1 October 2013

Topical Questions to the Regional Development Minister - 30th Sep 2013

Parking Schemes: South Belfast
2. Mr McGimpsey asked the Minister for Regional Development, given the long-running saga of the provision of residents’ parking schemes in inner south Belfast, specifically at Stranmillis, the Markets, Sandy Row and Donegall Pass, what progress has been made to allow us to give an undertaking to those residents and communities about such a provision. (AQT 132/11-15)
Mr Kennedy (The Minister for Regional Development): I am grateful to the Member for his question and pay tribute to him for his ongoing interest in the matter.  He has taken the opportunity to meet me along with interested groups from areas around his constituency.  Unfortunately, it has not yet been possible to implement a scheme in any of those areas, but I hope that we will continue to work to resolve outstanding issues and ensure that a scheme can be introduced.  The schemes, once established in one area, have the potential to be enacted in other areas.  I am aware of interest in other places where people want to see progress.  I am keen that there is progress, and I know that the Member is, too.
Mr McGimpsey: I thank the Minister for his answer.  There seems to be some optimism there.  Bear in mind that we began this about 10 years ago when John Spellar was a direct rule Minister.  Roads Service appears to have fought a very valiant fight for the provision of these schemes. Conditions have deteriorated since the advent of Belfast on the Move, and parking in these areas is absolutely dire.  This is critical for these communities.  Given that the last consultation finished a few weeks ago, can the Minister give an assurance that we are on the cusp of getting this provision?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member and accept his frustration — it is equally frustrating for me.  As he rightly says, this has been going on for years, way before my tenure as Minister.  Nonetheless, I, as Minister, am keen for the schemes to advance.  I will reflect again on the situation in the areas that he has referred to and see whether progress can be made at the earliest stage.
Mr Irwin: Can the Minister tell the House the cost to date of the vesting of land for the A5?
Mr Kennedy: I thank the Member for his question.  The Member raised the issue of the A5 in topical questions last time, so it clearly remains topical for him.  The answer is largely the same: approximately £60 million has been expended on the A5 project to date.  As the Member well knows, the project is delayed for very well rehearsed reasons that he, the House and the Executive have heard before.  However, it is delayed but not abandoned, and he will know that it is an Executive priority.
Mr Irwin: I have spoken to farmers who have lost the use of land and buildings for over a year now.  Not only have they not received any compensation but no one has come near them to assess the losses incurred.  Is that acceptable?  When can those farmers expect payment?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member.  I need to challenge some of his assertions.  There has been ongoing contact with landowners.  Decisions have been made and agreed on whether landowners will carry out existing accommodation works in the situation in which we find ourselves. I am certainly aware that a number of landowners who had applied for up to 90% of compensation for loss of land in the A5 scheme have received their compensation.  It remains a very fluid situation and, in many ways, a challenging one, given the legal and financial difficulties.  We are working our way through it, but I do not accept that Roads Service or my Department have in any way been unhelpful to resolving issues by mutual agreement with landowners in the current situation.
Street Lighting
4. Mr Clarke asked the Minister for Regional Development, following a previous question of mine in relation to street lighting in residential areas to the rear of properties whether he can tell the House exactly when that policy was changed. (AQT 134/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: My understanding is that that policy was changed a number of years ago.  Certainly, the change predated my time, and it may even have predated devolution in this place.  I understand the Member's point, but the policy is in place, and, currently, I have no plans to have it reviewed.  A number of Members have written to me particularly on the issues of new lighting schemes and where old lights are being made redundant.  I have sympathy for the position that many people find themselves in, but the policy is such that I am not able to show the flexibility that perhaps the Member would like me to and which I may like to show too.
Mr Clarke: Given that you are Minister and, I am sure, have the power to review any policy, are you suggesting that it is acceptable that, where street lighting is being upgraded, people are now left in fear, particularly at this time of year with winter and the dark nights drawing in?  These people have, in the past, enjoyed street lighting.  The Minister should consult his Department because a departmental official told me that the policy had changed only within the last number of months, and hence those street lights have been removed.  Maybe it would be a better use of money than the £60 million that has been squandered on the A5 road scheme.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his supplementary question.  As a Minister, you are not allowed simply to conjure up changes in policy without proper consultation and adherence to all the section 75 and other equality issues.  I understand the Member's point.  He seemed to make a reference, at the end, to the A5 project: I remind the Member that his party is fully supportive, at Executive level, of the A5 scheme.
Local Trade Initiatives
5. Mrs Cochrane asked the Minister for Regional Development whether, given the difficult economic environment in which our businesses are operating, he agrees that his Department has a role to play in supporting initiatives run by local traders’ associations that promote shopping locally. (AQT 135/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for her question.  Indeed, as a member of the Executive and someone in charge of a Department, I believe that every effort should be made to continue to support the local economy and traders.  We all know how difficult trading has been in town and city centres.  Last week, I was in the Ballyhackamore area in the Member's constituency, and I took the opportunity to speak with traders and to learn at first hand some of the problems that they are experiencing.  Most of their concerns related to the high cost of rates, which is a matter for the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP).  Nevertheless, I take on board their concerns, and the Member knows that what I have tried to do as Minister in respect of parking was not to implement on-street car parking charges.  Indeed, I have successfully argued at Executive level for a moratorium on increases in car parking charges until at least 2015.
Mrs Cochrane: I thank the Minister for his answer and his support for small businesses.  Can the Minister explain the rationale that his Department used, which seemingly, targeted the honest, hard-working business owners of the Ballyhackamore traders' association, when it requested that the association remove its "Eat, Shop, Live" banners from street furniture, while allowing tattered flags, which surely distract from business opportunities, to remain on the same lamp posts?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for her supplementary question, but I am not sure that the Alliance Party is in a particularly strong position to criticise anybody, given the flags protest, which came about as a result of its decision at Belfast City Hall, and the problems that emerged from that.  Therefore, I am afraid that I am not going to take lectures on flags from the Alliance Party.
Street furniture is an issue.  There are issues of public safety that have to be adhered to, and the Member should recognise that.  Some discretion and flexibility can be arrived at, and we are happy to facilitate that.  I felt that I had a very productive meeting with the traders of Ballyhackamore last week.  The Member was not present at that meeting, and I do not know the readout that she has got from that meeting.  Nevertheless, I heard at first hand the issues that were raised, and I was encouraged.  I was also encouraged to see the economic activity in Ballyhackamore.
Doran's Rock, Saintfield
6. Miss M McIlveen asked the Minister for Regional Development for an update on the possibility of bringing forward the construction of road improvements at the A7 at Doran’s Rock just outside Saintfield. (AQT 136/11-15)
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for her question.  How topical it is I am not entirely sure, but it is clearly topical in Doran's Rock.
I think that I have discussed with Members, certainly in response to questions, the possibility of bringing forward a clutch of road improvement schemes that would make a significant contribution to and give a lot of relief to the travelling public in key areas.  The scheme that she mentioned could fall into that.
I had discussions with the Finance Minister recently.  I want to pursue those and encourage him that a line in a budget can be created whereby we can bring forward those schemes, because sometimes the big, grandiose schemes, while important, can encounter difficulties, be they legal or financial.  On the ground, people would be much more impressed by the work of the Assembly and the Executive if we were able to create road improvements that people could see were improving their area.
Miss M McIlveen: Obviously, the inclusion of the A7 in the October monitoring round would be very helpful.  Without providing the specifics of the scheme, can he give me any information on the A24 Ballynahinch bypass?
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member.  We have moved rather deftly from Doran's Rock to the Ballynahinch bypass.  I have no difficulty in saying that the Ballynahinch bypass is a scheme worthy of support.  In fact, my party leader, Mike Nesbitt, who is also a Member for Strangford, has been keen to promote that scheme.  As the Member will know, I have met traders and local representatives in Ballynahinch.  We understand the issues that are prevalent there.  There are still a number of stages to be gone through on the technical side of things, leading ultimately to procurement, so it is likely that the earliest time for the scheme would be in the new budgetary period.
A2/A8: Compensation
7. Mr Wilson asked the Minister for Regional Development why his Department has allowed documentation from the commissioner, which could help to decide compensation levels for the A2 and the A8, to be destroyed. (AQT 137/11-15)
I welcome the progress on the two road schemes in east Antrim, the A2 and the A8, but there are many people who still are unhappy with the way in which the Department deals with some of the compensation issues.
Mr Kennedy: I am grateful to the Member for his question and, obviously, for his support for the A2 and A8 schemes.  They will substantially improve travelling times and the connectivity that is so necessary.  The Member has raised a particular issue, and, if he wishes to write to me directly with the detail, I will be happy to give him a full and detailed explanation.