Third Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 4 February 2003
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Draft Planning (Amendment)
(Northern Ireland) Order 2003
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I am sorry to take up time at the beginning of the proceedings, but this is an important point of order, as I am sure you will appreciate once you have heard me out.
I do not know whether what I am about to refer to is the result of an oversight by the Government's business managers or a deliberate attempt to foreshorten Parliament's consideration of Northern Ireland legislation. There is an unfortunate coincidence in that, along the Corridor, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is debating other Northern Ireland legislation, which means that it is physically impossible for those of us with general parliamentary or constituency responsibilities in Northern Ireland to take part in both debates, although both are extremely important to us. If it is an oversight, it is a grievous one. Will you at least pass this matter on to the Speaker, so that he is aware that the parliamentary business managers, whether deliberately or by oversight, have created a situation that is very worrying for those of us who take seriously our responsibilities to Northern Ireland?
The Chairman: I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but this is not something that I can resolve as the Chairman of the Committee. His points have been noted and will get back to Mr. Speaker.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela Smith): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Planning (Amendments) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.
I start by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. As a Minister, I have not served in a Committee chaired by you before, but your fairness is known to us all, and I look forward to our debate.
The draft order was laid before the House on 16 January 2003. I shall begin by giving some background to it. It combines proposals previously before the Northern Ireland Assembly in the Planning (Amendment) Bill and the Strategic Planning Bill, and it includes an amendment to the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 sought by the Department for Social Development after the Assembly was suspended on 14 October 2002.
There has been a great deal of consultation on the issues, and consultation papers on proposals in the Planning (Amendment) Bill and the Strategic Planning Bill were issued in March 1999 and January 2002 respectively to a large number of organisations and individuals. In addition, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, representatives of district councils and Northern Ireland Departments and statutory consultees under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1975 were consulted.
When the Assembly was suspended, both Bills were in Committee. The Assembly Committee had published an interim report on the Planning (Amendment) Bill, and recommended six changes or additions aimed at further strengthening the powers of the Department of the Environment. Those were accepted in principle by the former Administration, subject to the approval of the Assembly Executive Committee and to the Secretary of State's consent in respect of reserved matters.
Following careful consideration of these matters, the Government have decided to include three of the Committee's recommendations. The first two are both transferred matters: the provision that a stop notice shall come into effect immediately, unless the Department of the Environment specifies that it should do so at a later date, and the provision for district councils to have a statutory consultative role when the Department is drawing up, modifying, varying or discharging a planning agreement.
The other recommendation, which is a reserved matter, is the further increase, from £5,000 to £30,000, in the maximum level of fine that can be imposed in a magistrates court for a breach of an enforcement notice, a tree preservation order, a stop notice, a listed buildings enforcement notice or a hazardous substances contravention notice. Originally, it had been proposed that the fine should be raised to £20,000, but the Assembly Committee recommended that it should be raised to £30,000.
However, three recommendations, which are all reserved matters and would require the approval of the Secretary of State, remain. The first is the extension of custodial sentences proposed in relation to a listed building enforcement notice, to breaches of an enforcement notice, a tree preservation order, a stop notice or a hazardous substances contravention notice. The second is the increase, from £1,000 to £5,000, in the maximum level of fine available to a magistrates court to deal with lesser offences such as failure to provide information on land ownership or failure to respond to a planning contravention notice. The third is the creation of a new criminal offence of commencing development without planning permission.
Those recommendations are not being taken forward in the order. The Government are not convinced that a sufficiently robust case has been made to warrant their inclusion at this stage, particularly in respect of the third proposal, which requires further consideration. Also, while it was not necessary for the Minister in the Assembly Committee to consult at that stage, there is a difference in a direct-rule Minister proceeding with a proposal without consultation.
In relation to the Strategic Planning Bill, all but clause 2, or article 28 in the draft order, had been agreed by the Assembly Committee. Clause 2 was set aside for further clarification and consideration. The Committee had not reported on its consideration stage.
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I shall briefly explain some of the articles, as that may help hon. Members. Articles 3 to 17 introduce some entirely new enforcement powers, and make other changes relating to the Department of the Environment's existing enforcement powers which, with the exceptions that I outlined earlier, bring Northern Ireland's planning legislation broadly into line with what has been in force in the rest of Great Britain since 1991.
Article 18 introduces a significant amendment to make it clear that all demolitions should come within the meaning of development for planning purposes. Initially, however, I intend to apply the new control over demolition to buildings in areas of townscape character. Articles 19 to 23 make minor changes to controls over development, such as giving district councils a statutory consultative role when planning agreements are being drawn up, modified or discharged, and giving the Department of the Environment a power to decline to determine repeat applications in certain circumstances.
Article 24 introduces building preservation notices for the temporary listing of buildings, commonly referred to as spot-listing. That important provision will allow the Department of the Environment to move quickly in circumstances where list-worthy buildings are at risk. Article 26, together with article 16, provides a major overhaul of the Department's powers in respect of the protection of trees and tree preservation orders. Provisions include a new duty to replace trees subject to a TPO which are removed, and higher penalties for breaches of TPOs.
Articles 27 to 29 amend the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 and assist the Department of the Environment and the Department for Social Development in carrying out their statutory functions in respect of implementing the regional development strategy. First, they introduce a change in the relationship between the regional development strategy and development plans. In future, plans will be required to be ''in general conformity with'' the strategy whereas previously they were required to be ''consistent with'' it. Secondly, they introduce a new mechanism for the Department for Regional Development to offer an opinion on whether a plan is in general conformity with the RDS. Finally, they provide for transitional arrangements for three development plans prepared well in advance of the formulation of the strategy.
Articles 30 to 37 make some miscellaneous amendments to the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991, in respect of the status of development plans, the Planning Appeals Commission and an extension of the Department's powers to grant-aid certain voluntary bodies. They also amend the Home Loss Payments (Northern Ireland) Order 1992 and enable the Department for Social Development to enter into development agreements where it intends to acquire land and has initiated the requisite statutory process.
The draft order will address some important issues relating to the planning process in Northern Ireland.
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Mr. Davies: The Minister did not refer to my point of order, although she clearly heard it. From that, I must draw the conclusion that the Government have not been guilty of some involuntary oversight and mistake, but have deliberately planned the order to coincide with the Northern Ireland Grand Committee—
The Chairman: Order. I consider that no one in this Room has influence over the timing of the sitting. I promised the hon. Gentleman that the matter would be reported to Mr. Speaker for his consideration. Any further deliberations on the matter will not help.
Mr. Davies: I hear your words, Mr. O'Brien.
Even without other Northern Ireland business being in progress at the same time so that we cannot all play our full part in it, today's proceedings demonstrate again how thoroughly unsatisfactory it is to introduce Northern Ireland legislation through the statutory instrument mechanism and how desirable it is to return to devolution as soon as possible. The Minister referred to consultation on the order, which took place when the Assembly and the Executive were still in existence at Stormont. The procedures there allow for proper pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation. If the order had first been introduced under the parliamentary procedure at Westminster, I fear that there would have been no consultation and no opportunity whatever for pre-legislative scrutiny. That state of affairs would have been even more unsatisfactory.
That said, the Opposition have no objection to much of the substance of the order. We are happy with the extension of enforcement powers. Planning enforcement is important, and the system is not worth having unless it is credible. For the same reason, we are happy with the increase in the enforcement penalties that the Government have proposed, and we are, of course, happy with the obligations on district councils and with the opportunities to take part in consultation because that, too, is important in the planning process. I have no objection on that score.
However, I have one general and two specific questions for the Minister, and I would be grateful if she could reply before the Committee has to make a decision on the order. First, paragraph 8 of the explanatory memorandum states:
''The proposed order will amend the Strategic Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 to require planning policies, development plans and development schemes to be 'in general conformity with' . . . rather than 'consistent with' the strategy.''
That will considerably weaken the influence of the strategy, and of the overarching strategic planning framework, on the outcome on the ground, so it will be possible for policies to vary from the strategy as long as it can be said that they are ''in general conformity with''. That is a much looser relationship than being ''consistent with'', which is more precise. That weakens the policy and the confidence that one might have that people and the Government cannot deviate from a strategy once it has been set out. I would
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be grateful if the Minister could explain the background.
Paragraph 11 of the explanatory memorandum could be taken to be an explanation where it states:
''The provisions . . . arose from concerns that the statutory requirement for development plans to be 'consistent with' the Regional Development Strategy' . . . would inhibit the Department of the Environment in securing the orderly and consistent development of land and its ability to respond to changing circumstances unforeseen in the RDS.''
That does not explain anything but merely confirms that the new policy will be much looser and that the Department of the Environment will have much more scope in varying or diverging from the principles set out in the initial regional development strategy.
That must cause concern to those of us who want a planning policy in Northern Ireland which is both robust and transparent. It amounts to the Government giving themselves greater flexibility, without reference to Parliament or Stormont, to vary planning policies to which they are ostensibly committed. I am concerned about that and would like to hear much more specifically why the Government have chosen to make the modification.
Finally, I wish to ask specific questions about two matters that are of concern to me, as the shadow Secretary of State. At least one goes to the heart of planning policy in Northern Ireland. Everyone who knows the Province will agree that one of its treasures is the north Antrim coast. It has the great merit of being not only physically beautiful but completely unspoilt, thank goodness. I cannot speak with as much knowledge about Scotland, but I cannot think of a part of the coastline of England, including the inherently beautiful coastlines of the west country and Cornwall, that are as unspoilt as north Antrim. It is important that it should remain so.
It is particularly important that the Giant's causeway, which is a heritage site, should remain unspoilt. I believe that Moyle district council has promoted plans to allow for commercial development in the area. Will the order give the Government powers to take measures that they otherwise might not have been able to take to preserve the north Antrim coastline and, particularly, the Giant's causeway? Perhaps the Minister will tell us what thoughts, if any, the Government have about such matters.
References in paragraph 7 of the explanatory memorandum to
''introducing building preservation notices to enable the Department to respond quickly to protect buildings at risk ('spot listing')''
''funding, in certain circumstances, bodies, which may include building preservation trusts, to enable the acquisition of buildings considered to be at risk''
caught my eye. With my interest in present, past and future Northern Ireland affairs, I decided some time ago to visit Craigavon, which was the house of James Craig, as he was originally known. It was where the Unionist movement began. At least, it was where the Ulster volunteers were first raised and the decision was
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taken on Unionism and the protocol of the 1912–14 period.
Views will differ as to whether the Ulster volunteers had a benign or other influence on the history of Northern Ireland—I do not wish to deal with that. However, their influence was decisive and critical. What is more, Viscount Craigavon became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and served for 20 years. I should have thought that his house has a certain historic interest. I was surprised by the difficulty I had in finding anyone who could tell me where it was. From historical accounts and memoirs, I knew roughly where it was and that it overlooked Belfast lough, but I felt like Schliemann looking for Troy after reading Homer. No one could tell me exactly where the house was. Perhaps my task was not quite as difficult as Schliemann's, but it was interesting and involved a certain amount of detective work.
Eventually, I found Craigavon, which is still standing. An estate has been built in front of it, blocking what otherwise would have been the very dramatic view over Belfast lough, which is described in all the memoirs of the first parades that took place there. An old people's home is being built on part of the grounds, but Craigavon itself seems to be entirely neglected and in a very bad state of repair.
I realise that the history to which I refer may be a matter of considerable controversy, but I would speak as eloquently—if I can use the term—and with as much feeling if a great monument to constitutional nationalism for which we had responsibility, such as the homes of John Redmond or Parnell which, I recognise, were not in Northern Ireland, were in an equal state of disrepair and neglect. It is a failure of conservation and planning that the problem should exist. Has the Minister any plans to use the powers to which I have just referred in respect of Craigavon?
In principle, the Opposition are willing to give the Government the powers in the statutory instrument.