Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate an issue that is of increasing importance in Northern Ireland. I am grateful, too, that the Minister is in attendance this morning. I know that I have dragged her away from the fair shores of Northern Ireland, which she left yesterday. She is rushing back again, so keen is she on the place, but she has come to respond to the debate.
All public representatives are finding that levels of satisfaction with the Northern Ireland Planning Service are falling. That dissatisfaction is experienced not just by those who make applications, but by objectors to applications and those who simply have an interest in the planning system. The two greatest concerns are delays in the planning process and lack of accountability. Those two problems go hand in hand. The lack of accountability has resulted in a lack of urgency in the planning process and a lack of response to the increasing criticisms of the process.
I want to deal first with delays. Delays occur in the processing of planning applications, in the production of policies and in the bringing forward of area plans. The Planning Service suffers from more delays than British Rail on a bad dayand it probably comes up with as many excuses, too. Those bringing forward major developments now build in a minimum of two years for planning permission, and most housing association schemes take up to one year for the planning application process to be completed.
As to what some stakeholders and players in the system have said about the planning system in Northern Ireland, Tesco described it as "wading through treacle". Banks now put planning risk as a major financing risk to any schemesignificantly, it now ranks above political instability. One of the large private developers in Northern Ireland, CUSP, claims that the planning process is extremely slow, to the extent that development opportunities are being put at risk or missed altogether. In a recent report, Investment Belfast estimated that in excess of £1 billion of property investment has been lost to Northern Ireland. It has flowed into Great Britain, instead. That is equal to about 15,000 full-time construction jobs. The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association described the system as a farce and a shambles, and William Ewart Properties Ltd recently invested in three GB-based shopping centres because of the uncertainty and difficulties in getting planning permission in Northern Ireland.
That all comes at a time when, rightly, the Government are seeking to wean Northern Ireland from dependence on the public sector, yet the opportunity to create jobs in the private sector is being held up by major impediments in the planning process. It is clear from the examples that I have given that economic development and job promotion are being held up, and that the planning process is responsible for a shortfall in economic growth in Northern Ireland.
Delays in the planning system are not just manifested in the slowness of the divisional planning offices in assessing and processing planning applications. There is another major delay in bringing forward policies and
1 Nov 2005 : Column 210WH
area plans. That creates greater uncertainty, because planning then takes place in a vacuum. Those who are objecting do not know the status of certain areas and those applying do not know the ground rules.
The Belfast metropolitan area plan, which covers two areas in my constituency of East AntrimNewtownabbey and Carrickferguswas meant to replace the Belfast urban area plan, which is in itself 10 years out of date. The Belfast metropolitan area plan has been five years in the making. The draft was finally published at the end of 2004. It is now going to be subject to a public inquiry, and it could be 2009 before it is adopted. We could have 14 years of no formal plan for the Greater Belfast area.
That turgid documentthat is all one can describe it as, because it lacks visionand its technical support stand 3 ft high. I am not so sure that it is a useful document for anyone who applies. Indeed, a document that is as prescriptive as that one in itself creates difficulties, which is one of the problems with the way in which area plans are drawn up.
The damage that tardiness in advancing planning policies can do could not be illustrated better than by the disgraceful way in which successive Ministers have handled the review of planning policy statement 5, which deals with retail planning policy in Northern Ireland. The guidelines have now been under review for five years. That review was greatly needed because, after several judicial reviews and other legal challenges, PPS5, which was meant to protect town centres, was so watered down that it was almost meaningless and certainly did not protect town centres.
The work started in autumn 2000. The original research was carried out by Roger Tym and Partners, who were the authors of the successful policy that limited superstore development in the Republic to 30,000 sq ft. The report, which was published in February 2003, indicated that the Northern Ireland food market was reaching saturation point, with growth down from 1.28 per cent. to less than half that figure. Obviously, that did not suit some people in the Department, because at that stage there was an influx of major food retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda into Northern Ireland.
There was therefore a delay in submitting the document for public consultation. It was available in September 2004 and was to go out to consultation in November 2004. The then Minister, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), decided that there would be a further delay while he consulted another Department. It was promised that the consultation would start in February 2005, but we then had an election, so it was delayed for that. Since the election, however, there has still been no sign of it. The document was delayed, but it now seems to have fallen off the radar completely.
The planning vacuum that has occurred as a result has created dangers for many provincial towns. Let me give one example. Enniskillen, a town in the west of the Province, with 17,000 people, currently has four applications for food superstores. I know that they will not all be granted, but if they were, there would be another 7 sq ft of retail shopping for every man, woman and child in the whole of County Fermanagh. That creates uncertainty for investment in Fermanagh, but
1 Nov 2005 : Column 211WH
it also creates frustration for those who have applied, because there is no clear policy on which of the schemes are most likely to be successful.
Some people argue for a moratorium on the processing of applications until the new PPS5 is in place. I do not support that call, because I believe that it would only prolong the uncertainty about investment in town centres and would stymie some schemes that would benefit the economy of some provincial towns. Rather than having a moratorium, the obvious answer is simply to produce the policy, to put it out to public consultation, to get it adopted, to start applying it and to inject some certainty into the planning regime.
I believe that other planning documents require revision, but one that concerns me in particular is PPS2, which deals with planning, nature conservation and the protection of natural habitats. It is quite clear that the statement is not up to date and is not strong enough. In my constituency of East Antrim, I have seen builders deliberately tear out old field hedges and take down copses, even when those have been marked on maps as features that must be preserved. There seems to be little or no protection. In large housing developments, much of the landscaping that is required as a result of the quality development requirements is unimaginative. It often resembles the landscaping that we would expect from a garden makeover, rather than integrating naturally into the environment.
The Woodland Trust has estimated that about 40 hectares of native trees need to be planted in the Larne area to meet the standards in "Space for People". Rather than allowing the unimaginative landscape schemes that are accepted at present, we should make provision to create quality open space by planting woodland, particularly on large housing developments, which can tolerate planting because of their scale. That would also go a long way towards meeting the demand in "Space for People" for woodland access within two miles of where people live.
There are many creative ideas from developers and groups such as the Woodland Trust, and those should be considered in the review of PPS2. It is significant that the members of the working group that was set up in May 2004 have not been called together since. That is another example of the lack of urgency in reviewing policies.
The problem seems to be that the planning system finds it difficult to cope with the current volume of planning applications, to the point that those people who would be involved in drawing up policy are now allocated to development control. That means that policy development has been all but forgotten.
What has caused this problem of delay? Why is the planning system grinding to a halt in that way? The planners blame everyone but themselves, and the excuses that have come from the planning system mimic those that we got from British Rail for the delays to trains. The latest culprit to be identified is councils. We are told they are responsible for the delay, that they defer applications, that they send them to the management board and that they are irresponsible. Under "Modernising Planning", therefore, councils will be limited to one deferral of a planning application, regardless of the reason for that deferral.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 212WH
I know that some councils are irresponsible and defer a planning application when they do not know what to do with it; they send it to the management board to pretend that they are doing something. I was the chairman of the Belfast city council planning committee for many years, and we would have sent an application to the management board as a last resort. We had a self-denying ordinance that, where the council did not show that it was delaying or deferring an application for good reasons, the committee would take the application out of its hands and push it through the system. However, such councils will be punished, because the planning system wants to find a scapegoat. That will not speed up the planning process, because most of the planning applications about which people complain come to councils only a year and a half after they were first made.
The other reason that there has been a delay is that no such restrictions are placed on statutory consultees such as the Roads Service, the Environment and Heritage Service, the Water Service and the landscape division of the Department of the Environment, which can, and often do, delay a process for as long as they want. To save time, I shall give hon. Members just one example, involving a planning application by one of my constituents, who lives beside Belfast lough. I do not know whether this has anything do with the debate, but I got a call from the Environment and Heritage Service yesterday, saying that, after two years, it had finally sorted the matter out. I hope that that illustrates the power of Parliament, but I shall wait to see. If I have planning difficulties in future, however, I might apply for another debate; that might be the way to get things done.
The building of Carrick marina changed wave patterns, and the sea wall that bordered my constituent's property was starting to wash away. Every week, he was paying builders to shore it up to stop it and his garden being washed into the lough. He needed to build some armouring, which would have extended 4 ft on to the beach and run 100 yd along it.
One of the consultees, the Environment and Heritage Service, rightly took an interest in the matter, because Belfast lough is a special protection area. Over two years, however, the service asked him to do survey after survey. First, he was asked to do a survey of the ducks and seagullsa bird survey. When that was done, he was asked to do a seal survey. It then asked him to do a worm surveythe service called it a benthic invertebrate survey, but I think that means worms. After that, he had to do a model of coastal dynamics to show the macro-effects of the development on the whole north shore of the loughthe whole north shore of the lough stretches for about 15 miles, and he was going to do some work on 100 yards. He was then told that he was going to have to do a bird-nesting survey. I think that the only survey they did not ask him to do was on the impact on global warmingand had it not been for this debate, he may have been asked to do that.
My constituent spent more than £9,000 on those surveys. He was happy to do so, if that was what was required. However, if the Environment and Heritage Service knew at the start that those were the areas it was concerned about, why did it not ask for surveys on them to be done all at once? Why did it ask for one after another over two years? During that time, he was spending money shoring up the wall. The irony is that,
1 Nov 2005 : Column 213WH
had the sea wall come down and the garden been washed on to the beach, it would not have impinged on to 4 ft of beach; it would have washed across a much larger area.
I will not bore hon. Members by giving further illustrations; I am sure that they could give many similar illustrations. However, I could provide further illustrations on the Roads Service, the Water Service, and the landscape division of the Department of the Environment. There does not seem to be any curtailment on how long consultees can hold the process up.
Another explanation that has been given is that the number of applications received by the Planning Service has jumped greatly, and that is true. However, that is also true for councils, which have to deal with the building control aspects of any planning application. The odd thing is that, during the period of the increase in planning applications, councils' building control departments have reduced their waiting lists and times, whereas the length of time it takes the planning system to deal with planning applications has increased dramatically.
The Minister authorised the employment of 120 new plannersshe can correct that figure if it is wrongto supplement those already employed, and to move people off area plan teams and policy making in order to try to deal with the backlog, yet the problem has still not been dealt with. One of the reasons for that is that, although additional planning staff have been introduced, the bureaucracy of the planning system has not been dealt with. It grinds slowly and frustrates the public and their representatives.
One of the major sources of delay in recent times has been the practice of sending planning applications back as invalid. I do not know if architects are getting worse, or if, as a result of ageing, they are becoming senile, but I cannot understand why that is happening. Architects' applications used seldom to be declared invalid, but now there is suddenly a big jump in the number of invalid applications. That has added delay to the process.
I dealt with one such application in my constituency. A group that had got temporary permission simply photocopied and sent in the same application as the previous yearan application that had been processed and given permissionand it was sent back to them as invalid. I could not find out what the reason for that was, and neither could any members of the group. Once I started making inquiries, it was determined that perhaps it was valid.
One architect who knew about this debate sent me a letter on five applications he had submitted. All of them were initially returned as invalid, but were subsequently passed after a periodone after a yearwithout any amendment to the documentation or plans. That is another issue that the planners need to address.
The second problem is one of accountability. I will deal with only one aspect of that, because I know that I will probably have a disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), who is sitting beside me. Planners have decided that they will consult councils even less than they did in the past. In Northern Ireland, councils are only consultees. They are not the final authority on planning decisions. It rests with the civil servants. So there is a lack of accountability already. We have no chance to question
1 Nov 2005 : Column 214WH
the Minister who makes the decisions directly, although I am sure that the Minister who is here this morning will do an excellent job in responding, because he is a member of the other House. As a result, the channels and communications required for accountability are being stretched.
One case study that illustrates that lack of accountability was the decision to permit John Lewis to locate at Sprucefield along with 20 other retail units on the site. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish to say something about that. The Minister made that decision fairly quickly when he took office and has explained his position by saying that the decision was "a no-brainer". That major planning decision, which will have an impact on Lisburn town centre, on Belfast and on a number of other town centres was put through.
Many people in Northern Ireland welcomed the fact that at least the Minister was prepared to make a decision, even though it was controversial and opposed by many. But one would have expected at least some explanation of why that decision was made, especially as, when the Minister was the Minister for Regeneration in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, he stated:
"But allowing the market to do what it likes risks severe economic, environmental and social consequencesbecause investment will tend to gravitate to honey pot areas like affluent suburbia or the edge of towns. Having to burn a pint of petrol to buy a pint of milk . . . because retailers haven't chosen to locate in your area makes no sense whatsoever."
What was the Minister's first decision when he reached Northern Ireland? He granted an application for one of the largest out-of-town shopping developments in the United Kingdom. It may well be that, when he crossed the water and changed Department, he changed his mind. That is fine, but an accountable planning system ought at least to have had a mechanism to explain that change of heart, especially when it was opposed by a wide range of interest groups. That did not happen. It goes against all the policies on urban densities, sustainable communities, public transport and social exclusion, yet we had no explanation from the Minister.
I want to describe some of the things that could be done to improve the current situation. First, there must be an immediate publication of PPS5 and an agreement to update the other planning policy statements that are out of date and causing problems, including PPS2.
Secondly, consultees must be put under pressure to respond much more quickly than they do at present, as they are one of the major reasons for planning applications being held back. Whether that is by means of a service level agreement, an indication that, if representations are not received within a certain period the application will be determined without them, or some other arrangement, should be a matter for debate. One set of consulteesthose who are at least allowed some public accountabilityshould not be restricted in how long they can delay planning applications while statutory consultees are given carte blanche. That is what happens at present.
Thirdly, in parts of England, planning applications have been speeded up by the establishment of business planning zones, where economic clusters are established and where decisions are made quickly on a basis of established planning principles which have been laid down. We should look at that in Northern Ireland, too. Fourthly, additional resources could be made available
1 Nov 2005 : Column 215WH
to the planning system if developers were given assurances that their applications would be fast-tracked if they provided additional resources to buy in some of the expertise that might be needed to do economic impact or environmental assessments, which the planning system does not have the resources to do at present. Some people would say that that compromises the planning system. However, if it were simply a case of developers handing over money to the divisional planning office or the Department for Regional Development to buy in the services, there would be no conflict of interest and it might speed things up. How often have I rung planners who say, "We can't process this because the person who is meant to be dealing with it is working on another job"? If additional resources could come from developers, why not? Many developers would be prepared to provide that, because a quick decision would be less costly than the delay that happens at present.
Fifthly, the process of drawing up policies must be reviewed. The Belfast metropolitan area plan, which many people welcomed at the time, was subject to massive consultationabout four years of consultation. Then when the draft plan was drawn up, what did we get? We got 9,000 objections, which will go through a legal process. Either the consultation method is wrong or the legalistic nature of what happens after the draft plan is published is wrong. One thing is certain: we cannot go on with the present arrangements, which drag things on for ever.
It is significant that until 2002 the Planning Service carried out customer satisfaction surveys. In 2002, it decided that it would aim for 80 per cent. of applicants being satisfied with the way in which their planning applications were determined; that was the target. The figure for the previous year was 64 per cent. The service sent questionnaires to 1,200 applicants. However, only 61 per cent. of respondents indicated that they were satisfied with the service. Rather than going up, the figure went down. The Planning Service promptly decided not to do any more surveys. That is one way of ensuring that there is no dissatisfaction, or at least that it is not expressed. It may indicate the uncertainty that the planners themselves feel about the way in which they deal with planning applications.
The Minister will know that there is great dissatisfaction in local authorities about the new arrangements for consulting councils. In fact, there is great anger and frustration at the manner in which the present Minister decided to remove site meetings from
1 Nov 2005 : Column 216WH
councillors. I would rather have five minutes in a site meeting with an officer than an hour in an office to talk about a planning application. The decision furthers the democratic deficit that is felt in the Province. The anger and frustration felt by many elected representatives certainly has been, and will continue to be, expressed until the new policy of so-called modernising planning arrangements is changed.
My hon. Friend touched on the issue of statutory consultees. A constituent of mine put in an application for one simple dwelling in the countryside in 2002. The matter was delayed and he got approval in August 2005 for one simple dwelling for his family in the countryside. There was an intervention by the EHS: it put in an objection to the application. A year was taken to respond and then the Department decided that it would consider approving the matter. The EHS was asked for a further letter and it wrote back with the same letter that it had sent a year before. The Department has seemed able to hold back such applications. Had the matter not been deferred, that person would have had a refusal even though he should have had an approval right at the beginning. His application went in in 2005, but it was approved only in 2005. That is totally unacceptable; it was totally in the power of the Departments to deal with the matter. The delay was completely down to them.
The removal of proper consultation with district councils and site meetings with district councillors is not only greatly to be regretted, but should be strongly opposed by elected representatives. However, it seems that statutory consultees can keep back planning determinations for as long as they want.
Many area plans are in total chaos. My hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim mentioned his area, and there is also the situation in Antrim. The officials have been removed from the Antrim area plan because of 5,000 objections to the Magherafelt area plan. The officials have just been moved over to another area plan, bringing a full stop to the plan in Antrim.
The lack of appropriate and proper officers is a problem. The Minister employed more officers to deal with the plans, but the tragedy is that many senior officers retired from the system. Junior officers were brought in their place, but many were totally inexperienced in planning, so the delays happened. We need proper planning arrangements that are effective and realistic.
The area plans that are in total chaos need to be dealt with. For example, the Assembly made a great announcement; Mr. Empey came to South Antrim and told us that the jewel in the crown of all industrial bases was going to be a global point in Newtownabbey. Yet many years later, not one building has been put on to that jewel in the crown for industrial development. I asked the Minister why there had been a delay. What answer did I receive the other day? He told me that we had to wait until the Belfast metropolitan area plan was published before anything could be done. That global point was supposed to be the jewel in the crown, but the jewel must have fallen out because the situation is going nowhere. That is disgraceful. The place is decaying and what ought to be the jewel in the crown of industrial development is sitting in absolute disarray and decay because of the delay in, or our waiting for, the Belfast metropolitan area plan. That is totally unacceptable.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 217WH
Did those responsible not know about that plan when they came down to make that precious announcement about the jewel in the crown, which gave the community great hope and anticipation of great industrial things? Yes, they didbut there seems to be delay upon delay upon delay.
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim on the publication of the retail planning policy. That is an absolute necessity. The policy is already decided; it is sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, and that will be a major impediment to appropriate retail development in Northern Ireland. I am not entering into the debate on the John Lewis stores, because they have nothing to do with me. However, I am saying that my developers and the people in my constituency are demanding that that retail planning policy should be released. If there is a planning situation or court proceedings are in the offing, that is no reason whatsoever for everything else to draw to a stop and for the document not to be published. There is a demand for it to be published.
The Minister and the Department have to deal with one of the major problems in planning: a lack of consistency in planning approvals and in the reasons for planning refusals. That has brought more disrepute to the Department than anything else. Not only do matters go outside divisional planning offices or areas, but inside areas there are variations in decisions, approvals and the reasons for approvals
Let us consider one of the reasons for refusing build-up. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One officer can see build-up, while another officer goes into the same area on another day and accepts that there is no build-up or lack of integration. One officer sees trees, while another sees a bush, as a result of which one gives approval and the other refuses. An officer might not have the guts to say that what was happening was ribbon development so he says instead that there was tendency towards ribbon development. I asked several officers at the Department what that meant and each of them gave me a different interpretation. We are dealing with a sensitive problem and the lack of consistency in planning approvals or refusals brings the whole position into disrepute.
As for the Crosshill inquiry, there is great opposition within my constituency in respect of the approval for the asbestos transfer station in Crumlin. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) runs alongside mine and our constituents are bringing their problems to our attention. The Minister who is here today made the decision about the station. The questions asked by those in our communities have not been answered. A decision cannot railroaded over the heads of the people. Members of the general public need to accept that decisions are made for the right purposes. The Department says, "We have to have an asbestos transfer station somewhere." I accept that, but it must be situated in the right place, not beside Lough Neagh nor in an area that is zoned for housing and population growth. The station will be a hazard to the well-being of our community. The matter will have to be taken to a judicial review, because the decision was forced over the heads of members of the community.
Let us consider the Cottonmont landfill site. It is to take most of the community's rubbish, but it will be situated beside a private development. Approval has
1 Nov 2005 : Column 218WH
been given for many houses to be built on the verge of the area, yet the problems of birds, litter, smell, infestation of rodents, additional traffic beside a school and numerous other hazards will have a detrimental environmental impact on members of the community. The decision has been forced on them. The response is, "Well, the site has to go somewhere". I agree that a landfill site is necessary, but we must ensure that it is situated in a proper place. The community is again forced into the position in which it must go to court to achieve a judicial review of what is happening. The Department is irresponsible. Such action brings the right of third party appeals closer.
Many people in the community consider that decisions are being forced on them. Rights are being given to developers and to others, but no one has a right to appeal against the decision without going to a judicial review. That does not apply in all cases, but what is happening shows that certain cases need to be dealt with by the Department.
We have a serious problem with planning in Northern Ireland. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley that I do not accept that developers have more rights than individuals, just because they have the money and can get matters speeded up. Everyone should be equal under the law and equally subject to the law. I am a great adherent to the principles of the Democratic Unionist party, and I fear that developers are given more rights because they can pay. Naturally, they will be able to pay the money if they receive approval quickly for their developments. I do not want to remove their rights, but I am putting up a marker because individuals with one little planning application in the countryside should have the same rights as everyone else. They have a right to demand approval or to object if they believe that something is against their rights.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim on securing this important debate and I will now let other hon. Members to speak. I trust that the Minister will take note of the points that have been made and, if he cannot reply to them today, that he will write to hon. Members with answers to their questions.
Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate. He made an excellent speech, laced with his usual good humour, and demonstrated a strong grasp of the relevant issues.
I want to draw the Minister's attention to the regional development strategy for Northern Ireland, especially the housing growth indicators within that strategy. Under the Belfast metropolitan area draft plan, those housing growth indicators were set at 20 per cent. growth for the duration of the plan period. The figure of 20 per cent. is too low and fails to reflect the housing growth that will be required in the Belfast metropolitan area over the plan period. As my hon. Friend said, given the likely further delay in processing the plan, which may not come live until 2009, the figure needs to be revised. Recently, the Planning Appeals Commission at the inquiry into the draft North Down and Ards area plan conceded that point and accepted that the target
1 Nov 2005 : Column 219WH
for that area's housing growth was inadequate. The principle having been conceded, the Department and the Planning Service need to reconsider and to revise the figure for BMAP.
In the light of my hon. Friend's comments, I ask the Minister to clarify the likely time scale within which it is intended to hold the public inquiry into the Belfast metropolitan area draft plan. When is it intended that BMAP will be adopted? What is the target date for adoption of BMAP and its implementation?
I want to mention briefly some of the consequences of the current BMAP process. Primarily, there is concern in my constituency about the joint ministerial statement by Lord Rooker, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, who is responsible for the environment, and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), who is responsible for the Planning Service. That edict caused great concern especially in rural areas in Northern Ireland. There is a proposal in the draft BMAP plan to extend the green belt in rural areas. Planning applications that were already in the system, which pre-date the publication of BMAP, although they met all the planning policy guidelines, were refused on the ground of prematurity because the area where the site was located would potentially form part of the green belt. That is grossly unfair.
Applicants, in good faith, submitted a planning application and found themselves caught, sometimes because the planning process had resulted in significant delays for those applications. A few weeks could have made all the difference between getting an approval and finding that their application was suddenly refused, purely on the ground of prematurity. I say, with respect, that the Department needs to look at the issue again in the interests of fairness and to revisit the issue of the joint ministerial statement. It is unfair that people have been disadvantaged in that way.
The strongest objection to the draft BMAP plan came from the residents of Drumbeg in my constituency. Some 1,000 objections were lodged against the proposal for a cemetery and crematorium on the edge of the Lagan Valley regional park. The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the late Mo Mowlam, took time out to walk the Lagan Valley regional park with me. Her intervention strengthened the safeguards for that valuable open space, which is important not just to my constituents in the city of Lisburn, but to the city of Belfast.
However, there is now a proposal to locate a huge cemetery and crematorium in the expanded boundaries of the Lagan Valley regional park. There is a proposal under BMAP to extend the boundary of the regional park to include the area around Drumbeg. In the same draft plan, there is a proposal to create the cemetery and crematorium within that space. There is outrage in the community about that proposal and total opposition to it. I urge the Department to take that on board and, in revising the draft plan, to drop the proposal for the Drumbeg cemetery and crematorium. I accept that there is a need for a new facility, but surely not in the Lagan Valley regional park. We need to protect the open space
1 Nov 2005 : Column 220WH
that we have in the Belfast metropolitan area, which is a valued asset that should be conserved and preserved for future generations. That is the wrong way to go about it.
My hon. Friend touched on the sensitive issue of the proposed development of the John Lewis store at Sprucefield. I understand why, representing his constituents as a councillor in Belfast, he takes the view that he does, and I respect that. However, having said that, the decision on the John Lewis store is one example of how the planning systemwhether one agrees or disagrees with the outcomegot it right in terms of fast-tracking a major investment proposal for Northern Ireland.
The John Lewis development is not just relevant to Lisburn, but will have a wider impact on Northern Ireland. The proposal is for the first John Lewis store on the island of Irelandnot just the retail store, but the warehousing and distribution centre for the whole of the island. The two developments together will create almost 1,000 jobs, and will be a multi-million pound investment.
I have met the chairman and the board of John Lewis and, sadly, for my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim, I know that the choice for them was not between Belfast and Sprucefield. They looked at and considered Belfast and decided that Belfast city centre was not the right location. They need to locate their store on the key Belfast-Dublin corridor, because they need to attract 3 million people within the radius of the storethey need an area that will justify the level of investment. Sprucefield was the ideal location, because it is on the A1 Belfast-Dublin corridor. With the new motorway development south of the border, it now takes an hour and 15 minutesan hour and a half maximumfrom the north of Dublin to Sprucefield. There is ease of access to Sprucefield. It is a central location for all of Northern Ireland, right beside the M1 motorway, and there are not the parking or congestion problems that there are in Belfast. I can therefore understand why John Lewis chose Sprucefield.
The Minister's decision was the right decision for Northern Ireland. The Minister has to look at such decisions in a Northern Ireland context. We cannot afford to turn away the level of investment that John Lewis proposes, nor can we dictate to companies where they should locate. If we believe in a free market, we should believe properly in that free market.
In respect of the impact on Lisburn city centre, the people who object to John Lewis are the same people who objected to the Marks and Spencer's store 15 years ago. They said that a Marks and Spencer's at Sprucefield would destroy Lisburn city centreor town centre, as it was then. Today, the city centre is thriving, and Bow Street mall is the largest shopping centre in Northern Ireland. There is also the Lisburn square developmentthere has been major investment in Lisburn city centre. Whatever measure is used, Lisburn city centre has benefited from the retail development at Sprucefield, and can benefit further from the development of the John Lewis store and the other units there.
Let me say to my hon. Friend that, as I understand it, we are not talking about small 20 retail units, but a much smaller number of large retail units going in alongside the John Lewis store. That will help to ease the impact on town and city centres in Northern Ireland.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 221WH
I understand that competition breeds fear. There is no doubt about that. When a new player, especially someone with the prestige of John Lewis, enters the market it is bound to create fear and opposition. I appreciate that, and believe that people should have the opportunity to express their concerns and to challenge decisions with which they do not agree.
I also want to mention some other developments in my constituency which I hope the Minister's Department and the Planning Service will do their best to push through the system, since they represent major investment. One is the relocation of the Coca-Cola bottling plant from Larnebeg to the Knockmore Hill industrial site. Again, we won that in stiff competition from Dublin, south of the border. We secured Coca-Cola as a continuing employer in Northern Ireland. The relocation will provide additional jobs in my area and the Greater Belfast area. Therefore, I hope that the planning system will put no major hurdles in the way of getting a speedy decision on the Coca-Cola application.
I want to mention the development of the former Maze prison site. Again, I am aware that there may need to be further inquiries into the site's development, but it is a major asset. Let us not tie it up in the planning process and bureaucracy. That project should be fast-tracked, particularly since the national stadium project, as the Minister will know from her previous involvement with culture, arts and leisure in Northern Ireland, is so important to the development of sport there. We want to have the opportunity to bid for some Olympics events in 2012. The stadium at the Maze gives us a golden opportunity to do that. Let us get it up and running. Let us get builders on to the site as quickly as possible. Of course, we will allow people to have their say in a democracy, but let us have no undue delay in pushing that project forward, so that the new stadium is in place well in advance of the Olympics. I hope we shall then be able to attract events, so that Northern Ireland will benefit from London's successwe supported it in its bid for the Olympic games.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) quite rightly mentioned the Crumlin asbestos store, to which the Minister granted approval in her previous capacity. I want to endorse his comments in that regard, but also draw the Minister's attention to my concerns about the Belfast hills. A proliferation of landfill sites are being granted approval there. The Belfast hills are a wonderful environmental asset to the people of Belfast and the Belfast metropolitan area, including the city of Lisburn. It pains me to see the way in which a multiplicity of landfill sites is gaining approval in the hills, with the impact that that will have on the environment of the area. Can the Minister advise her colleague, Lord Rooker, to look at the issue again? We need to preserve the Belfast hills not just for this generation but for future generations.
Roads and infrastructure form a major part of the planning process. We hope to secure additional investment to make major infrastructure improvements in Northern Ireland, including major road projects. Again, the planning system needs to be addressed here. The Roads Service can be tardy at times in its planning procedures for major roads projects. The planning system needs to give that priority.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 222WH
In my own constituency, for example, I think of the proposed Knockmore link between the M1 and the new north feeder road, which I welcome. That is close to completion at present and was entirely funded by private developers. There is scope for the planning system to encourage investment in local communities by making it part of planning delivery that we get returns from major development in terms of infrastructure improvements. The north Lisburn feeder road is a prime example of how that works, and I hope that the Knockmore link will take priority there.
Another priority for us is the upgrading of the link between Sprucefield and Lisburn city centre to help to improve the flow of traffic between the two retail centres, as is the possibility of a new south Lisburn orbital link to accommodate the increasing volume of traffic coming off the M1 motorway and into the south of the city of Lisburn.
We also want the Department to deal with the question of office space provision in Lisburn city centre. We believe that the development of office space in the city centre is crucial to its strategic development and to increasing footfall in the retail space in Lisburn. We hope that that, along with car parking provision, will be given greater priority.
I finish by making a plea about the B23 Hillhall road, which is now a major route. Some of my hon. Friends who travel from the west of the Province use it regularly to bypass the M1 into Belfast city. The forthcoming major roadworks on the west link will mean a large increase for three years in the volume of traffic on the Hillhall road. The planning system needs to take account of that.
It seems that the development of the Hillhall road is being fast-tracked, but the infrastructure is not being increased at the same time on that busy stretch of road. That needs to be revised. The concerns of local residents should be taken on board about the future development of the Hillhall road and the need to improve road safety. There is almost an accident a day on that stretch of road.
John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. It is usual in these circumstances for the winding-up speeches to begin at midday. I am sure that the next hon. Member to speak will bear that in mind when he tailors his contribution.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate and on the points that he made. Several hon. Members have remarked on the lack of consistency in the Planning Service. Anyone from the Planning Service who is listening to the debate might well question the consistency of hon. Members as we politicians duck and weave on both sides of the debate. I believe, however, that we are right to highlight issues and the frustrations of developers and others who are trying to advance projects that would underpin further economic development. We are also right to express the concerns and frustrations of people with legitimate
1 Nov 2005 : Column 223WH
planning objections who have found planning policy to be inconsistent and incoherent. It is with that sort of consistency that we emphasise the different points.
I fully support what other hon. Members have said about the need for planning policy statement 5 to be developed, not only for all the reasons that have been given, such as the confusion and consternation created around the whole Sprucefield-Belfast situation, but because of Tesco's proposal for a shopping centre in Derry outside the city centre, which would have a major impact and would be a major drain on other businesses. Springtown centre, which is a small local centre not far from where Tesco would locate its super-development, was built with completely private local money. The planners are now telling the centre, which has been refurbished, that it will not be allowed to have any extra retail area because it competes with the city centre, even though it is quite clear that it does not. That is the sort of contradiction that exists for the Springtown centre, which is hardly a stone's throw from where Tesco proposes to put a superstore.
That leaves people asking all sorts of questions, and comes on top of the fact that Seagate, a major employer in the area, has trouble coping with the scale of development around it. The roads cannot cope. I know that the Minister who will respond to the debate today is not a Minister at the Department of the Environment, but she is attached to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Industry in Northern Ireland, and I encourage her to visit Seagate in that capacity on a future trip to Derry. She might hear not only about the plans for future expansion, but about the confusion, which Seagate is experiencing as a major employer, that is caused by the lack of coherent planning and certainty around regional planning policy statements.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I cannot promise to be as entertaining as my colleagues. If the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) ever thinks of giving up politics, he would make a good sales director for his constituency.
The Minister will be aware of the difficulties in my constituency in relation to the Craigavon area plan. I see her smiling. I am sure that she was on therapy when she was dealing with the Craigavon area plan in her previous capacity. We have had several meetings in the past few months. I must express to her my disappointment and frustration about the plan and the continuing delays. In the 2004 draft plan, the planners, in their wisdom, did not designate the town centre boundariesthey are now redrafting it. Months ago, they promised that a draft proposal would be issued by the end of the year, but planning officials informed me yesterday that that is not even on the Richter scale at the moment.
There is a problem of which the Minister will be awareI spoke to her colleague about this. One individual is dealing with three area plans. With the best will in the world, no individual, no matter how good, can deal with three area plans. I was assured that the Banbridge, Armagh city and Craigavon plans would be
1 Nov 2005 : Column 224WH
divided up and looked after by three people, as it is impossible for one person to do that. We therefore have a difficulty with delays, which stymie development.
As the Minister will be aware from her visits to Craigavon, we have major potential for investment but the delay in the development plan is holding everything back. We have potential investment of £300 million, but developers are being held back because they cannot get approval. We have the major Vico development in Portadown, the proposal for a £30 million extension to the Rushmere shopping centre, and another proposed £30 million investment in Magowan West in the Portadown area, but we cannot progress because of the area plan.
For some reason, the Planning Service, in its wisdom, brought Colliers Consultants, an English consultancy company, into Northern Ireland to try to sort out the retail query. I believe that the consultants met Craigavon district council once to introduce themselves. Since then, there has been no contact with the council about retail viability. We need to make some progress toward reaching a satisfactory conclusion. A lot of developers have purchased land and are waiting to proceed, but cannot.
I shall deal briefly with the issue of housing indicators for the Craigavon area. Will the Minister speak to officials in the Planning Service to release phase 2 land there for housing? We were told that, originally, 13,400 homes were planned for the Craigavon area. We are now told that that number has been reduced to 11,000. Time is moving on and others want to speak, so I will sit down, but will the Minister address some of those issues?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): First, I must say how much I am looking forward to the Minister's response to the 72 detailed planning points that have been raised so far. Secondly, we always talk about normalisation in the Province. Having listened to hon. Members' frustrations at the delays that occur and the randomness of the planning process, I say, "Welcome to the normal planning process, as implemented across the rest of the United Kingdom." I find planning so frustrating in my area that I have considered standing for the local authority. It looks like a great deal of fun, although I suspect that the planning process has less to do with objective debate and more to do with a throw of the dice.
I applaud the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) for securing the debate and for highlighting issues that his constituents, and those of other hon. Members who have spoken, will be grateful have been raised. The Minister will be unable to respond to all the detailed points, but I hope that she will make the effort to respond in writing to the extensive list of frustrations that have been expressed.
Planning is particularly important in Northern Ireland because of the feeling that exists there that applicants cannot find an avenue to appeal in the same way as people can elsewhere. The hon. Member for East Antrim has provided a vital platform for those specific issues.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 225WH
I have a few general concerns about Northern Ireland planning policy. An inadequate approach to sustainable planning has been adopted. There are several examples of that, many of which have been highlighted already. I merely add that apartments are springing up in south Belfast, only to remain half full. Traffic congestion, the destruction of older buildings and plans to build houses and supermarkets in the green belt all give a sense of randomness not only in individual applications but in the strategic plan for Northern Ireland.
I agree with those hon. Members who feel that there must be a general review of planning policy statements to ensure that they are consistent with both economic and social needs and that the communities' concerns are taken into account. We certainly need more clear targets for brownfield development.
Moreover, the Minister could easily take on board some other straightforward proposals. The abolition of VAT on renovation would encourage the use of existing buildings, which developers often shy away from because they cost more to renovate. Compared with new builds, less profit can be made from them.
The establishment of more conservation areas would make much sense, together with a more clear-headed look at out-of-town retail developments. We heard about the conflicting pressures that hon. Members from the Province face on that subject. It would help them and their communities if the Government provided clarity of direction on those issues.
Councils should be able to initiate third-party appeals. Although it may not be practical to grant that power to individual residents, parties such as the Alliance party believe that the power should be vested in local councillors, through a weighted majority vote. I tend to agree with that.
We must see a strategic approach to develop best practice in the design of the urban environment. An opportunity exists to maximise cross-community mixing, which is connected to the urban landscape that one develops. Lord Rooker must be asked why he is reducing councils' consultation powers on planning issues. We have already heard the reason why that could prove a difficult and counter-productive move. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that or write to us with an answer.
Finally, this may be a contradiction, but I agree with hon. Members' frustrations with the speed of the planning process. We heard one dramatic example of the Environment and Heritage Service's repeated requests for a constituent to do surveys on his garden, which is falling into Belfast lough. Similar complaints are common in planning across the entire UK. Perhaps the Minister, with her sage-like, in-depth understanding of the issues, can make Northern Ireland a role model for the rest of us to follow, so that never again will those who are simply trying to protect their grass have to spend £9,000 on understanding in detail the breeding habits of worms on the beach.
We have had a wide-ranging debate. I am pleased that hon. Members have had the opportunity effectively to act as a kind of planning inspectorate. I hope that, today and in the days ahead, the Minister will give them the responses that they and their constituents deserve.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 226WH
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate and, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, on enabling us once again to discuss the more normal aspects of life in Northern Ireland. That makes a pleasant change, especially after yesterday's very necessary debate, in which probably everyone in this Chamber took part. I intend to speak for just a few minutes to allow the Minister time to respond to the important issues raised.
Planning has many objectives. It must balance the rights of those who live close to potential developments with the rights of developers themselves and the need for development. It must ensure sustainability as well as protect the countryside. It must achieve a balance between smaller shops and supermarkets, between affordable housing and larger housing, and between activity and not having too much traffic. There is a balance to be struck. The hon. Member for East Antrim was absolutely right when he said that two of the big problems are delays and accountability. If those delays are too long, or if accountability is not there, it is very difficult to achieve the balance and the objectives that I mentioned.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson), for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for Upper Bann (David Simpson), who raised a number of local and important issues, such as inconsistency in decisions and third-party appeals. [Interruption.] Excuse me; I have come in this morning not feeling in the best of health.
Hon. Members also mentioned levels of investment and the regional planning strategy, so many important issues need to be addressed. However, I entirely concur with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire when he says that even in England the situation is far from perfect. The Government have introduced pressure to delegate many planning decisions to officers; indeed, there is a financial inducement to do so. I do not necessarily think that that is the right way forward. I mention that only to demonstrate that even in England there is concern about the time that decisions are taking. That is perhaps something that the Minister needs to consider.
By drawing my remarks to a hasty conclusion, I mean no disrespect to hon. Members from Northern Ireland; I am sure that they realise that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and I wanted them to speak, rather than to take the time ourselves. I had a meeting with the planning people in Northern Ireland last Thursday, and one of the questions that I asked was whether it was an objective to move the decision-making process to local councils. I was a little surprised at the answer, which was that not all councils want that authority or power. The people to whom I spoke said that some do and some do not. Perhaps that is a further problem, and perhaps the Minister could address that.
The other problem relayed to me was the shortage of people considering planning applications, given that quite a large number of applications are coming forward. As I represent an English constituency, I do not know the extent to which those two issues are problems, but I raise them because they were raised with me. It sounds like they are obstacles in the way of
1 Nov 2005 : Column 227WH
making progress towards a better planning system. I look forward to the Minister's response, not only to those two points, but to the many real issues raised by hon. Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Angela E. Smith) : I congratulate the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) on securing the debate and on discussing planning in such a lively and witty mannerI think most people would not be able to do that. This is obviously a subject on which he feels strongly, and I assure him that my ministerial colleagues and I feel equally strongly about it. We want to ensure that we have an effective, efficient planning system in Northern Ireland.
The discussion highlights some of the areas of difficulty. A number of contradictory comments were made. There were comments about having to speed up the systems, but criticisms of methods to try do so and suggestions of new methods to improve accountability, which would slow down the system. That is not a criticism of any hon. Member. It just shows the complexities in the system.
We recognise that, if Northern Ireland is to move forward in promoting the economy and jobs and in ensuring that we have the housing and transport infrastructure in place to provide sustainable, lively communities, we need to get these issues right. That cuts across all areas, particularly the built and natural environment.
I will do my best to address all the points that were raised. There were quite a lot of them. The hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) suggested that I might have had therapy. I assure him that in my time at the Department of the Environment I never needed therapy, and planning was one of the joys of my life.
There was talk about the excuses made by the Planning Service about the pressures on it, and they were likened to the excuses of British Rail. British Rail would have used a growth in business not as an excuse but as a reason for what was happeningit would have been delighted by a growth in business similar to that experienced by the Planning Service in Northern Ireland. I will give an example. In 200203, there were some 27,500 applications on planning. In two years, that increased by a third to slightly more than 37,500. That is one of the factors that has led to work load pressures. I think that there are three others.
One relates to the enforcement side. The case load on enforcement has risen dramatically. I partly welcome that, because there is a growing willingness on the part of the public to complain. However, it must be accepted that there is a growing willingness among some developers to flout the law. I am sorry that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) was not able to speak and has left, because he was involved in a particular matter in his constituency relating to Portstewart. Information was needed to take somebody to court and he was helpful in trying to obtain it and other evidence.
The development plan programme, which several hon. Members mentioned, is the most ambitious for any part of the UK. It is a massive programme and has
1 Nov 2005 : Column 228WH
brought an increasing strain on resources. I think that the number of objections to the draft plan in Magherafelt was more than 3,000.
The number of responses to the Ards and Down plan, the Magherafelt plan, the northern area plan and BMAP were well in excess of any received for previous plans. Those pressures are increasing. So, too, are the number of people wanting to participate in the planning process. The transparency of the planning process encourages people to do that. There have been many more applications. All that is happening when the public have a right to expect, and do expect, greater turnaround, response and clarity in the process. That has provided a challenge and makes things more difficult. The Planning Service has done a lot of work to increase capacity to deal with that work load. Hon. Members have recognised that some matters, including the key players giving responses, and some of the processes are outside the control of the Planning Service, which does its best to manage. I will discuss some of those comments in a moment.
On short-term actions, the hon. Members for East Antrim, for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) and for Upper Bann will recognise that we provided additional funding for an extra 125 planners to work in the Planning Service. We are not talking, as the hon. Member for South Antrim suggested, about junior officers replacing senior officers. It may have been newer officers replacing people who had more experience.
I endorsed a decision to deploy staff as a short-term measure away from the area plans and on to planning decisions to address that work load. New staff have to get up to speed and to learn the processes. They were junior staff but they did not replace senior officers. They may have replaced more experienced staff. Decisions increased by 11 per cent. in that time. We are talking about the number of decisions increasing by 20 per cent. compared with the equivalent period last year.
The hon. Members for East Antrim, for Upper Bann, for South Antrim, and for Lagan Valley specifically mentioned the area plans. There is a need to act on that matter, but there is also political and public pressure to ensure that we have new revised policies. That has an impact on the number of applications that we receive. We must proceed with the reform and modernisation programme, which helps us to address those issues. Many of the deployed staff have returned to work on the area plans, but the pressures in respect of applications remain, and Lord Rooker felt that further short-term measures were needed to cope with the work load and to strengthen the focus on service delivery.
The modernisation and reform programme clearly addresses the concerns that the hon. Member for South Antrim raised on accountability. Changes to the modernisation and planning processes are designed to increase accountability and transparency. The aims are to have a much simpler, faster and more accessible planning process to ensure speedier decisions; to reduce
1 Nov 2005 : Column 229WH
regulation where appropriate; to ensure greater community involvement; to develop more streamlined development plan processes; and to produce clear and unambiguous planning policies to underpin decisions on planning applications. That has to be done as a matter of urgency, as Lord Rooker is aware. There are four key areas: reviewing processes and policies; introducing new technology, including e-planning, so that there is far more information and transparency, which is a major step forward; reforming the legislation; and taking forward internal organisational structural changes.
One of the biggest challenges is the change programme that is being introduced. It has been designed only to support efficiency in the Planning Service, and that itself creates demand on services that are managed internally. Various initiatives have been aimed at improving the speed of decision making and the performance and monitoring of the new targets. As for procedures, outline planning permission has been reviewed and retained. Guidelines have been published and revised procedures introduced on repeat applications. On plans and policy, procedures are in place to ensure that they are developed in line with the regional development strategy. Increased resources have been put into enforcement, internal guidance has been revised and an enhanced programme of training has been developed.
On e-planning, to assist transparency, a new Planning Service internet website has been launched and now provides access to a range of information and advice. The area plans have also been placed on that site to increase transparency. The scope and detail of information on facilities has been increased considerably over the past year, and the website is now being used extensively.
Several hon. Members raised the return of invalid applications. The hon. Member for South Antrim gave two examples. I cannot elaborate on those, but if he lets me have the details, I will look into it. However, the purpose of the measures is to ensure that, if an application is invalid, it is returned at an early stage. Previously, were an invalid application submitted, it would be sent back sometimes six months or even a year later with a request for further information. That is a waste of time for the applicant and staff. Invalid applications will be returned as soon as possible to the applicant with a request for the required information.
If the hon. Member for South Antrim gives me the details of the group about which he is concerned, we will deal with that. However, I remind him that about 25 per cent. of applications are incomplete as to information, plans and fees, and the weight and pressure that that puts on the system is enormous. A scheme is being piloted in Belfast. If there are concerns about its operation, the Planning Service can examine that. However, it has been supported by the CBI and the Construction Employers Federation as a way of moving matters along more quickly, as it is designed to do.
The review of customer service standards is under way, examining how we manage contact with the customer to ensure that they get correct information. Work is continuing with the key consultees in the Roads Service, the Water Service and the Environment and Heritage Service, which was mentioned several times, to improve consultation relations.
1 Nov 2005 : Column 230WH
I shall address the matter of legislative reform. Hon. Members will be aware that, last Friday, Lord Rooker launched a consultation paper on proposed legislation for reform of planning. Members will have an opportunity to give their views on that. However, there are several interesting proposals, particularly the one about temporary stop notices, which the hon. Member for South Antrim recently mentioned to me. They will be used to halt a breach of planning control for a period of up to 28 days, as soon as a breach is identified. There is also a doubling of fines for breaches of advertising control, which will act as a deterrent. There are a number of legislative proposals. One that will be of particular interest is the removal of Crown immunity in the Planning Service.
Members mentioned council consultations. No one denies that councils have a key and statutory role to play in the planning process. Ensuring that that process works efficiently and effectively is a shared objective for councils and the Government. The current process has not changed for more than 30 years. On 30 September, there were 6,000 deferrals in the system. The practice of delaying decisions and accepting multiple referrals for site visits has built up over many years. The hon. Member for South Antrim said that site meetings were removed. They were not removed, but they might not be necessary in every case.
Consultation with local councillors is a central part of the planning process, and we believe that the proposals strike the right balance between ensuring that councils are consulted and express a view, and ensuring that there is swift decision making.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about a lack of consistency in planning decisions. There is certainly a lack of consistency in the way in which councils operate the system, with some of them having more deferrals than others. The hon. Member for East Antrim said that we would consult councils less. We will not consult them lessthe same number of applications will go to the councilsbut there will be fewer deferrals.
There is also a right to hurry along, as it were, the decisions of other consultees. The head of the Planning Service is meeting with his counterparts in agencies such as the EHS and the Roads Service on that issue to ensure that all consultees are aware of that. Applications must be processed as quickly as possible.
The hon. Member for South Antrim referred to the Crosshill and Cottonmont cases. I made the decisions on them when I had ministerial responsibility for the environment. Both of them are now subject to review. I will not talk about those particular applications because of ongoing legal processes, but I will say that there is always a difficulty for constituencies when such decisions are made. He will be aware that, prior to making those decisions, I discussed the issues with many groups and received many representations. All views were considered prior to decisions being taken.
The hon. Gentleman referred to third party appealsI am not sure whether his views on that were shared by all his party colleaguesand the hon. Member for Foyle
1 Nov 2005 : Column 231WH
(Mark Durkan) mentioned the contradictions in some of the issues that were being raised. A decision has not been made on third party appeals, but it must be accepted that, if we were to have such appeals, the delays in the planning decision process would be far greater than at presentthat would inevitably cause delays. That is because of the contradiction I mentioned earlier between accountability and speedier decision making.
The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) and I met previously to talk about the Belfast hills, and I will ensure that his comments are brought to the attention of Lord Rooker. The hon. Member for Foyle asked me to visit Seagate when I next go to his constituency. I will visit his constituency shortly, but I have a full programme. However, I assure him that I will see if we can arrange a visit. I will also ask Lord Rooker to address the points that were raised on housing.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised the issue of Craigavon town centre and the area plan. It is my understanding that the plan will be published by the end of 2005. That is the information I have been given today. If he has been given other information, we may want to discuss the matter. However, the senior planners in the Department tell me that they are still working to have the draft plan issued at around the turn of the year.