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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: It may make matters easier for the noble and learned Lord if I explain that I was asking a hypothetical question. As the Assembly is not meeting, perhaps it is not within our power to say what the Assembly would do. But I still retain an interest in the question.
Lord Glentoran: Those of us who have lived and worked in Northern Ireland for a long time, including officials, know that over the past 25 or 30 years one of the worst situations and biggest impediments to development and a smooth-flowing economy in Northern Ireland has been the state and administration of planning departments. I sincerely hope that matters will change.
However, my observation is that one of the main reasons for such a situation is that planning departments have been grossly under-funded, under-staffed and under-resourced. If a sophisticated planning authority is to be on top of its job, it must be able to deal with planning permissions in a short space of time and not take two and a half years or so, as was the case with a certain development for Sainsburys. That company has now pulled out of the project because it is simply not relevant any more, and the result has been a loss of jobs. Therefore, we must ensure that, by the time the order becomes law, planning in Northern Ireland is adequately funded, adequately staffed and adequately resourced. I sincerely hope that the order will achieve that.
I also make a plea to the noble and learned Lord to speak to his friends in the judiciary. The order strengthens the department's hand in relation to enforcement. It allows for imprisonment under certain circumstances; it increases fines under certain circumstances; and it also allows for serious stop procedures under certain circumstances.
HoweverI shall be very naughty heremy information, based on briefing, is that the department feels seriously unsupported on these matters by the magistrates and the judiciary in the Province. I make a plea to those in authority. We now have a new criminal justice regime in Northern Ireland. Now is the time for that regime to ensure that daily life improves and that the world becomes a better place for those with an interest in the development of the Province. I speak from a preservation point of view, and from a commercial and functional point of viewand, as we discussed yesterday, from the point of view of housing development.
There is one area that I do not fully understand in relation to paragraph 5 of the Explanatory Memorandum. It appears that the Assembly committee wanted to make an amendment to the order but it was not included. Apparently:
I turn to Annexes A and B of the same document. Annex B lists the three recommendations of the Environment Committee which were left out of the legislation. With regard to my opening words, I certainly regret that recommendation (iii) was omitted. Why should there not be an offence of commencing development? I know that there are arguments concerning when one does and does not commence development. However, in my experience it is common for developers in Northern Ireland to start down a road without any planning permissionor virtually none. They get well into a project before obtaining retrospective planning permission. In so doing, they go round corners. I know by nameI shall not mention them, even in Parliamentpeople who have made a profession out of this. Therefore, I should welcome some explanation on the point. I am sorry that I did not give the noble and learned Lord notice of those questions. Other than that, I support the order.
Lord Smith of Clifton: We on these Benches also support the order. I take seriously many of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran. From my experience, planning in Northern Ireland is not easily understood.
I want to ask two questions. I apologise for not giving the noble and learned Lord advance notice; however, given the spate of orders that we have dealt with this week, I got round to studying this one only last night. My questions concern trees. First, what is the definition of a "woodland" protected by a tree preservation order? Will the protection extend to include not only the trees but also the ground flora within the boundaries of the wood? The noble and learned Lord may wish to write to me about that.
My understanding of the article is that if an ancient woodland covered by a TPO were removed, in some instances the department might agree to the replanting of trees on another site in the locality. That would clearly not be an adequate compensation for the loss of an irreplaceable habitat and suggests that new woodland is of equal value to ancient woodland, which is clearly not the case. It is also an inconsistency in that any tree that is removed must be replaced with a tree in the same place. It seems strange that that does not apply to woodland as well.
Finally, we must be awarethis touches on the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoranthat strengthening legislation alone will not in itself provide the protection that is needed for trees and woodland. We must also ensure that resources are in place to guarantee a proactive approach by officials in enforcing the legislation. Apart from those observations, we support the order.
Lord Maginnis of Drumglass: I welcome the order, yet stress from the outset that I regard it merely as a first step on the road to improving the planning system in Northern Ireland. The Ulster Unionist Party believes that much more work is required to give Northern Ireland the planning system that it needs. As the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, said in relation to another order, the devil is very much in the detail.
The planning process in Northern Ireland has long been a source of discontent. It is plagued by inconsistency and intolerable delays and suffers from widespread public dissatisfaction. The past year has seen a number of high-profile cases in Northern Ireland. Some cases that have evoked considerable anger include the demolition of the poet Seamus Heaney's former home in Ashleigh Avenue in south Belfast, the flattening of the listed Tilly and Henderson shirt factory in Derry City and the destruction in east Belfast of Redhall, which has connections with the author C S Lewis. I do not want to appear to be a philistine but I should be the first to acknowledge that the links between some of those authors and some of the buildings are tenuous. I do not underpin the criticism in all of those cases. However, the fact that there is public dissatisfaction should be considered.
Whatever the merits of those cases, such decisions clearly contribute to the already widespread public disquiet about planning policy. I trust that the new legislation before us will go some way towards restoring public confidence in the entire planning system.
I welcome the further increase in the maximum level of fine that can be imposed by a magistrates' court for breaches of an enforcement notice, a tree preservation order, a stop notice, a listed buildings enforcement notice or a hazardous substances contravention notice. I hope that the increase from £20,000 to £30,000 will go some way towards encouraging those who infringe to think again. However, while that may inhibit the ordinary individual, I cannot believe that it
The order omits one very important provision proposed by the Assembly's Environment Committee; namely, the creation of a new offence to deal with the commencement of a development before planning permission has been granted. The matter was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran.
This applies mainly to larger developments, which seem to be able to drive a coach and horses through the present system. By criminalising major planning offences, one could effectively deter those developers who flagrantly and carelessly abuse the law and get away with it. Will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Privy Seal outline his reasons for watering down this part of the order?
Perhaps I may take this opportunity to ask the Minister to ensure that applications by farming communities to provide accommodation for their sons and daughters on the farm are viewed sympathetically. The farming sector has suffered greatly in recent years. Farming practices are being forced into change, with many farmers being forced into a part-time mode. As a result, they increasingly rely on sons and daughters to help to oversee the daily work on the farm.
I urge the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and particularly the Planning Service, to liaise more closely with their counterparts in the Department of Agriculture actively to assist farming communities. To fail to do so will ultimately undermine and endanger the whole rural tradition. Environmentally, that would be much more damaging than allowing controlled development, which in itself will help to preserve our traditional family ethos and may help to slow down the steady exodus from the west of the Province to the east, with all the difficulties that that creates for society.
I make no apology for reiterating the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Smithwhom I suspect has been briefed by Patrick Cregg, who is head of the Woodland Trust in Northern Irelandon an issue dear to my heart. Will the Minister define what is meant by a,
I welcome the provision for the replacementin broadly the same general areaof trees covered by a tree protection order. Why, however, is a distinction made between "trees" and "woodland"? There is a requirement that these should be replaced "on or near" land from which they are removed, orthis is the crucial point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Smith"on other land" approved by the department. What provisions are in place for the protection of the surrounding habitat? I urge the Minister to ensure that
More work is required to improve existing processes and to change the overall planning culture. Besides introducing new legislation, we need to make better use of existing legislation. This order must, therefore, be seen as the first stage of a comprehensive overhaul of the entire planning system.
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