Northern Ireland Assembly, Monday 23 September 2008, Private Members’ Business
Mr B Wilson: During the debate, a number of Members referred to failures in the planning process. As far as North Down is concerned, the planning policies that were designed to protect our built environment have totally failed. For almost 30 years, I have sat in the North Down Borough Council chamber, listening to planners approving applications that were totally against the wishes of the council and the local people. In many cases, there were acts of environmental vandalism.
Something should be done to introduce some democracy into the planning system. I am sorry that no one else raised that issue. Other countries make every effort to preserve and restore their built heritage, but we seem determined to eliminate it. As a result, over the years, we in North Down have seen our leafy suburbs destroyed and turned into concrete jungles. Picturesque villages have become dominated by apartments, and mature trees have been felled to enable yet another row of town houses to be crammed in. The destruction has accelerated in recent years, as speculators explore new ways to cram more houses into smaller spaces.
That is highlighted by the garden-grabbing epidemic, which most Members mentioned, and which is particularly prevalent in urban areas ofBangorand Holywood.
Garden grabbing is endemic in North Down. For example, last year, speculators delivered leaflets inBangorthat asked whether householders were willing to sell their properties. That practice has destabilised some well-established communities, as each resident wonders whether his or her next-door neighbour will sell out, leaving him or her to face the prospect of apartments being built in the next garden.
In one particularly disturbing case, an elderly widow who did not wish to sell her house, in which she had brought up her family and had lived for more than 40 years, was pressurised to sell by her neighbours, because they would not get their money unless the entire row of six houses was sold.
In another case, a householder refused to sell, so the developer bought the houses on each side. My constituent’s property is now surrounded on three sides by a fourteen-unit apartment block, which denies that person any sense of privacy.
I shall now deal with points raised by Members. Alastair Ross mentioned the problem of flooding. A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday evening, I was called out three times because houses were being flooded. They were flooded because water was not able to drain away due to the lack of open, green space. Water ran down the road and into gardens as a result of overdevelopment and the loss of green space.
Cathal Boylan mentioned PPS 8, which I find interesting, as it deals with the sale of council land. Some councils have sold off small parcels of land, particularly in towns and villages, resulting in a loss of local amenities. Ards Borough Council has been particularly good at getting rid of small pieces of public open space.
Mr McCarthy: I am a member of Ards Borough Council, and the Member is right to say that the council tried to sell several pieces of land. None of the nine plots that it attempted to sell have been sold so far, for whatever reasons.
I am particularly concerned about coastal land, which has not been mentioned, so I will use this opportunity to appeal to the Minister to say no to the destruction of our coastline. It is disappearing fast, and I have been leading the charge against Ards Borough Council’s attempts to sell coastal land.
Mr B Wilson: Jim Wells, with whom I often agree, mentioned tree preservation orders (TPOs), which are a matter of great concern to me. Trees add character to an area, and their demolition totally transforms that character. I am concerned by the fact that developers ignore TPOs. Jim Wells mentioned the case of Myrtle Lodge,Newcastle, and there has been another instance inShandonPark,Belfast. In each case, the developer knew that there was a TPO, but was willing to accept whatever fine the court imposed.
Over the years, the courts’ record has been pretty miserable. I recall the case of the City ofDerry Golf Club, which was fined £200 for cutting down a tree that was subject to a TPO. What does such a fine mean to a developer who will make millions? Such a sum means absolutely nothing. Consequently, developers cut down trees and face the courts, knowing that their actions will have little impact.
I want the Minister to ensure that developers who deliberately ignore tree preservation orders face the full rigour of the law. They should be forced to replant trees in the same area.
Mr Wells: A policy that prevents developers from ever gaining from their vandalism would be more of a deterrent. In other words, future apartment development on the area that those trees covered should be banned.
Moreover, I understand why the Member is concerned, but has he not noticed some changes since the introduction of planning circular 03/07? The tide has turned since that was introduced. We must encourage the Department to ensure that the tide flows against such vandalism for ever.
Mr B Wilson: The tide may have turned, but it has not yet reached North Down. In June, planning permission was given to replace two Victorian detached dwellings with 24 new apartments. That again relates to the draftBelfast metropolitan area plan (BMAP) 2015, and it reflects a trend in that part ofBangor.
North Down Borough Council has fought for years to have that part ofBangordeclared an area of townscape character. That is now included in the draft BMAP. The problem is that the draft BMAP has not yet been adopted. Therefore, developers are knocking down houses before it is implemented. If we do not ensure that the draft BMAP is adopted soon, there will be nothing left in that area to protect. The BMAP issues paper was published in 2001, and we are still waiting for its approval. Expediting that process would certainly help North Down, and it would clarify many issues in other parts of greaterBelfast.
The Minister’s decision to amend PPS 7 is welcome and extremely useful. There is a lack of clarity at present, and I am concerned by the number of applications that the Planning Appeals Commission has overturned. Planners sometimes question the point of turning down applications that the PAC subsequently approves. The PAC must be told exactly —
Mr Deputy Speaker: The Member’s time is up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of the Environment to review, and where necessary to amend, planning policies to protect the character of residential areas and to create mixed and balanced residential communities.