Debate resumed on motion:
That this Assembly recognises the systemic failures in the current process for adopting roads and services in new developments; notes with concern the Department for Infrastructure's inability to quantify the precise number of those households and developments affected; further recognises the resourcing constraints within the Department that exacerbate the problem, and is concerned by the lack of progress made in addressing these failures since they were highlighted in a Regional Development Committee report in 2012; acknowledges the impact these failings are having on communities living in affected developments; calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to take steps to reduce the backlog of unadopted roads and services as a matter of urgency and to work with Executive colleagues to identify areas where cross-departmental working can be used to alleviate the impact of resource constraints; and further calls on the Minister, in line with the 2012 report recommendations, to formulate and implement a more robust and time-constrained package of guidance and enforcement that includes ensuring appropriate bond levels to complete works and a review of the main statutory instruments. — [Miss McIlveen (The Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure).]
I have to say at the outset that it is of concern that, almost nine years after the Regional Development Committee presented its findings on unadopted roads to the Assembly, the Committee for Infrastructure feels the need to bring this motion to the Chamber today. I am sure that all of us can give examples of constituents affected by this. While the extent of the issue is by no means as widespread as when questions were first raised, it remains a problem for a large number of householders across Northern Ireland. That this is the case almost nine years after the recommendations of the Regional Development Committee's findings were accepted is, however, alarming.
On 7 February 2012, in connection with a debate in this Chamber, the then Minister for Regional Development said:
"I recognise the concerns of local homeowners who find themselves in new housing developments, where developers have left roads and sewerage systems unfinished. Roads Service and NI Water are making use of the current legislation and procedures to address these problems but this process takes time to complete."
Surely, after almost a decade, we should be far closer to resolving this than, the Committee has found, we are. Nine months after the Minister made his statement, the then Committee for Regional Development published a report of its findings following an inquiry into the matter.
The report highlighted the fact that, at the time, there were anything between 1,200 and 3,500 unadopted roads and some 1,200 sewage schemes in backlog and that, critically, Northern Ireland Water and the Department for Regional Development were unable to quantify the precise numbers. At its meeting on 12 May 2021, nearly a decade on, the Committee for Infrastructure found that that was still the case and that the recommendations made in the 2012 report to address the backlog are yet to be fully considered. That raises the question of how the issue can ever be rectified if the full extent of the problem is not known.
Owning a property on an unadopted road is not always a problem. In situations where there are inadequate management arrangements for those roads, however, it can become a serious problem for the property owners. Selling such properties can be difficult because prospective purchasers cannot obtain a mortgage to buy the property and lenders are reluctant to lend money for their purchase. The result, often, is that owners are unable to sell their property, potentially have to reduce the sale price or are limited to selling to cash buyers.
The Department manages the adoption of new roads that are determined as part of the planning process. The term "determined" means that a road is:
"suitable for adoption into the maintained road network, once it is completed in accordance with the approved drawings".
In theory, once planning permission is received, the Department works with the developer, the lender and the bond company to progress the adoption of a development's roads in a timely fashion under the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980. As part of the planning application consideration, it must be clear that the standards of completion that will be achieved are appropriate. If that is the case, the private street is determined and considered determined. The developer then takes out a bond, and the road is constructed and adopted. It is illegal for a developer to commence works on new developments without having an article 32 agreement and bond in place. They allow the Department to bring any development up to adoption standard should the developer fail to do so for any reason. However, sites remain where no bond exists.
One of the recommendations made in the 2012 report related to the role of solicitors. The Committee heard that the Department had engaged with the Law Society in 2012 and that, following that, there had been greater awareness amongst solicitors of the importance of a bond being in place before purchasing a property. The adequacy of the bond also needs to be taken into account, however. Two recommendations in the 2012 report dealt with the issue. One suggested the inclusion of an inflationary amount; the other suggested calling in the bond amount earlier in the process to reduce health and safety risks to residents. Neither suggestion has been adequately addressed.
The Committee heard that some sites remain unadopted because of sewerage and road issues that the Department has no powers to remediate. The concern in those instances is that, without the inflationary amount, the bond's value lessens the longer it is in place. I, along with others, am aware of cases where the bond can no longer cover the cost of the works required and the developer company has been wound up or cannot meet the obligations.
I am also aware that many sites have issues with not just roads but Northern Ireland Water infrastructure. The Committee recognises that and found comfort in the fact that Northern Ireland Water is at least trying proactively to identify high-priority and legacy sites to establish what the problems are at each one. The Department is working with them to get the work moved on and completed. That long-overdue prioritisation audit was also a recommendation of the 2012 report. The questions that need to be asked are these: could further cross-departmental working practices be set up to make more of an impact, and what is being done to seek further powers to do something about it? The Committee was advised that it has been some time since the last review of bond adequacy. Officials advised that they were working to update previous submissions on bond rates and will shortly bring something to the Minister. However, the Committee believes that that needs to be reviewed as a matter of urgency in order to avoid the need for enforcement and systemic failures, which adversely affect the lives of those in affected developments.
That brings me to enforcement action by the Department in cases where the system does not work. It is alarming to hear that the Department has only approximately 20 staff to cover 3,470 live bonds and all the enforcement cases. Prior to 2015, the Department had double that number. The Department has reduced capacity to take enforcement action when a developer has commenced without a bond in place or, at the other end of the process, when they fail to complete the development. The result is an enforced reactive, rather than proactive, approach to enforcement, which is simply unacceptable. In order to get back to a proactive mode and to be better placed to know the number of sites and levels of occupancy, we need to go back to those pre-reduction levels. That is a stark example of how reduced resource budget constraints impact on capacity and how that translates into failings in delivery to the public.
The Committee acknowledges that much work has been done and is being done successfully despite those constraints. However, the backlog and the legacy sites are of particular concern. Adoption of sites is triggered by occupancy rates, with 80% occupancy being a key trigger. A number of sites have reached that threshold, yet they remain unadopted, many since around the property crash in 2007; indeed, there is a road that was bonded in 1988 that remains unadopted. There are some cases where enforcement cannot be used to guide the works, typically where there are land or access issues. The way forward in those instances is to work with the developers and residents to resolve the outstanding issues, which is less than ideal.
Finally, as well as the unadopted roads that are part of the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order process, Members will be aware that a number sit outside that. There is a provision in the order to adopt such sites, but, as with any development, it is a prerequisite that the site be brought up to an adoptable standard before the Department will take it on. To give a sense of scale, 10 years ago, a study identified over 620 kilometres of unadopted roads and laneways sitting outside the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order process. The cost of bringing those roads up to a standard sufficient to allow for their adoption would be in the order of £300 million. In addition, somewhere in the range of £41 million and £100 million was identified as being needed to allow for the adoption of sewage and waste water schemes. It was noted that, even then, it was extremely unlikely that those levels of investment could be acquired from central government. Those fears have proved prophetic, with ongoing budget constraints providing the same concerns today. However, the Committee for Infrastructure, just like the Committee for Regional Development before it, believes that, despite that, actions can and must be identified and taken to rectify the problem and that a coordinated effort by all sectors involved in the process could see major improvement in even the most critical cases.
Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I will speak in favour of the motion, and I welcome the opportunity to do so, as it is an important subject for the Committee. It is an equality issue too, because some developments are not finished, and the likes of raised manhole covers mean that services do not go in. I raise equality in the provision of services because the likes of bin lorries and so on do not go into some of those developments. I want to put that on record.
I hope that the motion will speed things up and that we will address the issue. The Chair has outlined many of the things that, I am sure, many others will mention, but I want to take the timeline back to 2012. There was a good piece of work by the previous Committee. From reading up on some of the report and its terms of reference for what it did at that time, I found that it came out with very good recommendations. Will the Minister outline, either in the Chamber or in writing, what recommendations have been adopted over those years and what she is using? It is vital that those are outlined.
The Chair mentioned some of my points, but I want to turn to the Private Streets Order. At the time, the previous Minister said that it was suitable. I do not think that the Minister at the time was keen to go down the route of looking at that legislation. In light of what has happened, will the Minister indicate whether she will look at that legislation to see whether we can tighten things up to move some of those developments on? What are her views about that?
The Chair mentioned the voluntary exit scheme. When I wrote to the Minister about that, she wrote back and said that there had been 43·5 full-time equivalents; that the number of staff is now down to 22. Looking at it from the outside, we see a reduction of nearly 50%. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that and its impact on delivering services.
I do not think that it was the case that, when the Committee approached the subject, members were against the developers. However, we must remember that the hard-working individuals who are buying houses, paying their fees, getting solicitors' advice and everything else are not being treated properly either. That needs to be at the forefront.
Another issue that will be vital as we move forward into an economic recovery is that many of these developments will need to be brought forward and play a part in that recovery. We need to tighten up the system. I advise the Minister to go back and look at some of the recommendations in the 2012 report.
A review of bonds is ongoing. Perhaps the Minister will touch on the terms of reference for that review and suggest how we can work together, even as a Committee, to try to address that issue. We are going through a planning review. Everybody says that this is developer-led and the responsibility of the developer. Absolutely. However, in some cases, that does not happen. Recently, I have been talking to councils. We have definitely made some progress, but people think that, if there is a bond, there is no problem: the system is working. That is not the case, because very few bonds are enacted. I think that one bond has been enacted in all the years that I have been a councillor and representative. I stress to the Minister that there is an opportunity in the planning review to introduce that as the condition of a planning application. I support the motion.
As the Chairperson said, the Committee heard a presentation from Roads Service officials, because the issue is one that not only the current Committee but, as others indicated, other Committees over the years felt needed further inspection. It comes across all of our constituency desks.
People have been patient. We had the financial collapse in 2007-08. Then, we had many companies, particularly construction companies, going bust and the whole situation around the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), and nobody knew who owned what for a number of years. Of course, this place being suspended for three years did not help with pursuing errant developers. However, it is confusing for many householders who have had to chase down different agencies and officials, not only in the Department for Regional Development or Infrastructure Department but in councils, to find out who has power over what. At times, people who went to environmental health were told, "It is not us; it is them". Therefore, it is a bit confusing for householders.
When making representations on behalf of my constituents, I find that many do not want to go public. They are worried about the impact that it might have if they wished to sell their property. They feel that their hands are a wee bit tied. Solicitors must address the issue that they have responsibility for conveyancing and doing the relevant checks.
I fully agree with the Member on that. In particular, has the Member encouraged her constituents to complain to their solicitor and, if they do not get a response, to complain to the Law Society, because the legal system that charges people for conveyancing should have done due diligence and, in my opinion, has some liability?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the Member for his intervention because we have been doing just that in connection with a particular development in my constituency. The Minister will be aware of it. I do not want to name it publicly because I want to respect the views of my constituents, who do not want to go public about it. In particular, it relates to NI Water (NIW) and the lack of a stick with regard to what can be done. As Mr Beggs highlighted, during the boom years, solicitors were very quick to get sales out the door, and I question some of the due diligence. Some of them may well have responsibilities there, and I have advised constituents to go down that route. As Members know, and Mr Boylan said, there are consequences for the delivery of other services such as bin collections. I have had dealt with that over the years, never mind the damage to cars from drainage lids sticking up well above the ground, as the Member said.
The time has come for developers to take greater responsibility. The 80% sales and occupancy rate seems to be quite high. I know from speaking to some developers that a lot of the additional financial burden of paying taxes for the sales of the houses as well as some of the bonds falls to them once they go over that threshold. Minister, you may want to look at that issue in any subsequent review, but your officials made it very clear to the Committee that resources continue to be a huge issue for the number of street inspectors over the years, which, I believe, has at least halved under the voluntary exit scheme, and for financial resourcing to the Department. At one stage, the budget for infrastructure maintenance fell from over £50 million per annum to £27 million more recently. Those things come at a cost, and the cost comes in service delivery.
We all want to work smarter, not harder, but some jobs require labour-intensive resource for delivery. When I thought about that, I wondered about the number of different types of farm inspectors. For example, building control inspectors go on sites, and the Department has infrastructure inspectors. I wonder whether there could be a cross-departmental agreement whereby one inspector could report back on a number of findings to NIW, DFI Roads and building control and, therefore, share the load a bit. That could be a resolution because, as we know, the budget is not getting any better. It remains challenging for the foreseeable future and for the Minister's tenure. I know that she has worked very hard to consider all those issues and see the best way forward.
Buying a home is the biggest investment that the majority of us will make in our lifetime, and it is only right that, when we buy the dream, it is as it appears in the brochure, or, increasingly, on Instagram or on videos for turnkey houses.
I declare an interest as I live on an unadopted shared laneway. I wish to make it clear that I have no expectation that the Department will re-tarmac the roadway to improve access to my property. That would be unrealistic. Similarly, we have to recognise that the Department faces the same financial pressures for all the hundreds of kilometres of private laneways in Northern Ireland. The Department is struggling to maintain our existing roads network. That is the reality of the current funding arrangement, and it is important that we do not create unrealistic expectations.
In preparing for the debate, I reviewed the then Regional Development Committee's inquiry recommendations in 2012, and it was clear that many of the failings related to a lack of understanding from purchasers and, I dare say, solicitors around adequate road and sewer bonds to protect the purchaser should something go wrong.
I am pleased that, recently, in front of the Committee, a departmental official advised us:
"In trying to attract people to buy a property, it is in a developer's interest to take out a bond because their solicitors will pick up at an early stage if it is not bonded. That has encouraged developers to take out bonds."
As I indicated, however, if a solicitor fails to pick that up for some historical purchase, that represents a failure on the part of that solicitor to carry out due diligence. On a number of occasions, I have advised constituents to write to their solicitor seeking appropriate compensation. If they are unsuccessful, I have advised them to complain to the Law Society.
I thank the Member for taking an intervention. Does he agree that not all the issues can be resolved by bonds? I have areas in my constituency where sight lines are the issue, and a bond cannot be used to resolve that. We also really need to look at planning and at ensuring that sight lines are in place before houses can be completed and sold.
I have come across that issue in my constituency. A group of houses in Prospect in Carrickfergus suffered from that; in fact, the roads were not adopted until 18 years after they were built, which is remarkable. Thankfully, there was some clever thinking, with ramps being put in to reduce speed on those roads. That then reduced the sight lines, which enabled the roads to be adopted. Yes, problems can happen, and the earlier that homeowners move on such issues, the better, before walls etc are built and perhaps cause problems.
As was indicated, there are particular pressures on the Department to follow up on some historical failings, but it seems to be saying that things have got better. We were told, however, that there are approximately 20 members of staff for 3,470 live road bond applications, but the numbers inspecting and following up have been halved, in line with the change in the budget allocated to the Department. There is a real issue there. If we want to chase up some of the historical failings, investment has to go into trying to resolve the issue and drawing down the bonds, because it takes time to identify where the failings occurred.
I commend the officials who work with me in parts of Carrickfergus and at Lindara in Larne, where, on another occasion, a developer went bust. There were road and water bonds in place, however, so work was corrected and the roads finished.
I am aware of a significant failing in the planning system. I speak of the Larne West Distributor, a major spine road on which hundreds and hundreds of houses have been built. Somehow, however, a very small portion, perhaps 100 square metres, has been auctioned off. Despite millions of pounds being spent on building a spine road, there is a missing link. Somehow, instead of the owner of that piece of land having a liability, because the land is not linked to any of the other land that he once owned, it has become a ransom strip. We have a Mexican stand-off, and everyone in the area is suffering because of failures in the planning system and the Department to ensure that the development-led road was built. That is definitely a failing, and I ask the Minister how it will be addressed. Do we need a regeneration Bill to give authority to the local council to invest? It says that it can do nothing at present. I have lobbied the Minister. I have lobbied the former permanent secretary. Translink cannot lay on a public transport route to all those houses because of the missing section of spine road. That is a major failing in our planning system. It needs to be addressed. We need a solution. The public are suffering. We are encouraging the use of private cars rather than public transport. Additional emissions are —.
I welcome the fact that we are discussing this important matter. As has been remarked on, the figures for unadopted roads across Northern Ireland and the cost of bringing them up to the required standard are stark.
When he addressed the Infrastructure Committee last month, the Department's director of network services said that the process for the adoption of roads:
"works well most of the time."
Theoretically, the developer-led process should be quite simple. The Department determines that new roads are suitable for adoption as part of the planning process. The developer and the lender agree a bond to be held by a bond company. If the developer is unwilling or unable to deliver the infrastructure to the agreed standard, the Department can use that bond to bring the road and other infrastructure to the point at which they can be adopted. However, if the theory worked perfectly in practice, there would be no need for today's debate nor for the then Regional Development Committee's recommendations in 2012. Therefore, this debate is quite important.
Without doubt, one of the biggest reasons why the process is not working well is the reduction of capacity in the Minister's Department. We all know that the Department for Infrastructure's funding was slashed a number of years ago by the austerity Budgets from Westminster. Many of the issues with our infrastructure today, including unadopted roads, come back, at least in part, to that decision. At the Infrastructure Committee last month, we learned that, prior to the budget cuts of a number of years ago, the Department had approximately double the number of staff working on unadopted roads that we have now. On that basis, there can be no surprise that the issues that were identified in the 2012 report have not all been addressed.
I welcome that the motion recognises the resource constraints and the need for cross-departmental working. However, the reality is that while there are very few resources and a lot of competing priorities in the Department, such as investing in our water infrastructure, upgrading our creaking roads and tackling the climate emergency by investing in sustainable and active travel, there is a limit to the amount of resources that can go into the area that we are debating. There have, however, been important steps forward since the 2012 report, including making solicitors more aware of the process. I agree with what Mr Beggs said in his intervention in relation to that. This is a fundamental issue. People pay quite significant solicitor's fees for the completion of the transaction and the conveyancing process, and they deserve to be assured that that work is carried out to standard.
Officials informed us that in spite of the budget cuts, the system is working better than it was, although a range of cases still cause difficulties. We see those reported in the media very regularly. I also welcome the fact that the Department is prioritising the backlog of sites and focusing its work on the basis of need, such as for sites that have 80% occupancy. That is not ideal, but if you have 80% or more occupancy, the road really does need to be adopted. We should not underestimate the mental strain for someone who purchased a property in the reasonable expectation that their road and other facilities would be adopted when that does not happen. Those people should not be left in a state of perpetuity; that is wrong.
In addition to the mental strain, there are physical safety and public health risks to residents — and their visitors — who live on roads that have not been completed. I know of at least one road in my constituency where, if you come across it when you are out walking, you need to be careful that you do not fall and hurt yourself. It is a miracle that cars are not more severely damaged.
I thank the Member for taking an intervention. Some Members spoke earlier about equality issues. Whilst it is difficult for those of us who are able-bodied, anyone with mobility issues, particularly those who are older or who have to use a wheelchair, have no chance of being able to get in or out of their home in some of those developments.
I agree with Ms Dillon that that is crucial. I am able-bodied so I can navigate those roads and pavements, but if you are a wheelchair user or you need assistance, it is impossible. Perhaps we should do some research into the number of people who have been injured as a result of that infrastructure. This has a real impact on people's day-to-day lives. This institution, the Department and, most crucially, the developers who build those developments but do not finish them to the correct standard have a responsibility for that.
As I was saying, I have been contacted by constituents who face precisely these issues. I am supportive of the Department's approach, which is to work closely with developers and residents in the first instance. That is often the quickest and easiest way to resolve outstanding issues that prevent adoption — if the developer comes back and is still in existence. Far too many times, the developer just disappears, shrugs their shoulders and leaves local residents with those developments.
I am also supportive of the fact that the Department is using its legal and enforcement powers when the developers are just not playing ball.
On the actions that the Department can take to improve the current situation, there is no doubt that the three-year absence of power-sharing prevented progress. The level of bonds need to be increased, and I hope that the Minister considers that issue in due course.
In spite of the good work by officials, there is still a long way to travel to tackle this important issue, which directly impacts on people. I support the motion.
I also rise in favour of the motion, and I believe that a full and systematic review of the private street adoption process should happen. While I welcome the fact that the bond conditions are being reviewed in the Department, we believe that the exercise should extend further than just a consideration of its value. While I note that progress has been made, I am concerned that work is still needed to complete all the outstanding unadopted roads throughout Northern Ireland. Given the extent of the everyday impact that the failure to adopt roads has on the families and households affected, we find it entirely unacceptable that the level of enforcement actions by DFI Roads has declined in recent years. We would like to see consideration given to making bonds time-limited, but, first and foremost, they must be adequate to account for inflation and their reducing value over time, as was the recommendation of the Regional Development Committee inquiry in 2012.
There is a need for an all-inclusive review of the private street adoption process. The process for calling in a bond and taking enforcement action continues to be too complex and lengthy, compounding the problems raised by the fact that households may face daily issues around health and safety.
While we appreciate the budgetary constraints and difficulties that the Department operates under, we note that a study carried out in 2012 found that over 620 kilometres of unadopted roads and laneways in Northern Ireland that were not private roads fell within the normal private streets determination process and that an estimated £300 million would be needed to clear the backlog of unadopted roads. That did not include additional items such as land purchase or any required structures or utility works. It will be interesting to have a fresh estimate of that figure.
The Department also needs to review and improve the working partnership with Northern Ireland Water and other agencies to ensure that any problem is rectified, especially with issues such as sewage. The bond should be sufficient to meet all needs, and, with buy-in from all agencies, that needs to ensure that roads are adopted in a timely fashion. We would support a review of DFI statutory powers in that area.
There is also an issue of historical unadopted roads. That is where council developments and other sites have never been completed to the required standard. Article 9 of the Private Streets Order allows DFI to consider the adoption of some roads if the majority of owners request it and the road or street is first brought up to the required adoption standard. There needs to be a simplified and streamlined process to call in a bond and to take enforcement action, which continues to be complex, compounding the problems faced by householders.
We appreciate that the number of bonds has increased in the post-recession period, but we also note that, unfortunately, there has been a gradual reduction in the number of enforcement actions since 2015-16. It is our understanding that that is not because the problem is diminishing but rather is because the staff are very overstretched. Previous contributors have referred to that.
During a recent Committee meeting, on 12 May 2021, the Department revealed that, following restructuring of the Department and retirements, there are now only approximately 20 staff working on private streets, and that is to cover the 3,470 live bonds plus the enforcement. That is a reduction of approximately half of what the Department had prior to 2015.
While we accept that sizable investment is needed and that there is no easy solution to the problem of unadopted roads, we need the Minister to demonstrate her commitment to reviewing current practices in a way that promotes more efficient and timely interventions and puts the needs of affected households first.
Ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo. I would like to speak in favour of the motion. As you have heard today, unadopted roads have plagued every one of our constituencies for decades because, as the motion notes, there has been systematic failure in the current process for adopting roads. I know that the Minister has inherited that situation.
None of us is a stranger to horror stories of housing estates, both old and new, with potholed roads, manholes and sewerage structure raised several inches from the ground, flooding, poor drainage and backed-up sewage. Despite the issue being well-rehearsed and its affecting every constituency, every city, every town and every village, the Department for Infrastructure, as the motion also notes, seems to be no closer to resolving it. We have 2,991 unadopted roads right across the North. The bond value is almost £101·5 million. In my constituency, Derry City and Strabane District Council has 206 roads awaiting adoption, to the value of £12·5 million. None of us are strangers to hearing things such as, "The value of the roads bond is too low to incentivise developers", or "No enforcement measures are ever taken" against what some people describe as rogue developers. Families who bought their dream homes more than 10 years ago still live in darkness because they have no street lights.
In Derry, in Barleyfields, Culmore, my constituents took out choke-a-horse mortgages, I can tell you, and they have to haul full bins right up a steep hill to have them collected because the council collection service is unable to drive on unadopted roads. Thankfully, after Sinn Féin councillor Sandra Duffy and I intervened, the developer confirmed in writing its intention to achieve full adoption of the top of the Barleyfields by the end of June. However, those at the bottom have still to drag their full bins up a steep hill, which is absolutely impossible for anyone with a disability.
In the Waterside and Woodside estates, I had to intervene with the developers, DFI Roads and NI Water to get roads finished to an acceptable standard and fix an horrific sewerage blockage, 10 years after the estate was built.
In Sandale Park, on the Lenamore Road, a small group of constituents are forced to live in darkness after the Department for Infrastructure, instead of fixing the street lights outright, saw fit to take them all down on discovering that the road was not adopted. The developer built those roads over 50 years ago, and he is not here to pick up the pieces or the tab.
This is not just a small problem that a few reconfigurations of the road bonds issue is going to fix. It will require decisive action and, if needed, not just the threat of enforcement, but actual enforcement against what some people view as rogue developers. There is an opportunity in the current planning review to address this and, if needed, consideration should be given to including a clause which prevents developers from moving from one part of an estate to another until they can reasonably demonstrate that the roads, street lights and sewers are of an adequate standard to be adopted and maintained.
Minister, you know that buying a home is a massive investment, as has been said, and so, too, is renting a home in these estates. It is vital that people get what they pay for. We need to end the culture of some developers — thankfully not all — jumping to the next most lucrative venture before bringing roads up to scratch. We need to stop developers abandoning estates for decades before returning to fix issues only after representatives like myself and others press them to do the right thing. We need to ensure that those estates and homes built 30, 40, and 50 years ago, which have no developers to pick up the tab, are not abandoned. Minister, a road to drive on, a footpath to walk on and street lights to illuminate our neighbourhoods are all, I am sure you will agree, not too much to ask.
I apologise to the Deputy Speaker for my noisy watch. I had to put it on airport mode. I did not think I would have to do that in Stormont.
In recent years, and in common with other areas of Northern Ireland, a number of issues have caused roads to remain unadopted, and requests have had to be made for bonds to be used to sort out those issues on new developments. Over the nine years since the DRD report, there are still Northern Ireland-wide problems. Immediate action is required to address these systemic problems. The failings identified by the 2012 report have a very real and stressful impact on those who have to deal with poor infrastructure in new developments. It is often a case of months, if not years, before a final resolution can be achieved. I also point out that such problems can see residents in situations where there is a negative impact on the price of their property.
It is essential that a hard and fast time limit is established to ensure that problems are rectified as a matter of urgency.
There is also an issue with the levels of bonds that are required. I am aware of one developer who went out of business and the bond was not sufficient to cover the cost of the road finishing that was required. As the motion states, there must be a system that ensures:
"appropriate bond levels to complete works".
There should be no major impact on public finances due to inadequate bonds.
Any changes, as proposed in the 2012 report, must include a timetable for the time-constrained package of guidance and enforcement. That would ensure that residents who are affected by road and service adoption have a timeline that will be adhered to. It is also essential that that package of measures is enforceable by the Minister's Department. Otherwise, they are pointless and cause additional frustrations.
Minister, I also ask you to look at how progress could be made for, and, possibly, financial assistance given to, people who have purchased former MOD homes. I want to mention the former MOD housing sites on the former Shackleton Barracks in my East Londonderry constituency, where there has been a long-running issue of roads and other services not meeting adoption standards. I ask you to consider that families purchased those properties on the understanding, rightly or wrongly, that the Department would take over the adoption process a few years ago. That never materialised, much to the disappointment and frustration of those residents. Minister, I fully appreciate that full funding is not available from your Department, but could some investigation not be done into the possibility of a collaborative approach between the Executive, residents and the MOD to try to break the deadlock so that top-quality infrastructure can be delivered to all residents of Northern Ireland? I hope that a collaborative approach would see a positive result for residents.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I hope not to go over all the same points, but I certainly hope that the motion will help to draw attention to the plight of so many residents across the North. It is safe to say that all Members in the House will have come across someone who has been affected by the matter. We need a greater focus on reviewing the current processes, particularly so that we can address the significant backlogs and improve the process.
As other Members said, 2,991 bonded roads in private developments, across the North, have yet to be adopted. Some 263 of those are in the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council area, part of which I represent. Those bonds are worth approximately £8·2 million. That means that many residents have invested thousands of pounds in their home, yet they are living in developments where there are substandard roads, and they do not have access to the basic services that other Members mentioned, such as bin collections, a winter service, street cleaning and street lights. One example in my constituency had, for over eight years, what could only be described as a dirt track for residents of a development of over 100 houses. Residents had to endure that until pressure was put on the developer to address it.
A number of factors led to this situation. Other Members mentioned the property crash in 2007 and how it clearly exacerbated the issue. A significant number of older backlogs remain as a result of that crash.
The inquiry has been discussed, and it provided a number of recommendations, some of which have been helpful in looking at how we can improve the current system. Part of the inquiry looked at the inadequacy of bonds, especially where they were not enough to carry out the remedial works that were required. That needs to be addressed proportionately, as we appreciate that it could affect costs to homeowners.
As others mentioned, the impact of Tory austerity played a huge role in reducing staff numbers. I particularly note the loss of experienced private street inspectors and how that impacted on the Department's ability to take enforcement action. That is clearly evidenced in the figures, which show that the number of bonds is increasing while the number of enforcement cases is decreasing.
I appreciate that enforcement action is a last resort, but serious issues are arising, particularly about what the Department considers to be a timely manner for dealing with unadopted roads. Encouraging developers to take action and to call in the bond could be looked at as part of the review, and maybe we could look at a time constraint for doing that, which might help to address it.
Rather than go over the same points that everyone raised, I will say that I fully support the motion. We need to commit to looking at ways of further improving the system and tackling the backlog of unadopted roads so that we can deliver fairness and equality for all those residents across the North who invested in their home and who are entitled to receive the basic services that, owing to this long-standing issue, they are unable to access.
Unadopted roads from developments left uncompleted in the financial crisis in 2008 are a major issue in numerous towns and villages in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The problem is that roads in the development cannot be adopted by DFI as they have not been completed to the standard necessary for adoption.
Completed houses in the uncompleted developments were sold, the original contractor went bankrupt and, eventually, many of the developments were repossessed by the financial institutions. In other cases, continuing work towards the completion of a development was halted overnight for financial reasons and the unfinished buildings in housing developments sometimes became a hub for unsocial activity.
Residents living in the uncompleted developments have to haul their bins out to the entrance of the developments for refuse collections. Street lights frequently remain unfixed and sometimes unconnected, while footpaths have been left in an unfinished and dangerous state. As time has passed, in some uncompleted developments, issues in the road foundations have emerged. The surface cracks, indicating that the roads may not have been built to the specified standards.
Meanwhile, the network of sewerage pipes becomes displaced and, consequently, the sewers become blocked. Galliagh Shore in Enniskillen is one such development. I make no apology for mentioning it; it is public knowledge. Northern Ireland Water is unable to adopt the private sewerage system because the developer is no longer trading, so the system remains in the possession of the bank.
The houses received planning permission and passed building control regulations, which allowed them to be sold on. It was only after the developer was declared bankrupt that residents discovered that the developer had not met the legal obligations for the sewerage system to be adopted. That means that the residents are liable for the repairs, which include the unadopted roadway.
Meanwhile, because of the health issues, Northern Ireland Water has been very kind in helping to clear blockages and providing a tanker to remove sewage, but it has said that it cannot keep providing that service.
I thank the Member for giving way. Water and sewage are a particular problem with developers in some areas. Has the Member experienced the situation where there are a number of developers on one site? One developer gets planning permission, then subcontracts so that somebody else builds and somebody else sells. They each take a cut, but they reduce the standard of infrastructure.
I thank the Member. I came across that in several developments; it happens frequently.
"while we appreciate that this is a difficult situation for the Galliagh Shore residents, the NHBC Buildmark warranty cover does not extend to the rectification of the sewage system" and the poor road foundations.
The main issue for the completion of those developments and, consequently, the unadopted roads is the value of the road bond that the original developer surrendered to DFI. It is no longer sufficient for the completion of the developments or to bring roads up to the required standard. It is therefore essential that DFI treat the matter of unadopted roads with some urgency. The Department must review the bond system and the supervision of the various stages of work in developments. Furthermore, a method must be developed for enforcement against developers and for DFI to prioritise the current unadopted developments and roads and get them completed.
An unadopted road is one where street planning functions have been exercised, a bond has been placed under the Private Streets (Northern Ireland) Order 1980, and the Department is not satisfied that the street has been:
"sewered, levelled, paved, channelled, made good and lighted,".
An unadopted road is also one where people live without appropriate sewerage; where footpaths are trip hazards; where secondary drainage is often appalling and leads to terrible flooding; where manhole covers stand proudly in the centre of the road; and where people have to drag their laden bins quite some distance to the main road from which the council collects refuge.
My constituency has a number of developments with unadopted roads. In some of those areas, the developer has all but abandoned the people who bought or rent homes there. In one case, a development built on a steep hill remains unadopted after a number of years. The road surface has been left in a mess, residents are distraught, and the developer has not been taken to task. In an example such as this, why has the Department not utilised the bond to put right the mess that the developer left people with? Those families cannot sell their homes to move to somewhere where their bins can be collected, where they can walk along the development's footpath without fear of trips or slips, and where children can play safely under street lights.
More determined and focused intervention is necessary to ensure that developers do not walk away and abandon residents for years and expect residents, or even the Department, to pick up the pieces. There is a reason why a bond is required, and it should be used much more quickly. All developers should be aware that, if they do not make good, their bond will be used. The bond needs to be of enough value to meet costs, not today's costs but future costs. For example, how much will it cost to adopt a road in five or 10 years' time?
The Department's website states:
"Prior to construction, a developer is required to enter into an agreement with DfI Roads, to provide the roads, footways and sewers to the Department’s standards prescribed in The Private Streets (Construction) Regulations (NI) 1994. This agreement is secured by a bond, that may be used by DfI Roads to complete the road works should the developer default."
The Department's website confirms:
"Where a developer fails to properly complete street works within one year from the date on which the building(s) is (are) first occupied ... the Department shall issue a notice to the responsible person, to require completion of the works."
In my constituency, that does not happen. Years go by before developers complete a road. They use the excuse that their site is not yet finished and that there are more phases to come. In the meantime, residents live without bins being collected from near their home, with dangerous footpaths and with continued surface flooding. Residents are at their wits' end.
I ask the Minister for Infrastructure to end the torture that some residents face, please. Use the bond much more quickly to ensure that unadopted roads are brought up to the standard at which they can be adopted. I will happily bring the Minister to a development in Killyleagh to see for herself beautiful homes surrounded by unfinished and entirely unsuitable access roads.
Minister, today, we have heard that you have too few staff to enable effective enforcement. Therefore, let us use innovation. Can councils do anything to help the Department? Is there enough of a threat to stop rogue developers from abandoning residents to go on to their next project?
Does the Member agree that it would be reasonable to have a higher bond rate for developers with a proven track record of abandoning property and not putting in place appropriate road and sewerage infrastructure?
Hopefully, I will not need it, Mr Deputy Speaker. I agree with Mr Beggs. Any developer who misses targets should not be allowed to apply for reduced bonds in the future.
Developers are leaving people high and dry. Of course, some may go into bankruptcy — we have seen that happen over the last number of years — but the residents — the people who are paying money and rates — are the ones being let down. We have to get innovative. I know that your budget is tough, Minister, and I do not envy you at all, but, honestly, the residents in Killyeagh are one example of people across Northern Ireland. I do not want to have to watch again one of the residents pulling 20 bins to the road down a steep hill that is half a mile long, because it is not good enough. It is a big job of work for your Department, Minister, but the bonds are there, so please use them.
I have been informed that Mr Robinson recently had a big birthday. George, on behalf of us all, all the very best. That is probably a road that is well travelled and well adopted.
All the very best to you, George, and many more of them.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I add my birthday best wishes to Mr Robinson.
I thank the Chairperson of the Committee for Infrastructure for tabling the motion on unadopted roads. Every Member who spoke highlighted the fact that this is an important issue that affects so many people across the North. As the Minister for Infrastructure, I am focused on improving the lives of people across Northern Ireland. I have listened carefully to the views expressed by Members and recognise their genuine comments on behalf of their constituents. I also completely understand and recognise the frustration shared across the House that we are sitting with a Committee report that was produced in 2012, despite there having been successive Ministers since then. As Ms Kelly and Mr Muir highlighted, we had three years without any Government or Minister in place, which has contributed to the slow pace of change on the issue.
I recognise that, as Members have highlighted, renting or buying your home is a special moment in your life. That should be a positive experience, and it is not right that, for many people for quite some time, it has not been a positive experience because of the reasons that Members have articulated.
While my Department manages the adoption of roads in new developments, it is important to acknowledge, as a number of Members did, that it is primarily a developer-led process. It is equally important to recognise that, in most instances, developers act responsibly and their developments are completed and adopted without the need for any interventions from my Department. However, as we heard today, some developers commence work without having the necessary road agreement and bond in place. In those cases, I can confirm that my Department will take action against the developer. Equally, where a developer fails to complete road infrastructure in a new development, my Department will adopt a phased approach to intervention that is appropriate to the individual circumstances. Where a developer is still trading and seems to be progressing their developments, albeit slower than some residents might like, my officials will, first, engage with them and encourage them to complete the outstanding works in a timely manner. My Department's private streets inspectors will also monitor a developer's progress. Should a developer ultimately fail to progress their development, my Department will issue an enforcement notice under the Private Streets Order 1980 requiring completion of the roadworks. If a developer fails to comply with that notice or is no longer trading, my Department can complete the outstanding roadworks and adopt the road into the public road network.
I recognise the important role that my Department's private streets inspectors play in the process. However, as Members across the House have rightly identified, the voluntary exit scheme halved the number of officers that I have who are able to carry out that role. It was made clear at the time that the scheme would have an impact on services, and, unfortunately, the resource budget allocated to my predecessor, Danny Kennedy and the cuts that ensued have had an impact not only in that area but, as Members across the House know because they passionately represent their constituents, on services across my Department.
That is the reality within which we have to operate. I am heartened by the fact that the Committee's motion rightly recognises that difficulty, which was reiterated by Committee members and others. I look forward to working with the Committee as we try to address the resource allocations to my Department, particularly with the first opportunity presenting itself in June.
I thank the Minister for taking an intervention. Martina Anderson raised the legacy issue of some developers no longer being around to meet requirements. Some of the developments were built by the legacy councils and taken on by the Housing Executive without the roads ever being adopted. There are two such developments in my immediate area of Coalisland, and I know that there are many more across Mid Ulster, as, I am sure, the Deputy Speaker can attest to. It is a real issue, and it is also an equality issue. We built those houses. Government built those houses, and government needs to fix the problem.
I thank the Member for her intervention. She is correct to point out the legacy sites and the difficulties that have ensued. Even within the resource constraints that I have outlined, my Department is trying to take a proactive approach to tackling issues at those legacy sites, and for it to be a prioritised approach, working with Northern Ireland Water.
Members have rightly identified that there is an issue with the level of bonds from developers. As Minister, I will clearly state today that I recognise that that is a difficulty. I have therefore asked my officials to carry out a review of how we calculate bonds, because we have not changed how we do so since 2008. That review will take place. I think that it was Mr Boylan who asked about its terms of reference. It will be reviewing the construction costs to ensure that bonds are able to cover the cost, and it will be working with a range of stakeholders from within the construction industry and across the board. The Committee will, of course, be kept updated on the process. I reassure Members that I am committed to ensuring that construction rates are used to calculate our road bonds and that those fully reflect the cost of constructing roads in new developments. Kellie Armstrong and others raised that issue. Hopefully, that will give residents some peace of mind.
Mr Beggs and Mrs Kelly in particular emphasised the importance of the legal profession to trying to find solutions to the issue. Progress has been made, in the sense that there is a greater level of awareness of responsibilities when it comes to providing conveyancing advice . There is also a greater level of public awareness about bonds and agreements being in place when solicitors are advising people on the purchase of their new home. Many people who are buying in new residential developments will therefore have greater protection than previously was the case.
Before I move on to addressing the specific points that Members raised, I will go back to the point about legacy sites that Ms Dillon raised in her intervention. As Members have highlighted, there are legacy sites right across Northern Ireland that remain unadopted. As Members have also rightly identified, a lot of those sites emanated from the property crash of 2007. There are often very complex sewerage and road problems affecting adoption, although, in recent years, my Department has made some progress on adopting a number of the legacy sites, as Mr Muir highlighted. I am keen to provide a fresh impetus to the process, so I am committed to ensuring that my officials in Roads and Northern Ireland Water continue to work proactively to address a number of legacy developments towards adoption, with intervention prioritised on the basis of need.
A number of Members talked about the 2012 Committee report and the series of very helpful recommendations that came from it, and a number identified the fact that progress had been made on the implementation of some of those recommendations. I will quickly run through a number of them. We talked about conveyancing advice and a greater level of awareness in that area. My Department had engaged with the Law Society on that issue. There is a recommendation in the Committee motion about ensuring that we have a much more robust set of guidance. Members may be aware that guidance on private street procedures was updated in 2014 and circulated to all staff involved in private street matters.
However, as we have said, the reality is that the voluntary exit scheme and the cuts to the Department's resource budget have impacted on the level of staffing. I am keen to address that.
The Committee motion also talks about a code of practice to trigger broader enforcement. I hope that Committee members are aware that, as I think the Chair highlighted, Northern Ireland Water has introduced a monitoring system to speed up the timescales for the adoption of sewerage infrastructure by monitoring the progress of bonds through the adoption process. That enables it to take a much more proactive approach to the process, rather than the previous developer-led scheme. It should help us to identify much earlier sites where development has stalled and, therefore, should lead to quicker enforcement action.
Mrs Kelly talked about the importance of having clarity of roles. She spoke about the role of local government, as a number of other Members did. One of the recommendations of the Committee's report was that property certificates should be adapted to include the legal opinion on the condition of the roads and sewers. Since then, as part of the reform of local government, responsibility for property certificates has been passed to councils, with the regional property certificates unit in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council providing a service on behalf of all the councils. That responsibility includes the production of new service-level agreements with its property certificate consultees. The property certificate unit within Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has initiated work to review the questions in the property certificate. That work is ongoing. Some positive actions are being taken but, as Members have said, it is a hugely challenging issue.
Mr Buchanan raised the issue of private streets legislation. In his view, there should be a wholesale review and reform of that legislation. Officials have said that, in their assessment, that legislation is generally adequate and fit for purpose and that that view was supported in the course of the review by other key stakeholders including the Construction Employers Federation, the National House Building Council and Law Society NI. I am keen to hear the Committee's view on that as well.
One of the other issues that was rightly identified in the Committee's report in 2012 was the loophole by which a developer could choose not to enter into a bond or agreement. Section 6 of the Water and Sewerage Services Act (Northern Ireland) 2016, which was made by the Assembly on 23 March 2016, closed that loophole. That was another positive step, but I recognise that there is still a lot of work to do.
Ms Anderson and Mr Boylan talked about the planning review and how we can better join up our planning system on this issue. We received a number of submissions about the review of the Planning Act and the issues that were raised within it. We let it be open for stakeholders to raise any concerns. All the issues that were raised will be examined. I will be keen to keep the Committee updated on that.
Mr Beggs referenced the real financial challenges faced by the Department, and he is absolutely right. We need to be real when we talk about the service and staffing levels that we can provide. He mentioned Larne Road. I see that he is not in his seat, but I am happy to follow up with him on that. He has raised that issue with me through Assembly questions and correspondence.
Mr Muir rightly talked about the responsibility of developers. We should not lose sight of that in the middle of this. Government should be stepping in only when things have gone wrong. Through conveyancing advice and enforcement and by working proactively with developers, we should make sure that it never gets to that stage in the first instance.
Particular issues in local areas were identified by Ms Anderson, Mrs Barton and Kellie Armstrong and right across the Chamber. I do not underestimate the impact on families of having to live with this. I am pleased, however, that some Members have been able to report that there has been progress as a result of working with developers. I am keen that we do that. It is about finding the resolution in the quickest possible time frame but, where necessary, the Department needs to step in to take enforcement action.
In closing, I thank all Members for contributing to the debate. I thank the Committee Chair and members for tabling a very constructive motion. I will keep the Committee updated on our work to review the level of bonds. I look forward to working with the Committee as we try to address the resource difficulties that face the Department.
I thank those who have contributed to and participated in the debate this afternoon. We have heard about a wide range of issues across Northern Ireland. Every constituency from the west right through to Strangford has the same problems, and we have heard about those on the Floor today. I also thank the Minister for her attendance and contribution this afternoon. I welcome some of the statements that she made about outstanding works, bonds and construction costs.
Ten years ago, the figures relating to unadopted roads were stark. Anything between 1,200 and 3,500 unadopted roads and some 1,200 sewerage systems were identified as being in backlog, with over 620 kilometres of unadopted roads and laneways that sit outside the private streets process. While progress has been made, a worrying amount remains to be done, some of it dating back as far as 2007. Perhaps most worryingly, Northern Ireland Water and the Department for Infrastructure have yet to detail precise numbers of affected sites.
We have all heard examples of real situations affecting real families, and each of those deserves remedy. We have heard today about how problems have been exacerbated by low staff levels and loss of key skills in the Department and that, to get back to a proactive enforcement model and to be in a better place to know the number of sites and levels of occupancy, we need to go back to 2015 pre-reduction levels.
Much has been said about the 2012 report by the Regional Development Committee and the recommendations that it made for remedial action to address the backlog in legacy sites, yet we have also heard about how little seems to have been achieved in almost a decade since the report was published. The Committee believes that there are still issues to be addressed around bonds. The 2012 report recommended that:
"statutory providers and representatives of the construction and financial sectors agree a bond level that is acceptable to all parties and which includes an inflationary amount."
Yet, we hear that, to this day, there are sites without bonds and sites where delays and inflationary increases mean that the bond is no longer held in a sufficient way to bring works up to suitable standards for adoption.
The Committee still has concerns around the prompt triggering of bond enforcement and suggests a review of whether the use of 80% occupancy rate is really the best measure of when adoption should be triggered. It also believes that a review of the departmental procedures, with a view to ensuring a prompt reaction to calling in the bond, is still valid today in order to alleviate the public health and safety risk to residents.
We have heard — we welcome it — that there has been engagement with the Law Society, but more can be done. What progress has been made to fully implement adapting property certificates to include legal opinion on the condition of roads and sewers, whether those have been adopted and advising potential vendors of the consequences that non-adoption will have for them? What progress can we make in developing an information guide for vendors?
I could go on about the recommendations made in the report and how the Committee's investigations of the current status of the issue reveals the need for each to be revisited and further actioned, but, rather than do that, it is sufficient to say that there is much work to be done overall.
Key to resolving the issue is the need to clearly understand its extent and the details of each site that is of concern. The Committee welcomes news that Northern Ireland Water is proactively trying to identify high-priority and legacy sites and to establish what the problems are in each. We welcome the fact that the Department is working with Northern Ireland Water to get that completed. That is long overdue.
The Committee acknowledges that there are instances where enforcement cannot be used to guide the works, typically where there are land issues and access issues. In those instances, there is a need to work out, with developers and residents, a way to move forward and resolve outstanding issues. Is there a way of moving further forward? The cooperation forum was recommended previously. It is the Committee's belief that no stone can be left unturned in seeking ways to address the issues and to address the backlog, particularly in the older outstanding cases.
In closing, it is worth reiterating the call that the motion makes on the Minister for Infrastructure, which is to take urgent steps to identify the extent of and to reduce the backlog of unadopted roads and services. Given the ongoing constraints on the Department's resource budget and its implications, the motion also calls on the Minister to work with Executive colleagues to identify where cross-departmental working could help to address the issue and to examine again the recommendations made in the 2012 report with a view to formulating and implementing a time-constrained package of guidance and enforcement that includes ensuring adequate bond levels and a review of the statutory instruments.
There are still issues outstanding. The Committee for Infrastructure, just like the Regional Development Committee before it, believes that actions can be identified and must be taken to rectify the problem and that a coordinated effort by all sectors involved in the process might see major improvements in even the most critical cases. I commend the motion.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly recognises the systemic failures in the current process for adopting roads and services in new developments; notes with concern the Department for Infrastructure's inability to quantify the precise number of those households and developments affected; further recognises the resourcing constraints within the Department that exacerbate the problem, and is concerned by the lack of progress made in addressing these failures since they were highlighted in a Regional Development Committee report in 2012; acknowledges the impact these failings are having on communities living in affected developments; calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to take steps to reduce the backlog of unadopted roads and services as a matter of urgency and to work with Executive colleagues to identify areas where cross-departmental working can be used to alleviate the impact of resource constraints; and further calls on the Minister, in line with the 2012 report recommendations, to formulate and implement a more robust and time-constrained package of guidance and enforcement that includes ensuring appropriate bond levels to complete works and a review of the main statutory instruments.