I said where there were not valid objections and where his Department's approval of an application proved the case that there were not valid objections. My question was this: how do you assess the support that is given by Community Places or anyone else who is funded by the Department, funded by the ratepayers in relation to that? The community who are looking for jobs also need to be supported and to have somebody speaking on their behalf.
In point of fact, the Department currently funds only two third-party organisations for their planning capacity and input: Disability Action and Community Places. Subject to correction, those are the only two that we fund. There is an argument that we should fund a lot more through Environment Link. We give them substantial moneys — not as much this year as last year because we are able to give them in-year moneys — to fund community organisations through an environmental grant. I would like to see whether there is more opportunity to fund community organisations in terms of planning grant in order to empower the citizens and the communities.
My problem with Mr Molloy's analysis of a current planning application, about which I will be quite silent, is that he gave only a partial narrative. I criticised Ms Lo in that regard because there was a partial narrative. If I were to criticise Mr Molloy, I would do the same. If he wants to bring to the attention of the Chamber a planning application and where it currently sits, he should give the full history of that planning application. That full history might include not that a planning official may currently recommend something, but the history going back a long time of the planning system refusing that application. That is a full narrative, not a partial narrative.
If Mr Molloy wants to come to the Chamber, give his opinion on a planning application and use the preposterous phrase that we should not put into development lines something that does not work, that is running a coach and horses through planning policy and development plans. When we are meant to have planning-led development in the North, Mr Molloy suggests that you should not put into development lines a proposal that does not work. What does that mean? It means that there is a settlement limit in a town in Northern Ireland where the development plan says that there should not be industrial development outside that settlement limit. What has happened? Perhaps a third-party organisation has come along and planted its development, without permission, on lands outside the development limit, and the planning system says that there are multiple other locations. That is the full narrative, not the partial narrative. I anticipated that individual planning issues would be brought to the Floor. If you want to do that, tell the full narrative, not one that serves the ambition — legitimate though it may be — of any planning application.
I will give way in a second.
I know that there are serial objectors. I do not know who precisely he might be referring to, but I know that there are also genuine and well-motivated people with real concerns. I do not refer to them as serial objectors; I refer to them as good citizens.
I, again, clarify to the Minister that I was very clearly talking about a new application on a new site; not the site that he is referring to, which there were objections to. It was also an enforcement site. That is not what I was talking about whatsoever. The Minister knows what the application is about: it is a new factory that will provide jobs in Coalisland.
I do not want to get into it; I have probably gone too far as it is. Even the latest statement from Mr Molloy about a development on an enforcement site is part of the wider narrative. Perhaps we will leave that matter.
I make it clear that party politics does not influence local decisions. For what it is worth — it is probably not worth very much — when I came into my Department, I told my permanent secretary that if there was any application in which I thought that there was a conflict of interest or a perception of a conflict of interest, I would discharge myself from making a decision. The permanent secretary looked at me — I hope that I am not speaking out of turn, because you are not meant to mention those people in the Chamber — and I knew from his look that I should ask a further question. I asked whether anybody else had done that previously, and he said no. I am the only planning Minister who has done that. When it comes to casual phrases such as "party politics influencing local decisions", I suggest that you might want to reflect on that.
That theme was picked up by Danny Kinahan when he talked about public perception. It was reflected in an article in the 'Belfast Telegraph' by Friends of the Earth, which is a great organisation, even though I disagree with some of its terminology about certain things. The assertion was that we may not know about a brown envelope containing £10,000 or £20,000. As a former Assistant Chief Constable for crime said to me about the involvement of MI5 in the North, we do not know what we do not know. That was not much of an argument about MI5 intelligence gathering in the North, and it is not much of an argument from Mr Kinahan in that regard. That is except to say that, at a Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) conference in Lisburn a few weeks ago, I made the point that this issue was going to arise and that we needed to build into the devolution of planning functions — and all functions — a rigorous governance, accountability and ethics regime in order to address these issues if they arise. If they are brought to my attention I will investigate them.
Mr Kinahan referred to a matter that might have received some public attention recently. However, no information at all, hardly — no evidence — has been brought to me that this is an issue, never mind a significant issue in the planning system. If there was evidence, I would like to hear it because the evidence from other jurisdictions suggests that it might arise. However, it has not.
That is why we need to build into the RPA Bill a regime around governance, accountability and ethics that militates against that risk. One of the proposals that we will have in the RPA Bill is that complaints about the conduct of a council go to independent investigation through the Commissioner for Complaints and is not handled in-house, in order to try to deal with that issue.
Mr Kinahan also touched on how we are going to ensure that when we get to the point of transfer there will be people capable of doing the work that is going to be demanded of them. That is why I do not think that you can do enough training and capacity-building in the rundown to councils taking planning powers. That is also why I hope that on Thursday every member of the Executive will put their hands up for the very substantial bid for RPA transfer moneys that I am looking for, part of which is to help fund training.
Mr McElduff, who has left — no, he has not — referred to the Fintona decision. I do not know what it was but I presume that it predates me, but he made some good points in that regard. If there is an issue around erection of signage, bring it to my attention. I will give you a small example. This issue arose in Belfast around signs being placed in shop windows but not on the frontage of a shop and not on the front of its window — they were within the curtilage of the building. The planning system sent out letters to three or maybe four businesses immediately after Christmas, which was unfortunate, given all the circumstances around Christmas, trading and streets-wise. The planning system has apologised for that. Those notices should not have been sent out.
There is not an issue about signage being displayed within buildings that is not on the frontage of buildings. I have said to planners that there is a need for some guidance, so that our beautiful shop frontages in a city with a wonderful heritage do not end up getting cluttered and dominated by signs. However, the notices that were sent out were wrong, and I will issue a statement about that tomorrow. I understand that we did not have legal cover for what was proposed. The Department has been upfront in saying that it got that wrong. I said that I would look at the case. I have looked at it. That is the outcome. I believe that letters are being sent to the four shop owners concerned.
Now, where would I start with Mr Allister? He made an enormous number of comments, and I do not think that I am going to be able to touch on them, for the reasons that I outlined in my opening remarks. They were very extensive. However, I have tried to indicate that the reconfiguring of the planning appeals system is to serve the interests of good decision-making and to penalise those who use appeal unreasonably, be they an appellant, applicant or the Department, although I cannot imagine that the Department would do that. In those circumstances, and mindful of the comments that I made about a third-party appeal, I do not think that that is draconian. In trying to ensure that the planning appeals system works to achieve the outcomes that I am talking about, that turnaround times are not used for improper purposes and that the system does not become just a routine place to re-engineer arguments or make new ones, I do not think that that is an unreasonable approach.
I accept the principle that Mr Allister outlined, and that was part and parcel of a lot of what he said. The citizen cannot be prejudiced, or the reasonable citizen at least must not be prejudiced in appealing a process. Given his comments about there being no legal aid and the absence of third-party appeals, that is a fair argument. In taking forward that proposal, if we need to think further about safeguarding the public or the citizen or the community interest, I will do so.
I talked about clause 2 in my earlier remarks. Mr Allister was the only Member to comment on clause 2(2), which touches on promoting or improving well-being, and he asked what it meant. We will have to interpret that and issue guidance as to what it means, because, although that is new, it clearly needs some further interpretation.
The three issues of material economic criteria, well-being and sustainable development are integrated. That integration is the protection against the concerns that Steven Agnew outlined in his commentary. The Bill does not give determinative weight. The material consideration of economic gain must also be read in the context of the legislation's other supporting principles that deal with sustainable development and well-being. In any case, they have to be read in the context of all planning policy, and so forth.
None of that will change in advance of the single planning policy statement that will come out before 2015. It may be further interpreted, because of the further PPSs that I will bring to the Executive that will deal with enabling development, tourism, and so forth.
Mr Allister raised a range of other issues. He probably knows the answer to his question about fixed penalty notices. A fixed penalty notice does not mean the end of enforcement but that you can follow up with a further fixed penalty process. Indeed, the Department has been deploying that for unauthorised developments, where, in my view, acute issues have arisen that led to economic disadvantage to neighbouring businesses through repeated enforcement action. I hope that that addresses that issue.
Clause 5 deals with pre-application community consultation and makes reference to a "class prescribed". I will read the following into the record so that Mr Allister and others can reflect on it. A class prescribed is one prescribed for the purposes of clause 5. Classes of development will be prescribed in subordinate legislation — in other words, in regulations. Some of the clauses will require for there to be pre-application community consultation. For example, the class prescribed for clause 5 may be a major application, meaning that pre-application community consultation would apply only to major applications.
I have already dealt with the awarding of costs by the Planning Appeals Commission.
There is an issue around publicity for planning applications. Mr McDevitt, who is behind me, probably chides me on occasion — I was certainly chided by some journalists recently — that I am not into the changing world of mass communication. I am a conservative in that regard, Mr Molloy. I am a traditionalist. [Laughter.] The point is that the new provisions for publicity arrangements for planning applications, which are set out in clause 4, will provide an opportunity for the Department to examine a range of options based on efficiency and effectiveness. They will provide the flexibility to keep up with the rapidly changing world of mass communication.
I was at an event recently at which it was explained that online BBC news gets twice the number of viewers that 'Newsline' does. I should have known that, but I did not. That certainly changed my perspective on the media.
I am sure that I have not touched on everything, but Lord Morrow encouraged me to conclude by 7.00 pm. I do not know how long I can speak for this time —
Too long — right.
I will conclude by saying that I thought that Steven Agnew's speech was very balanced. In many ways, that is because of his party allegiance, and his commitment to the green agenda is arguably more unambiguous than that of anybody else in the Chamber.
A lot of Members acknowledged all the elements in the Bill that had been rehearsed previously and that would create a better architecture in the rundown to RPA and post-RPA. When talking about the economic clauses, Steven Agnew referred to a "knee-jerk reaction" — I think that I see a press release coming that has not already been issued; actually, I have it here. Although he may wish to visit that analysis on others, which is his right, I hope that I have done enough to convince him that that is not what I have been about and that this is not a knee-jerk reaction. The Bill is trying to capture in law the right statement that we should be making in a way that does not prejudice other material considerations or our full range of planning policy precedent and guidance. That is all.
Some people may think that we should have gone for more than that. However, the fact that the Bill has been drafted in this way is, I think, an acknowledgement by those who might have thought that it should have gone further that they cannot do that without the certainty of a legal challenge being made or having muddled planning practice. Nonetheless, we wanted to send out a very positive message about where we see this place at this time and about what we want to encourage going forward. We do not want to do that in a prescriptive, dogmatic or partial and party political way but in a way that says to people that this is the right thing to do in the weeks that are in it, never mind the times that are in it.
The Bill will not be retrospective; it will apply to planning applications that will arise after the passing of any legislation that includes those two clauses.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Planning Bill [NIA 17/11-15] be agreed.
That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Deputy Speaker.]
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am very pleased to have secured the debate and welcome the opportunity this evening to raise the issue of mental health and the provision of services in my constituency of South Antrim.
In bringing the topic before the Assembly, I hope to continue to raise awareness of the tragedy of suicide. I also wish to highlight the need for greater promotion of mental health issues and to examine what more we can do to support those groups that do such worthwhile work in our community. When I say "groups", I am speaking about not only the statutory services that are available but the very many voluntary and charitable groups.
I am not seeking an opportunity to be critical of the Department. In fact, I am pleased that, in launching the Protect Life strategy in June last year, the Minister has already demonstrated a significant commitment to tackle this problem that affects so many. I welcome his efforts to date, and I hope that he can update us today on the progress that has been made since his announcement last year.
This debate focuses on my concerns for my constituency. However, it of course goes without saying that thoughts today are with all those communities that have suffered loss from suicide and with all those groups across Northern Ireland that, in their own way, are working hard in their areas to help people to cope with the aftermath of suicide and with mental health issues in general.
Turning to South Antrim, I will begin by highlighting a recent meeting that I attended, which was organised by a newly formed group called Antrim Together. I pay tribute to that group, not only for organising the meeting and highlighting such an important issue in the public domain but for its determination to help others who are suffering with mental health issues. The meeting occurred in the aftermath of the loss to suicide of four young people in my constituency since October. The organisers of the meeting were motivated by that series of tragedies to tackle the scourge of suicide and to raise awareness of mental health problems in the community. At that meeting, I was struck by a number of things, not least the real benefit to our communities when ordinary people decide to take action and work together across all divides for the greater good. At a time when community relations in Northern Ireland are under severe strain, this is a real example of a positive and uniting initiative, and I hope that it continues to make progress. I will, of course, do whatever I can to ensure that it does.
What also struck me was the sheer number of groups — statutory agencies and voluntary and charitable organisations — that were there on the day to talk about their work and highlight their services in the field of mental health. Many of those present were not aware of the existence of other groups in their area or of the extent of resources that are available and in place. I, therefore, respectfully observe that one of the key difficulties that we face is highlighting those services, ensuring that they can operate in a joined-up way, avoid duplication and develop common themes and strategies in a cohesive framework.
Across government today, we constantly look at means of delivering more for less, particularly in the health and community and voluntary sectors. The meeting that I attended seemed to have the potential to do just that. We in government should recognise the effort and do all that we can to promote it.
I urge the Minister and his officials to consider how his Department can work with groups such as Antrim Together to explore how best to harness the work that is being done. I would be very happy to facilitate any such meeting in my constituency.
The meeting also provided an insight into some of the challenges that face us in trying to promote mental health awareness. You might think that in performing an online search to research suicide, the internet might be a useful aid, and perhaps it is. However, among the search results are guides to how one might successfully commit suicide. That is a small but truly shocking example of how the world of the internet and social media can be such a negative influence and source of anxiety and depression. Used properly and positively, it can, of course, be truly informative and beneficial, but the negative impacts of some of the more dubious aspects of life in cyberspace can be devastating when our young people are simply too vulnerable to cope with mass cyberbullying, social humiliation or exclusion.
For the purposes of this debate, it may be appropriate to note that my party colleague and MP for South Antrim, William McCrea, has sponsored a private Member's Bill in the House of Commons that is aimed at the establishment of an office for the prevention of suicide and self-harm. The body would aim to work with internet providers and others to reduce access to information on the internet and through other sources on methods of suicide and to develop a system of alerts and blocks for internet searches that relate to suicide and for connected purposes. If passed and adopted by Her Majesty's Government, the Bill would mean that the body would operate at a national level, including Northern Ireland. This is a Bill that I would support, and I encourage the House and the Minister to do likewise.
My final observation about the meeting was how it highlighted the range of ordinary people who are affected by mental health issues, and, sadly, the stigma that still surrounds it. It strikes me that if we were all honest, most of us would admit to having struggled with our mental health at some point, be it depression, anxiety, prolonged stress, eating disorders or whatever. In my case, it was postnatal depression. I still recall the absolute fear that I felt at not being able to cope. It was never diagnosed, I asked for no help and I suffered in silence.
Politicians are often accused of talking endlessly; sometimes, that is true. Maybe it would be better if we spoke not endlessly but honestly. Perhaps fear of what might be said or written about us is the reason why many stay silent, but when it comes to mental health, we have to be real. People want real politics to deliver in ways that are meaningful and relevant.
It is not enough for us just to have this debate; we must do more. Our life experience as individuals should help to define us, and the lessons we have learned should shape our policies and strategies. Only when we do this will we really demonstrate to the people of Antrim Together and other groups that we are with them, not just because we feel we should be but because we have the same concerns, worries and needs.
I ask the Minister to outline, by way of reassurance, the work that his Department is undertaking in South Antrim, and for his thoughts on how that work might directly impact on the community to ensure that there is no more suffering for families. In bringing my remarks to a close, I must say that South Antrim is fortunate to have so many dedicated individuals and groups working to address mental health issues. I pay tribute to them and I ask the Minister to offer his full support as we all endeavour to ensure that, as a society, we work together to aim for good mental health for everyone.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I congratulate and thank my colleague from South Antrim for bringing this important issue before the House. I was elected to local council four times and I have been elected to this Assembly since it was established following the Good Friday Agreement at each subsequent election, but this may be the first time that I find myself in total agreement with what a DUP spokesperson has said. It was a very comprehensive exposition of the issue.
In these modern times, particularly when there is economic decline on a global scale, it is quite evident that many societies will be under stress. That will be reflected both in incidences of mental ill health and in suicide statistics. Our society will be no different in that social and economic dynamic. Of course, we also have the legacy of many generations of conflict and division, which also takes its toll.
Ms Lewis has presented the scenario: there is no room, nor should there be any tolerance, for people who would not attempt to maximise the amount of understanding and empathy that exists right across our community. South Antrim is blessed with the involvement of the community and voluntary sector. It has a community network model and an architecture between the Public Health Agency, the Department and the Minister, who has, on a number of occasions, addressed this issue with empathy and sympathy. If we were to come at this from the point of view that it is an invest-to-save issue, we could not only avoid the human toll of suicide on families and community networks, but avoid the huge recurring expense that is imposed on the health service.
Building up awareness, understanding and education, and removing any hint of stigma for people who have the courage to come forward and say, "I need support. I need help," is a way in which we can address resources in a more intelligent way, without the human cost. That is the path of development. I have heard the Minister speak about this before, and it is a subject that is quite close to my heart. He can speak with some authority on this matter, not only about what has been done, but the direction of travel and what he intends as the way forward.
The architecture that I have mentioned works in the urban as well the rural setting. That connection into the community is, in fact, the most direct intervention that we can make. That type of ready and accessible support, if those involved are properly resourced and properly trained — of course, we have to establish that we are meeting what we might describe as minimum thresholds of capacity, skill and knowledge — is the way in which we can recognise the difficulties before there are tragic outcomes or circumstances that are very difficult to recover from or to treat properly.
Early recognition, empowering people, especially family members, to seek the help that is there, and ensuring that no stigma is attached are the ways in which we can make the most effective intervention. Thank you very much for bringing this debate before the House today.
I, too, congratulate Pam Brown for securing the debate. I am in total agreement with everything that she said. I also feel that we should all share our sympathy with anyone who has lost someone due to mental illness. As I am not on the Health Committee, I was intrigued about what the exact focus of today's debate would be. So, I will touch on one or two other matters as well.
We know that Northern Ireland has greater mental health needs than the rest of the UK. Some 24% of men and 17% of women here have mental health problems, which is 20% higher than the rates in Scotland or Wales. We know that mental health has been linked to high levels of deprivation. The Northern Ireland deprivation measure of 2010 showed that some 17,900 people in south Antrim are on deprived income. That is frighteningly significant to today's debate. The Troubles will also have played their part, and south Antrim is not entirely free of those at the moment.
A few months ago, I attended a bus-stop event here in Stormont, at which Belfast children discussed these matters. Their clear message was that they want included in their curriculum at least one lesson on mental health issues — how to deal with it, how to help each other and how to recognise it. I echo what Mitchel McLaughlin said about education being a key part. We should be including that in our curriculum.
I, too, attended the Antrim Together suicide awareness event the other day. As Pam Brown said, there were fantastic people there; they are the gems of our society. However, there is duplication. There is a need to avoid that and to find common themes and ways of working together so that we get the best out of all those volunteers and all the different mechanisms that they have in place to help people.
A few weeks ago, I attended a post-19 Mencap event in Mossley. There I found another angle to mental health issues, namely those children who, on leaving school, find themselves unable to get jobs and still in need of care. They need just as much help as they did when their parents looked after them. It really frightened me to see that, although the system works very well for some, when the system does not find people jobs, the whole problem is left with the family. We need dynamic resources and help for those people there and then. I ask the Minister to look into that.
In South Antrim, we have Holywell Hospital. It is an excellent resource for Northern Ireland that we have had for years. However, it is well past its sell-by date, if I could put it that way. It is a great facility, but we need a new facility. From talking to the Minister earlier, I know that he has ideas. Maybe this is an area in which we can look at public-private solutions or other ways to get funding.
This is a matter that we all need to look at and focus on. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about what other things he may be able to do for South Antrim. I congratulate Ms Brown and the MP for South Antrim for raising the issue of cyberbullying and trying to tackle that side of life.
I, too, thank my South Antrim colleague for securing this debate. As she said in her opening remarks, I was also at that event at Dunadry Inn.
Pam mentioned the stigma, and one thing that struck me when I was there was the stigma attached to people acknowledging mental health problems. The owner of the hotel, John Mooney, as many will know, has been actively involved for many years in mental health issues through the Lions Club and its feathers initiative. John said that he was struck by the number of agencies that had taken the time that Saturday, when the community united to arrange the event, to attend and to produce leaflets. However, he said that there were so many leaflets that it was difficult to know which one to read. I say to the Minister that, with his Department and those he has influence on, there has to be a coming together to make the information easier to find.
One of the criticisms that day — it was dispelled — was that there were no services or that people were not aware of the services. Pam made a point about cyberspace and what is on it, and, unfortunately, some people focus on the negative aspects of cyberspace and not the positives. On that day, our colleague from Westminster and South Antrim, the Reverend William McCrea, said that people were explicit in telling other people how to commit suicide. That is alarming, and the sooner those situations are brought to an end, the better. However, John Mooney's comments about all the different leaflets struck me. He was not criticising the organisations. They are there, but they are not reaching the people who are hard to reach. Some of the recently bereaved families were in attendance that day and were amazed by the number of agencies that were there because they had not had contact with them.
There was a follow-on event on the Monday night in Parkhall school, and all the agencies were on display because it is a very topical issue in Antrim given, as my colleague said, the four deaths since October. They went there to promote themselves, but, unfortunately, the young people are not coming out to pick up that information.
However, it goes further than young people. I am a parent, and there is a responsibility on parents to look for the signs in their household and to be aware of the difficulties and challenges that young people face today whether in education, jobs or unemployment. They should even be aware of the company that their children keep and whatever forms of trouble they veer towards. Families are under pressure, and, unfortunately, tragic events have happened recently. More has to be done to educate parents to look for the telltale signs of their children struggling, and to signpost them in the right direction.
Pam shared her story tonight, and, as I said that day, I suffered from a mental health problem 25 years ago. I am grateful for the good grace of my parents in signposting me to the health service. There was no internet at that time, and we did not have as many services as we have now. Although we can sometimes deny, after a death, that the services are there, they are there, but sometimes people find them difficult to get at.
The debate is more about education for everyone, not just those who are directly involved. Where people see the signs, there should be sharing of information, and they should be pointed in the right direction to the much needed services. I can relate back to my own story: if I did not seek the help, I would not have got help and I could be in the same place as many others are today. However, I sought and got help, and I am thankful for the help that I received at that time. The help is there for others, and I encourage them, if they feel in a low place, to seek the help to get them back on to the right path.
I thank my colleague for bringing the debate to the House. A lot of people have focused on what groups are out there to help. Unfortunately, the first people who normally deal with someone who is suffering from a mental illness, whether it is depression, bipolar disorder or another illness, are the family. The telltale signs are sometimes not so evident, because they are well hidden. There are very good GPs who are brilliant at signposting people and sending them in the right direction, but, unfortunately, a number of GPs, with the time that they have for their patients, come in through the door and the first thing that they reach for is the prescription pad. The number of people in our society who are living on tranquilisers, are basically existing on them and have built up a habit on them is phenomenal.
I come from a family that has been affected. In 1984, my father had a total nervous breakdown and had to spend almost one year in Holywell in Antrim. I can tell you that that is not a nice experience and that it has a major impact upon a family. Those sorts of real-life situations bring you back to reality, and, unfortunately, in our society today, there are many organisations that set themselves up to deal with and, supposedly, signpost people in the right direction. I appreciate that there are very good charities, but I also say that there are some that do not necessarily do what it says on the tin. That can be a problem. The joined-up approach is not necessarily there with some of those agencies.
We hear about young people taking their lives, some of them due to abuse of drugs which have actually created some of the paranoia and the problems that they have. Others are living through a lot of stress. Our current economic climate has been mentioned, and that can have an impact upon breadwinners in a family, who may try to hide some of their problems. Unfortunately, the ostrich mentality does not necessarily work. It will come back to bite them, and the rest of it will be seen.
We need to highlight the fact that employers also have a responsibility. A number of people say that MLAs do absolutely nothing. I guarantee you that 90%, and maybe 99%, of the people in this forum are hard-working and conscientious. The point of the matter is that the number of hours that they work on a weekly basis, if all added together, can culminate in them having, or contribute to, depression, which many of them are probably living with and unaware of. Employers have a responsibility. You can cope with one wee bit of pressure, but, unless you deal with it, if you keep adding and building on that, it will eventually overflow. I have heard people talking about it being just like filling a jam jar and starting to pour it into a drum. You can take an awful lot, but eventually it will overflow. When that happens, it is too late.
We have to identify all of these issues. Bullying online seems to be one of the easiest ways that young people are getting attacked. There are people out there who can become faceless and target others. I have met young people who have been bullied online by so-called friends who put up a different name and work under somebody else, and therefore they come in as a friend and they use that to get back at them. This is a form of bullying that needs to be dealt with.
It is not only a health service issue. Danny Kinahan alluded to the issue in relation to young people with learning difficulties and — some of them — serious mental illnesses. Hillcroft school is one in particular. Unfortunately, once they reach the age of 19, there is nowhere for them to go. Some of those young people end up in what are called elderly people's homes, and that is not a suitable environment for people who are 19 or 20 years of age. We have to seriously look after young people like that.
This debate has to be brought forward. In south Antrim, we have some wonderful services. We have Tobernaveen, and we also have one that is connected to the Belfast Trust in our area: Muckamore. I appreciate that there are issues associated with Muckamore, and there is a reduction in the service that is provided —
That is the point, and another Member mentioned the invest-to-save initiative, and that is something that we have to consider seriously. A stitch in time can save nine. I know that, had a number of issues been dealt with earlier in my father's life, we would not have wasted many years as he tried to recover from what was a very serious mental illness. Therefore, early intervention is key to dealing with those matters, and so is having people in place who are properly qualified. Unfortunately, I think that a number of GPs are not necessarily picking up on mental illness and signposting it early enough to ensure that people get proper treatment. However, I totally support and thank our Member for tabling this evening's Adjournment topic.
I thank Ms Brown for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this issue, and I thank colleagues from South Antrim for the opportunity to join them in my capacity as my party's health spokesperson. I will step in until such time as we can restore the obvious democratic imbalance in the constituency, and by that I mean that there is not an SDLP MLA currently in a seat to speak directly on behalf of the people.
It has been very interesting to hear colleagues' perspectives on mental health, and it has been interesting to listen to some of what is going on in South Antrim on the ground. Speaking from the perspective of a member of the Health Committee, I can say that there are a couple of themes that jump out every time that we get together in the House or at Committee level to talk about mental health.
The first is summed up by the idea that we have medicalised mental illness and that it is something for which there needs to be a medical solution. Mr Girvan, with whom I empathise, as my father had a very similar life experience, captured what can happen. There is a determination to try to find a medical solution when, in fact, the problem is much bigger than just a pill, or much bigger than just something that a GP or another generalist medical practitioner could ever possibly deal with.
However, we still as a society end up, nearly by default, searching for and requiring the medical system, or clinicians, to deal with mental health. We were reflecting on the Protect Life strategy last week in Committee. There are others in the House, to whom it is not appropriate to refer, who dedicate a lot of their professional lives to that aspect of public policy, and I want to thank them for that.
One of the things that struck us about the feedback on Protect Life is that, although the Department of Health is doing what it can, other Departments are doing very little, and there is a sense that mental health is a Health problem — not just a medical problem, but, departmentally, just a Department of Health problem — when, in fact, we all know that it is a workplace problem and educational problem. Take Mr Clarke's reflection on his own brush with mental illness. If I look at him and take a guess, I might say that it was probably not too long after he left education, and it may even have been when he was in education.
It is also a problem that has an impact on other aspects of public policy not immediately obvious to us: housing; planning; and even environmental policy. The factors that contribute to poor mental health are factors that can sometimes be traced back to development, lifestyle or the way in which we choose, or choose not, to get some proper exercise. They are all connected issues, yet as a Government we often fail to join up those dots and take responsibility for something as pervasive as mental health, instead leaving it to the Department of Health.
I wish to make a couple of other observations. One is a point that I always like to make when we are talking about mental health issues — particularly that of suicide — and that is the outstanding issues that we have with the coronial services. It takes a long time for suicides to be recorded as such, so there is basically a data lack. It is a couple of years before you know, and that has a big impact on perception. From time to time, we get the impression that there has been a spate of suicides in a particular community or in part of our region. Unfortunately, we cannot really validate that because the Coroners Service is so tardy in just saying yes, that was and that was not. We need to address the issue to move the debate beyond some of the perceptions and try to eliminate some of the myths that might or might not exist.
I thank the Member for giving way. I want to dispel that myth, and I appreciate what you say about how a death can be recorded. However, we are clear and certain that social media fed this in our area, and I think that that is why my colleague proposed the debate. There have been four deaths, and the last two deaths were linked. I am only guessing, but I think that it was the vacuum of the third death that probably contributed to the fourth death, because a relationship had been formed. However, social media were feeding this and making people aware of the problem.
I appreciate Mr Clarke's remarks. It is funny that he should bring that issue up because it is a huge factor and one that those in positions of expertise would caution us to move on very carefully indeed. The Minister may reflect on that in his remarks. Things that appear to be great ideas, such as websites being established in tribute, can often become forums for everything that is exactly the opposite to the original intention. Therefore, what starts off as a good idea can often become a focus for future self-harm or can bring people together in a very negative way, which can have fatal consequences. There is a huge amount of work to be done, from cyberbullying to getting social media to understand the impact that they are having on people, particularly young people, at times of crisis.
The community response has been one of the great good news stories in Northern Ireland in the past decade. Communities have been able to get together and organise themselves to try to identify the early warning signs. That is fantastic, and several Members — I remember Mr McLaughlin saying it most clearly — reminded us of the need to make sure that, when we allow communities to take more ownership of a problem such as mental illness or to promote mental well-being, they must have the capacity to do so. There is a great duty on us to ensure that, if we are giving money and support, we must make sure that that support is sustainable and that people are able to offer the right level and appropriate type of support to improve the situation and not accidentally make it worse.
It is always a pleasure to get the opportunity to talk about these issues, even if they are difficult and challenging. I pay tribute to the House because, in the past seven years, one thing that it has done very successfully is to blow the lid off some of the myths about mental illness to allow us all to speak honestly about the fact that it is much closer to every single one of us than we would have been able to acknowledge a decade ago.
I thank the Member for proposing the debate and all Members for their valuable contributions. I hope to respond to Members on the points raised.
My Department has spent around £32 million over the past six years on suicide prevention. That investment supports a range of evidence-based interventions, which include counselling, bereavement support, the Lifeline service, awareness raising, the promotion of help seeking, and next-day mental health appointments for people presenting at A&E in distress. Although we make that investment, we do it against a backdrop of a rising trend in the number of suicides over the past number of years.
Although South Antrim is not one of the areas with the highest rates of suicide, suicides have, nonetheless, increased in South Antrim. From 1997 to 2001, for example, there was an average of 5·9 deaths per 100,000 of the population. More recently, that has risen to over 11 deaths. That is almost a full 100% increase in the rate of suicide over the past 12 to 14 years, and we should, rightly, be concerned about that. We need to be of the view that one suicide is one suicide too many. I understand that there have been nine suspected deaths by suicide in the South Antrim area since April 2012. The deaths of a number of young people over recent months have prompted some other young people locally to take action because they want to prevent further loss of life among their peers. I cannot commend them highly enough for that. The energy and commitment that they will bring to the efforts to tackle the issue can only be of benefit to people in the South Antrim area because they raise awareness and seek to help. Often, people affected by suicide wish to help so that others do not have to experience the loss that they have suffered. One of the problems is knowing where to start and what services already exist. Mr Clarke, rightly, pointed out that there seemed to be a plethora of advice, support and help at the event. We need to be cognisant of the fact that an awful lot of people want to be helpful. However, sometimes, it can be a bit of a jungle. We need to be a bit more defined. The groups that we support need to have more connectivity, work more closely together and, perhaps, join with one another as opposed to having separate and distinct groups.
However, I am heartened by the fact that the young people in this case have linked with a number of existing groups and that they held an event to identify what is available locally and how that could be better co-ordinated and promoted. Knowing where to turn for help is an important factor in keeping safe. Following the initial event, the northern area Protect Life co-ordination committee met to consider the next steps in response to the recent deaths and concern about the lack of awareness of services among the public. It was agreed to partially activate the northern area community response plan for intervening in suspected emerging suicide clusters, although I should say that, at this stage, there is no evidence of a suicide cluster in South Antrim. That has not been recognised at this point.
The community response plan provides for the implementation of a range of very local interventions aimed at reducing the risk of further suicides. The reason for activating the plan was to address the local community's perception that nothing was happening in response to the deaths. The initial focus of the response was to co-ordinate a number of local events being organised by local groups and improve communication in the services currently available to support those in the Antrim area. I believe that the young people who initially raised the issue have also set up a Facebook page called Antrim Together to provide information and signposting for others in the area. That is an excellent idea. Frequently, we hear negative stories about cyberbullying and about the promotion of suicide on the internet. As it has, rightly, been said, the Member of Parliament for South Antrim has been leading on that issue at Westminster and doing good work. Antrim Together is an example of how the internet can be used for positive purposes. We would like there to be more use of social media in combating suicide rather than the appalling sites that promote it.
The Public Health Agency is charged with implementing the Protect Life suicide prevention strategy. The agency will contact the founders of Antrim Together to give them support in their endeavours. Other organisations are also involved, such as the Youth Service and the Northern Trust, which will offer relevant training to the young people. The need for greater awareness of suicide prevention services in the area has clearly come to light. One of the agreed actions is that the Northern Trust, the PHA, Lifeline and Aware Defeat Depression will compile an information sheet for distribution to local public representatives, media and community organisations. The group will also explore other means of ensuring that information is accessible to young people and will work with Antrim Together. Mr McDevitt, rightly, pointed out the role of other Departments. The Northern Trust has done leading work with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development called maximising access to and uptake of grants, benefits and services in rural areas (MARA). This is outreach work aimed at people who live in rural communities. It deals with people who are, very often, isolated. That piece of work may be followed by others.
There are tremendous opportunities to work with other Departments. I have stated over and over again that I believe that every Minister has a responsibility for health. Although I front the Health Department, every other Minister has a role to play in ensuring that Northern Ireland's public have better health. Certainly, on suicide issues, I could receive considerable help from other Departments that would save lives. I have said frequently that the approach to suicide prevention must be rooted in partnership working and maximising community involvement. Therefore, it is not just about government.
That is exactly the approach that the Public Health Agency has taken in the wider Northern Trust area, which, of course, covers the South Antrim parliamentary constituency. The recent developments in South Antrim need to be part of that wider approach, and I believe that proper arrangements are in place to ensure that that is the case, and that the whole South Antrim community will benefit from that.
In conclusion, I think that it is excellent that the group is responding. We need to work closely with, develop, and co-ordinate such groups so that we can maximise the number of well-meaning and good-intentioned people out there who can help us to drive down the scourge of suicide in our society.
Through that work, we in Northern Ireland can turn a corner and go from having a very high suicide rate to having one of the lowest in the world, making us a leading place that other parts of the world will look to. That is what we all need to aspire to, and I know that I have the support of the House in doing this. I will also give Members my support when they come to me and my Department on these issues, so that we can make the best possible case for the reduction of this awful scourge.
Adjourned at 7.46 pm.