HL Deb 12 December 1972 vol 337 cc549-54

6.35 p.m.

THE MINISTER OF STATE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND (LORD WINDLESHAM) rose to move, That the Draft Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, laid before the House on November 2, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the first Order standing in my name on the Order Paper. Under this Draft Order in Council the present system of maintaining building standards by way of by-laws in Northern Ireland is to be replaced by a new system of building regulations. Over the years, local authorities in Northern Ireland have regulated building in their respective areas in the interests of the safety and health of the people in their districts; but with the increasing complexity of development, the old system has become out of date. All those concerned with building—the local authorities, architects, the construction industry and private building owners—have had to comply with a building code which rests for the most part on provisions contained in the Public Health Act 1878. These provisions have not fundamentally changed in ninety years and the situation is further complicated by local Acts, promoted by Belfast Corporation, for example, combining local features with powers contained in the general legislation.

While most local authorities have tried to achieve a measure of standardisation by adopting a model set of by-laws, varying interpretations have been put on the model set. The present system is therefore rather haphazard, awkward to operate and unsuited to present-day needs. The effect of the Draft Order is to modernise sound parts of the old structure and to replace those which are unsound by a system suited to modern needs and capable of being adapted to meet future change.

The 26 new district councils, which will take over from the local authorities in October, 1973, will in future exercise building jurisdiction. The main function of the district councils will be to enforce the building regulations which under Article 3 the Northern Ireland Ministry of Finance will have power to make. These regulations will apply throughout Northern Ireland and will be the uniform building code to supersede the building by-laws made by local authorities and other relevant statutory provisions, whether in general or local Acts. It is important that a new comprehensive code of the type envisaged should be introduced only after full consultation and advice. While it is intended to introduce the building regulations as at present applied in England with the minimum of adaptation for Northern Ireland, the Ministry of Finance will consult all interested parties in the construction industry before introducing the regulations. In addition, a Building Regulations Advisory Committee will be appointed which must be consulted before the regulations can be amended and which can recommend amendments in its own right. By this means it is hoped to achieve the provision of standards adequate for the purposes of the Draft Order after due regard for the interests concerned.

The Draft Order contains provisions for appeal against a district council which refuses to relax the regulations or rejects plans deposited in respect of a new building. The inclusion of facilities for appeal is consistent with modern attitudes, in that applicants should be protected against the possibility of an unreasonable refusal or a misinterpretation of the regulations. It is not suggested that such refusals would be anything but exceptional, nor that they would be given in anything but good faith; but protection must be given against the possibility of an unreasonable or mistaken decision on the part of a district council. I should add that planning rules are not affected in any way by this Order. They will continue as they are, and builders of new dwellings and extensions to existing dwellings will be required to obtain approval under building regulations as well as planning rules in the future. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Draft Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, laid before the House on November 2, be approved.—(Lord Windlesham.)


My Lords, I want to begin by saying that I do not stand here as an expert on Northern Ireland affairs—in fact, I know very little about Northern Ireland. But I have some experience of local government and it was suggested that perhaps I could interest myself in this connection and be of some assistance in regard to consideration of this and some of the other Orders that follow this evening. May I say immediately that we support the Order in what it seeks to do, in that it is, as I understand it, an improvement on the present position because it goes some way towards rationalising the variety of systems of building regulations at present operating in the United Kingdom. When the Order was before the other place on November 21 a considerable number of questions were asked, as was most proper, and while I wish to avoid repeating those questions here it seems to me desirable to raise one or two points that I think were not touched on then. Indeed perhaps it is not unreasonable to say that it is not merely desirable but also important, since it is these two Houses of Parliament that have a duty to examine in detail these Orders affecting Northern Ireland.

I wonder whether we could consider the relations that exist between the North and South of Ireland in regard to this matter of building regulations. I think it is a fact that building and construction firms both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland work in the other country, and when peace eventually returns to the island there is bound to be a considerable increase in such work. If so, it would seem to me to be logical to encourage a similarity of standards and practices. The development of common building regulations could be co-ordinated through an all-Ireland institution that would cover these economic and social matters on which much is to be gained from joint development. Such a body should be one of the elements in the package to be announced in the White Paper; and the White Paper itself ought to be published soon now, and certainly before the proposed Border poll is held.

Looking at matters in what one might call the long term, with the increasing amount of work that is done internationally by the largest European builders and contractors, I would ask: should not the E.E.C. be putting its mind to the rationalisation of the many building regulation schemes operating in the various member countries? Is such consideration in progress; and, if not, will the Government consider it? In asking for such harmonisation of building regulations, both in Ireland and in Europe, I am not overlooking the need for certain local or national variations, and I rather think that without too much difficulty allowances can be built into any consolidation that may be achieved. However, in many areas of such regulations there is no technical reason for the important variations which occur, and in an area such as this where, as the noble Lord has said, the highest priority is the welfare of the general public, it is vitally important that there should be the clearest and indeed the highest standard of procedures. But generally I offer a very warm welcome to this Order.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said and for the welcome he has given to the Order. When we were debating Northern Ireland last week we considered a considerable list of items, and the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition remarked that one of the things he regarded as a useful "spin-off" was that a wide range of subjects was good for the political education of those Ministers who had to handle them. There are five items of the Order Paper to-day, ranging from building regulations to local government miscellaneous and other provisions and drainage, and I can assure noble Lords that they have added to my political education in preparing for the debate this evening. As the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy said, he has considerable experience of local government in England and can certainly bring his knowledge and wisdom to bear on Orders of this sort. Indeed any noble Lord, whether or not he has direct knowledge of Northern Ireland, should feel free to take part in these debates on draft Orders in Council.

The main point raised by the noble Lord was the question of relations between North and South. This is a matter of the utmost political sensitivity. The nature of the co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic, whether economic or political, was touched on in an important section of the Paper for Discussion headed, "The Irish Dimension", and I do not think this is the occasion to develop that further. The White Paper will be published at the earliest possible moment.

I understand that the Northern Ireland Building Regulations will be similar to the regulations which currently apply to England. The United Kingdom as a whole is moving towards a standard building code which will make similar requirements in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Of course, if common building standards were introduced into the E.E.C. it follows that the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, together with the other Member States of the Community would need to discuss and consult on what their standards should be. As the noble Lord will appreciate, it is not for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to start taking the initiative as regards the harmonisation or otherwise of building standards in the E.E.C. but I will draw the noble Lord's remarks to the attention of whichever of my Ministerial colleagues has responsibility in this matter.

On Question, Motion agreed to.