Planning Guidance: Impact on Rural Communities

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 19th October 2021.

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Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin 4:15 pm, 19th October 2021

I beg to move

That this Assembly acknowledges that the planning system must be sustainable while also working for our rural communities; notes with concern the recent publication by the Department for Infrastructure of planning advice note (PAN) 'Implementation of Strategic Planning Policy on Development in the Countryside'; further notes the concerns expressed by the Ulster Farmers' Union regarding the new planning guidance; recognises that the new guidance could have a significant negative impact for many people hoping to live in the countryside; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to withdraw, immediately, the planning advice note and to engage meaningfully with local councils regarding the very real concerns of people in our rural communities.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one and a half hours for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I should say that we tabled the motion a number of weeks ago in a bid to encourage the Minister to listen to our concerns, which reflected the huge amount of anguish and stress that her PAN had caused in our rural communities across the North. On Friday evening, I was, of course, delighted to hear that she had made the right call and rescinded the advice note. At the outset, I sincerely thank the Minister for that change of heart, because her prior insistence that the note would not change anything was deeply concerning, coming as it did in direct contradiction to the feedback that we had received from planning agents, planning committee members and senior planners across the North.

As soon as the PAN was issued in the summer and the ramifications of what it would mean for those who were attempting to build homes in their communities become clear, our Sinn Féin team sprang into action. In Mid Ulster, the constituency that I represent, Councillor Sean McPeake took the lead for us. As a member of the planning committee in Mid Ulster District Council, he called for a special one-item meeting, out of which came a cross-party letter calling for the Minister to rescind the note.

I cannot overstate the amount of communication that I have received about this one issue. As we all know, rural housing is in short supply. We do not have enough social or affordable housing in our rural communities, and, oftentimes, people pay extortionate rents that they cannot afford on houses that they would rather not live in. Saving for a mortgage deposit is a massive burden on many of our hard-working young people, and the cost of short-term renting lengthens the time that it takes to buy or build a home that they want to spend forever in.

I am 29. I am at the age when random nights out rarely happen, but they have been replaced with a full schedule of baby showers, hen parties, weddings and house-warming parties. Many of my closest friends are in the process of building their own homes, or have built them, and I have seen at first hand the stress that that incurs. Before they have even had the first fight with their partner about where best to put a wall socket or which colour of kitchen cupboard will date soonest, they have to go through the planning process. That means months and months of waiting, perhaps redrawn plans, conversations with architects and DFI Roads staff and a new understanding of the word "splay".

Having been involved in constituency work and activism for years, I have been aware of those issues for some time. I have frequently taken part in site meetings with would-be homeowners, who are stressed to the max trying to find a suitable spot for their forever homes while working out solutions to problems between their idea of a house and the planning policy to which planners and councillors strictly adhere. The PAN would have added an immeasurable burden to an already difficult, expensive and stressful process.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. She represents Mid Ulster, which is a rural constituency that is similar to mine in North Antrim. She made an excellent point about the difficulties and stresses that are faced, particularly by young people, who are seeking planning permission. My constituents face the same obstacles that she is pointing out, and I see the impact that that can sometimes have on the sustainability of rural constituencies, with the withdrawal of rural services and the threat of closure of rural schools, resulting in the unsustainability of rural communities.

Does the Member agree with me that, had this planning advice notice been implemented, it would have compounded those difficulties? In my constituency, it would have compounded them even further because of the waste water infrastructure restrictions —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Will the Member bring his intervention to a close?

[Laughter.]

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

— that are reducing planning opportunities in at least seven towns and villages in North Antrim.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his intervention.

[Laughter.]

I agree with him on the point that he raised, and I have worked with constituents who have the same problems with waste water. It is something that we deal with all the time.

When you refer to the doubling down in barriers that this note would have led to, the change that would have been implemented around dwelling houses built in connection with farms is one of the biggest problems that it posed. The new requirement was going to mean that, in most instances, the only place that would satisfy the guidance would have been in the actual yard. As somebody who is from a farm and is familiar with the realities of any working yard and how much that fluctuates over the year between lambing, calving, saving fodder and all the other seasonal tasks that must be completed, I know that the impracticalities of that need not be spelled out.

Furthermore, as pointed out by the Ulster Farmers' Union, the hazards on a farmyard are many, and it would be incredibly dangerous to expect a family to dwell within the yard. We can probably all think of examples of tragedies that have happened as a result of an incident with slurry, livestock or heavy machinery, and, as tractors and yards get bigger, those risks only increase.

On top of that, it is almost impossible to get any lender to offer a mortgage for a new building within the confines of a working farm, meaning that the guidance was totally unworkable for farming families. That would have had far-reaching and obvious implications for our rural economies in that it was removing the viability of family farms going forward, preventing people's ability to live close to their livelihood and, therefore, acting as a barrier to young people carrying on the farm.

Some 100,000 people are employed in agriculture across the North. If you prevent them from having homes, how will that be maintained? It is not just active farmers that would have been impacted on by the guidance. The change to the definition of buildings that would constitute an infill and the tightening of criteria around clusters would have ruled out many of the homes that we see dotted around our countryside.

Our planning policy needs to be sustainable, environmentally friendly and in line with the natural Irish landscape that we occupy. Sinn Féin is clear on that. It also needs to deliver homes for rural dwellers. People from small countryside communities should have the option of building a forever home and raising a family, if that is what they wish to do, in the community that they come from.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)

Every single week, without fail, I am contacted by at least one family, but usually several, about care packages. A total breakdown in the delivery of community care and the rising costs of childcare have colluded to create a situation where daughters and sons are picking up the slack when it comes to care for elderly or sick parents. Grannies and grandas are babysitting a couple of days a week. Pick-ups and drop-offs are being done by whoever is available. If people cannot build homes near their families, that ad hoc arrangement becomes impossible, ultimately adding further strain to the health and social care system.

Aside from the practicalities from a necessary care perspective, we all know the importance of human connections and how beneficial conversation and relationships are for people's mental health. Rural isolation, on the other hand, is a massive barrier to emotional well-being. If people can have family members living nearby who are able to drop in for a cup of tea of an evening without formal plans, or, as we would say in south Derry, "Call in on your céilí", their mental health will naturally be stronger.

If COVID-19 has brought us one positive, it is the introduction of widespread working from home and flexible working arrangements. For many rural dwellers, the ability to work from home meant the escape from a two- or three-hour daily commute, extra time with family, more daylight hours to enjoy, more opportunities for exercise and, overall, better standards of living. It has also made many think that living near to their home place, as opposed to living somewhere that they would rather not be just for the sake of their work, would be a better choice for life.

As remote working becomes the norm, and there are fewer requirements to be in city office spaces, we need to ensure that people have the option of building where they would like to live. So, I am relieved to hear that the Minister has listened to our voices and is going to consult with councils and planning officials about any change to guidance, which is what was missing from the first attempt of the PAN.

I encourage open and honest feedback on planning issues to make sure that planning is working for rural dwellers. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 4:30 pm, 19th October 2021

To say that this is a bizarre debate would be an understatement. I think that it is the first one I have been to where we have achieved the outcome before we have debated the motion. Having said that, I agree with and support the sentiment of the motion. There is undoubtedly an element of embarrassment on the part of the Department on the issue, because, despite continual calls to rescind the PAN, we were told by the Minister and officials that it could not happen. Nonetheless, I welcome the fact that there has been a change in thought, because the issue has caused great hassle not only to Committee members across parties but to councils and constituents. I welcome the change in policy. It is now an important moment to step back and see what we can do to ensure sustainable development in the countryside.

The work that has been done on the motion and on its subject — the PAN — is an example of strong cross-party working in Committee. The Committee sought from the very beginning to engage, gather evidence from relevant stakeholders and scrutinise, and both the Minister and planning officials appeared before the Committee. The Committee carried out its duty thoroughly when approaching the matter, and, on Wednesday past, it also supported a motion to rescind the planning note.

It is important, however, that we in the House recognise the body of evidence there was against the PAN. Ms Sheerin mentioned some of it. There was strong representation from our councils on the issue, particularly Mid Ulster District Council. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council said that the PAN

"not only clarifies and re-emphasises the extent of policy provisions but represents a change to existing policy on the grounds that it introduces new material considerations for planning authorities in their assessment of development proposals".

That type of representation was a running theme throughout many of the councils' responses to the Committee's call for their experiences. This is what troubled me most: while we were hearing from officials and, indeed, the Minister that there was no policy change, clearly, the interpretation by councils was that that change had occurred. It had occurred with CTY 8 of Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 21. No one can point us to a situation where, as the Minister and officials say, there was no change. CTY 8 makes no distinction between different types of buildings yet the PAN attempts to exclude from the term "building" certain types of building, and that, evidently, is a change. The Committee had considerable concern about that. I am glad that, following representations from those organisations, we have been able collectively to find a desirable outcome.

It was not just the councils. There was strong representation from the Ulster Farmers' Union on the effect that it would have on young people and their mortgages and, indeed, on the impact it would have on farming families who wanted to stay in the rural landscape and their local area. We also received a strong representation from the Rural Community Network.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

Does the Member agree that that would have caused huge stress to farmers and their families and that, in turn, it would have meant increased mental health issues in rural communities, which would have a knock-on impact on our health service?

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. She is absolutely right: there is no doubt that there is a psychological impact on people who cannot develop and live on the farms they have grown up on or cannot even stay local and have rural connectivity. The Member represents a very rural constituency, so she will know full well the benefits of being able to help on a family farm or be near elderly relatives. That policy would, in effect, have had a great impact on that.

We received some interesting statistics and information from the Rural Community Network that showed that, over the past five years, there has been little change in trends and uplift in the number of applicants under the policy. That begged this question from the Committee: why have the PAN in the first place?

One of the things in the Committee evidence that I found most alarming was that the last stakeholder engagement — there was no public consultation on that PAN — was carried out in 2016, five and a half years ago. I did not find that acceptable. If we look at the past five and a half years, we see that so much has changed in the realm of planning. Councils have taken on planning powers to a degree, but their experiences were not taken into consideration. That concerned me, as Committee Chair, and other members. If we are to look at rural planning policy, there needs to be in-depth stakeholder consultation. I welcome the Minister's statement on Friday evening that the Department now intends to undertake that stakeholder engagement, whether it be with local authorities or other stakeholders, to ensure that we get a sustainable policy that helps rural dwellers and takes into consideration their needs and aspirations. I support the motion.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the opportunity to speak in my first week as a member of the Infrastructure Committee.

I welcome the decision by our Minister to instruct her officials to remove the planning advice note on development in the countryside. She has listened carefully to rural voices and, in particular, to her SDLP colleagues who represent rural communities. Many in our rural communities understand that the planning note was well intentioned and was simply to help provide councils with certainty and clarity on the current strategic planning policy statement (SPPS). I have heard clearly from the Minister and her officials that there is no change in policy. That notwithstanding, I welcome the Minister's recognition that rural communities felt that the PAN added confusion rather than clarity.

Concerns were raised, and Members across the Chamber acted. They will undoubtedly be grateful that those concerns have been not only heard but accepted and acted on. It shows the leadership and integrity with which the Minister for Infrastructure works in her Department. She does so with professionalism and political maturity, as we have seen on so many occasions. As one member of the public commented online, the Minister's action showed depth of character and a willingness to listen. Government in partnership, government that listens and government that cares about rural communities is the type of government that citizens deserve. I am pleased that our Minister has not shied away from hard decisions or fair governance; instead, she has stepped up today, as she always has.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I declare an interest as the owner of 25 acres of agricultural land and farm buildings, and I provide assistance on my mum and dad's farm.

I reinforce the view that we need to ensure that we have sustainable development in the countryside. What does that mean? It means that we have to protect the natural environment but get a balance by allowing rural communities — schools, churches and the entire community — to be maintained. There is a balance in all of that.

The decision of the Minister to withdraw the planning advice note of August prior to the debate indicates that the she has been listening. I thank her for that; perhaps she has recognised the concern in the community. Some of the difficulties have perhaps been caused by how some interpreted the legislation and guidance. Nevertheless, in bringing about changes, it is important that there is dialogue, understanding and consultation. I was not aware of that happening. It is helpful if it happens before any changes are made. In particular, if someone applied for planning permission in their area under the previous understanding, they will have invested in architects and site assessments and surveys. A sudden change would potentially leave all that lost.

PPS 21 was developed to balance the need for new homes in the countryside with ending unregulated development in some areas, where you could see a new home in almost every field. It is important that there is a balance. I noted, in the advice given to the Committee, an interesting graph from the Rural Community Network that seemed to indicate that there has been a fairly stable number of planning applications over the last five years. It is estimated that there have been just over 3,500 per year. I wish to know what the problem is and whether the Minister is aware of that. It is important that there is discussion of this. It appears that there has been a stable number of planning applications over the last five-year period.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. I am sorry that I do not have the document to which he refers in front of me. He has given the number of planning applications. Along with that, is there a number for the planning approvals?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Sorry, my mistake. That was the number of planning approvals. There have been just over 3,500 planning approvals each year.

It is important to get an understanding of the problem and why it arose. I am aware that, under previous planning regulations, there were huge variations between council areas. I have picked up from colleagues that there are differences in how councils have interpreted even the existing policy. If that is an issue, it would be good to learn of it. It would be much better if issues were shared with everyone so that we could have a greater understanding of what was happening.

In preparation for today's discussion, I had a look at the planning advice note that was drawn up. I notice that there was reference in it to an:

"Emerging Issues Paper — Development in the Countryside".

There is a web link, but that did not work for me. I do not know whether the items have been removed. Again, if there are issues there, I wish to know what they are. It is important that we all understand and get the balance the right between the need to sustain communities and the need to protect the natural environment.

We have all seen in the past some rural roads developed to the point where they almost look like streetscapes. There has to be balance. There is a need for that, but yet there is also a need for flexibility. In particular, as others mentioned, it is important that there is flexibility on genuine health and safety issues such as slurry tanks and middens. Those should be taken into consideration so that those applying for sites are not forced to look at sites adjacent to them. If there are not suitable sites, there is a need to be flexible going forward. Again, there was provision for that in the past, and I hope that there will be provision for flexibility going forward. Equally, a site serviced via a busy farmyard is a practical health and safety issue. New homes may mean new families and young people, so it is important that sites that do not have those risk factors can be identified for those who wish to live in the countryside.

I suspect that the issue will come back again. I particularly highlight the issue of climate change. Many advocate speedy movement towards climate change legislation. I suspect that this will be one of the areas affected by that, because of the effect of building additional houses in the countryside and the effect of the additional transport required to build those houses. I suspect that that will be an issue going forward. It would be helpful if the Minister and officials briefed us all on that so that Members can understand that there will be balance in everything that they do going forward, be it building houses in the countryside or seeking climate change legislation.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

I wish to cover a lot in the next five minutes, so I will try to rush through this. A lot has changed since the motion was tabled, given the Minister's statement on Friday evening that:

"Regrettably, rather than bringing certainty and clarity, as was its intention, the PAN seems to have created confusion and uncertainty" in this case. It is regrettable that we are in the situation that we are in today, but hopefully the debate can be constructive in shaping the way forward. The Alliance Party comes to the debate as a clear supporter of PPS 21, as other parties were when it was brought forward. It is important that the SPPS be upheld, and all it takes is a trip round Donegal to see why.

Whilst actions are being taken in relation to that situation and the "bungalow blight", as it has been called, in Donegal, it is, unfortunately, in my view, too late.

Planning and associated area plans, policies and restrictions are in place for the right reasons: to protect the environment. PPS 21 was brought forward in the context of PPS 14, and political consensus was reached on PPS 21. You can read the debate in Hansard. My analysis, and other analysis that you can see, is that there have been concerns about how PPS 21 has been implemented over the last number of years. However, today, I come to the Assembly to make it clear that the evidence base and the case for action should have been more clearly outlined by the Department. Correspondence from the Rural Community Network in my file states that it:

"would question why the Department has issued this guidance at this time and would be interested to hear further explanation from the Department on the timing of the release of this PAN."

The Department needs to learn lessons about making the case for change and why the planning advice notice was issued. The way in which we have reached this situation today, with the withdrawal of the PAN on Friday, has, in my view, undermined the case for PPS 21. A letter from the Minister on 24 September stated that, while the PAN had been issued:

"Ultimately the interpretation, relevance and weight to be accorded to all material planning considerations, including this advice, will be a matter for each planning authority to determine in any individual case."

I am clear that the Department, by issuing a PAN but then issuing that note, demonstrates a conflict in its desire to be able to deal with the issues around this. Let me be clear: we will come back to this. There is a clear issue with how PPS 21 is being interpreted by district councils, so another planning advice notice will be needed. Hopefully, however, the lessons that can be learned about what happened in this case can shape how we go forward.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP 4:45 pm, 19th October 2021

I thank the Member for giving way. On that point, does he recognise that the overwhelming body of evidence that was received by the Infrastructure Committee, with the exception of evidence from Belfast City Council, the geographical location of which meant that it was dealing with very few applicants in that regard, was negative about the PAN's release? Does he agree that it will be important to have adequate consultations with rural councils to ensure that we have an informed rural and sustainable policy going forward?

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

Yes.

[Laughter.]

The planning function in the Department needs to change. There are systemic faults in Northern Ireland's planning system. In the first quarter of 2021-22, the average processing time for major applications was 53·6 weeks, compared with a target of 30 weeks. Some regionally significant applications have been waiting for over 10 years for a determination. Hagan Homes recently announced that it is pulling out of Northern Ireland because of the delays in our planning system.

I hope that the review of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 will deliver action and that the forthcoming Northern Ireland Audit Office report will be a useful contribution. However, change is required. Frankly, planning issues and the reform of the planning function need to be a higher priority. Concerns were raised about the PAN, and it is important that they are noted and given an airing here today, particularly about the financing of new homes and the clause on health and safety.

On 1 June 2010, when issuing PPS 21, the then Minister of the Environment, Edwin Poots, came to this place, and Hansard records him as saying:

"I revised the policy to allow for an alternative site to be used where it can be demonstrated that there are health and safety issues or that the applicant has genuine plans for business expansion." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 52, p133, col 2].

That is on the record.

So, there are clear issues with the PAN and the confusion that it caused. However, Members also need to understand the context, and we need to grasp the reasons why the PAN was issued. That the case for change was not made adequately enough is a key issue of concern. We may have this debate today, and we may criticise the Minister, but, however good that may feel, it will not resolve an awful lot. Perhaps we will learn lessons, but we will have to come back and address the same issue. If we do not, future generations will not forgive us: this was a planning process that was meant to safeguard the environment.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Beidh mé ag labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin. I speak in favour of the motion. I welcome the debate. To be fair, I am glad that Mr Muir came out with what he came out with, because he opened the debate up to where we are at, which is that there needs to be a broader discussion about rural planning. I want to concentrate on the PAN today, because that is the subject of the debate, but I agree on the need for a broader discussion. I listened to Mr Muir.

Mr McGlone and Mrs Kelly were there when we debated PPS 21. My recollection of what the Member said and of what happened are two totally different things. Her starting point was PPS 14, which was a poor starting point for bringing forward a rural planning policy. I want to give some detail about that, because it is vital.

When it comes to PPS 21 and the SPPS, there are a number of caveats in the policy that facilitate single dwellings in the countryside. If you ask anybody in the countryside, they will say that it is very difficult to get planning permission in the countryside. They have been saying that to us for a number of years. I accept some of the arguments around evidence in relation to the PAN. If a number of houses were being built in the countryside and we were overwhelmed by that, I would accept the debate being brought to the Floor. We had a good debate in Committee the other day.

I want to get back to the PAN. The PAN attacks three elements of the policy: CTY 2a, which is clustering; CTY 8, which is gap and infill; and CTY 10, which is farming and "Dwellings on Farms". That is what the PAN attacks. Fair play to the Member who moved the motion on behalf of the party for outlining the interpretation of every one of those things. I am not arguing that it is the case that they did not change the policy. This is about a change of direction.

We cannot be in this situation, having transferred planning powers to local authorities five or six years ago and giving them the autonomy to make decisions. I accept that there are provisions in the 2011 Act that relate to the Department having to adhere to guidance, if it brings guidance forward, but, in most cases, the councillors, planners, architects, the Ulster Farmers' Union, the Rural Community Network, applicants and all those people are on the front line and at the coalface of all this. They deal with these people day and daily. If you are saying to me that there should not be a wee bit of flexibility because planning policy is down to subjectivity and interpretation, and you are saying to me —. I forgot to say at the start that I welcome the Minister withdrawing the PAN. I think that there is a broader discussion to be had, however. Whether or not I agree with Mr Muir that we will bring forward another PAN is a slightly different issue, but I will not fall out with the Member today.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member accept that a climate change Bill, whether that is the Climate Change Bill or the Climate Change (No. 2) Bill, will have a bearing on everything that happens in Northern Ireland, including on where homes are built?

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Well, Mr Beggs, I would prefer to speak about the PAN, because that is the most important thing.

What we are saying is that this is not an urban versus rural issue. I do not want to get into that. If you look at those caveats, we are talking about infill sites. We are not talking about open countryside or rural remainder into big green open fields. If that were the case and we looked at a local development plan, you would take four or five acres of ground on the edge of a town and build out. We cannot even afford the suit or all the infrastructure that people are crying out about over the last number of weeks.

You can get into the broader debate about it, but I am saying that, when you look at the caveats, we had a debate about farm dwellings that could not be built beside middens or anything else. The mortgage company would not allow them, so there was a wee bit of flexibility about where they were built. That is what happened with single farm dwellings. That was the flexibility.

We cannot say that we will transfer powers to the councils and then, all of a sudden, say to the councils, "No, folks, you have got it wrong for five years, so on you go in a different direction". We have to work with councils. I would appreciate the Minister coming down and having —.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Does the Member believe that an effective rural planning policy is important for the vibrancy of our towns, villages and rural communities?

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Absolutely. This is about the sustainability of rural communities. That is the first thing that PPS 21, 'Sustainable Development in the Countryside' says. Let us not turn this into an urban versus rural issue. These people contribute to rural communities, to the GAA and to everything associated with rural communities.

I hope that the Minister takes the time to engage, and no doubt the Committee has a responsibility to engage as well. After five years of councils and planners dealing with it at the coalface, let us have a broad discussion of the issue.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. It is an issue that is widely discussed in rural communities, local councils and among those assisting in planning applications, including elected representatives, consultants and architects.

The intervention by the Minister, through the planning advice note, has not been well received in a number of council planning committees. In Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, there have been a number of discussions. The general opinion expressed in committee has been against the Minister's intervention, which is seen as unhelpful and has, in effect, created a new policy, despite Minister Mallon stating that it is merely reinforcement of an existing policy. I do not conclude that that is the case, and even senior planners state that it amounts to a change in policy and it has affected their consideration of applications currently in the system.

The fact that, over the weekend, the PAN was retracted is, of course, welcome, and the immediate effect of that retraction, from my perspective, was that I received an update that a constituent's application, which had been due to be refused under the criteria of the planning advice notice, would now be approved. That was the impact of this planning advice note. It is simply not good enough that the Minister sowed this much confusion in the first instance in issuing the advice note. Minister Mallon urged that it was not a change in policy, but my experience is that it was very much that, as my involvement with that application this week has shown. My constituent's plans were in disarray following the Minister's issue of the PAN. Indeed, one case officer told me that, before the note was issued by the Minister, the application was clearly to be approved.

What this means for all the other decisions taken across the Province in line with the PAN remains to be seen. It will be up to council planning departments and committees to deal with the aftermath, an entirely avoidable situation, of course.

Building in the countryside is already rigid in policy. There is little opportunity, and it is difficult for someone who wants to remain in the countryside to meet the requirements. We must always be mindful of the need to sustain rural communities rather than limit opportunities for rural dwellers and the rural economy.

Instead of issuing what was monumentally unhelpful advice, the Minister would, I feel, be best employed in dealing with existing policy shortfalls, such as the fact that policy CTY 10, for a house on a farm, will not show latitude in house placement. Many farming families have been put in difficult situations as planners have insisted that a house has to be located to cluster with existing farm buildings. That has meant that mortgage providers will not lend money where they would view the house as unsellable if, for instance, it has shared access.

I have represented constituents who have been able to demonstrate a much better site close by, that is much less visible to the surrounding countryside. However, the planners will not countenance such an option, as it does not sit within the existing policy. I do not understand why the Minister does not focus on those situations and provide advice notes to planners that enable them to respond sensibly to applications in such circumstances. Where a much better site exists close to the farm, it will allow a young family to access financial aid through a mortgage in order to build their home and sustain the rural economy.

Withdrawing the PAN was the right decision, and, hopefully, in the future, the Minister can regain focus on sustaining our agricultural industry, rural infrastructure and the wider rural community. I have said for some time that changes were needed in the policy on housing on farms and even planners have stated that it would be better if the policy allowed a decision to be taken on a suitable site on a farm, rather than being forced to place a house beside farm buildings.

These are the issues that the Minister must begin to address.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00 pm, 19th October 2021

Members, as this is Deborah Erskine's first opportunity to speak as a private Member, I remind the House that it is convention that a maiden speech be made without interruption. You are very welcome indeed, Deborah.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I will make my maiden speech with a great sense of pride in representing Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Before I speak on the subject in the Order Paper, Mr Deputy Speaker, I ask that you give me some latitude to pay tribute to my predecessor. It may surprise some to hear me say this, but my standing here today is tinged with some sadness because it means that the Rt Hon Arlene Foster is not and that the House has lost one of its greatest Members. However, I pay tribute to and thank my party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, for the opportunity to serve my great constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Arlene is someone whom I will forever hold in the highest esteem. She was not only my boss but a friend and a friend to many across the Province, and I thank her for the encouragement that she has given to me in my political career thus far and for the vision that she has for Northern Ireland and its place in the Union. Arlene and the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone are the reason why I stand here today, and I join my constituents in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in thanking her for her service and for the dedication that she has given to Northern Ireland, its people and the Union. Furthermore, I thank the Members of the Assembly for their welcome and support in the past few days. You have certainly made my days in the Assembly that little bit less daunting, and I thank you for that.

On the matter before us this afternoon, I acknowledge that the Minister rescinded the planning advice note that was handed to councils in August. However, that came after mounting pressure against the Minister, who did not recognise until now the impact that the note would have on rural constituencies such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The note that her Department issued on 2 August brought deep worry and deep concern to my rural constituents. I want to be a voice for my rural community, and I will use my time in Stormont to make a difference for my constituents.

I represent the most westerly and most rural constituency in Northern Ireland. If it had been progressed, the note would have displaced many people from our rural areas. In the short time I have been an MLA, I have had many people contact me who were concerned about what the policy would mean for those future generations who had hoped to live on the family farm. Similar to my colleague Mr Irwin, I spoke to one constituent yesterday who told me that, if the note had not been rescinded, their son would have been unable to build his house and establish a life close to the family farm.

We already know the danger that working on a farm can present. Imagine working on a farm during lambing season and being called during the night, making a 40-minute one-way trip to your farm because you could not build in the countryside. Indeed, it could have been worse. The successor to the farm may have had to move away entirely, spelling the end of the family farm. Think for a minute about the deeper and wider implications that that would have on rural schools, businesses and the local economy in the west. Many Assembly colleagues might deem those as minimal impacts to progress legislation, but the consequences of proceeding would have severely damaged family networks and access to support.

I speak to rural constituents, and I know that they already find it extremely challenging to gain planning permission on farms in the countryside. To have removed all flexibility for local planners to interpret certain criteria would have resulted in a further blow to rural development. Huge concerns were voiced at the Minister's initial decision. It is very clear that the position of the planning advice note was untenable. Although the Infrastructure Committee, the Ulster Farmers' Union, the Rural Community Network and other representative bodies all noticed that, it took until Friday for the Minister to act, and I pay tribute to the Committee for its work on the matter, as the stress caused to rural families was immense.

Our rural communities matter. The way of life in rural areas does not deserve to be threatened. I trust that the Minister will work with me and other rural voices in Fermanagh and South Tyrone before, potentially, bringing forward further disastrous polices for my constituency.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

As my colleague Cara Hunter said at the outset, we acknowledge the leadership that has been shown by the Minister, because, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, we raised concerns about the planning advice note. Of course, it came about as a consequence of PPS 14, which was introduced by Conor Murphy when he was Regional Development Minister. It created a blanket ban on all new houses in rural areas and there was a massive outcry. It was picked up by Arlene Foster, who then led on PPS 14, which, of course, in June 2010, led on to PPS 21, which was the responsibility of Edwin Poots. The interpretations that have brought us to where we are on rural planning have very much a cross-party genesis. Our Minister sought to address the different interpretations across council areas.

Members, including the Member who moved the motion, are right to acknowledge the lack of social housing in rural areas. However, the last time that I looked, that was the responsibility of Deirdre Hargey. I understand that there are still many spaces in development plans across our villages and rural areas on which social and affordable housing could be built.

For over 17 years, I had the honour of representing a largely rural district electoral area (DEA). I, unashamedly, used whatever interpretation — loose interpretation — that I could and fought back against planners to ensure that the people whom I represented had the chance to build a home close to their family so that they could send their children to the school that they went to, be there to care for parents or grandparents and help to sustain the sporting and church organisations in rural areas. At the time, even of PPS 21, which was fairly rigid in its application, environmental campaigners said that it was not good enough. There is a balance to be struck. That is the eternal argument, and it is in even sharper focus now due to climate change and the needs of rural communities. The two should not be losers. We should be able to create a win-win.

Some Members acknowledged the fact that the planning application process is slow. I think that Mr Boylan said that. That goes back to the transfer of functions from this place to councils, when responsibility went to councils but the resources did not. In more recent years, we saw the voluntary exit scheme, under which many experienced planners left. The same happened in DFI Roads. I was surprised and shocked at how many people with whom I had built relationships over many years left those sections under the voluntary exit scheme. It is a challenge. In a period of austerity, it is a challenge to get enough officers. However, it is the responsibility of councils to employ planning officials and to speed up the process.

The biggest difficulty that we are faced with in the Upper Bann constituency — I have referred to it before — is the area plan, area 1 and area 2. Development in some areas is being held back under the area plan. Of course, the area plan is also a responsibility of local councils, not the Department. There is much work to be done across planning. It does not fall at the Minister's door. It falls very much to our colleagues across all the councils. It also falls to Finance and what money it gives to councils from rates to allow them to employ more planners to get caught up, because we know the importance of the construction industry to the economy here in Northern Ireland.

I will finish by acknowledging the leadership shown by our Minister. It took a judicial review to amend PPS 14 and introduce PPS 21. Without doubt, there is work to be done.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

We want to be part of the conversation going forward on how best to marry the challenges posed by climate change and the sustainability of rural communities. Sorry, I was on a train of thought there and I could not give way.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

First and foremost, I congratulate my colleague Deborah on her excellent maiden speech.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

The number of concerns about the negative impact of this planning advice note is clear to me due to the number of conversations and phone calls I and my office have received. It is very apparent that rural dwellers, architects, farmers and others are united in their concern about how this planning advice note has impacted rural communities. As there is no change to PPS 21, why was the planning advice note issued in the first place? Minister, I suggest that there needs to be a fresh consultation carried out with all the interested people before a PAN is issued.

Paragraph 12 of the note emphasises that everything has to be resolved in line with the SPPS. That is why the PAN should not have been issued in the first place. I firmly believe that there needs to be a positive and sensible approach to development in the countryside. Therefore, it is important that the policy meets the requirements. There can be no doubt that rural planning applications must be treated sensitively. There should be a positive and beneficial policy that will help people who wish to live and work in the countryside while offering the protection of the environment that is also required.

My conversations with a range of interested parties have led me to believe that the current policy, reinforced by the PAN, has almost demonised rural building. People who wish or need to live in the countryside should be assisted when possible. The refusal mindset should change, and a positive approach to applicants should be developed. To achieve that, we need a new consultation.

Minister, I am glad that the PAN has been withdrawn and common sense has prevailed so that rural dwellers can be assured of a more positive future. I also commend the Infrastructure Committee, led by my colleague Mr Buckley, for bringing this planning issue to a satisfactory conclusion.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I call the Minister to respond. The Minister will have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

First of all, I thank the Members who proposed the motion and everyone who has contributed to today's debate.

Planning and the specific issue of development in the countryside has been and continues to be — as we heard today — the subject of healthy debate and discussion. Engagement on this planning issue, and on planning generally, is to be encouraged, and I very much welcome today's debate. All Members spoke about the SPPS at the heart of this, and it is important that we take a moment to reflect on its origin. The existing strategic planning policy on development in the countryside is contained in the strategic planning policy statement. You will be aware that the SPPS was published on 28 September 2015, following extensive engagement during its preparation. That included a public consultation, Assembly and Committee scrutiny and agreement from the Executive Committee prior to publication in its final form. As Ms Sheerin and others have pointed out, the important aim of the SPPS is to manage development in the countryside in a manner that strikes a balance between protection of the environment from inappropriate development and supporting and sustaining rural communities.

We have also heard from Mr Muir, Mr Boylan, Mr Irwin and Mr Robinson that there are differing views on what that means and how best to achieve it. Subject to acceptable proposals in appropriate locations, the current SPPS offers considerable opportunities for farming families and other people wishing to live in the countryside.

It does that by providing for replacement dwellings, the conversion and reuse of non-residential buildings and dwellings, new dwellings within an existing cluster, infill dwellings, social and affordable housing schemes, dwellings to meet compelling personal or domestic circumstances, dwellings on farms and dwellings for non-agricultural business enterprise.

Following publication of the SPPS, the Department issued a call for evidence in March 2016 to help to inform the scope of a potential review of strategic planning policy on development in the countryside. That attracted responses from a wide range of interests, including local government, environmental groups, business and industry, residents' groups, professional bodies and individuals.

In March 2017, the Department procured independent consultants to undertake research and provide an updated evidential context to inform the best strategic planning policy approach for development in the countryside. The research involved focused stakeholder engagement, including seminars with council planning managers, professional institutions and environmental interest groups. It also included individual meetings with relevant organisations, including the chairs of planning committees and other local political representatives, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Construction Employers Federation, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Rural Community Network and the Ulster Farmers' Union.

That preparatory work and engagement helped to inform the decision on the preferred way forward for strategic planning policy on development in the countryside. On balance, I decided not to commence a review of this policy area. That is because I am satisfied that the current policy approach provided for by the SPPS remains appropriate, robust and fit for purpose for the two-tier planning system.

Mr Beggs, and Mr Robinson in particular, asked for the reason for the issuing of the PAN. The PAN that was issued on 2 August was to provide clarification on the correct meaning and intended application of the SPPS countryside policy and to assist planning authorities in making decisions and bringing forward development plans. The PAN did not add to or change existing policy, and its advice was consistent with the fundamental regional approach to cluster, consolidate and group new development with existing buildings.

Unfortunately, the PAN, rather than bringing clarity and certainty, as was the intention, created confusion and uncertainty. Having listened carefully to and reflected on all the concerns expressed since it issued, I decided to withdraw the PAN in order to restore clarity to the situation.

I respectfully disagree with Mr Muir that the current SPPS has been undermined. I firmly believe that the SPPS provides and should continue to provide opportunities for sustainable development in the countryside in general, including for farming families, as Mrs Erskine eloquently outlined, and other rural dwellers, striking a balance between supporting and sustaining rural communities and protecting the countryside from inappropriate development.

All stakeholders in the planning system have an important role in achieving this objective in the long-term public interest. However, Mr Muir is right: there is an important onus on local planning authorities to take all possible steps to ensure that, in the taking of decisions and the making of plans, they properly and faithfully take account of the SPPS overall. Similarly, in planning appeals and in the independent examination of local development plans, the Planning Appeals Commission has an equally important responsibility.

I assure Members that I am fully committed to ensuring that my Department and the wider planning system continue to play their part in managing growth in order to achieve appropriate and sustainable patterns of development in the countryside that contribute to a vibrant rural community and economy. As for the future of strategic planning policy for development in the countryside, I am satisfied that the current policy approach remains fit for purpose and that it should work effectively under the two-tier planning system.

As I said, I firmly believe that the SPPS provides and should continue to provide opportunities for farming families and other rural dwellers and for sustainable development in the countryside in general. We come back to the fundamental point: striking a balance between supporting and sustaining rural communities and protecting the countryside from inappropriate development.

Members asked what the next steps will be and highlighted the importance of continuing to engage with councils and our other stakeholders and partners. I will now take stock of the concerns raised and undertake further engagement and analysis with my officials on that important policy area to include consideration of current and emerging issues such as the emerging climate change Bills and our green recovery from the pandemic.

I remain committed to ensuring that strategic planning policy for development in the countryside is fit for purpose going forward. I am grateful to Members and others, particularly those from our rural communities, who raised their concerns. I value our rural communities. I want to see vibrant rural communities and sustainable development. I said to those who expressed their views that I would listen; I have listened, and I acted.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:15 pm, 19th October 2021

Glaoim ar Declan McAleer chun deireadh a chur leis an díospóireacht ar an rún. I now call Declan McAleer to make a winding-up speech on the debate.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Deich mbomaite? Ten minutes?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Deich mbomaite. Go raibh maith agat. I came into the debate as Mr Buckley was speaking. He referred to the health benefits of planning and building in the countryside and to the fact that it has been five and a half years since the previous consultation on rural planning policy. Another one is needed soon.

Broadcasting brought Cara Hunter in, who welcomed the removal of the PAN. She emphasised the fact that there was no policy change and that the Minister had taken on board Members' views and made the appropriate changes. Roy Beggs emphasised the importance of the need for sustainable development in the countryside. He thanked the Minister for listening and for removing the PAN, and he emphasised the need for dialogue and consultation. He also cited the RCN statistics on planning approvals over the past number of years. He highlighted the fact that there may be differences in interpretation of planning policy among councils and that a flexible approach was needed. He also highlighted the pending climate change legislation.

Andrew Muir said that Alliance supports PPS 21, and he pointed to Donegal as an example of where there is "bungalow blight" that it is too late to fix and suggested that we do not want to go down that road. He said that the policies protect the environment and that the Department should have consulted on the case for action more clearly. He made the case that the planning advice will be revisited and that the way in which councils interpret PPS 21 will become a big issue. He said that a change in planning policy is required.

Cathal Boylan said that there was a need for broader discussion on rural planning. He went back to PPS 14 and PPS 21, highlighting some of the challenges that people experienced in relation to planning. He said that councillors and rural groups were on the front line of those decisions, and he welcomed the withdrawal of the PAN. He said that it was not a rural versus urban issue.

William Irwin said that the PAN has not been very well received across councils and that it has created confusion. He said that there is already a very rigid rural planning policy and that appropriate planning was important for the rural economy. He mentioned the issue that the UFU had highlighted about mortgage implications and the fact that houses can be seen as unsellable if people are forced to build on the farmyard.

I want to acknowledge Deborah Erskine's maiden speech. I remember Deborah as a young journalist in Omagh a few years ago. It is great to see her in the Chamber today, and I congratulate her on her maiden speech. Deborah acknowledged the rescinding of the PAN and believed that the Minister did not fully take on board the potential impact of the PAN and that it had caused a lot of concerns. She talked about the importance of appropriate planning policy for future generations to keep them on the farm and the wider implications for rural communities.

Dolores Kelly said that the PAN was a consequence of PPS 14 and PPS 21. She said that there were different interpretations across councils, and she also spoke about the need for social housing in rural areas and the importance of getting a balance in relation to sustainable rural communities. She highlighted the challenge for councils, as the appropriate resources did not go to councils when the planning powers were transferred, and the voluntary exit scheme had resulted in the haemorrhaging of a lot of seasoned and experienced planners. She also highlighted a local area planning issue.

George Robinson said that he had heard many concerns from his constituents regarding the impact of the PAN. He questioned why it was issued in the first place, and he said that there should have been consultation before any such decision was made. He said that sensible and sensitive decisions must be made about planning in the countryside and that there was a need for consultation. He commended the work of the Infrastructure Committee in highlighting the issue.

Minister Mallon responded to the debate and said that it had been a healthy one, which she welcomed. She mentioned that the SPPS was published in 2015 to manage development in the countryside and to protect the environment while sustaining communities. She said there was a call for evidence in 2016 and that further research was carried out in 2017 to inform the development of the strategic planning policy. The Minister is satisfied that the SPPS is fit for purpose.

She made the point that she issued the PAN to clarify the implementation of PPS 21 and that, in fact, it was not a policy change. She recognised, however, that it had caused confusion and had not provided the clarity intended, so she withdrew it. She stated that she was committed to having a vibrant rural economy and rural communities and that it was important to strike a balance between protecting the countryside and encouraging development.

Looking ahead, the Minister said that she will look at the potential implications of a climate change Act and the green growth strategy, and she again emphasised her commitment to having vibrant rural communities.

That was a summary of some of the main points of the debate. I will make a few points before concluding. There definitely seems to have been a clear rejection, in the House and amongst rural organisations and representatives, of the PAN. It was clear that it would inhibit planning on farms, infill sites and rural settlements. I raised the matter a couple of weeks ago at Question Time, and the Minister made the point, at the time, that the PAN was guidance rather than a policy change. That is a fair enough point. However, paragraph 2 of the PAN says:

"Sections 8 and 9 of the 2011 Act require a council to take account of ... any policy or advice contained in guidance issued by the Department".

We do not want unregulated planning or "bungalow blight" in the country. We want to achieve a balance between protecting the countryside and enabling people and their families to live there. People and families provide the vibrancy — the heartbeat — of rural communities.

I made the point a couple of weeks ago that, in the vast majority of cases, it is young couples who want to start their life in the country. In most cases, they want to build beside their home place. They may be farming people, perhaps with aging parents; they want to start a new life there and support their parents, as they age, on the farm. Rural representatives will know the kind of people I am talking about; we have all met them on sites.

We need people to live in the countryside. We need them to sustain our schools and services and to give that heartbeat to our rural communities, which are under a lot of pressure with Brexit, a lack of broadband connectivity and other issues.

Whilst the Minister may feel that the SPPS is fit for purpose, which is a fair enough point, under PPS 21, there is one plan every 10 years. Many families in the country, especially farming families, may have four, five or six siblings in the house. Being granted one planning permission every 10 years is extremely challenging, so it is important that there are other opportunities, such as infill sites and renovations and that personal circumstances are considered. They are very difficult to get. It is important that flexibility remains on infill sites, clusters and building on the farm. It is a debate for another day, but certain aspects of PPS 21 need to be revisited.

I am glad that the Minister has rescinded the guidance. Like other Members, I commend that decision. I stress the importance of consulting local councillors, councils and wider rural community organisations in particular. They are at the forefront and were the first to raise the concern that we have reflected in the debate. It is important that local stakeholders, councils and other representatives in the wider community are consulted in the event of any guidance or policy being issued in the future.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly acknowledges that the planning system must be sustainable while also working for our rural communities; notes with concern the recent publication by the Department for Infrastructure of planning advice note (PAN) 'Implementation of Strategic Planning Policy on Development in the Countryside'; further notes the concerns expressed by the Ulster Farmers' Union regarding the new planning guidance; recognises that the new guidance could have a significant negative impact for many people hoping to live in the countryside; and calls on the Minister for Infrastructure to withdraw, immediately, the planning advice note and to engage meaningfully with local councils regarding the very real concerns of people in our rural communities.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:30 pm, 19th October 2021

The next item on the Order Paper is the Adjournment.

[Interruption.]

Oh, sorry. I ask Members to take their ease before we move to the next item.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)

Motion made: That the Assembly do now adjourn. — [Mr Speaker.]