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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 26 February 2009

Ministerial Briefing

COMMITTEE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

OFFICIAL REPORT

(Hansard)

Ministerial Briefing

26 February 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Cathal Boylan (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs 
Mr Trevor Clarke
Mr David Ford
Mr David McClarty
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Daithí McKay
Mr Alastair Ross
Mr Peter Weir

Witnesses:

Mr Sammy Wilson ) Minister of the Environment
Mr Stephen Peover ) 
Mr Paul Simpson ) Department of the Environment
Ms Cynthia Smith )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Boylan):

On 19 February, members agreed to ask the Minister of the Environment to brief them on climate change, road safety, the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill, local government Bills, planning policy statements and dual mandates. I will address each topic in turn, allowing approximately 30 minutes for questions and answers on the first issue and 10 to 15 minutes for subsequent topics.

Members have been provided with background information on each issue. The first topic to be discussed is climate change. On 5 February 2009, the Committee agreed to support the Minister’s proposal that carbon-reduction commitments should be managed at a UK level —

Mr Weir:

What are the timings for those issues?

The Deputy Chairperson:

They are only suggested timings. Thirty minutes for the first issue and 10 to 15 minutes —

Mr Weir:

For all of the other issues together? That seems excessive in terms of balance. Those are all important issues, but it seems that we are concentrating more on one issue than on the range of issues.

The Deputy Chairperson:

The timings are just suggestions. I will introduce the Minister in a minute.

Mr T Clarke:

Who suggested the timings?

Mr Weir:

It should be Committee-led, depending on the questions that are asked.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I take on board your comments. I did not receive the Chairperson’s brief until this morning, and I apologise if you are not happy with the timings. We will proceed and allow a certain amount of time, but I take on board Mr Weir’s comments.

On 12 February 2009, following Mr Wilson’s refusal to broadcast a UK-wide advertising campaign encouraging energy-reduction practices, a motion of no confidence in the Minister was carried by the Committee. Members subsequently requested that the Minister come before them. The Committee also sent a letter to the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister seeking clarification of climate change policy in Northern Ireland. A response has not yet been received.

I welcome the Minister of the Environment, Sammy Wilson. He is accompanied by the permanent secretary Stephen Peover, deputy secretary Paul Simpson and the undersecretary for the Planning Service, Cynthia Smith.

You have heard what the members have said. We will start with climate change.

The Minister of the Environment (Mr S Wilson):

I notice that the Chairman is not here. He must be allergic to me; I think that this is the second time that he has been unable to attend when I am here. I hope that he does not have “Sammyitis” or something like that.

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to attend this morning, and also for putting on the show in this wonderful part of the Building. Considering some of the comments that have been made, I expected to be in the basement, but it is nice to be in the Senate Chamber.

Mr McClarty:

We have not finished yet. [Laughter.]

The Minister of the Environment:

The last time that I chaired a Committee here was when I was Chairman of the Education Committee and the Minister of Education came to give evidence. I assure you that I will not be doing any walkouts this morning; I will be more than happy to answer your questions.

I understand that you have to get through the first part of the agenda, but I must say that some Committee members have engaged in juvenile grandstanding on the issue of climate change. There is, however, an important issue, which I hope we do get time to talk about when we come to the planning issue. As I have already said privately, and hinted at publicly in the Assembly, we are in real jeopardy as a result of the delay by the deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin of not meeting our targets for planning reform — something which, I am fairly sure, many people in Northern Ireland will be more interested in than my views on climate change.

We are in danger of not being able to deliver on both the planning reform changes and the transfer of planning functions to councils. There has been undue delay. A paper has been with the deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin since the middle of December, but remains to be cleared. Unfortunately, neither I nor my officials are aware of what the difficulties are.

I have always told the Committee that I want to give it its place when consulting on important policy issues — and this is an extremely important policy matter. Accelerated passage is not a good way to deal with legislation, but the timetable is getting tight, and some of the consultation will have to be rejigged. Consequently, when the policy goes out to consultation, the Committee will probably find that it has less input than normal.

Although I am happy to talk about climate change all day, I hope that we have sufficient time to talk about the other important matters with which the Committee must deal.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I take your point, Minister, and it is good to see that you are in from the cold.

Mr Weir:

Planning policy is important, and I note that it is one of the issues that we are going to discuss. I presume that we will be able to raise broader planning reform matters under that heading.

The Deputy Chairperson:

The Minister has indicated that it is in relation to parties. However, this Committee is solely responsible for scrutinising that legislation, so I will allow some discussion about the matter. Minister, can we begin by dealing with the climate change issue?

The Minister of the Environment:

I am somewhat surprised by the attention that the Committee has given to this climate change issue. You have indicated in your opening remarks that I have fulfilled my obligations with respect to climate change legislation. I have sent papers to the Committee, and I have sought its opinion on matters such as our commitment to the Committee on Climate Change’s carbon-reduction directives.

As other Ministers have pointed out to me, some of those policies will be significantly detrimental to the Northern Ireland economy and to individuals within it. Indeed, the Minister for Social Development pointed out that these policies will result in 170,000 people in Northern Ireland suffering from fuel poverty, and that figure may be an underestimate. Nevertheless, I have fulfilled my ministerial obligations by bringing forward to the Committee matters with which I am not in total agreement. The Committee has responded with its opinions, and I have relayed those back to the Executive. Therefore, I am somewhat surprised by the furore that there has been around this issue.

Furthermore, if the Committee had undertaken a bit of research, it would not have believed the misreporting by a BBC journalist, who was either being mischievous or has problems with literacy. He claimed that I had banned a particular advert. First, it is not my role to ban anything. Secondly, it would not be possible for me to ban the ‘Act on CO2’ advert, as shown by the fact that it has been broadcast here on national channels and by some local radio stations.

Although the advert was commissioned by the Government at Westminster, I made it clear that this was a devolved matter. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) was unwilling to consult the Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and, on constitutional grounds, the Scottish Parliament took exactly the same view as me. The Scottish Parliament wanted to make some amendments to the campaign, but DECC refused to contemplate any of them. As a result, we decided not to use the advert.

That is not to say that no energy-saving message is going out in Northern Ireland, because the Department for Social Development, through the Energy Saving Trust, has been running its own energy-saving messages for a long time. In addition, electricity bills are accompanied by a notice that encourages them to save energy. Indeed, many of the Department of the Environment’s activities also encourage people to save energy.

Some people engaged in a knee-jerk reaction. I see that one of them is not here this morning; that shows how important the issue is to Mr Gallagher. Had they done some research into the issue, they might have been less vociferous in their complaints about the role that I have played, and not just on this issue. I am quite happy to explain the other ways in which I have fulfilled my role as a Minister.

I want that to be on the record. There has been no ban. It is not my role to ban these things. In fact, it seems, from the reaction from some of the Committee, that the only people who want to ban anything are some members of this Committee who believe that I should not have the freedom of speech to express an alternative point of view — a very widely held alternative point of view — on the cause of climate change.

If CO2 emissions are reduced as a consequence of saving energy, then I have fulfilled that role. However, I will not repeat the mantra-like words of those who have swallowed the idea that all climate change is due to human activity.

Mr Beggs:

I questioned you in the Assembly on climate change, and you indicated that 44% of scientists did not agree that climate change was a significant feature to which man contributed. When pressed on where that information came from, you named Joseph Bast, the president and chief executive of the Heartland Institute, and James M Taylor, who is also associated with the Heartland Institute.

That institute is an interesting body. In a statement to the US House of Representatives Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight in March 2007, Professor Dr James McCarthy indicated that Exxon Mobil, the largest private energy company on the planet, had contributed over $500,000 to the institute and other associated bodies. Therefore, its views could be tainted. Does the Minister accept that to be the case?

As well as receiving money from the oil industry, in some of the other campaigns that the Heartland Institute takes up it gets funding from the tobacco industry — it is against the smoking ban. Does the Minister accept that he has not picked a particularly good pressure group as his source of information?

The Minister of the Environment:

First of all, I did not have to be pressed to give that information: I volunteered it. Five per cent of the Heartland Institute’s total budget comes from various industry sources. The rest is raised through other sources, so the institute is hardly in hock to the oil industry.

No one involved in the whole climate change debate is exempt from the kind of argument and challenge that Mr Beggs has made. Fifty-five of the scientists who advise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are totally funded by environmental groups. Do not forget that these are people who write documentation for the IPCC. Fifty-five of them are totally funded, and their research is totally funded, by environmental groups who have a vested interest in ensuring that the argument is put forward that CO2 emissions are the main source of climate change.

It may be worthwhile to read some of the evidence that emerged from the last conference that was held by scientists who are of the view that climate change is not man-made. A large number of those scientists indicated that they had lost their jobs in universities, which were heavily dependent on research money, because they refused to take the view that climate change was caused by man-made activities. They also indicated that many of the people who remain at those universities are afraid to put their heads above the parapet in case they suffer the same fate.

This is not just a multimillion-pound industry but a multibillion-pound industry. It must not be forgotten that a lot of that industry is dependent on people believing that climate change is man-made. The wind industry and the people who make solar panels are dependent on people having that belief. They have a vested interest in ensuring that people take that view. Those organisations fund research, and some of the people who are paid to carry out that research will come up with conclusions that fit the views of those who pay for it.

People do not believe that there is a lack of consensus on this issue. However, only yesterday, a number of Japanese scientists also indicated that they do not believe that climate change is man-made. If Mr Beggs wishes, I am quite happy to provide the Committee with a list of Nobel laureates, and others, who have denied that climate change is man-made. I was going to read it into the record, but I will not do that. I would be happy to supply the list to help the Committee’s investigation, which I am sure will be impartial.

Mr Beggs:

Do you not accept that there is huge inconsistency in saying that Northern Ireland should take carbon-reduction commitments on board and then preventing the Department from supporting an advertisement that is being shown throughout the United Kingdom?

That advertisement, which is available on YouTube and in other places, encourages people to stop wasting electricity and to conserve energy by turning off lights and monitors that are not being used, and CO2 is mentioned at the tail end of it. What is your problem with that advertisement? Will you provide us with a copy of all the correspondence on climate change that you have had with other UK Departments?

The Minister of the Environment:

All of those documents are available anyway, except those that are covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The member does not seem to have been listening to what I have been saying. There is no inconsistency in the work that is carried out on carbon reduction. It is common sense that people should not use the earth’s resources and energy unnecessarily, and there are very good practical reasons for that. In a time of recession, when people find it difficult to make ends meet, we should of course encourage people to save on the money that they spend on energy. Similarly, why would we not encourage industry to conserve energy in what is a very competitive world? Indeed, Government Departments provide grants to help people to conserve energy.

Mr Beggs may be pleased if there is a reduction in CO2 emissions as a side effect of all that, because he seems to be obsessed with the influence of CO2 emissions. However, as far as I am concerned, the main thing is to have some way of ensuring that people do not waste energy.

Perhaps I could give Mr Beggs some personal advice, as I have done some research on the energy that he uses and the carbon that he produces. Last year he claimed travel expenses for driving 14,547 miles to and from the Assembly and around his constituency. According to the industry figures for the car that he drives, that produced 4·4 tons of carbon.

Mr Beggs:

Are you aware that I have reduced the size of my car?

The Minister of the Environment:

Had he taken the bus or the train from Larne — as, no doubt, he is encouraging others to do, given the carbon-saving regime that he wishes to impose — instead of producing 4·4 tons of carbon, he would have produced only 1·41 tons. I hope that it is clear that I am always happy to give advice to individuals on how they might reduce their energy consumption and, as a result, their carbon footprint.

Mr Beggs:

I do use the train when it coincides with where I am travelling to.

Mr T Clarke:

Perhaps the Minister’s research did not go far enough. Had Mr Beggs chosen a hybrid car, he would have produced even less carbon.

The Minister of the Environment:

He might well have done. I only calculated the figures for the car that I know the member drives.

Mr Beggs:

You do not know what car it is.

The Minister of the Environment:

The member who proposed the motion of no confidence in me, who is very diligent in his duties, has, according to his claim, circumnavigated the world on two occasions in the last year. His carbon footprint was around 20 tons. If he had used the bus — and there is a very good express service from Enniskillen — he would have reduced that to 6·8 tons. I hope that I have shown that I am quite happy to give advice to people, either specifically to individuals or to the general public, on how they might reduce their energy consumption.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much. I hope that you do not proposed to give figures for each member of the Committee.

Mr Weir:

As I do not make any claims for mileage, I am more than happy for the Minister to examine my figures.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I see that you have come prepared.

The Minister of the Environment:

Whether or not the member makes claims for mileage, if he uses his car he is still producing CO2 emissions.

Mr McClarty:

Have you done the same calculations for a colleague of yours who drives a gas-guzzling 4x4, and perhaps drives more miles per year than most of the members here?

The Minister of the Environment:

If he comes to me concerned about his carbon footprint, I will be more than happy to do it for him.

Mr McClarty:

I dare say that is unlikely to happen, now that you have given out that information.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for the advice, Minister.

Mr Ross:

The issue of using trains in Larne is a different story; it may cause panic in East Antrim. The bigger and more interesting issue before the Committee today is that of planning reform, which causes real concern for a lot of Committees. Hopefully there will be adequate time later to address that issue, because it is probably more pressing than this one.

I know that the Minister does believe in climate change; irrespective of what the causes are, the effects are real. Will he outline what practical steps he has taken since taking office to alleviate some of the effects of climate change, and the impact that it is having on people’s everyday lives, through planning policy or anything else?

Energy saving is important, not just for environmental reasons, but to save people money. You mentioned solar panels; last week I met representatives of the Energy Saving Trust, who said that people were having difficulty with planning regulations for solar panels. Have you any plans to change planning regulations to make it easier for people to get solar panels, so that, in the long term, they can both save on their energy consumption and save money?

The Minister of the Environment:

There are two issues there: first, planning policies that are designed to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, and, secondly, on the issue of solar panels, many solar-panel developments are already permitted. We are looking to see whether permitted development rights for some solar panels can be extended to those that do not currently have them. The whole area of permitted developments is part of the planning reform proposals, which, as I pointed out, have been delayed

As for adaptation issues, I think it was before Christmas that the Minister of Agriculture and I published the flood maps for Northern Ireland. Those will inform planning decisions by identifying sites that are at risk of flooding because of heavier rain or other impacts that — it is claimed — climate change will bring about. That will be a valuable planning tool. Indeed, the flood maps are probably already being used to deal with planning applications.

I promised the Assembly — and I see it further down the agenda today — that my Department would look again at Planning Policy Statement 7 and some addenda to it. As part of that, we have examined how we can demand that different materials be used to allow greater absorption of water and to reduce run-off during periods of heavy rain. We have also looked at other methods that can be used to reduce run-off from buildings. One proposed measure is to insist that water collection methods are installed at new houses. Some builders are already doing that voluntarily, but we might have to make it part of planning policy. A range of things can be done.

Despite what the wind industry may say, the Department has a generous policy on wind energy. That policy, because of its generosity, has already ensured that we have approved enough wind capacity to meet our 2012 targets. There are a number of things that the Department has done, and a number of things that we are prepared to look at.

The Deputy Chairperson:

It has taken nearly half an hour for the Minister to answer two questions. I have given the Minister a lot of latitude to provide his responses. We requested that the Minister come here today to talk about planning policy statements. I have given him latitude on the reform issue, because that is an important issue. Mr Ross spoke specifically about the issue of solar panels, and that falls into particular planning policies.

I will allow the three members that are listed to ask questions to do so. I am glad that I allowed 30 minutes for the Minister to address those issues. Each time that we get an opportunity to meet the Minister, the meetings tend to run over time. After those three members ask their specific questions, I will move on.

Mr McClarty;

I thank you for attending this morning, Minister. You started by describing the Committee’s criticism as “juvenile grandstanding”. The words “pot”, “kettle” and “black” come to mind, because the trait of “juvenile grandstanding” is one that you probably recognise easily in others. You also said that people are entitled to their own opinions, and, indeed, they are.

However, just yesterday, a priest was deported from Argentina because he denied the occurrence of the Holocaust, which is absolutely abhorrent to the vast majority of people anywhere in the world. In your role as the Minister of the Environment you have a responsibility to conserve energy and protect the environment. How many followers would the Pope have if he were to say that actually he was a bit of an agnostic but that Catholicism is a good job? There is a perception out there — and it may not be a reality — that the Minister is half-hearted about conserving energy and saving the environment.

Mr Weir:

Although it may not be the member’s intention to cause offence, I am not sure whether it is appropriate for him to start drawing analogies between someone who has denied the holocaust and someone who takes a different view on climate change. I find that deeply offensive. To put those two views into some sort of analogous position is deeply offensive to the millions of people who died during the holocaust. I appreciate that that may not have been the member’s intention, but I do not think that that is an appropriate comment to make in the Committee.

Mr McClarty:

The Minister stated that people are entitled to their opinions, and we all agree with that. In a democracy, people are entitled to their opinions. However, I gave an example of one person who expressed an opinion that was abhorrent to the vast majority of us, including Mr Weir. The statement that the Minister made regarding climate change was abhorrent to many people, and that was the analogy that I was drawing. — [interruption.]

My point is that the Minister has an important role to play in convincing people that it is necessary to conserve and reuse, etc. Will the Minister state what words in the advertisement were abhorrent to him? What words did he disagree with?

The Minister of the Environment:

First, I will comment on what the member has said. The point has been made that the holocaust is a fact — bodies were found. Climate change is a theory, so I do not think that one can draw a parallel. Secondly, I find it rather difficult to take the member seriously when he says that people may think that I am not taking the issue seriously. Literally hundreds of people have written to me since this controversy began. The one thing that came across very clearly is that many of them object to the advertisement because they feel that those who make pronouncements are making demands on ordinary people that they are not prepared to have made on themselves.

The member is a very good example of that. I did some research on him and found that, in performing his Assembly duties last year, he travelled a distance equivalent to circumnavigating the world, producing a carbon footprint of 10·74 tons. There is a perfectly good train service from his constituency, and had he used the train, he would have produced only 2·45 tons. Therefore, before he starts preaching about taking the issue seriously, he should look at his own lifestyle. Perhaps then his constituents and the Northern Ireland public might feel that, as an example is being set by someone who believes so passionately in the environment, they should follow suit. The member should, perhaps, bear that in mind before making such clever pronouncements.

I made two points about the ‘Act on CO2’ advert. The first was a constitutional point, as we now have devolved responsibilities for environmental issues. Is the member saying that we should accept a Minister from Westminster saying that the views of the devolved administrations across the United Kingdom do not matter because Westminster has made a decision on the issue and is not even prepared to enter into any discussion about what changes should be made? I think that I was standing up for the rights of the devolved Administration. The Scottish Administration took the same view, and the advert is not shown in Scotland either.

Mr McClarty:

They have their own advert.

The Minister of the Environment:

The second point is that we have our own advert — I wish that the member would listen. The Energy Saving Trust runs an advert for energy saving in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the member should not run away with the idea that, somehow or other, we are trying to keep the people in Northern Ireland in the dark about energy saving. That ad is being distributed in a host of different ways to the people in Northern Ireland.

One part of the message, which is common to all of the ‘Act on CO2’ advertisements, is the link between turning off the lights and saving the world. I can understand why it is important that a Government — which have so many intrusive policies and envisage introducing even more — need to get across that subliminal message. I can understand why they want to give people the message that when they turn off the lights, they are saving the world in some way, because that is the only way that the Government will succeed in getting people to accept the draconian levels of taxation, increases in energy prices, restrictions on air travel and the whole plethora of other policies that one can see coming down the road if one listens Lord Turner and Lord King.

Lord King’s latest idea is that he is going to give everyone carbon credit cards, so that when we buy petrol or pay electricity bills, we will have carbon credits taken off, and, if we use too much carbon, we will have to buy more credits for the card.

Those are the kinds of policies that are being discussed and seriously put forward by people who take the view that climate change is man-made. To get people to accept that, one has to persuade them that drastic things are coming down the road. Indeed, some of the people who are behind such policies have made no bones about that. Sir John Houghton, who was a former chairman of the IPCC, said that people will not change their behaviour unless they are told horror stories. That is why I had a particular objection to that part of the message. However, I have no objection to the energy saving part. Indeed, we meet our obligations when it comes to persuading people to save energy.

Mr McClarty, I hope that the lesson that I have given you about your personal behaviour might enable you to change and to lead your constituents by example.

Mr McClarty:

Have you studied your carbon footprint?

The Minister of the Environment:

I have not studied it, because I am not exercised about it. I am simply giving the information to the people who seem to be deeply exercised by the matter.

I do not believe in wasting money unnecessarily. When I was a wee boy, I was brought up in a home where there was not a great deal of money around, and I was always told not to be wasteful. Therefore, I do my best not to be wasteful, but I do that because I believe that it makes good common sense, not because I am saving the world.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I see that you have done some of your homework, Minister, but I want to move on, because we need to leave time for other things.

Mr McKay:

I too was going to ask the Minister whether he had measured his own carbon footprint, given that he has done his homework on everyone else. Nevertheless, I encourage him to measure his carbon footprint and, perhaps, to take a leaf out of Sinn Féin’s book — we actively discourage our MPs from travelling to Westminster every week. [Laughter.]

I would encourage more of that sort of behaviour from all parties.

The Minister referred to environmental groups having a vested interest. I agree with that, but they also have an interest in protecting the environment. That is why we should listen to them when they speak with some authority on the issue of climate change. However, I think that the Minister is more interested in taking an anti-regulation stance than in being pro-environment, and that is why he has caused all the controversy.

As Mr McClarty said, the Minister is entitled to his opinion, but the Committee is entitled to its opinion also. The Committee has stated that it has no confidence in the Minister, but I think that the issue goes much further. The environmental sector has no confidence in the Minister; the general public have no confidence in him; his Executive colleagues have no confidence in him; and even members of his own party have no confidence in him.

Does the Minister agree that the public recognise that human activity influences climate change? They also recognise that he is doing a disastrous job as Minister. They do not want climate change; they want to see a ministerial change.

The Minister of the Environment:

My record as a Minister, whether in issues relating to the environment, planning reform or the implementation of the changes that are required for local government, stands up to scrutiny. On becoming Minister, one of my first tasks was to try to ensure that nursery schools, which were under threat of being hit with PSV regulations, were not faced with bills for thousands of pounds. That matter was resolved during the summer, and nursery schools were able to open on 1 September without having to hire taxis to transport youngsters. That was carried out under my direction; it was done effectively and efficiently by officials.

In the first month of my tenure, I intervened in the case of a listed building in Sion Mills that was to be destroyed and lost forever. Money was made available, and the building was purchased. People in the built heritage sector were pleased that I had intervened.

Following the disastrous flooding in the summer, farmers informed me that there would be a difficulty with slurry and slurry storage. Again, the Department acted quickly, and we extended the slurry-spreading period, which helped the farming industry.

The Department has also promised that all major planning applications would be dealt with within six months of their submission. Since I became Minister, that has been the case, and the building industry has recognised that. Furthermore, a streamlining of minor planning applications will be introduced by the end of the month in all but two councils. That will speed up planning decisions from 89 days to 28 days.

We are also making progress on governance, for instance, on the reform of local government, and I chair the strategic leadership board, which is playing its part in that progress.

With regard to prosecuting people who pollute the environment, it seems that the member thinks that I do my job too effectively. Last autumn, I received a letter from him in which he complained that one of his constituents, who had been dumping illegally, was being taken to the High Court. The member thought that that was a disgrace. Before the member starts lecturing me about my record on the environment, and before he starts waving the green flag for environmentalists, he should think about some of the issues in which he involves himself.

My record on the environment, and on all of the other issues with which I have to deal, speaks for itself. I have done the job to the best of my ability; I have done it diligently. Do I get it right all the time? I do not, because I am not infallible. However, I make the effort. Therefore, I dispense with any votes of no confidence. If I felt that I was not doing the job, I would resign. If I thought that I was not up to the job, I would not be here, but my record proves that I do my job effectively.

Mr McKay:

I want to address the issue of climate change, because, clearly, the Minister has not done so. Regardless of whether human activity influences climate change, does the Minister recognise that the earth has warmed by 0·75°C since the industrial revolution? Does he acknowledge that there will be disastrous consequences for us if the earth continues to heat by 2°C over the next 20 to 30 years?

The complaint on behalf of my constituent that the Minister mentioned related to the procedure that was followed in the case and the manner in which it was dealt with by the Department; the complaint was not aimed at the law, as I fully agree with it.

The Minister of the Environment:

I am sure that someone will request to see that letter under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and they will judge what the issue was. [Interruption.] I do not want to get in to that —

The Deputy Chairperson:

Minister, please just refer to the question.

The Minister of the Environment:

Let me just answer the question that the member has asked about CO2 emissions and the earth warming up. First, the earth is not actually as warm now as it was during the medieval warming period, when CO2 emissions were not at today’s levels.

Secondly, if one looks at the trend in temperatures since the industrial revolution, one will find that there is actually no correlation between CO2 emissions and the earth’s temperature. Again, I would be happy to supply the Committee with Dr Hoyt’s graph on that subject, which shows that CO2 emissions have increased, and — the member is quite right — increased continuously, over that period. However, in the middle of that period, from the 1940s to the mid-1970s, there was a period of substantial cooling to the point where people thought that we were going to enter another ice age. Indeed, some of the scientists who are now talking about global warming were talking about ice ages and spraying glaciers black, and so on.

The member will also find that, during that period, there was a much greater correlation between solar activity and the variations in world temperature. Again, those facts are well-documented, and had the member done some research, he might not have asked me that question.

Mr Ford:

First, I should probably ask the Minister whether he has calculated the amount of carbon that I have saved by using my Translink SmartPass over the past year. Perhaps he has not done that calculation for us.

A Member:

Maybe he has.

[Laughter.]

Mr Ford:

I have listened with interest to what we have heard over the last half hour or so. I am not sure how much of it was Sammy Wilson’s personal opinion and how much was the Department’s opinion. Therefore, I am not sure whether we should ask Stephen Peover or Sammy Wilson what the Department’s opinion on climate change is. We have already written to find out what Executive policy is. At this stage, I would like clarification of the departmental policy, as opposed to the Minister’s personal opinion.

The Minister of the Environment:

The departmental policy is that we have a commitment to reduce carbon emissions and that that commitment will be met by reducing energy consumption. The main driver for that reduction in energy consumption is not actually the Department of the Environment; the main driver will be a number of other Departments. Our role is to monitor what is happening in that regard — and we do that — and as a result of any directives that come from Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in London.

I have already said that I have consulted the Committee on the carbon reduction commitment and on the targets set by the Committee on Climate Change, which are then conveyed, through the Department, to Executive colleagues and other Departments. The Department’s policy is that we aim to reduce energy consumption, and, in doing so, aim to reduce CO2 emissions. The implementation of that policy will involve a whole range of Departments.

As regards the Department’s view on the cause of climate change, it has accepted the Government view that reducing CO2 emissions will have an impact on the climate. I have made it quite clear that there is a difference between having beliefs on the causes of climate change and having to take some practical steps to address it. Sometimes the practical steps that one takes can marry both sides of the argument — my side being that it is good not to waste resources, and the other side being that not wasting resources, somehow or other, influences world temperature.

Mr Ford:

Is there not some contradiction between the personal views that you express and what you have said the Department has a duty is to do? Most of the personal views that you have expressed have rubbished the philosophy behind what you say the Department is committed to doing.

The Minister of the Environment:

Mr Ford, I do not think that the philosophy is all that important. What is important is how people act.

Mr Ford:

Are people not more likely to act if they are given leadership as opposed to a begrudging mentality of having to comply with regulations?

The Minister of the Environment:

No one can say that I have been unenthusiastic about telling people not to waste resources and about saying that Northern Ireland should have wider sources of energy available to it, so that it is not vulnerable to Russia or to events in the Middle East. I do not think that anyone could say that I have been unenthusiastic about saying that people should not be wasteful and that we should not find ways of conserving energy.

Mr Ford:

You told the Committee this morning that you do not care about your personal carbon footprint. That sounds as though you are fairly unenthusiastic.

The Minister of the Environment:

No. I care about my cost of living and the impact that my behaviour has on my budget. I do not spend money unnecessarily, and I do not think that people need to be told and nannied to do the same.

Apart from people who are very well paid and do not really care, because they have plenty of money, most people will seek ways to save money. I have encouraged people to do that in all of the statements that I have made and in the policies that have been followed — whether those are planning policies or others, as I indicated in an earlier answer.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I have a couple of points about biodiversity and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs), but I am conscious of the time. However, I reiterate that, although we allocated 30 minutes to climate change, we have spent more than 45 minutes discussing it, and it is an issue that we could have spent the whole meeting discussing.

The Minister of the Environment:

You are going to have an inquiry about climate change.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Mr Weir raised the issue of time at the start of the meeting, and it is important. For us, the issue is that —

Mr Weir:

I was not suggesting that we should not allow 30 minutes to discuss the issue; I was suggesting that there were other issues.

The Deputy Chairperson:

As I said to you, we had to wait to see how the meeting progressed. We have given the matter more than enough time. The Committee is conducting an inquiry, and it will receive the views of those who are in favour and the counter arguments.

I want to move on. I am conscious of the time. Some of us will meet the Minister next Monday in relation to dual mandates. If we do not get time to discuss that matter today, we will bring back a report.

The Minister of the Environment:

Yes.

The Deputy Chairperson:

We now move on to the issue of road safety.

Mr Weir:

I have a clarification question in relation to the issue of dual mandates. Many people in local government are also exercising dual mandates in related issues, such as severance and co-option. Will those matters also be discussed at that meeting?

The Deputy Chairperson:

Those matters will be open for discussion at the meeting on Monday.

Mr T Clarke:

Can we stick to the order that we have on the paper? The next item on the paper is goods vehicles. I am very keen to discuss that.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I will stick to the agenda. We will now move on to road safety.

The Minister of the Environment:

Perhaps the longer session was due to the fact that I wanted to answer questions in full. My only other commitment is the Executive, so if the Committee runs on for longer than one and a half hours, I am more than happy stay.

The Deputy Chairperson:

You shall be here for longer than one and a half hours, but thank you very much for your consideration.

I advise members that, on 5 February 2009, the Committee considered the departmental submission to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) for the February monitoring rounds. Members were particularly concerned about proposed reductions in the road-safety strategy and sought reassurances from the Minister that that would not detrimentally impact road safety in general and child safety in particular. A response from the Minister and the Committee’s concerns are included in members’ papers. Members also raised concerns about the loss of the Road Safety Council and other matters.

The Minister of the Environment:

I hope that all members have read the latest report on the Road Safety Council. My decision was probably not an easy one to take, but, given the fact that two previous reports, which were published in 1999 and 2002, were not complimentary about the Road Safety Council, I do not think that I could have afforded to ignore the latest report. Had I done so, I suspect that I might have had to go to another Committee to explain why the Department had continued to spend money on the Road Safety Council, given the content of the report that was handed to me.

I value the work of the Road Safety Council committees, and many people have played a role in improving the road-casualty figures, which are now at their lowest point since records began. The fact that something has been done for a while does not mean that one should not look at how the money is spent. I have asked various sections in the Department whether they are sure that the money is being spent in the most effective way. We need to ask whether we are spending money in the most effective way in other aspects of road safety.

I have not removed the money from that activity; I have simply decided that, in the light of the report, I do not believe that the Road Safety Council is the vehicle by which the money should be delivered. We have £160,000 available, and it should be delivered to the groups that are directly getting across the message on road safety in different parts of Northern Ireland, through either their current activities or new activities. It may be the case that other groups that are doing good work on road safety were unable to tap in to the money that was going through the Road Safety Council. Hopefully, they will take up the opportunities that will now be available to them.

Not all of Northern Ireland is covered by Road Safety Council committees anyway, and other groups might avail themselves of the money in areas where there are no Road Safety Council committees. By the new year, the apparatus will be in place for applications to be made directly through the Department. I have been assured by officials that the cost of administration will be substantially lower than it was with the Road Safety Council. The full £160,000 was never drawn down, and the report indicated that only 13% of the money that was drawn down actually went to the local Road Safety Council committees to deliver front line activities.

I hope that the fact that applications will be made directly to the Department will ensure that all the money will be spent in future. In most years, 25% or more of it was not spent. I hope that the new provisions will ensure that the money is spent on getting the message to people who need to be influenced about road-safety issues.

I am happy to take questions on the report or on the reasoning behind the decision, but that is where we are. The notion that we are taking money away from road safety is not true. The money will be made available and, hopefully, will be more widely distributed across Northern Ireland.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I know that the all-party working group, of which I am a member, will meet you to discuss the strategy.

The Minister of the Environment:

That is correct.

The Deputy Chairperson:

My only concern is that areas that do not have Road Safety Council committees should be able to access funding. How do you propose to facilitate people who are outside the groups that are already established?

The Minister of the Environment:

To a certain extent, I am speaking off the top of my head on this issue. The mechanism may be refined as time goes on, but the Department will set out the criteria for the types of activities and for the things that the groups will have to do in order to get the money.

Then, a direct application will be made to the Department. A number of members have, quite rightly, raised the issue that many of those groups are volunteer groups, and do not have great expertise in filling in forms. The last time I spoke to the officials I said that we should make sure that the application process is simple, so that one does not have to be an expert in funding applications to complete the form. It should be accessible to all groups that want to carry out road safety activities.

Thirdly, where there are no road safety committees, and where people perhaps do not want to set them up, there are other groups. For example, in my own constituency some of the motorcycle groups do very good work with young motorcyclists who either are going to take their test or have just taken it. That is a target group. I would like to think that they might be able to draw down some money for the kind of road safety work that they do, albeit with a very targeted group of people. I want to make clear that I am thinking aloud here, but it would be remiss of us, now that we are freeing up funding, not to try to fill in the gaps in the parts of Northern Ireland where there are gaps.

One of the benefits of doing that through road safety committees is that very often, because of their local contacts, they were able to draw in extra funding. The Department gave them money and they did local fundraising. I would not like to lose that leverage, so we may have to look at some ways to get commitments from people that they will lever other money in for their activities.

Mr I McCrea:

I am somewhat concerned at your reference to 13% of money actually going to the road safety committees. In my constituency there are two committees; one in Magherafelt and one in Cookstown, although the one in Cookstown is newly formed. It is encouraging that the Department will now be administering that. Hopefully, more money will reach the road safety committees.

There is a lot of scaremongering that the Road Safety Council is being abolished. I know you are on record as saying that that is not the case; that you are just removing the funding stream from the Department to the council. Can you provide any more detail on that? Obviously the council will still exist, but will not be funded.

The Minister of the Environment:

It is not in my remit or power to abolish the Road Safety Council. Even had I wanted to do that, I could not have done it anyhow. It was the body through which funding was administered for the various committees, and, if the committees still wish to send delegates to the council and to maintain a core of employment there to do work on their behalf, that is up to them. All that I am saying is that I was not happy that, of the £122,000 drawn down last year — which left £38,000 unspent — only £15,800 went to front line activities delivered by the road safety committees. I do not think that we want to pay out money simply to have our money administered. That money should be designed to get the message of road safety to people, and it should be allocated in such a way as to ensure that it is effectively spent.

Many of the recommendations in the report indicated that we were not getting value for money. That was a trend that had run through the other reports, and it also indicated that perhaps the road safety committees were not getting the kind of service that they would have expected to get from the Road Safety Council.

Mr I McCrea:

Will officials in the Department give guidance and help to people who want to set up committees? I know that the Road Safety Council assisted in that.

The Minister of the Environment:

The message that I have received from the Department is that our own road safety officials did an awful lot of work in that regard on a local level, even though that is not their main remit. I am sure that those officials will be happy to continue to identify opportunities and help groups with funding applications.

Indeed, there should be someone in the Department who is dedicated to dealing with those applications. I am aware of voluntary groups in my own constituency that have had problems with forms. I do not want there to be a complicated form that almost requires the person who is trying to fill it in to have a degree in funding applications.

Let us look at the events for which we are going to pay money. Take the example of a group deciding to run a road safety quiz. Where is that quiz going to be held? How much will it cost to run? How many people will be there? Will it be value for money? In other words, will the benefit justify the outlay? Those aspects should be monitored. This should not be rocket science, and I hope, by keeping it as simple as possible, that people will not feel disadvantaged.

Mr Ross:

The Minister talked about pet projects. My pet project in relation to road safety is graduated driver licensing (GDL), which may not be massively popular with young people throughout the Province. The charity Brake recently lobbied at Westminster for GDL to be introduced for GB drivers. Worldwide, the figures speak for themselves on how it improves road safety among novice drivers.

Given that the Assembly and the Committee endorsed that system, does the Minister have any plans to implement any elements of it? I recognise that some elements of graduated driver licensing are massively unpopular and might not be practicable. However, it might be possible to introduce other aspects, and it could make a difference.

The Minister of the Environment:

Yes; for example, I would like to make young people realise that it is not acceptable to drink and drive. One of the ways of doing that is to ensure that young people know that the penalties for are heavy — they will lose their licence and so on. It may even be a good idea to have a different legal drink-drive limit for young people. There are a number of things that can be done without being too draconian.

I have publicly expressed my view that it would be an unacceptable infringement on freedom to ban young people who have already passed their test from driving at night or with their friends in the car. Passing the driving test opens the door to freedom for young people. I remember that from when I passed my driving test — even though it was a long time ago — and I see it with my wee nieces and nephews. After passing the test, young people no longer have to rely on their mummies and daddies to take them to a disco or to the cinema.

The vast majority of young people drive responsibly. The attitude among most young people today is very different to what it was at the time when I passed my driving test. At that time people thought you were Jack the Lad if you were raking the roads. Now, people look askance at someone who boasts about sliding around roads in cars and view that person as some sort of nut. I have heard those views expressed within my family.

However, there is a minority of young people who drive recklessly. I do not think that we should punish all young people because of the actions of a minority. Perhaps we need to target that minority, take away their licences at a lower number of penalty points and have a lower tolerance for drink-driving.

Mr Ross:

Young people could also be obliged to take a minimum number of hours of lessons before sitting the driving test; is that a measure that could be considered?

The Minister of the Environment:

I am looking at compulsory basic training for motorcyclists. As a motorcyclist, I appreciate how vulnerable motorcyclists are. We have to target that particular niche in the casualty figures.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thankfully, you did not refer to any Sunday newspapers in that response. [Laughter.]

Mr Beggs:

I declare an interest as treasurer of the voluntary Carrickfergus road safety committee. I asked about the reduction of the road safety budget in the February monitoring round, and sought explanations from the officials who were unable to tell me what was being cut. I thank the Minister for his detailed answer; I think it is reasonable, and I am satisfied with what I have received.

The Deputy Chairperson:

There are a few brownie points for you, Minister. We will move to Mr Clarke’s favourite subject: goods vehicle licensing. Can you give us an update on that?

The Minister of the Environment:

I am glad that that is on the agenda. I seek guidance on this issue from the Committee, which undertook a long investigation of it. The Bill is due to proceed to Consideration Stage. I assure the Committee that I have read the whole of its report. The Bill originated during Arlene Foster’s time as Minister. When I first looked at it, certain aspects of it alarmed me, and I wanted to see what the Committee’s views were. I thank the Committee for the length of time that it spent on the Bill and for the questions it raised.

The Bill was introduced at a time when we believed that the Irish Republic was going to introduce similar legislation and in a different economic climate when businesses were not experiencing the financial strains that they are at present. The Committee raised several concerns. The first was about leakage — the potential for businesses to avoid having to comply with the legislation, especially in border areas. Businesses could be registered in the Republic but operate in Northern Ireland without all the provisions of the Bill applying.

Secondly, questions were raised about how effective the enforcement could be in cases where vehicles were operated from outside the jurisdiction. How could we ensure that someone is not just doing contract work in Northern Ireland, carrying just one load on someone else’s behalf or doing just a single piece of work? Enforcement is a big issue.

Thirdly, there is the question of operating centres and the Planning Service’s attitude to them. In the report, it is clear that even those members who supported the Bill were unhappy with some of the answers given. Simon Kirk, of the Planning Service, gave as honest an answer as he could. Obviously, he could not tie the hands of the service by giving cast-iron guarantees.

There was also an issue about which kinds of business the legislation should apply to. Should it apply to a small builder who owns a van and who, occasionally, has to put a heavy trailer on the back to take a digger to a site? That was a grey area, wherein people could fall foul of the law.

Exemptions are another issue: they will be made through regulations, and the Committee will be consulted on them.

Substantial questions were raised by the Committee. When I read through all the evidence, I was not sure that people were convinced that cast-iron answers had been given. In view of the nature of this Bill, officials did an excellent job of explanation. They were very honest with the Committee — as I would expect them to be — about where the difficulties might lie. However, given the current economic situation and the fact that the Republic did not proceed in this fashion, because it believed that it would impose a burden especially on small businesses, we must consider how to take the Bill forward.

On the other hand, I understand that the two big organisations in the freight transport industry are keen that the burden of regulation be shared, with the fees would spread across a wider range of people. There are concerns about lorries and goods vehicles that are on the road but are not in good condition. However, some of those — in fact, a lot of them — are coming from another jurisdiction anyway, and we do not have the same control over that. Another issue is that the system of graduated penalties has not been introduced yet either, and there is the question of whether, even if that system were introduced, we have sufficient capacity to enforce it.

The Committee will be aware that already there has been some criticism of the first piece in this library of legislation — the Taxis Act ( Northern Ireland) 2008 — regarding how effective enforcement has been. We are now going to introduce legislation for heavy goods vehicles, and then we are going to move on to buses. The one thing that I do not believe that we should be doing is introducing regulations and legislation and then getting it in the neck because we do not have the ability to enforce it — that makes the law look totally inadequate.

There are a number of options that I am happy to explore with the Committee but, for all of those reasons, we have got to approach the issue with some caution. Do we delay the implementation of the Bill? I know that that would be a disappointment for some. I am aware that the Committee has done a lot of work on the Bill, and delaying it may lead you to ask whether that work was nugatory.

Another option is to enact it but delay the introduction. It is only enabling legislation — we could delay bringing in the regulations that would actually make it work. There are dangers in doing that because, by putting the legislation in place, you are holding out the carrot to people and you then get blamed for doing nothing to take it to the next step.

The other option is to simply bite the bullet and say that we are aware of all the difficulties and the criticisms that we are likely to get, as well as the impact that it is likely to have on small businesses at a time of recession, but we still want to go ahead with it. There may be other options —

Mr Weir:

I think that Trevor might have one. [Laughter.]

Mr T Clarke:

There is a fourth option.

The Minister of the Environment:

I have not made my mind up on the issue. I have spoken to officials, and I know that they are keen to move ahead with introducing the legislation because of commitments that were given to the freight industry. However, I would value some views from the Committee on it.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Enforcement was identified as an issue during the scrutiny of the Taxis Bill, and it has been an issue throughout any of the scrutiny that we have undertaken. The Committee has scrutinised this legislation thoroughly, just as we did with the Taxis Bill. You are right to refer to some of the questions that were raised, and obviously planning is one issue. We might have to switch on the night lights before I let Mr Clarke in on this. [Laughter.] Some of the points that he raised have been very valid, and I know that we agreed on some of them during the scrutiny. Perhaps the issue of enforcement is something that we need to look at again.

The Minister of the Environment:

I do not need an answer from the Committee today.

The Deputy Chairperson:

No, I know that.

The Minister of the Environment:

I am throwing the suggestion out there; the Committee may come back on it.

The Deputy Chairperson:

The reason the matter is on today’s agenda is because there has been no decision on it, so we wanted to try to address it. Certainly, enforcement has been one of the key issues.

Mr T Clarke:

Minister, you said that you were looking for guidance, and I would like to give you a fourth option, which is to scrap the Bill. I do not know whether you have read some of the comments that I made in relation to this. I am a bit like you —

The Minister of the Environment:

I have read them ad nauseam.

Mr T Clarke:

I may have been fairly vocal on occasions. It is no reflection on those who brought the Bill forward, but sometimes I think that we look at what others are doing and think that it is a good idea, although that is not necessarily the case. We seem to have modelled ourselves around what England is doing. A traffic commissioner came to the Committee and I listened to her, but I took exception when she insinuated that our public service vehicle (PSV) testing was at a low level and the vehicle checks that a driver could do were at a higher level. She was basically saying that we are wasting our time having PSV testing because vehicle checks are better. I think that she was trying to sell the role of traffic commissioner, perhaps in the hope that a traffic commissioner would operate here as well, which is something that I would not agree with.

Perhaps I should have declared an interest at the outset — I have links to the motor trade. I am stating that in case anyone thinks that there is a bit of a read-across on my part.

At the beginning of the session, the Chairperson touched on the subject of enforcement. This is like building a car without an engine. We are bringing forward a Bill when the legislation that we already have is not being enforced effectively. The Committee has had presentations from various enforcement people from various sectors, and they were less than impressive. Unless we enforce the rules that we have, there is no merit in bringing forward new Bills that would give more powers to the enforcement bodies.

In addition, there are concerns about operating centres, the implications for small businesses, leakage between border areas — the list is endless, so there is no point in me rehearsing each argument. Another of my pet hates is that the Bill would apply to vehicles of 3·5 tons. A 3·5 ton vehicle is rather a small vehicle to be subjected to goods vehicle licensing. When I first heard about the Bill, I assumed that it would apply to large vehicles, but it would also apply to a builder with a 3·5 ton Transit van.

I see that the officials are shaking their heads, but there are questions marks over this Bill. There are grey areas concerning planning, and I am greatly concerned when policies are unclear.

The Minister of the Environment:

Given that the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Bill is the first Bill that I have taken through the Assembly since becoming Minister, I wanted to fully understand its implications. The Committee is able to delve much more deeply into this matter than I can, and that is why I took the trouble to read the whole report.

Although I was alarmed by some of the things that I read, my officials made it clear to me that the Bill is driven by road safety concerns, dealing with illegal operators and so forth. Nevertheless, there are questions about whether the Bill can address those concerns effectively. Given the work that the Committee has done on the Bill, we must, at least, consider the best way forward before making decisions.

I will take guidance from the Committee, but Trevor has highlighted most of the issues that I identified. Nonetheless, I hope that I have given a balanced view. There are also positive aspects to the Bill, but only if they are enforced effectively and at the right level.

Mr Weir:

I take on board what the Minister said. We must take time to ensure that we get this right. Given the importance of the topic, we should probably conduct a much fuller discussion, which would allow the Committee to give a steer and, rather than having to give a snap reaction, give a considered response later.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Perhaps we could liaise with the Department about the three options. In addition, we could consider whether to recommend a root-and-branch review of enforcement. Do members agree?

Members indicated assent.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Moving on, we shall now discuss the local government Bills. I remind members that the Committee has agreed not to seek an extension to the Committee Stage for those Bills. Nevertheless, there appear to be ongoing delays. Recently, the Committee sought reassurance that the Department would not seek accelerated passage, and that reassurance has now been given. Will the Minister provide an updated timetable and further information on those Bills?

Mr Beggs:

As a councillor with Carrickfergus Borough Council, I wish to declare an interest.

Mr Weir:

Several members of the Committee are councillors. Perhaps, rather than going round each member, it would be helpful if the record notes that our interests are as declared in the Register of Members’ Interests.

The Deputy Chairperson:

I advise members that they have been provided with guidance on the declaration of interests during Committee business.

Members should note that more precise details of the consultation on subsequent policy development have been made available by the Department, and that that advice will be reviewed and updated.

The Minister of the Environment:

The first Bill to have started its journey is the draft local government contracts and compulsory purchase Bill. The consultation on that should be finished by 12 March 2009, and officials will then come and brief the Committee on the outcome of that exercise. There has been some slippage; we had hoped that the Bill would be in place by the middle of 2009, but it now looks more likely that it will be September. It is quite an important Bill, because it will enable councils to start to enter into contracts that will help to meet, for example, recycling targets. If those targets are to be met without infraction proceedings, it is important that councils are able to do that.

I also promised the Committee that I would try to hook some other elements onto the Bill that had to be dealt with urgently, including the severance scheme for councillors. The consultation on the severance scheme cannot be started until the second of the two Bills is cleared by the Executive. I have spoken to the Deputy Chairman about that, and his party colleagues on the strategic leadership board have also promised some help. However, this is another issue that is, inexplicably, stuck with the deputy First Minister. Neither I nor my officials are aware of what the issue is, but there has been a delay of nearly three months. My Department put the information in, and everyone knows about the urgency, which I have expressed verbally and through the special advisers. The Deputy Chairperson’s own party is keen that the severance arrangements be put out for discussion and included along with the contracts Bill.

It is frustrating. I know that people have been talking about me and whether I am doing my work properly, but this is one case in which work is not being progressed, and it is definitely not the fault of my officials or me. We cannot do anything until the Bill gets Executive clearance. I do not believe that accelerated passage is a proper way to progress the Bill, but, although we are not in danger of doing that at the moment, the squeezing of time is getting tighter.

The other Bills are the modernisation Bill and the reorganisation Bill. We intend to bring those together to save a bit of time; they will be merged into one Bill.

Mr Ford:

I appreciate the concerns that the Minister has outlined, but I do not understand what the deadline is to get the severance arrangements added on to the contracts Bill. It seems that the timescale is extremely short, even though the consultation on the contracts Bill is well under way. Before you came in, we discussed doing a fast Committee Stage to avoid accelerated passage. How can we now see any prospect of that being realistically added?

The Minister of the Environment:

My officials will correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that, if we could get the finance Bill out by the beginning of March, we could do a quick consultation on the part of the Bill that relates to the severance arrangements. We could probably cut that down to eight weeks, which is the minimum that is allowed. Once that is finished, the Committee will progress its Committee Stage of the contracts Bill, and a process of eight weeks would mean that the findings of the consultation could be added some time around May. I accept that that is not a great way of doing it.

Mr Ford:

You said that the consultation should be finished by early March, so is that the scale of the deadline?

The Minister of the Environment:

I am in the hands of the deputy First Minister. I am hoping that it will get clearance, and I am not yet aware of any difficulties with it. Towards the end of the Committee’s consideration of the contracts Bill, we could push in the outcome of the consultation on the severance arrangements and the policy that will be on it. The timescale is tight. Paul, is early March about the time that the consultation will be finished?

Mr Paul Simpson (Department of the Environment):

That is correct.

The Deputy Chairperson:

As Chairperson of today’s meeting, I have a responsibility to chair it in an open and independent manner. Minister, I have given you some latitude in some of the responses. You mentioned planning reform and Bills, and I will take those comments and views on board. However, the next agenda item is planning policing statements, and we will focus strictly on those statements, because they are the reason why we requested this meeting in the first place. You mentioned planning reform, but it is not on today’s agenda, so it is not up for discussion. However, I take on board your comments.

Mr Weir:

I appreciate your comments about today’s meeting, but, given the centrality of planning reform, I formally propose that the Minister should appear before the Committee again, as soon as we can schedule a meeting, because planning reform is one of the big topics that we will face. A fairly lengthy session may be necessary, and that might be better than trying to shoehorn the subject in at the end of this meeting.

The Deputy Chairperson:

That is not a problem.

The Minister of the Environment:

Deputy Chairperson, I am hoping that, through your good offices, that discussion may not be necessary. If we could clear the paper, we could send it out for consultation. It is a huge paper that will generate a vast amount of interest, and we probably have to give it a 12-week consultation period. However, officials will keep the Committee informed of the findings of the consultation as it progresses.

There is some relationship between planning reform and planning policy statements. I would like to see those statements become much more principle-based and less detailed. That would help to achieve a number of outcomes and will be part of the planning reform process.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Minister, your comments have been taken on board.

I now advise members that the Committee has recently considered PPS 4 and draft PPS 21 and now has an opportunity to provide input, prior to Executive approval being sought. On 17 February, the Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and two Committee members met officials, Maggie Smith and Anne Lockwood, to discuss Committee engagement in future development of planning policy statements. That report is in members’ packs.

Minister, perhaps you would like to make a few comments on planning policy statements, for example, those that are outstanding — the likes of PPS 5. After that, I will open the floor to questions.

The Minister of the Environment:

Do you want me to run through all the planning policy statements to give you a quick overview?

The Deputy Chairperson:

Yes, a brief outline would be good.

The Minister of the Environment:

PPS 2 deals with natural heritage and is currently being updated. I hope that it will be one of the first statements to be subject to a much less detailed approach. There may be some difficulty in mixing and matching detailed planning policy statements with less detailed ones that are more principle-based, but we can find a way round that.

PPS 4 is with the Executive at present. My notes, which are a bit out of date, say that, hopefully, it will be discussed in January. The Executive have still not cleared it, and, of course, when it is cleared, a statement on it will be made in the Assembly.

PPS 5 was judicially reviewed. It has already had its court hearing, and I do not know whether we have had any response from the judge on it.

Ms Cynthia Smith (Department of the Environment):

No, not yet.

The Minister of the Environment:

Certainly, there was no response when the brief was written. We are hoping that that response will be available soon.

PPS 12 deals with affordable housing, and a great deal of work still needs to be carried out on it in conjunction with the Department for Social Development. I want to be as straight as I can with the Committee on this matter. We should not expect to see results for a considerable time. Of course, it would be unfair — and, indeed, probably, disastrous — to try to apply a change of policy for builder contributions and social housing to applications that are already in the system, or, probably, for land that people bought on the basis of the requirements that were in place at the time of purchase. We do not want to damage the development industry any more than it has already been damaged, but the Department of the Environment and the Department for Social Development have considerable work to do on PPS 12.

The planning reform document contains proposals on developer contributions. I do not know whether the Committee has had any input from developers, but I have found that developers accept that we are going down that route and that they will have to make contributions. They have asked only that they be kept aware of what is required of them, because that will feed into their investment decisions. There is, therefore, a lot of work to be done on that.

Draft PPS 16 on tourism is under way, and it is hoped that the policy will be available by the end of March. I know that the Committee has received representations on draft PPS 18 from the wind industry. That draft policy is being finalised in the light of the consultation responses from the stakeholder groups, etc. Draft PPS 21 is at consultation stage. The review group is looking at applications by non-rural dwellers, and that group’s report is due around 26 June.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Before I open the floor to questions, Mr Weir made a proposal, which needs to be seconded.

Mr Ross:

I second Mr Weir’s proposal.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Are members content?

Members indicated assent.

Mr I McCrea:

I know that we have not had much to do with PPS 2, but I think that the work of the group that was set up to discuss that draft policy has been completed. Where is it at present? When will it be published? I know that it must go to consultation.

The Minister of the Environment:

We hope that it will be available in April.

Mr Beggs:

Consultation on draft PPS 5 started in 2002. It has been going on for a long time, but I understand that you are awaiting a court judgement. How soon after that decision is made will the draft policy be finalised?

The Minister of the Environment:

That will depend on the judgement that is handed down, so I am not sure. Representations have been made to me from people or groups who have submitted development applications for shopping centres on the outskirts of towns, etc, across Northern Ireland, so I know the pressures that exist. We will move on draft PPS 5 as quickly as possible, but the speed with which we can act will depend on the judgement. We have received a lot of responses to the policy in its draft form. Therefore, there might not be too much work to be done, because a lot of background work has been done.

Mr Beggs:

With regard to PPS 7, you recently criticised your planners for decisions that they made. Do you agree that the role of the Minister is to adjust the policy and processes under which the planners have to work? Do you agree that a Minister should not be making public criticisms?

The Minister of the Environment:

People expect politicians to be honest about problems when they are identified; they do not want politicians to pretend that the problems do not exist. I have to take responsibility for all of those decisions, but, in my criticisms, I made it clear that economic considerations were not given the weight that they should have been given. That was a general criticism, which has been made by a range of people who are involved and who have been involved with planning.

In the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ this week, John Simpson reiterated that. I made it clear that the planners were operating under policies which, I believed, were inadequate. I said that, in order to give greater weight to economic considerations, we could issue either a ministerial statement or a revision of PPS 1. It is hoped that we will be able to bring something forward on that.

If there is a delay in that process, it will be totally my responsibility, and I will have to take the blame. However, given the Programme for Government’s commitment to growing the economy and the private sector, we must give greater weight to the economic considerations when making planning decisions.

Mr Beggs:

Do you accept that planners can do that only when PPS 4, which deals with planning and economic development, has been approved by the Executive and is on the table? Planners cannot do that until the policy is in place.

The Minister of the Environment:

You are quite right. The Department is less open to judicial challenge if a very clear policy is in place. I do not personally take responsibility for that. The body politic must take responsibility if policies that we know are needed are being held up and are not processed as quickly as they should be.

However, I also think that that is when the judgements of planning officers come in to consideration. Policies can be interpreted; it is not simply a matter of ticking boxes. Weight has to be given to all of the material considerations. I made the point that the Department and the Planning Service need to give greater weight to economic considerations than they did in the past, but that is an interpretation of policy. Some people will take a different view, and that is perfectly legitimate, but — as Minister — I want to provide some guidance. I believe that we should give greater weight to the economic considerations than we currently do.

Mr Ford:

In relation to PPS 7, I encourage the Minister and the Planning Service to treat the whole issue of town cramming and changing character more seriously than it has been treated — even allowing for the previous Minister’s advice note.

The Minister said that there were difficulties about introducing PPS 12 when developers had already purchased land. Given that he also talked about people expecting the policy and that it was widely anticipated across the development industry, is there not a case for ensuring that PPS 12 is implemented as quickly as possible — even if it is initially applied with a light touch? Otherwise, we run the risk that those who have significant land banks because of the economic downturn will not be affected for many years. Is there not a case for ensuring that the policy is introduced for the public benefit, even if it is not applied rigidly in the early years?

The Minister of the Environment:

You are absolutely right: the sooner that we give certainty, the better. We want to implement the policy, and I do not think that there is any dissention among the political parties. We should try to obtain more social housing from larger developments and also receive greater developer contributions. The sooner the developers know what is required of them, the better.

I hope that I was not giving the impression that I was simply going to drag my feet. As you rightly pointed out, the longer I drag my feet, the more people will make investment decisions. They will buy land in a vacuum, without knowing what is required, so we need to introduce some certainty. However, as you said, we may have to apply the policy with a lighter touch in the early years, because some investment decisions will be made ahead of the policy being available.

There are considerable difficulties. We could quickly work out what kind of developer contributions we want, but there are legal issues about how we ensure that the provisions will be enforceable and that people will live up to the requirements that we might set. The economic impact also must be considered. That is something that my Department and the Department for Social Development have to work with.

Somebody suggested that that would all be done through article 40 agreements. Anybody who has dealt with a planning application that contains an article 40 agreement will know that it can delay the application for a year or longer. We probably do not have the capacity. If every development of over 10 or 50 houses, for example, was subject to those requirements, the number of article 40 agreements would be enormous and that would glue up the system. Those are some of the issues that we must consider — the economic impact, the legal framework in which that is done, and so on. Those issues must be resolved before we have a policy in place.

I do not want to give the impression that I am dragging my heels. I think that it must be done because the commitment exists.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you very much Minister, we appreciate that you stayed slightly longer than you had planned. The Committee would like to be kept updated by the Department on the time frames for planning policy statements. No doubt we will see you again; thank you for not walking out.

The Minister of the Environment:

Thank you very much.

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