HC Deb 21 November 1972 vol 846 cc1225-56

10.14 p.m.

The Minister of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. William van Straubenzee)

I beg to move, That the Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be approved. After our discussion of matters of considerable importance, we move to discuss these draft building regulations. They are important in themselves, and the House will naturally wish me to give at least a brief explanation of them, but I recognise that by contrast with what we have been discussing deal with matters of detail, though detail which is very important to the continuing life of the people in Northern Ireland.

Put briefly, the object of the order is to modernise the existing system for the general regulation of building in Northern Ireland in order to bring it into line with recent changes in England and Scotland. It might be convenient to deal with its provisions briefly, and to do my best to answer at the end of the debate any specific matters which are raised.

It will be within the knowledge of hon. Members that both England and Scotland in recent years have taken steps to transfer the power to make regulations of this kind from local government to central Government. Both in England and Scotland it has been found that a major step has been taken towards achieving uniformity of building standards and creating a system whereby necessary amendments to the building code can be effected more readily.

The present situation in Northern Ireland is that local authorities and the construction industry are required to comply with a building code which for the most part rests on provisions contained in the Public Health Act, 1878. Many of these provisions have not changed fundamentally in over 90 years and we have to add to them local Acts which combine local features and improvements of their own designing with the general legislation. It can be said without criticism of the past, therefore, that current legislation is sadly out of date.

Most local authorities in Northern Ireland have adopted a set of model bye-laws published in 1954, so that they achieve some measure of uniformity, but in many instances differing interpretations put on the bye-laws have meant that in neighbouring local authority areas different requirements have been laid down. With the current trend towards the standardisation of components and with large firms carrying out development in the areas of several local authorities simultaneously, this can lead to confusion and add to the cost of building. The problem has been aggravated with the increased use of newer methods of building.

The history, therefore, is that the Northern Ireland Government set up a committee representative of the construction industry and of local and central Government to examine the existing law for the control of building in Northern Ireland in the light of changes made in England and Scotland. The committee presented a report after consultation with the local authority associations and other interested bodies to the Northern Ireland Parliament in March, 1970. It recommended that the necessary legislative power be taken to replacement of the existing building by-laws by building regulations. The draft Order now before the House implements the recommendations of that Committee.

It is proposed to give to the Ministry of Finance enabling powers to make building regulations which will apply throughout Northern Ireland. However the enforcement of the regulations will be the responsibility of the district councils. From the point of view of all concerned, a uniform code is desirable. Such a code would be more widely known both to the district councils administering the control and to those subject to the control. The uniform code has the further advantage of being more readily taught in technical colleges with consequent advantages in administration.

I draw attention to certain major matters in the order. The order allows in Article 5, for example, different standards to be prescribed for buildings of different classes. This is designed to ensure that the regulations will be sufficiently flexible to provide for instance that factories may be treated differently from houses.

The order also enables regulations to be drafted on what is called "deemed to satisfy" lines. Hon. Members will find this in Article 5(1)(b).

This is an important provision. While the regulations will lay down performance standards so that the expert builder or designer has more freedom to choose any material or form of construction which meets the standard, the small builder or private individual would be denied the advantage that he has enjoyed in the past of being told plainly what must be done in terms of bricks and mortar.

The regulations will, therefore, be supplemented with "deemed to satisfy" clauses which describe ways in which the regulations can be satisfied. For example, the regulations might have a requirement that the separating wall between two houses must be able to resist fire for not less than one hour. The "deemed to satisfy" clause would simply state that the separating wall should be constructed of brick or stone at least 100 mm. in thickness.

I should also draw attention to Article 5(2). That provides that certain buildings, to be specified in the regulations, shall be exempted from the building regulations. Certain types of building—we are familiar with this provision elsewhere in the United Kingdom—are exempted from the building regulations in Great Britain—for example, Crown buildings and the buildings of statutory undertakings responsible for the supply of gas and electricity, and so on.

It is obviously important that a new building code of such far-reaching significance as will be contained in regulations under the order should be made only after full advice and inquiry. While the Committee, to which I have referred, recommended the adoption of the English building regulations, suitably modified for Northern Ireland, Article 4 provides for an advisory committee. The Ministry of Finance is to consult representative bodies of the interests concerned before appointing the committee, which must be consulted by the Ministry before the amend- ing of any building regulations. The committee may in turn recommend amendments to the regulations as originally drafted.

The order also contains provisions—I am looking at Article 9—for relaxation of the building regulations. While the Ministry of Finance will retain power to relax the regulations in respect of classes of buildings, power will be delegated to district councils to grant relaxations in respect of individual buildings.

As the law stands—I confess that until I looked at it closely I had not properly appreciated its rigidity in Northern Ireland—any relaxation, however small, requires the local authority to obtain the approval of the Ministry of Development, and it would be a time-consuming operation to continue with the present arrangement.

Modern developments in methods of construction will necessitate frequent relaxations followed by formal amendments. It is in the interests of all concerned to streamline the procedures by which new developments are introduced. Before introducing an amendment, the Ministry will be required to consult the construction industry and the advisory committee.

A further improvement on existing procedures is the provision for appeals against decisions of district councils. I draw attention to Articles 10 and 11. At present a would-be builder has no right of appeal against the decision of a local authority on plans submitted by him, except on a point of law. The order accepts the principle that a developer or builder should be entitled to have his application considered, if necessary, at a higher level than that of the district council. We are familiar with this elsewhere in Great Britain.

While Article 10 provides for appeals against the refusal of a district council to relax building regulations, Article 11 provides for appeals against rejection of plans. For example, appeals would be expected under Article 10 where the applicant felt that the law was inappropriate to his particular application and that the regulations should be relaxed. Plans could be rejected, however, and an appeal made on the ground that the law was being misinterpreted by the district council. Finally, of course, there are suitable transitional and financial provisions and penalties are prescribed for offences which I do not think the House want me to go into in any detail.

The passing of this order will not only improve the administration of building control but should also improve the standard of building throughout Northern Ireland and bring about economies for the professions associated with the construction industry. If, as I think, that is the case, and if, as I know, it is the result of very careful consultation, I can without reservation commend it to the House.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)

The Bill on which the order is based was one of 19 going through Stormont at the time of prorogation. The Bill had its First Reading, I think, on 21st March, 1972. I understand, that, under the new arrangements, the order has been considered by the Advisory Commission. There have been some changes, I notice, in the order, whether due to the intervention of the Commission or not I do not know.

I do not wish to talk at great length, but we are the only questioning body, other than the Advisory Commission, to consider this matter. While I would not have thought that the newspapers of Northern Ireland would be full of our discussion on this order, I know that those in the business—ranging from professional men to the Fire Brigades Union, which is concerned because building regulations impinge on fire safety—are interested in these matters.

Although they are not of such great world shattering political importance that the television would take great interest in them, which seems to me the measuring rod on the subject of Northern Ireland, there are problems here that we should have on the record. I have a number of points to put and I do not expect answers on them all tonight. There may be one or two on which the Minister would care to comment. I would be happy to have his comments in correspondence subsequently, although it is often the benefit of getting replies now that they are on the record and the professional journals can look at them. I know this from a brief involvement in building regulations about seven or eight years ago.

The Minister has explained that the order modernises the existing machinery for the regulation of building in Northern Ireland. I understand—it is certainly not my field—that a similar process is taking place in England and Wales. One has to examine the order in the light of the proposals for a building Bill in England and Wales which were published as a consultative document in August, 1972.

The Minister said that the Bill was a consolidating measure and that in some respects this was advantageous. That is true. It meant that there were not differences between different parts of Northern Ireland. But is there a need for separate provisions for the North of Ireland? At present, the United Kingdom has four sets of building regulations—those for the inner London area, those for England and Wales, those for Scotland and those for Northern Ireland. According to the consultative document, it is intended to bring together the two systems operated in inner London and the rest of England and Wales furthermore, a number of new provisions will follow those already existing in Scotland.

I am advised that, technically at least, there is no reason for different systems of building regulations in different parts of the country. Indeed, in view of the extent to which architects and builders increasingly work all over the country—the Minister made an interesting point, based on his previous post in the Government, about the effect of technical education in this respect—it seems that, if the architects and professionals in the building industry generally are to be performing the tasks in the North of Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom, for them to be switched from one to the other with different regulations seems a little odd.

The Minister of State was able to speak of a hat that he formerly wore. A hat which I formerly wore at the Home Office was responsibility for the fire service. I grew to have a great respect for that service, and not only in Northern Ireland in recent years. In many respects the fire service is under-valued. It does not have the glamour of the police force. I remember asking in the proper quarter why it is that there are two or three television programmes glorifying the police but none glorifying the fire service. It seemed to be extremely difficult for those who write the programmes to achieve the situations and problems which arise in "Z Cars", and so on—if those programmes are still on television. With the curious hours that we keep we do not have the chance of watching television.

The officers and men of the fire service are trained nationally at Moreton-in-Marsh, one of the best training establishments in the world. What happens now? A chap from Northern Ireland is trained at Moreton-in-Marsh and he sees the fire precaution regulations—which are relevant to the order. He is trained in one way there, but he is subject to different regulations, particularly under Schedule 1, when he returns to the province where he is working. What is the need for the different regulations, however much they are different? I am unsure about that.

The Minister spoke about consultation, but I did not catch his words properly. I gather that over 300 organisations were consulted on the proposed Bill on building for England and Wales. That is a large number of organisations. Was there proportionately the same consultation in Northern Ireland in the preparation of the order?

I have a number of individual points to raise about the Articles and Schedules and then some general points. Article 2 does not include a definition of the word "building". Such a definition is desirable to ensure that the provisions of the order cover types of structure not at present controlled by the regulations but presenting possible risks to health or safety. An appropriate definition might be that contained in Section 29 of the Building (Scotland) Act, 1959, which I understand may well be used as a basis for the English legislation. I am not sure of my ground, but I am not playing with words. As Article 2 is now drawn, there is no definition of "building". Could it refer to a football ground? I have a vested interest in a football ground in my constituency alongside where I live. Over the years I have taken a great interest in its fire precautions. Might the word "building" refer to an edifice such as a football ground, where there could be problems of safety, especially these days, when new stands and so on are being built?

Article 4 does not make clear the powers of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee. Such bodies already exist in England and Scotland. Whereas it seems that the English committee can consider only cases referred to it by the Secretary of State, in Scotland the committee initiates proposals and is a much broader authority. What will be the case in Northern Ireland. The Minister said nothing about the size and composition of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, although he could not have been expected to because, given the nature of the order, we should have been here all night. However, a general explanation on this matter, either tonight or at some other time, would be valuable. In this country members of the committee do not sit in a representative capacity. Will members of this body sit representatively or will they sit in their own right?

Article 9 was dealt with by the Minister in the original Bill. At the first printing of the order it was clear that consultation with the advisory committee was necessary in all cases of relaxation of building regulations. Now, as a result of the change, such consultation is required only in the case of relaxation involving a class of building. As the Minister pointed out there is no obligation to consult in the case of relaxation applying to a particular building. He justified that on the grounds of streamlining, and I can see the point. When dealing with a class of building it is to be hoped that an individual case will be covered. But does that take into account the needs of safety when there is a request for a relaxation. The Minister made his point, and I am sure that he looked into it. But I would like to be sure that in seeking streamlining, safety has not gone out of the window.

The list in Schedule 1 is almost identical to the list of matters about which building regulations may be made in the proposed English Bill. However, accepting that water requirements of a continuing nature should not be part of the building regulation control, the English Bill may include in the regulations water requirements which apply to the construction of buildings, including their alteration, extension and changes of use. What will be the case in Northern Ireland? That is one example of where proposals were made for England in the consultative paper in August. Will they be the same proposals for Ireland?

Schedule 1(3) refers to fire precautions, paragraph (10) refers to ventilation and paragraph (12) to heating and artificial lighting. It was as early as 1963 that the Fire Brigades Union in Northern Ireland proposed changes in the building regulations, because as fire fighters they know that the time to guard against the spread of fire is when the building is being constructed. It is not so good trying to deal with it later by hanging extinguishers on the walls. I learnt a long time ago at the Home Office from the results of fires how, by careful planning and by the use of information from the Fire Research Station in conjunction with the Building Research Station, the spread of fire can be dealt with by the proper use of materials and by dealing with draughts along corridors and up stairs.

One point is not covered in the order. The Minister explained it as an enabling order and said that it did not detail particular building regulations. The task of formulating new building regulations in Northern Ireland has been dealt with in a report produced by Mr. R. W. B. McConnell, a former Minister of Home Affairs. Have the McConnell regulations been accepted, and if so how soon after the passing of the order will they come into force?

Another question concerns fees. The matter is not included in the order but my query relates to the prescribing of fees payable to the district council in respect of plans for building regulations approval. The introduction of fees would help to meet the cost of an improved service. Fees are at present payable in inner London and Scotland. Is this to be the case in Northern Ireland? It is important to consider the form and presentation of building regulations and the desirability of issuing supplementary guidance material or indexes to the regulations and other statutory constructional requirements relating to buildings. Is this being done in Northern Ireland?

I understand that as a result of this order the Ministry of Finance will recruit a small number of about six professional officers and that the 70 officers at present engaged by the local authorities will probably increase to 150, employed by the district councils. In view of this expansion of personnel, as well as the technical nature of control of building construction and the advances in building technology, the development of training schemes for building control officers is important. Are any plans for such training being thought about in Northern Ireland?

I am not sure of the connection of safety with the order. The regulations are essentially concerned with the health and safety of the public as a whole but it seems appropriate to consider the safety of building workers. There is a separate Inspectorate of Factories in Northern Ireland, maintaining separate statistics. I notice that in 1970 there were 11 fatal accidents in factories and 11 in construction. The provisional figures for 1971 record a welcome fall to seven deaths in factories and five deaths in construction—an incidence rate respectively of 4.4 and 14.3 per 100,000 employed. It is higher in the building industry and we sometimes forget the number of accidents that take place during building work. Is there a connection in this order between those who will implement it and the Factory Inspectorate which, as I understand it, is responsible for building safety? I am aware of the importance of this, but I am not sure of my ground on the connection between the two.

We welcome the order. It is an improvement on the present situation and goes some way towards rationalising the variety of systems of building regulations at present operating in the United Kingdom. Coupled with this broad welcome we add our appreciation of those in the building and construction industry in Northern Ireland who have done so much since the war to develop the housing and industrial estates and the power, transport and communication systems in the province. An enormous amount has been done over the years. Many of these men have had an important part to play in the last year or two, given the ravages in the province. In looking at this highly technical order, these words must be said. If at some appropriate time the Minister can answer these questions I shall be grateful.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

It was suggested earlier, with a certain degree of justification, that the party to which I have the honour to belong has not taken a constructive approach to Northern Ireland problems. We in the Unionist Party, and my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) of the Democratic Unionist Party, have been the only people from Northern Ireland who have made a consistent contribution to legislation in this House in the past six months, since the so-called direct rule came into effect, and since we had to deal with procedures under the Order in Council system. Many hon. Members on both sides have been bitterly disappointed to find that the Opposition Members from Northern Ireland—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must restrict himself to what is in the order.

Mr. Molyneaux

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On a vital matter such as this the House has the right to expect the assistance of the views of the elected representatives from Northern Ireland and not just the views of those of us on this side, grateful though we are to the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) and his hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) who has remained behind to help in scrutinising this order.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand why these powers should be conferred on the Ministry of Finance and not on the Ministry of Development. The Ministry of Development is the one which will have the closest connection with the new district councils, which will be linked closely with the work under the order.

One of the objects of the order is to provide for the administration and enforcement of building regulations by district councils. I question the wisdom of this decision, first because of the limited role of the new councils. I am doubtful whether the composition of the new councils, resulting, as they will, from the new-fangled PR system of elections, will provide them with the technical skill and ability to take such intricate decisions. I do not feel the new councils will have the legal resources to deal with all the problems which will arise from this order.

In the debate on the planning order I pleaded that the existing legal departments of the county councils should not be broken up. Although on that occasion a promise was given that I would have a reply in writing from the Minister of State, I still have not received any reply and I do not know what the position is in that regard, so I make no apology for returning to this topic tonight, because it is linked with practically every page of the order.

The plain truth is that the new district councils cannot and will not be serviced properly by minor legal officers concentrated in Belfast. For the various Ministries to imagine that that can be done seems to me quite incredible, It can only be that they do not appreciate the nature and extent of the work done in the past by local government lawyers.

Under this order district councils will have to enforce not only the primary building regulations but a whole host of complicated environmental and health provisions—for instance, nuisances, clean air, food hygiene, noise abatement; and there will be enforcement of laws relating to dangerous buildings, petroleum and fuel oil storage, markets and abattoirs, and of laws governing practically all aspects of building and construction.

It may be suggested that each of these district councils could tack on to its establishment a very junior lawyer, but I am convinced that this is not the answer. In the interests of efficiency, and, what is far more important, in the interests of justice the legal service should be provided by the district councils to deal with this order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member again, but he must confine his remarks to what is contained in the order.

Mr. Molyneaux

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will try to relate my point regarding legal services strictly to the obligations which will arise under the order, and which, as I say, are mentioned in every single article in the order.

To mention it briefly, the ideal solution might be to establish a directorate to provide public authority legal services—the framework already exists in the county councils—with a unifying staff structure and, perhaps, a senior legal officer at the top. There should be no difficulty in that. I beg the Government to take a firm grip on this all-important problem, because the whole of this order, and the previous planning order, hinge to a great extent on it.

The hon. Member for Leeds, South asked a very important question: when is it proposed that the order should take effect? Am I right in assuming that this hinges to a great extent on the decision to defer the elections for the new district councils?

I turn to a related problem which has everything to do with building and no legal complications. That is the proposal to abolish the new town development commissions. Much of the impetus for all sorts of building within the framework of and areas controlled by the new town commissions will be put in a state of chaos by the control and the regulations which will have to be enforced over buildings initiated by the decision of the councils. Remember, in contrast to many local authorities, the new town commissions are taking the initiative in building houses, shops and factories in advance. It would be sensible for them to be retained until the new structure has been given a chance to work. The new towns commissions have been acceptable and have proved successful in Great Britain for the past 25 years. As the hon. Member for Leeds, South said, buildings are much the same whether they are built in Northern Ireland or in Great Britain, and we should accept his suggestion that there is a common problem.

I will give an example of what happens—and this will apply whether power is vested in the district councils under the order or whether the three commissions are retained to function in their areas. A constituent called on me to discuss a purely technical point on the construction of a new building in my constituency. I was able to telephone the Antrim and Ballymena Commission and to obtain the answer in 17 minutes. That kind of efficiency cannot be expected from any Government Department either in Whitehall or Stormont.

I will refer briefly to the open-ended inclusion of agricultural buildings in the scope of the regulations. The 16 points listed in Schedule 1 are no doubt commendable for vetting a block of flats or a luxury hotel—such points as resistance to moisture, resistance to the transmission of heat, resistance to the transmission of sound, heating and artificial lighting—but there are complications for a struggling farmer—and all farmers in Northern Ireland are struggling—if an over-zealous building inspector should decide that such refinements are a "must" in any proposed development of a farm. No doubt on appeal wiser counsels might prevail, but in the interval there would be a period of frayed tempers and worried letters to over-worked Members of Parliament. I trust that this aspect will be re-examined and that, before the order takes effect, a sensible scheme will be adopted to ensure that agricultural buildings are entirely excluded from the building regulations.

We are all dissatisfied with the procedure under what might be called indirect rule, but the path might be made easier were advance notice to be given when orders affecting Northern Ireland are to be debated. On this occasion we could, for example, equally well have debated the Fire Services Order, on which agreement has been reached with the various parties. The order we are discussing tonight was thrown in on Thursday at business question time as a loss leader.

These vital measures are being put through the House within a period of only 90 minutes, and this gives no time to consult the interests involved. This is in contrast to the kind of procedures and treatment to which they would have been subjected had Stormont been in operation. I believe that by any democratic standards the present procedures will not be sufficient for any length of time ahead.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I have no wish to impede the speedy approval of the order, but I wish to take the opportunity to ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State one or two questions, and to take up some of the points mentioned by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees).

As I understand the situation, the definition and meaning of the word "building" in the draft regulations is identical to the definition and interpretation of the word "building" in the public health, housing and town and country planning Acts which operate throughout England and Wales; and this, I presume, is the same as the definition in the Housing (Ireland) Act, 1919, is identical to the other definitions.

Article 3 of the order gives power to the Minister of Finance to make regulations concerning the matters referred to in Schedule 1. I have had some experience of building regulations as they apply to England and Wales, and I would ask my hon. Friend to say whether it is possible to keep building regulations in Northern Ireland as identical as possible to those which apply to England and Wales outside London.

I appreciate that most local authorities in Northern Ireland have been operating model byelaws for the past 20 years, and those byelaws in turn are based on building laws which have existed for almost 100 years. The institution in 1965 of national building regulations in England and Wales outside London was of great assistance to those working in my own profession of architecture, as well as to civil engineers, surveyors and builders. However, in some respects we have found the building regulations to be ambiguous in parts and interpretations have varied between one local authority and another.

The difficulty which has been experienced in interpreting the regulations, caused the former Minister of Housing to recognise the need for a new national building Act for England and Wales. I hope that when such an Act comes into being—and I hope that it will be during the present Parliament—any regulations made under it will be truly national throughout the United Kingdom—including, of course, Northern Ireland.

These matters considered, I give a warm welcome to the order and I hope that the House will give it speedy approval.

10.59 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

As a Northern Ireland Member I wish to associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) about the way this legislation has been brought before the House. We were promised by the previous Leader of the House that Bills that did not get a Second Reading at Stormont would be brought before a Committee in which Northern Ireland Members would have the right to express their views. Yet we have the fantastic situation that the measure as read a first time at Stormont has been amended evidently on the proposals of the Advisory Committee, which is not an elected body. I as an elected representative resent the fact that powers are vested in an advisory body that has power to say, "Change this. Change that", yet the elected representatives in the House tonight must, unless they wish to vote against the order, nod approval of it.

Tonight Northern Ireland Members are here because we are interested in the reconstruction, the building, the betterment, of all people of Northern Ireland. Those who cry loudest against us in the House about our non-concern for the social requirements of the people of Northern Ireland are always conspicuous by their absence when it comes to matters that concern ordinary people.

Those who listened to the Minister of State introduce the order will wish to congratulate him on his elucidation of it. Although we cannot fully ventilate any views we may have about regulations to be made under the order, there are some matters of great interest to Northern Ireland Members.

Let not United Kingdom representatives think that Northern Ireland is a backwater and that our buildings are inferior to buildings across the water, because some of the best buildings in the world are in Northern Ireland.

We all appreciate that regulations need to be made and that there needs to be a streamlining and a common denominator. Many replacements are needed, because many towns and villages have been wrecked by the bombers. Some buildings have been restored. Others must be pulled down and rebuilt. If modern regulations are to apply, it will not be possible on the available sites to accommodate the buildings which will be needed for the types of business which will occupy these buildings. In my constituency, Portglenone was practically wiped out by terrorist bombs; business after business was damaged. This was old property. The businesses went into operation some time ago, and many of them could not be replaced on the sites which they previously occupied. Will these regulations be so strict as to prohibit a person from setting up his business again on the site that is available?

Some businesses could not possibly go back on some of the sites. Will there be some laxity or some consideration given in particular cases so that the last "i" does not have to be dotted and the last "t" crossed? I realise that I am on dangerous ground here, and the Minister may well say that, when we have regulations, we must keep to them. But the circumstances in Northern Ireland are peculiar and these people have already suffered great hardship. One wonders what may happen to an old family business which has occupied its site in a town for, perhaps, 200 or more years. When it comes to try to rebuild, will it be told, "We are sorry, but you cannot have that type of building, or run that sort of business, here?" I realise that there is no easy answer, but it is a problem to which the Minister should give attention.

How will the regulations affect agricultural buildings? We have what might be termed an anomaly in Northern Ireland at present in that one cannot build a house to live in on a field but one can build any sort of agricultural building on the same site without needing any permission whatever. I have in mind a constituent, a young man who married the daughter of a farmer, who wanted to build a bungalow on part of his father-in-law's farm. He was prohibited from so doing because it would have spoiled the view to the mountain of Slemish, which calls back memories of St. Patrick. But opposite that site a large agricultural building about 70 ft. long, 30 ft. wide and about 25 ft. high was built without any permission being granted.

I realise that there have been irregularities, but I make a plea for the small farmer who, of necessity, must enlarge his buildings to make his farm viable. Will the regulations be of such a nature that that will be within his purse, so that he is not deprived of the chance to help himself forward in that way? That also raises a difficult problem.

Under the regulations, the district councils will be responsible for enforcement, and this will take a power away from the old local authorities. Under the present system, we have had rural district councils, urban district councils, borough councils, county councils and the Belfast Borough Council itself. Also, we have had the commissions—the hon. Member for Antrim, South touched on this—which have had opportunity to enforce the building regulations. That power is now to be taken away from the commissions.

What wories me is the availability of staff for the district councils. I have been told by the Antrim and Ballymena Commission that it is having great difficulty in holding staff for the transition period. We are now asked to give power to the district councils to do the work of enforcement. Will they have the staff to do the job? It is my understanding that they will have great difficulty.

The hon. Member for Antrim, South, speaking from his wide experience as an Antrim county councillor, makes a practical point in this connection. The Housing Executive has already run into difficulty in regard to staff, and it took over from the local authorities. Here is another takeover, and I want the Minister to look carefully into it.

Paragraph 4(1) says: The Ministry shall, after consultation with such bodies as appear to it to be representative of the interests concerned", and so on. Will the Minister list those bodies, and will he ensure that the Ulster Farmers Union has an opportunity to be represented on that committee? The hon. Member for Leeds. South (Mr. Merlyn Rees) asked whether those appointed would sit as members of their organisations, or whether they would be picked to sit as members in their own right. I think that they should be picked because they belong to those organisations and have knowledge of them. I am not saying that the organisations should pick them, but I am saying that they should be picked because of their experience with organisations concerned with building.

We are being asked to approve an order which says: The Ministry shall, after consultation with such bodies as appear to it to be representative ". The wording is very wide. It is about as wide as one can make it because if someone "appears" to have an interest in building he can be appointed to the committee.

I think my hon. Friend said that the regulations would not be made direct, but that the Building Regulations Advisory Committee would have a say in making them. What is the reason for setting up this body? Why did the draftsman of the order think that the best way to do this was through an advisory committee? How many members of the Committee will there be when it eventually gets under way?

We have today debated the holding of a plebiscite in Northern Ireland, which means that the local government elections will be postponed. The Minister suggested that the new register would not come out until February and that any plebiscite was unlikely until 28th February. That means that the local government elections will be after that date. As the district councils will not start operating until six months after then, they will not be effective until November. That being so, why is the order so urgently necessary? It seems foolish to introduce the order and to say that it is urgently needed when in fact there is no immediate need for it. Do the Government intend to go ahead under the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Act and to administer the regulations to be made without the district councils? If so, when will they come into force?

The hon. Member for Leeds, South referred to Mr. McConnell. Will his regulations be accepted? Or will the order amend what he has proposed? These are important matters, and I hope that the Minister will deal with them.

11.13 p.m.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I have a number of points to deal with, and I make no complaint about that. It is right that hon. Members should seek to raise these detailed questions, and I shall do my best to deal at any rate with most of them.

Nobody is more conscious than I am of the temporary nature of the system under which we are working, and nobody suggests that it should be other than a temporary arrangement. I am afraid that I must duck the questions about the timing of the Bill. That is essentially a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I shall naturally draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the points which have been made.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down South)

Surely the order in which these matters appear on the Order Paper is a matter for my hon. Friend's Department?

Mr. van Straubenzee

My hon. and gallant Friend will know that copies of the draft order have been available to the House for some time.

It is fair to say that Ministers have inherited—I make no complaint about this, quite the reverse—the beginnings of reorganisation of local government in Northern Ireland. The previous Government can take a major share of the credit for that reorganisation.

My hon. and gallant Friend will understand better than anybody that over the wide range of local government services there is bound to be uncertainty if we do not move forward in as ordered a way as we can. There are many matters which are covered by this measure, including people's jobs and appointments. I returned from Northern Ireland this morning, and I am conscious of the wide area of local government reorganisation and the need for removing uncertainty. I hope that the measure which we are now discussing forms a definite if small part of the process for removing uncertainty.

Various hon. Members, headed by the hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Merlyn Rees), have asked me for assurances that the regulations will be as close to those prevailing in England, Scotland and Wales as possible. I take that point, and the answer is "Yes". We all hope that the great building firms on either side of the water will be able to operate both ways.

However, there are some provisions which will always be a little different. For example, all schools in Northern Ireland are now subject to building bylaws. Therefore, if Northern Ireland were to follow England, it would mean that it would have to make a change, and schools in receipt of a grant would be exempt from building control. That is a good example. I have been looking at these matters closely while I have been in Northern Ireland during the last few days.

We have received very strong representations from several local authorities in Northern Ireland which do not like that situation for reasons which I can understand, the Northern Ireland position being what it is. It is said that schools should remain subject to building control in Northern Ireland. It is our intention to accede to those representations, and schools will be so covered. We all agree that safety in schools is of paramount importance, but we happen to handle it differently in England. However, there will be differences from time to time in the circumstances of different parts of the United Kingdom. In regard to the fire services this is a major point. This is a matter which I naturally take on board and about which I have been very concerned. The hon. Member for Leeds, South very reasonably wanted absolute assurances about consultation. The answer is that there has been the fullest consultation. In a way we are the inheritors of such consultation. That is why the order is now before us.

I was asked some detailed questions by hon. Members, notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) about the advisory committee. Our concept is that it should be small, perhaps between five and 10 people, not necessarily experts, of standing and of common sense in their respective fields. In other words, it will not be a committee representative of sectional interests, such as builders and architects.

The members will, however, each be concerned with some activity associated with building, such as research, design, provision of materials, construction and administration. But I emphasise that our concept is that they will not be appointed as advocates for their particular interest but as people of experience whose duty it will be to give independent advice.

I was asked a number of other detailed points, and the hon. Member for Leeds, South was kind enough to say that he would not feel too bad if I wrote to him about some of them. I shall take advantage of that statement.

With regard to his question on fees, I understand that if legislation in the remainder of the United Kingdom should make provision for them we in Northern Ireland will certainly consider our position in this respect as well.

The order is not the appropriate vehicle to deal with the safety of building workers, important as that subject undoubtedly is. In Northern Ireland that is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Services, because of its special responsibilities there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) very reasonably asked, "Why the Ministry of Finance?". The short answer is that it has the expertise at the centre which is not possessed by the Ministry of Development for the administration of something of this kind.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Would the Minister care to enlarge on that statement? In what fields has it the expertise as compared with the Ministry of Development?

Mr. van Straubenzee

It being a Ministry connected with finance, and having considerable expert personnel available to it, the feeling is that in terms of governmental organisation it has the professional disciplines from which to draw for the composition of the new team, which will be responsible for these very important matters. I make no criticism of the Ministry of Development in saying that. It is felt that the professional disciplines on which the team will draw are more readily available in the Ministry of Finance. I understand, too, that it has structural engineers and fire officers, and the Ministry of Development has not.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South for the fact that he has not received an answer to an earlier question about the legal powers of county councils. I shall make it my business to look into that.

My hon. Friend will be well aware of the present position in relation to by-law consent as opposed to planning consent. Outside their own areas, for by-law consent district councils are required to apply to the local authority in whose area they are working, so that they are already in part familiar with the matter.

Then my hon. Friend, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North, raised the very reasonable and proper question of agricultural buildings. I must not deal with planning. I am careful not to talk about that, though there will be certain discussions taking place between the two Ministries on the planning aspect. But on building control, my hon. Friends will know that in England agricultural buildings enjoy only partial exemption from the building regulations while in Scotland there is complete exemption, subject to certain linear measurements and cubic capacities.

It is proposed in Northern Ireland to give complete exemption, provided that a building is not less than 80 feet from the nearest part of a motorway, not nearer than 80 feet from the centre of a first-class road and not less than 30 feet from any other road or the farm boundary. I hope that that will be felt to be a generous exemption and that the limitations to it are reasonable in farming terms. This exemption has been arrived at on the grounds that it will not apply to dwelling houses. Most farm buildings are the subject of advice from the Ministry of Agriculture in connection with the Farm Capital Grants Scheme which, incidentally, is related to British standard specifications. There is an increasing trend towards the use of short-life building which can be written off and replaced as farming techniques change. The fact that the average size of a Northern Ireland farm is very small results in it not being considered appropriate to ask small owner-occupiers to submit plans for agricultural buildings which are not close to farm boundaries or public roads. I hope that that assists both my hon. Friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North asked about the interested bodies. There are about 200 of them. They include the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, the Northern Ireland Fire Authority and, my hon. Friend will be pleased to know, the Ulster Farmers' Union.

I hope that I have dealt with all the questions which were raised. I end on a note which has been sounded by several lion. Members. This order is admittedly a detailed, small one. In some ways it may be thought unimportant. But it is concerned with a matter which is part of the life of Northern Ireland. I have noted carefully those hon. Members who have remained behind to consider it, because it is concerned with the rebuilding of people's lives.

I do not wish to suggest that because of the perfectly hideous experiences that an unacceptably large number of people in Northern Ireland of all faiths have undergone, we should lower the standards of our buildings, even when building replacements, or that we should be any less watchful for safety simply because we are replacing a building which has been bombed, for example. But we are concerned with the restitution and the continuation of life in Northern Ireland. No one on a visit to Northern Ireland can fail to be impressed with the way in which—

Mr. Stanley R. McMaster (Belfast, East)

It is not so much that we wish to jerry-build in replacing buildings. But surely if some financial assistance could be given to the small man whose premises have been destroyed and he stuck to the regulations, he could keep within them.

Mr. van Straubenzee

I must not comment on that under these regulations. I am not being unsympathetic, but that is a different point. Obviously there is ground for flexibility, and it is reflected in the regulations. But we are building for the future and, even in the conditions that so many people endure there, we want to keep our building to the highest standards of the remainder of the United Kingdom.

With those few words, I hope that the House will be disposed to pass the regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, a draft of which was laid before this House on 2nd November, be approved.

  1. ADJOURNMENT 12 words
  2. cc1249-56
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