I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council.
Like other Members, I welcome the Bill as it addresses many of the problems that face councillors on a day-to-day basis. It will increase the powers of councillors and bring them into line with district councils inGreat Britain. The additional powers introduced in the Bill are overdue and significantly update the existing legislative position. It will give district councils powers to address problems that are not covered by currently legislation but that can be addressed by local councils in GB. In recent years, I grew increasingly frustrated because the council did not have adequate powers to resolve many of the problems that my constituents raised. The new powers provide a means of resolving existing problems, and I have no doubt that they will assist in improving the quality of life and health of many residents.
To many, issues such as abandoned vehicles, litter, graffiti, fly-posting, dog controls and noise may not seem particularly important. However, they can cause considerable distress and have a significant impact on many residents’ quality of life. For example, an abandoned vehicle often causes concern for neighbours. At present, a council officer must put a notice on the vehicle but cannot move it for a week. During that time, it attracts vandals who wreck it or set it on fire, and that causes considerable distress to local residents. The new proposals give the council the power to issue fixed penalty notices for the offence of abandoning a vehicle and the power to move the vehicle. Therefore, it does not have to sit there annoying the residents. The Bill is welcome because it streamlines the process for dealing with abandoned vehicles. However, north Down has a major problem with abandoned caravans that is not addressed under current legislation, and I am not sure whether the Bill addresses that. It should be extended to deal with caravans.
As many Members said, litter is a major problem that raises much public anger. In fact, it costs ratepayers in north Down almost £1 million a year. As a society, we are a filthy lot, particularly compared with our continental neighbours. The present legislation is not effective in dealing with that problem, and the council needs greater powers. I hope that the powers in the Bill will resolve that matter. Therefore, I welcome the Bill’s proposal to make it an offence for a person to give a false name and address when they are questioned by an authorised officer about a litter offence. In addition, in light of the courts’ failure to deal adequately with litter louts, it is more appropriate for such an offence to be punishable by a fixed penalty notice. I welcome the introduction of the fixed penalty notice in the legislation.
I welcome the litter clearing notices, which can be served on an occupier or owner of land. Those are long overdue, because many serious neighbourhood disputes have arisen because householders allow rubbish to accumulate in their gardens and the council cannot do anything to resolve that problem. I hope that those notices, which require land to be cleared of litter within a specified time frame, will reduce that problem. However, I believe that the 28-day compliance period may be too long. That should be reconsidered.
The Bill contains provisions on fly-posting. However, I am concerned that the Bill provides powers to councils to target only the people who post the information as opposed to the beneficiaries. The power to target the beneficiaries lies with the Planning Service. Although it is more effective to target those groups, the Planning Service in Northern Ireland does not see that as a high priority. If fly-posting is to be properly addressed, councils must have full powers of prosecution.
Although the Green Party welcomes the new proposals to create dog control orders and the measures to resolve noise problems, we are concerned that they will create an additional workload for councils and, perhaps, be a strain on their resources. I cannot accept the Department’s view that the financial effects of the Bill on local councils will be cost neutral. Although the proposals are welcome, it is unlikely that they will lead to full cost recovery by councils through the income generated by fixed penalty notices. The time spent by officers and on administration that is required to investigate and enforce many of those issues adequately will still be significant and, therefore, will still carry a cost to the council. The Department should reconsider the proposed levels of fine and consider whether they adequately reflect the polluter pays principle.
The Bill allows for fixed penalty notices for a range of offences and the retention of fixed penalty fines by councils, but that will not meet the costs associated with the additional work. Furthermore, the successful resolution of many such problems is often best achieved without recourse to formal action. We will not need to go to the courts. If we have the power of the courts behind us, situations can be resolved in an informal manner. Such an approach will not attract fees and, hence, income. Moneys obtained from the provisions are likely to be relatively small compared with the level of work associated with such complaints. Notwithstanding those comments, the use of fixed penalties, with the amount set by councils, and the retention of fees for use in qualifying functions is welcome.
In view of those matters, I ask the Department to consider what additional resources could be made available to councils to successfully undertake the new and enhanced powers and, therefore, improve environmental conditions in our area.
We welcome the introduction of the Bill and the increased powers that it gives to the tackling of environmental crime. The new powers will provide a new foundation to change antisocial behaviour, which impacts directly on the quality of individuals’ lives, health and standards of living. The legislation introduces excellent opportunities to begin tackling a broader range of local environment quality issues, and I hope that we can develop those at Committee Stage. I support the Bill.