HC Deb 19 March 1993 vol 221 cc412-5W
Mr. Brazier

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the work of the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland) since 1979.

8. Mr. Atkins

[holding reply sent on 18 March]: Since 1979, the Department of the Environment has made very significant progress in conserving and improving the quality of the built and natural environment in Northern Ireland.


Housing condition surveys shows that the level of unfitness declined from 14.1 per cent. in 1979 to 8.4 per cent. in 1987 and that the proportion of dwellings lacking at least one basic amenity declined from 17.9 per cent. to 5.5 per cent. The level of home ownership, which was 52 per cent. in 1979 is now 66 per cent. Over 53,000 Housing Executive dwellings have been sold to sitting tenants and nearly 12,000 households, of whom around 6,000 have graduated to full ownership, have been helped into owner-occupation through the co-ownership scheme. The output of the private house-building industry is currently running around 5,750 starts per year compared to 4,127 in 1979 after peaking at 7,418 in 1987. The housing situation of people unable to purchase their own dwellings has also improved with a fall in the Housing Executive's urgent waiting list from nearly 19,000 in 1981 to under 10,000 at present. Funding by the Department has enabled housing associations to make a significant contribution to the housing effort particularly in the provision of suitable housing for the elderly and people with special needs.

Roads and transport

£379 million has been invested in the further development of the road system including, for example, construction of the Foyle Bridge, the Westlink in Belfast, the dualling of large stretches of the Antrim-Ballymena and Hillsborough-Newry roads, bypasses at Strabana, Newry, Castledawson and work recently commenced on the cross-harbour rail and road links in Belfast. A new urban traffic control system has been installed to help control traffic in Belfast. This period has also seen considerable upgrading and expansion of the facilities at Aldergrove airport and extensive improvements at Belfast, Londonderry, Larne and Warrenpoint ports.

In 1989 the Department gained approval from the European Commission for a comprehensive programme for new transport infrastructure in Northern Ireland, involving total expenditure of over £189 million which includes £128 million of assistance from the European regional development fund. This will also facilitate major improvements to the region's strategic access routes to outside markets, and major improvements to the rail network and to the region's overall transport infrastructure.

Urban regeneration

There have also been very considerable improvements as a result of a range of urban programmes throughout Northern Ireland. Belfast city centre has been rejuvenated, with a huge expansion of retail opportunities, including major shopping complexes such as Ross's Court and the Spires, extensive new office blocks, large numbers of new restaurants, places of entertainment and city centre pedestrianisation and conservation projects. Areas of inner-city deprivation have been helped through the work of nine action teams. The Laganside Corporation has been established to regenerate vacant and under-used riverside land, and a new weir on the River Lagan is nearing completion. Belfast and Londonderry have both had successful enterprise zones. Londonderry has also seen significant economic improvement, with public and private investment in the last two years whether spent or planned totalling over £230 million for new retail outlets, offices, restaurants and multi-storey car parking, creating 2,500 full and part-time jobs. A special Londonderry regeneration initiative aimed at targeting the needs of people in the most disadvantaged areas of the city, was announced in 1989 and continues in operation.

An extensive programme of economic and environmental improvement schemes is also being carried out in Londonderry, Belfast and the provincial towns.


During this period the Department has maintained a high level of community service in the supply of drinking water and in the treatment of sewage. A substantial programme of works, costing over £430 million has enabled the Department to cope with a continuous rise in demand for water and to effect improvement of water quality in Northern Ireland's lakes and waterways particularly Loughs Neagh and Erne and the River Lagan. Progress during the period has left the Department well placed to effect the further programme of works to ensure compliance with the EC directives on drinking water, sewage treatment and the quality of bathing water.

Local government

New legislation during the period has helped improve the efficiency effectiveness and accountability of District Councils by introducing compulsory competitive tendering for a range of services, by vesting new powers in the Local Government Auditor, including a power to carry out the value for money studies (8 such studies have been carried out), and introducing new measures designed to improve the conduct of council business.

Efficiency improvements

As part of the next steps agency policy, a Rate Collection Agency was established in 1991, and an Ordnance Survey Agency and Driver and Vehicle Testing Agency were set up on 1 April 1992. Within Ordnance Survey, a major achievement since 1979 has been the development of the Northern Ireland geographical information system, a computer system through which all public utility and Government Department services will be linked. as a result of an efficiency scrutiny in 1989, the Land Registry has reduced its stock by 56 per cent. in the last four years, and has also secured significant improvements in completion terms for case work.

Environmental protection

Considerable progress has been made in protecting and enhancing the environment in Northern Ireland during this period, and this work has been accelerated following the setting up of the new, comprehensive Environment Service in November 1990. Since 1979, 215 river water quality stations have been installed to monitor and control water pollution. Three major pieces of legislation have been introduced to protect and keep open rights of way; to designate areas of outstanding natural beauty (with four having been designated, covering 147,000 hectares and two more soon to be designated covering a further 70,000 hectares); to designate areas of special scientific interest (where 38 areas already designated cover 47,330 hectares); and to protect certain plants and animal species.

During the same period, 4,550 buildings of architectural or historical importance have been listed, many of which were facing demolition and have now been restored again; 725 monuments have been scheduled as being of archaeological or historical importance; a further 32 monuments have been taken into state care and their public representation improved, and 160 rescue and evaluation archaeological digs have been completed. The Department, in its work since 1979, has been placing greater emphasis on public awareness of the archaeological and built heritage and the need to protect the environment, including the opening of a Monuments and Buildings Record for Northern Ireland in 1992.

These are very considerable achievements to improve the quality of life for the people of Northern Ireland, to protect its unique physical attributes and to ensure that further physical developments take place in a way which enhances the environment.

To maintain and improve upon the high quality of Northern Ireland's river and estuarine waters, water quality management plans for the River Erne and River Foyle catchments are being prepared in line with White Paper commitments. These plans will enable the Department to set comprehensive standards of water quality, against which existing and proposed uses can be judged.

Discharges from the Department's sewage treatment works to waterways are also being regularly and systematically sampled, in order to determine appropriate standards for the required consents for such discharges.

To safeguard the high quality of Northern Ireland's bathing waters, systematic water quality sampling is being extended to a further nine bathing waters, in addition to the 16 identified under the EC Bathing Waters Directive.

Since 1979, grants of £4.9 million to district councils have enabled 43,000 houses to convert to burn smokeless fuel. The Government is engaged in a study of sulphur dioxide and smoke levels to ensure compliance with Directive 80/779/EEC. The results of this research will form the basis of future strategies to combat these pollutants.

Proposals for a new system of air pollution control have been published for consultation and a consultation paper on a future strategy for waste management will also be published. A new Litter Order will be put in operation by the end of 1993.

Greater freedom of access to environmental information is a right enshrined in the citizens charter. Public registers of premises authorised or registered to keep, use or dispose of radioactive material under the Radioactive Substances Act of 1960, are now held by the Environment Service and all district councils in Northern Ireland.


A new Belfast urban area plan has been through public inquiry and has now been adopted for the period up to 2001. A review of housing land in the plan area has been announced. Sixteen other area plans were adopted covering all of Northern Ireland except Craigavon and two rural area around Belfast. Thirty conservation areas have been designated since 1979 bringing the total number to 39. Also the planning service has been reviewing its rural planning policy in conjunction with interested parties. The results of the review bill will be announced soon.