Official Report: Monday 28 February 2022
The Assembly met at 12:00 pm (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
Mr Speaker: Mrs Michelle O'Neill has been given leave to make a statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. If other Members wish to be called, they should rise in their places and continue to do so. All Members who are called will have up to three minutes in which to speak on the subject. I remind Members that interventions are not permitted and that I will not take points of order on this or any other matter until the item of business is finished.
Mrs O'Neill: I, like all of you, am deeply saddened and troubled by what has unfolded before the eyes of the world in recent days and by the absolute misery and total devastation that is being directed at the people of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin and his military regime. The military threat to peace, security and the well-being of Ukraine is a global threat to us all. It is a brutal attack on Ukrainian sovereignty, international law and democracy.
Today, I want all parties to join in utterly condemning the actions of Vladimir Putin and his regime against the Government and courageous and dignified people of Ukraine and extend our solidarity to them. Our solidarity with Ukraine must take the form of support for significantly strengthened sanctions against the regime of President Putin. We need sanctions that can end Russian aggression against Ukraine and force a complete withdrawal of Russian military forces. The sanctions announced to date against the Russian Federation and the oligarch elites who are close to President Putin have come from the EU, the US and the British Government. However, they are not deterring the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which we know is escalating, with Putin making a direct threat by ordering his nuclear forces to move to a higher state of alert.
Removing selected Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) messaging system to cut them off from international financial systems and harm their ability to operate globally is a welcome measure. Freezing the assets of Russia's central bank to limit Russia's ability to access its overseas reserves is critical. Limiting the sale of citizenship via golden passports, which allow wealthy Russians to become citizens, and identifying and freezing the assets of sanctioned individuals and companies is imperative.
Australia has imposed sanctions on over 300 members of the Russian Parliament who voted to authorise sending Russian troops into Ukraine.
BP has withdrawn its stake as the biggest foreign investor in Rosneft, at a cost of $25 billion. The EU must act and impose sanctions on such a scale that there can be no doubt that Putin and his oligarch supporters will pay a huge price for choosing a course of military conflict over dialogue and diplomacy. Russian diplomats and apologists for Putin who are based in London and Dublin should be expelled today, without delay.
Turning to the people of Ukraine, we have all witnessed and been very saddened to see the harrowing scenes of families being divided and forced to flee their land and homes, clutching a child in one arm and, perhaps, all their belongings in the other. We must all welcome with open arms those who are fleeing. There must be no visa restrictions on those being forced to leave their homes. The British Government approach must ensure safe and seamless entry on humanitarian grounds with no conditions applied. We all want to see a de-escalation of Russian aggression and conflict, including a ceasefire, and dialogue with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's officials, aimed at restoring peace and respect for international law, must be achieved as they meet at the Belarusian border today and in the days ahead.
Mr O'Toole: Last Thursday morning, we woke up to the sight of something that many of us have never seen in our lifetime — tanks rolling into the territory of a sovereign European nation, the nation of Ukraine. Innocent Ukrainians, over the past four days, have been cowering in underground stations and bunkers, cowering from the soldiers and the weapons of mass destruction sent by Vladimir Putin and his gangster regime. For far too long, Putin's regime has undermined democracy across the democratic world, and, in doing so, he has intimidated those nations on Russia's periphery. The actions by that ganister regime are totally unacceptable. They are unacceptable not only at a geostrategic level but because they are committing war crimes. They are in breach of international law and are inflicting enormous trauma on the innocent people of Ukraine.
We have all, over the past few days, been watching the courage and resilience of not only the Ukrainian people but their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They have inspired the world. After a slow start, Western countries have stepped up the process of applying severe financial and economic sanctions to the Putin regime. My party and I welcome the measures taken yesterday by the European Union. They were overdue. We also need to see a ramping up of the humanitarian response to the crisis. The EU has completely waived its visa requirements for Ukrainians fleeing Putin's terror machine. The UK should do so now; it should have done so already. It is, frankly, immoral that Priti Patel and the Home Office have not done so.
It is worth briefly reflecting on what has happened over the past couple of decades in which Putin and his regime have not just turned Russia into a bloody, gangster regime but have used various means to insinuate control over democratic institutions here in the Western world, including things like their television station, RT. I am sorry to say that some people decided to appear on that television station, including members of parties represented in this Chamber. I am also sorry to say that some of the parties represented in the Chamber failed, in the European Parliament several months ago, to vote for a motion of censure against Vladimir Putin. They should be asked to account for that.
We should all now be focusing on de-escalating this crisis and on ensuring that the people of Ukraine have the solidarity and support that they need to get this murderous gangster off their territory and return Europe to a position of stability. As a proud European, I stand in solidarity today with my fellow Europeans in Ukraine as they deal with the murderous, gangster regime of Vladimir Putin.
Mr Muir: Today, we consider an atrocity that is occurring not far from here. In fact, the flight to Ukraine is a shorter journey than we sometimes take for a holiday. The murder, mayhem and human rights abuses being perpetrated are very close to home. My thoughts are with the people being murdered and living in fear of lives and liberties being lost from the advance of Russian troops at the behest of a most evil man, a thug whose only place should be in front of the International Criminal Court.
What is sadly unfolding is not altogether surprising, because it comes on the back of the invasions of Crimea and Georgia and of widespread human rights abuses across Russia: killing and casting into prison those who courageously dare to oppose, imprisoning dissenters, journalists and anti-corruption activists, and persecuting ethnic and religious minorities and LGBT people. My thoughts are especially with my fellow LGBT brothers and sisters. Lenny Emson, executive director of Kyiv Pride, said:
"We don’t want to believe that Ukraine will be Russia. There is no space for human rights in that country. We don’t want Ukraine to be the same, and we are going to fight against it."
That comes on the back of the interference in elections, from the Brexit referendum to the US presidential elections, and of politicians in the UK and beyond all too willing to accept funding from Russian oligarchs. All the warning signs were there, but the action has far too often been too little, too late.
Last night, the EU agreed that all member countries would take in Ukrainian refugees for up to three years without asking them to first apply for asylum. Meanwhile, the UK Government continue to fail to provide a similar response. A full and generous humanitarian response is needed. The Tory Minister for Safe and Legal Migration said it all, really. He said that Ukrainians fleeing Russian invasion could apply to pick fruit on UK farms. What an appalling comment. The Russian Government should be treated as an international pariah. If ever there was a need for inter-cooperation and interdependence, it is now. The world can count its lucky blessings that we do not have Donald Trump any more as US president. The duty is now upon us all to act, and act now.
Mr Carroll: The actions of Vladimir Putin — his bombardment and invasion of Ukraine, and the consideration of nuclear weapons — have to be resolutely condemned and opposed. I send my solidarity of the people of Ukraine who have fallen victim to this act of war and aggression, which has caused revulsion across the world. I pay tribute to the bravery of anti-war protesters across the world who are taking a stand to say no to war again, particularly the brave protesters in Russia who are facing jail time and brutal repression for taking a courageous stand against their own Government's descent into war. This not only gives hope to the heart but paves the way for an alternative path. Russians and Ukrainians can all come together in a peaceful way that does not promote war over dialogue and discussion.
For some time now, the UK Government have disgracefully operated a hostile environment policy towards refugees and those fleeing war and occupation. They must urgently end that brutal policy for Ukrainians but also for Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinians and everyone who is fleeing the brutal boot of aerial bombardment. The Tory Government cannot be selective in who they let in or view as worthy refugees. Everybody who needs and wants to be here should be welcomed.
We should not be one-sided in condemning militarism, occupation and aggression. We should be condemning them in whatever guise and wherever they appear. In the region around Russia and Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is not the only nasty force engaged in militarism, civilian killings and occupation. What has been largely lacking in conversations about events in and around Ukraine, and eastern Europe generally, is the aggressive and expansionist role of NATO in Europe and elsewhere across the world. Far from being an innocent party that defends democracy, NATO is the armed wing of western imperialism. Its expansion has been a key factor in heightening tensions, now leading to an all-out war. NATO is a military alliance that is dominated by the US. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, repeated promises were made to Russia that NATO would not expand eastwards, but the US is obviously terrified about its declining economic role and wants to use its military prowess to gain extra leverage for its corporations.
We need to call out the aggressive role of —
Mr Carroll: We need to call out the aggressive role of NATO and its members and those states that are willing to pour fuel on the fire, which will, no doubt, increase the casualties and cause untold devastation. We need to see de-escalation, demilitarisation and an end to the chest-beating drive to war.
In the last number of days, there has obviously been discussion about sanctions —
Mr Buckley: It is clear that Mr Putin has an ally in Mr Carroll in the Chamber.
To begin, I commend the bravery of the ordinary citizens of Ukraine in standing up to tyranny. The light of democracy burns bright in their hearts, minds and souls. I can only begin to comprehend the huge pain and suffering that has been inflicted on many of them. Sadly, many in Northern Ireland can draw many similarities with being under the threat of terrorism on their shores.
Over the weekend, I spoke to my good Ukrainian friend Oskanna. She lives in Kyiv with her husband and children, and she is worried sick about what a day will bring in Ukraine. My heart and total admiration are with the Ukrainian people, who are worried for their safety but determined to fight for their homeland. I think particularly of those from our shores who are doing Christian missionary and humanitarian work in Ukraine at this time and are determined to stay to help to support the Ukrainian people.
The West's response, albeit slow to begin with, has been heartening and should give us all heart. With the exception of some, the international community has been united in its response in isolating Russia and calling it out for what it is. We must stand up to the Russian Federation and to Vladimir Putin, who has all the hallmarks of a 21st-century Adolf Hitler. I do not say that lightly. Time will bear out just how serious a situation it becomes. The West must wake up and realise that it must be united if Putin is to be contained and curtailed.
I believe in and support the work of NATO and its desire to ensure that European countries should be in control of their destiny, rather than having the boot put on them by tyrants such as Vladimir Putin and, indeed, his allies. Compare his actions with those of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. I will close on this: when asked about assistance from the West, Zelenskyy said:
"war will knock on your doors.
This is the sound of a new iron curtain, which has come down, and is cutting Russia off from the civilised world."
We cannot be complicit. The West must stand united and take on Russia with all its might, economically and through other means.
Mr Butler: The one thing that we will be united on in the House is that we are saddened, worried and concerned about the innocent people in Ukraine who are under immense danger at the hand of tyranny. I do not want to reflect on Mr Putin to give him too much airtime or headspace. We have just gone past the centenary of the end of the First World War. We had the Second World War, and the reality, pain and ripples of that are still being felt throughout the world. The fact that, in 2022, someone is prepared not only to inflict pain on the Ukrainians but to make the threats that he has made over the past 48 hours, with his warnings to the rest of the world, forces each and every one of us to sit up and recognise the danger that still exists.
It is slightly disappointing that some of the commentary here today has been a little bit political and has not focused on the victims who are in fear and pain, this very day; not only those in Ukraine but those across the world who are connected to the families there.
I pay particular tribute to the people from Ukraine who have settled in Northern Ireland and spoke so bravely about their families in Ukraine who are living in fear. Those same families are standing up to a tyrant and giving an example to every one of us.
The people from Ukraine who have settled in other parts of the world but are now travelling back to Ukraine to face up to the tyrant deserve our support. Let us depoliticise what we say in the Chamber and ensure that every message that we send offers hope and support, whatever that will be and by whatever means it happens, to ensure that the people of Ukraine remain free in their sovereign nation.
The difference between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy is incredible to watch. One goes to the front line and provides leadership for his people and does not sit in his capital directing other people to their slaughter, including Russians and Russian soldiers. Many thousands of Russian soldiers will be killed in this senseless and needless battle. My final tribute will, strangely, be to the brave people in Moscow and across Russia who have taken to the streets to protest against their leader in a country where, over all these years, doing that almost certainly ends in imprisonment or death. We also need to support those people.
Miss Woods: I thank the Member for bringing this important Matter of the Day this afternoon. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine is a vile act of aggression and an appalling and abhorrent breach of international law that has brought death, destruction, displacement and human rights abuses to innocent civilians. It did not just start last week on 24 February; it has been going on for years.
Most of us will not be able to comprehend the situation in which many in Ukraine find themselves now, but we stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and call on the UK Government to step up their humanitarian response. Hundreds of thousands of families have already fled the country, and we have all witnessed in the media the scenes across Ukraine over the weekend, with families, children and individuals trying to seek safety, help and support. Many thousands more will attempt to escape the conflict, and, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine passed half a million this morning. The Home Office must look at the example being set by other countries and provide safe and secure routes for refugees, and that includes providing safe and secure routes for people to come to Northern Ireland. That goes for anybody needing to seek sanctuary, not just those from Ukraine.
We should not place a bureaucratic burden on desperate people. All paperwork must be streamlined and fast-tracked and should come with no strings attached or further barriers put in people's way. The situation faced by innocent Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes requires a far more urgent and compassionate response than what we have seen from Westminster so far.
Out thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine today. We send them all our strength and support at this incredibly difficult time.
Mr Allister: The brutal aggression of the evil Putin is something that, I trust, has shocked and sickened all of us, even those with ideological attachment to support for the Soviet-style system, which today stands exposed in all its viciousness as a movement of anti-humanitarianism. I deplore the fact that some still seek to provide diversion and excuses by attacking NATO, which stands between us all and this evil form of conquering aggression.
In standing with Ukraine, I am proud of the fact that anti-tank weaponry made in Belfast is being supplied to help the Ukrainians in their brave stand. That is anti-tank weaponry that, in the past, some in the House have opposed the manufacturing of, yet today it is helping to protect Ukraine. I greatly welcome that.
There has been some talk of the EU's stand, but no one has yet mentioned the appalling fact that the Republic of Ireland is abstaining from the lethal support that the EU is prepared to give to Ukraine. In pursuit of its so-called neutrality, it is refusing to engage in the supply of vital lethal equipment to the people of Ukraine. Of course, we in Northern Ireland are well used to the impact of the Republic of Ireland's ambiguity when it comes to withstanding terrorism. The Republic of Ireland armed and sustained the IRA and provided it with training bases. It denied extradition and gave those terrorists all the succour and support that they needed. It is maybe no surprise that, today, the Republic of Ireland refuses to join in the Europe-wide provision of lethal support to the people of Ukraine.
My heart goes out to those who are withstanding this vicious attack. I trust that they will stand with all the fervour that they are demonstrating and that, even against the might that they face, right will prevail.
Ms Sugden: I appreciate the opportunity to record my solidarity with Ukraine. As a regional Assembly of the United Kingdom, we are somewhat limited in what we can directly contribute other than leadership, influence and humanitarian support. It feels surreal that, in 2022, Ukraine finds itself under such vicious attack. Babies are being treated in closets instead of hospitals; people are fleeing their homes and businesses; and others are taking a fatal risk because they do not have a choice. The Ukrainian president has confirmed that 16 Ukrainian children have been killed and 45 injured. I fear that that is only the beginning, and I hope that the planned negotiations will, at least, ensure a ceasefire. I am sceptical, however, because the war began long before the recent conflict, and Mr Putin has an aim.
I will not attempt to make sense of Russia's motivation, other than to say that it seems that a man who has more money than is currently valuable to him is choosing power at the expense of lives, businesses and the democratic will of the Ukrainian people. We must unite in resisting his ego and supporting those who suffer because of it. As an Assembly, we need to show our support for international sanctions against Russia. We need to send a clear message that the situation is unacceptable and that there will be consequences. I recognise, however, that there will also be consequences for UK businesses, including those in Northern Ireland. The Department for the Economy and the wider Northern Ireland Executive must review the situation and provide support to those who will be affected by it.
I also hope that the UK will offer a home to those fleeing the conflict. I hope that the Northern Ireland Executive are preparing for that potential outcome or, at least, empowering civil servants to do so as we move towards dissolution. It is heartening to see efforts across Northern Ireland to support the Ukrainian people as they seek refuge from the conflict in nearby countries. People in my constituency are already collecting for humanitarian aid, and I will offer my office as a drop-off point.
I stand with Ukraine. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones in recent days, and I only hope that there is no more bloodshed. I also stand with those in Russia who do not want this, because they, too, will be caught up in Putin's reckless chaos.
Ms Dillon: I want to speak about the impact of the situation on the children. We have heard much about the politics of the issue, but children, as always in conflicts across the world, are the ones who are most vulnerable and will suffer the most. We heard UNICEF say this morning that over seven million children will suffer as a result of this aggressive act. I ask everybody who is in a position to do so to support UNICEF and the aid that is trying to give to ensure that those children are protected. Children are the most vulnerable, and they are even more vulnerable when they are on the move. As we heard this morning, over half a million families are on the move. As an Assembly and across the Western World, we must give any support and assistance that we can to ensure the protection of the children who will be made very vulnerable at this time. We have an absolute responsibility to protect children in conflict, and, in this conflict, we owe that to them.
Mr Chambers: The sanctions imposed by countries throughout the world are already starting to bite Russia. The people who will suffer are the ordinary people of Russia, the majority of whom do not support the warmongering of Putin and his team of maniacs.
Many body bags will be starting to arrive back to towns and villages throughout Russia in the coming days. The remains of young men and women who were forced into participating in this illegal invasion will be in those body bags. Behind the brave and legitimate defences that have been put in place by the people of Ukraine, innocent families are having their homes destroyed by the indiscriminate Russian missile attacks. Women and children are among the victims who are being killed and injured. We have heard from Ms Sugden the extent of that.
Tens of thousands of Russians are out protesting at the actions of Putin, and they are doing so under the threat that they will be arrested and punished. Those brave people will be the movement that will eventually consign Putin and his acolytes to the waste bin of history, which is where he belongs. That cannot happen quickly enough. I stand with the people of Ukraine, who are bearing the pain of having their country and their family life destroyed by a tyrant. May the will of good triumph over evil.
Mr Dickson: I rise to speak on the tragic situation in Ukraine. On 16 February, with the prolonged tension with Ukraine continuing, the Russian envoy to the European Union declared that wars "rarely start on a Wednesday". In the early hours of Thursday morning, Putin declared war on Ukraine. In those few moments, explosions were heard throughout the country, and, by afternoon, 160 Ukrainians were injured and 60 were dead. Those were the first and opening moments of Putin's war.
As many of us sit here in the island of Ireland on the edge of Europe, we can only wonder and express our concern about what is going on in a major European country and city. It cannot be overstated that Ukraine is a European nation of 44 million people. Men, women and children are now targets of a full-scale war of aggression. When Putin invaded Crimea, he got away with it unscathed; when he carried out the Salisbury poisonings, it was unremarkable; now, his most recent escalation is going to set and trigger a prolonged conflict.
I represent the Assembly at the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities at the Council of Europe (CLRAE). I have 12 colleagues there who are mayors. One whom I spoke to this morning, Hanna Zamazeeva, is the leader of the Donetsk oblast. That means that she is president of an assembly that represents more people than we do in the Northern Ireland Assembly. When she was elected, she did not believe that she was going to be given a machine gun to defend the people in her village. Twelve hours ago, Russian troops and their tanks rolled into her village and crushed towns and murdered people. That is why we are here today. We are here to stand up for democracy, for what is right, for elected representatives and for democracy in Ukraine.
Ukraine is a democratic state. We are politicians in a democratic state, and we have a duty and responsibility to support Ukraine in every way that we can, including by humanitarian aid, pleading with our Government to do what is right and standing in the Chamber and appealing for peace in Ukraine.
Mr Speaker: Andrew Muir has sought leave to present a public petition in accordance with Standing Order 22. The Member will have up to three minutes in which to speak.
Mr Muir: Today I am presenting a petition with 546 signatures calling upon the Minister for Infrastructure to withdraw the proposed abandonment order that has been issued for Green Road in Conlig in my constituency. That abandonment order risks the demolition of the historic Belfast and County Down railway bridge and must be opposed. Whilst the railway line was closed in 1950 and various features of the railway, such as the trackbed, have been removed, many aspects of the old line between Newtownards and Donaghadee remain in place, including numerous bridges, such as the one that is now threatened with demolition. I have been working with residents for a number of years on how best we can preserve that old railway bridge. It has a strong connection to the area, with the nearby Stonebridge housing development named after the it. I remember driving over the bridge before the road was moved to bypass it.
Engagement with the council, the Department for Communities and the Department for Infrastructure has revealed limited mechanisms to protect the bridge if an abandonment order is made, other than the council's local development plan, which could be years away from being adopted. Currently, there is no ability to list and protect Stonebridge, so the withdrawal of the abandonment order is our last hope for preventing its demolition.
In only a number of weeks, hundreds of local residents have signed the petition to voice their opposition to the potential destruction of this piece of local history. Plans are under way for the creation of a new greenway from Bangor to Newtownards. The preservation of Stonebridge and its inclusion in those plans will provide a natural marker point for people who walk or cycle that route, thereby preserving our history whilst looking towards a cleaner, greener and more active future.
It is vital that we protect and preserve our pieces of industrial heritage. Far too often, they have been demolished or left to go to rack and ruin. I urge the Minister to act swiftly to withdraw the proposed abandonment order.
Mr Speaker: As the Member will be aware, I would normally invite him to bring his petition to the Table and present it. However, in light of social distancing, I ask the Member to remain in his place and to make arrangements to submit the petition to my office electronically. I thank the Member for bringing the petition to the attention of the Assembly. Once the petition is received, I will forward it to the Minister for Infrastructure and send a copy to the Committee.
Mr Speaker: Members, the next item of business in the Order Paper is the consideration of business not concluded on Thursday 24 February. As all business was concluded when the Assembly adjourned last Thursday, there is nothing to consider under that item. We will move on.
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 28 February 2022.
Mr Speaker: Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved (with cross-community support):
That Standing Orders 10(2) to 10(4) be suspended for 28 February 2022.
Mr Speaker: I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in the light of social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members in the Chamber must also do so, by rising in their place or notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly.
I remind Members to be concise in asking their question. This is not an opportunity for debate per se, and long introductions should not be used. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during the statement or the question period immediately after it.
Mr Lyons (The Minister for the Economy): Mr Speaker, with your permission, I will update members on the high street scheme.
I am delighted to open this statement by informing the House that the high street scheme has been a huge success and achieved exactly what it set out to do. It brought shoppers back onto the high street and has helped our local retail, hospitality and service sectors to start their journey of recovery from the devastating impact of the pandemic.
I know that the House, local media and members of the public all have a keen interest in the data that the Department will publish on the high street scheme. My Department has already published three sets of infographics on verified applications. The most recent publication covered the launch of the scheme until its close. My Department will formally publish official statistics on the scheme later next month, along with findings from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency's (NISRA) COVID-19 opinion survey, in which members of the public were asked a range of questions on the high street scheme.
NISRA is completing a detailed analysis of the breakdown of spend across the economy, and there are clear rules on the handling of those statistics that are not in my control. In the interest of open government, we will publish all the information that we are able to. Indeed, it is in our interest to show how successful the scheme has been.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)
Much of the information will be of significant value to the planned evaluation of the scheme. That evaluation will consider a full range of evaluation metrics, including the scheme's performance against its original objectives. It will also consider an assessment of its economic impact, including through assessments of additionality, of the potential for economic multipliers and of attitudinal changes across society that it may have influenced.
In advance of that, my Department is today publishing management information on the scheme that covers the number of residents who were issued with a card; the number and percentage of cards that were activated; the total spend; the number of transactions and amount spent by local government district; and the number of transactions and amount spent by postcode. Before doing so, I will present to the House some of the key information from that early analysis. It is important to note, however, that the information has not undergone the same rigorous quality-assurance checks that will be undertaken prior to the publication of the official statistics.
I am really pleased to announce that 1,399,051 people were issued with a Spend Local card, of which 1,393,043 cards — 99·6%— were activated. That is a tremendous achievement. The scheme was designed to provide an economic boost to the local economy, and, to that end, £136·6 million has been injected into the local economy, leading to an improved level of consumer confidence and increased levels of public spending. That can be clearly seen from the fact that nearly 1·4 million customers visited our local shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, cinemas and hairdressers across all parts of Northern Ireland during the lifetime of the scheme, with over 3·7 million new transactions being made using the Spend Local card. We know that many of those customers ended up spending much more than £100 on local goods and services, so the actual additional spend could be significantly higher than £136·6 million.
That early analysis shows that the benefits of the scheme were enjoyed in all parts of Northern Ireland: in every one of our local constituencies and in every local government district. Over £27 million was spent in the Belfast City Council area, while over £12 million was spent in the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council area. Over £10 million was spent in each of the following local council areas: Newry, Mourne and Down; Derry City and Strabane; Antrim and Newtownabbey; Lisburn and Castlereagh; and Ards and North Down. In the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council area, the figure spent was over £9 million. In the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area and the Mid Ulster District Council area, more than £8 million was spent, while the figure for the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area was just over £7·5 million.
We will publish those figures on the Department's website today, along with a breakdown of spend and transaction by postcode so that Members and the general public can see for themselves the direct boost that the high street scheme has brought to those retail, hospitality and service businesses closest to them.
The scale of the task of delivering the high street scheme was unprecedented and should not be underestimated. We implemented a process that manufactured, dispatched and delivered cards to close to 1·4 million people. Each card was unique to each applicant and included bespoke embossed cards for the visually impaired and blind. We worked tirelessly with local traders and the business community to ensure their understanding of the scheme, to incentivise sales and to encourage spending, and I believe that Members will agree that it was worth it. I am sure that they will have heard the same positive messages from businesses in their constituency that I have heard, but that has also been confirmed by independent analysis.
According to an Ulster Bank survey, retail sales in Northern Ireland rose in November 2021 for the first time in four months, with, as the bank's chief economist, Richard Ramsey, said, the high street scheme:
"undoubtedly contributing to the pickup in demand."
Research in December 2021 also showed an increase in shoppers on Northern Ireland's high streets. The figures that were published by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC) showed a boost in the number of people going into shops or businesses in October, which continued in November following the introduction of the high street scheme. In November, the number of shoppers in Northern Ireland reached its highest point so far when compared with the pre-pandemic level.
Aodhán Connolly, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium director, commented that:
"The High Street Card scheme is truly proving its value with a phenomenal bounce back in footfall across Northern Ireland. This is hugely welcome news for retailers who have had the toughest two years on record."
The people from whom I was most pleased to hear were the business owners who needed the scheme to help them to cope with the impact of the pandemic. Those individuals — shopkeepers, barbers, newsagents, publicans, cafe owners, the list goes on — brought home to me why the scheme was so important.
Although the vast majority of verified applicants to the scheme received their Spend Local cards before the scheme closed, a small proportion of the verified applicants — fewer than 0·4% — did not receive a card, while some others encountered difficulties when activating and using their card. I apologise to those applicants and want to make it clear that there were a number of contributing factors, such as issues with the postal service and errors in applications, including incorrect addresses being entered, that resulted in cards being sent to the wrong addresses. I offer my sincere thanks and appreciation to all the Members who worked, and continue to work, with my officials to help their constituents. I assure you that my officials used maximum flexibility and worked until the very last second to ensure that as many people as possible received a card and were able to support local businesses.
Recently, in recognition of the fact that some verified applicants did not receive a card and that others had encountered difficulties when activating and using their card, I announced that we would be making remedy payments to eligible applicants. The applicants eligible for a potential remedy payment will be verified applicants who did not receive a Spend Local card, or received their card after the scheme closed; verified applicants who had issues activating or using their card that were outside of their control and have a remaining balance of £10 or more; and eligible applicants who did not receive a Spend Local card as a result of service failure by the Department. It is anticipated that the total cost of delivering remedy payments will be in the region of £1 million to £1·5 million. That will be met from the scheme's underspend.
On 17 February 2022, my Department sent an email to approximately 22,500 people to notify them that they may be eligible to receive a remedy payment. A follow-up email will be issued in mid-March, which will provide details on how to apply and contain a link to apply for a remedy payment. Those eligible for a remedy payment who applied via telephone and did not provide an email address will have a letter issued to them in the coming days to notify them of the next steps in the process.
Once verified and approved for a remedy payment, eligible applicants will receive a remedy payment equal to the value of the balance that remained on their card at the time of the scheme's closure. I ask that everyone shows patience while my officials finalise the setting up of an automated system to administer the remedy payments. It is anticipated that they will be made in late March or early April. I encourage all eligible applicants to use their remedy payment to support local businesses in their area that have been impacted by the pandemic.
However, I want to make it clear that remedy payments do not mean that the scheme is being reopened. Remedy payments will not be made to individuals who did not submit an application or applicants who did not provide sufficient evidence of eligibility and were subsequently rejected, unless strong evidence is presented to demonstrate that a service failure occurred.
There is no doubt that the past two years have been tough for our local businesses, but I am confident about the future of local businesses right across Northern Ireland. The pandemic has only highlighted their resilience and creativity. I thank the tens of thousands of participating retailers, many of which incentivised spend by offering additional savings, and the cardholders who activated their cards and went out to the high street and supported local businesses. You all played your part in injecting £136·6 million into our high street, just when it was needed most, and you should all be proud of that.
I commend the statement to the House.
Dr Archibald (The Chairperson of the Committee for the Economy): I thank the Minister for his statement and that update. Minister, you set out the scope of the remedy payments; you said that they will be available to those who did not receive a card due to a service failure by the Department. How are those people identified?
If people feel that they fall into that category and have not yet received an email, can they get in touch with the Department?
Mr Lyons: Absolutely. In particular, I encourage Members of the House to get in contact directly with us. After the statement today, I will provide details on the way in which Members can do that, so that they can raise the matter with us if there has been maladministration on the part of the Department. We will, obviously, seek information to ensure that there was an error and that they tried to apply post-verification and were not able to get that in some way. We stand ready to help those who, through no fault of their own, did not get their card and were not able to support local businesses as others did.
Mr Weir: I thank the Minister for his statement. In my constituency, there has been positive feedback from retailers and other businesses; indeed, I should confess that the suit I am wearing today was partly purchased with the £100 from the high street voucher. Obviously, the scheme acted as a multiplier of the money that went into that clothes shop in Newtownards. What is the Minister's assessment of the impact that the high street voucher scheme has had on my constituency of Strangford?
Mr Lyons: I thank the Member very much for his question and for a show-and-tell today in bringing one he made earlier to show how he was able to use his card. It is another example of how people not only used their card but added money to that card.
I am pleased to report that, in his local government district of Ards and North Down, there were 296,202 transactions and a total spend in his council area of £10,261,342. That is an incredible boost to local businesses; in fact, I was in that council area last week and heard directly from businesses about the impact that it had. I heard not only about how it got businesses through a difficult time but about how they continue to get customers who, perhaps, tried out a shop for the first time or for the first time in a while and have come back since. I will be delighted to share the information on the specific postcodes. In BT22, which includes Newtownards, there was £432,000 of spend. In BT23, there was £4,306,000 of spend. There was over £1 million in Ballynahinch, which, I think, is in the Member's constituency. All of that information will be on the Department's website today.
Mr O'Toole: Minister, I acknowledge that this was a novel scheme. It took a huge amount of work by your Department to get it delivered, and it definitely will have had a positive impact on and been welcomed by many retailers. However, in analysing its effectiveness, it is important that we unpack a couple of things.
You refer in your statement to research in December 2021 showing an increase in shoppers: of course, most Decembers see an increase in footfall, with respect, and that is why the spend was designed to be avoided in December. Does the data that you have seen so far break down where the spend happened by merchant code? In other words, do you know how much of this was spent in large multiples, supermarkets and chain stores versus small, independent retail? If so, will your Department publish that data at some stage?
Mr Lyons: First, I think that the data to which I referred was for October and November, and the greatest impact was seen in November. That is to be welcomed because we naturally a see a bit of an increase in December. However, it was not necessarily the case that that replaced Christmas spend that would otherwise have happened; in fact, the anecdotal evidence that I have so far is that that was additional spend to what normally would have been spent at Christmas. Importantly, it may have had the ability to bring some of that spend off online and into the high street, creating that multiplier effect.
The Member asked specifically about the merchant code. I had some of that data, but I am bound by the rules on official statistics. That will be released next month. That is what I was referring to in the statement. I want that to be released, and I believe that it will show that the spending was exactly where we wanted it to be. It is not in my power to release that at this moment, because it needs to go through a certain process, but I have no objection to doing so.
Mr Nesbitt: I thank the Minister. Does the Minister agree that, for best practice evaluation of a scheme like this, it should be benchmarked against high street spend in areas of the United Kingdom where no voucher scheme was in operation?
Mr Lyons: There is the evaluation that will be done in conjunction with the Department of Finance, and I am happy for the comparison to be made, because that is where you will see where the real benefit has come from. We have already seen that in some of the analysis that was carried out in November, which showed that we were far ahead of other parts of the UK vis-à-vis the pre-pandemic situation. I have no doubt that it will show that the scheme was doing what it was intended to do. Although it is an independent evaluation, over which I will not have control, I certainly have no objection to making sure that that comparison is carried out.
Mr Dickson: I declare an interest in that I received and spent the card, and it worked perfectly for me. Unfortunately, it did not work for others. I deliberately chose a high street trader who added 10% to the value of the card. The 10% was not to give to me; it was to give to charity. There is a lot of disappointment at the lack of a mechanism to do that.
Given the distress caused to what, I accept, was a small number of people who could not access their cards, will you assure us that the system is not closed and that there will be an opportunity for people who believe that they should have received their card or that it should have worked to have their queries examined in detail to ensure that, if they are entitled to the money, they will get it?
Mr Lyons: On the first point, about a facility to give the money to charity, the scheme was clearly designed to help businesses, particularly on the high street, that had been so badly affected by the pandemic. Many people, however, used the card to support businesses and then gave whatever they bought to charity, and that is commendable. The Member also mentioned the additional money that was given as a discount in some cases. I thank all the business organisations and others who did so much to incentivise use of the card, which helped to make sure that it was targeted in the right places.
It is an incredible success that, with all the challenges that we faced, we managed to get so many cards to so many people in such a short time. I recognise that, for a small number of people, it did not work out as we had hoped, but I am committed to making sure that those who did not get their card or who, for a reason outside their control, could not activate or spend their card get the money in their accounts so that they can choose, I hope, to use it in the same way in which the rest of us did.
Ms Kimmins: I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, I was contacted, as other Members will have been, by lots of constituents who had difficulties in applying through the online service the first time around. You mentioned that the remedy payments will be accessed through an online link. I think in particular of elderly people, because that is certainly one of the issues that have been brought to my attention. Given their needs, will a phone line reopen for those who are entitled to remedy payments, so that they can get updates and check when they will receive the payments?
Mr Lyons: Yes. Those who had problems and originally contacted us by telephone will be contacted through the same system. If you did not use the online facility before, you will not need to do that this time. We recognised that there was an issue. We tried our best to provide alternatives, and I was as flexible as I could be in allowing MLAs to apply on behalf of or verify the older people who came into all our constituency offices. That said, our analysis shows that 47·4% of verified applications to the scheme were from those aged 50 and over, which corresponds exactly to the percentage of over-50s in the adult population. To break that down a bit more, about 25% of the adult population is aged from 50 to 64, and 25% of the people who were verified were in that group. Some 22% of the adult population is aged 65-plus, and 21·9% of verified applicants were in that bracket.
As with the rest of the population, the vast majority who applied were verified, got their card and spent it. Where there are issues, I want to do as much as I can to make sure that people get their remedy, if necessary, as I have done throughout the scheme.
Mr K Buchanan: Minister, you say in your statement that you have injected £136·6 million into the economy. Had the scheme not been delivered, what would our high street be like today?
Mr Lyons: The high street would be struggling a lot more without what we have been able to inject into the local economy. The Member took me round many businesses in his constituency during the scheme or just before it opened. We heard from them about the impact that they hoped for from the scheme. We would be a lot worse off. We would not be as competitive as we are compared with other regions of the UK. We would not have had the boost that, the retail organisations tell us, we have had. It could well be the case that, but for the scheme, more businesses would no longer be in business and more people would be unemployed. In particular, in the Mid Ulster council area, there would have been 190,975 fewer trips to the shops and £8·1 million less of spend. From that, the Member can probably work out the impact that the scheme has had in his constituency.
Mr Delargy: The Minister will be well aware that, before the scheme went live, the Equality Commission raised concerns about how accessible and inclusive the telephone service was for those who are hard of hearing and deaf and about a lack of consultation with young people. Does the Minister accept that many of the remedies that he proposes would have been identified had an equality impact assessment been done before the scheme went live?
Mr Lyons: If you look at the problems that we are trying to resolve because of the challenges that people had and at the reasons why we are putting in place a remedy payment, you see that they are not a result of the issues that the Member raises but of others that meant that people could not get their card. I have outlined some of those already, such as postal problems, people putting in the wrong address and problems with the cards or getting them activated.
We did everything that we could during the application process to make sure that those who were affected by the issues that the Member raises were addressed. I think of older people in particular. We made sure that we had a phone line, and we put in place measures to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing. We did what we could during that period.
There are lessons to be learnt, and I am sure that, if we were doing the scheme again, we would do some things differently. We put the scheme together in a short time. We wanted to make sure that it was in before the end of the year and certainly before the end of the financial year. We addressed as many of those issues as we could, and, at the end of the day, we got over 1·4 million cards out and over £136 million worth of spend. Where there are issues and problems, I take them on board and look forward to the results of the independent evaluation that will be carried out.
Mr Dunne: I welcome the statement. The scheme has had a positive impact across my North Down constituency. One of its key aims was to change longer-term shopping behaviour and to encourage people back into our shops. Is the Minister confident that it has achieved that aim?
Mr Lyons: I am. We have only anecdotal evidence so far, including from a visit to the Member's constituency last week. I was in Donaghadee with Mr Dunne, speaking to shop owners. They told us that it had given a short-term boost and that customers were returning. It is an opportunity for businesses to connect or, in some cases, to reconnect with customers and to show what they have on offer. Clearly, there will need to be an evaluation of all that. What I hear so far is that it has brought people back on to the high street.
Online shopping was and will continue to be very popular. However, the high street scheme gave shop owners the opportunity to show the customer service that they can provide, the quality of the product that they have and the competitive prices that they are able to offer. The benefits of that will last for much longer than October, November and December 2021.
Mr McCrossan: I thank the Minister for his statement. I commend the team at the Department for its quick responses to a number of the queries that were raised by my office. They were most helpful in circumstances where they were able to help, and that is much appreciated.
When we look at the figures, we see that £12 million was spent in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. There are figures in between, going down to £7·5 million in my constituency in the Omagh and Fermanagh council area. Why is the figure for the spend there so low, Minister? Is it that people did not spend it at all, or was it spent elsewhere? If that is the case, what is the level of unspent funds in that area?
Mr Lyons: First, I add my thanks to my departmental officials. There was a huge task in front of them, and it was done in a short time. I do not think that they would want to do that again any time soon. It was a unique scheme for unique times, and it had the impact that we all wanted it to have.
The Member is absolutely right about the specific spend: £27 million was spent in Belfast, and £7·5 million was spent in Fermanagh and Omagh. I am sure that there are many reasons for that. More than anything else, the reason was probably population. It was clear that people were going to spend their cards locally, and that figure probably follows the population statistics pretty closely and probably follows the ranking of those statistics quite closely. I have not seen figures for underspend on cards or figures showing whether less was spent in a particular geographical locations than in others. That was very low across the board, and that is because people had the opportunity to spend local, regardless of whether they live in a city or a rural area.
During my time in the job, I have been in most towns across Northern Ireland. They all have a fantastic offering. In fact, I have heard of businesses in the Member's constituency that did exceptionally well as a result of the scheme. The differential in the spend is more likely to be down to population differences and people spending their card locally than to people in one area or another spending less on their cards.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for his statement. It has been reported that around 300 people who received the high street scheme card did not spend all the money on it. I am concerned that some of those people are vulnerable or in care and that, for whatever reason, they have not been able to spend all the money on their cards. Has the Department carried out any analysis of that? Will people in those situations be entitled to the financial remedies?
Mr Lyons: If the cards were not spent because people were not able to activate their card, did not get it in time or tried to spend it and it did not work, the people affected will be eligible for a remedy payment.
Mrs Erskine: I thank the Minister and his Department for the work that was carried out on the scheme, which was a huge scheme for Northern Ireland. Looking at the figures for the area that I represent, I think that £7·5 million is a huge amount of money for local businesses.
Can the Minister detail how the success of the high street scheme here compares with elsewhere? I think that it was also rolled out in Jersey.
Mr Lyons: The Member has rightly identified that few other places have tried something like this. Jersey is one of the notable exceptions. Although the scheme was successful in Jersey, what we did in Northern Ireland was even more incredible. We did not have the same data sets as Jersey did. It was easy for Jersey to send a card out to everybody automatically, but we had to go through an additional process. A much smaller number of people were getting a card, so the spend was smaller. When you take all that into consideration, it shows how successful the scheme has been. It has helped the whole economy. We heard the figures for Belfast right through to other areas. It had an incredible impact across the board. Thousands of transactions took place in the Member's constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Over £7·5 million was spent in that council area alone. That has an incredible economic impact.
I thank everybody who jumped on and applied to the scheme. Many people put an awful lot of thought into where they would spend their card so that it would have the greatest impact. In comparison with Jersey, the impact here will, of course, be far greater. Of course, such a scheme did not happen in any other UK region. From speaking to my equivalent Ministers in Scotland and Wales, I know that they are jealous of what we have been able to do, not just the fact that we took on and delivered such an innovative scheme but, importantly, the impact that it has had.
Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister. You said, Minister, that many people thought clearly about how they would spend their card. In my constituency of Strangford, many spent their card on electricity and gas or oil for home heating. Will that spend on electricity and home heating oil or gas be included in the granularity of the detail that you provide about where the spend was made?
Mr Lyons: Yes. I expect that to be part of the statistics that will be released through NISRA.
Mrs Cameron: I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. I commend him and his officials for a highly successful scheme to bolster the local economy. Can the Minister outline the total spend in the South Antrim constituency? Is he able to provide the figures for monthly spend in that breakdown?
Mr Lyons: I have the data here for council areas so far. I think that the Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council area largely matches the South Antrim constituency. Obviously, parts of Newtownabbey are in East Antrim and North Belfast. There was a total spend of £10,374,516 across the Antrim and Newtownabbey council area. The postcode data that I will release today will also show the spend in South Antrim. I know, for example, that BT39 is partly in the Member's constituency. The spend there was £1 million. In Antrim, £2·3 million was spent. More was spent in Newtownabbey. In BT36 and BT37, the spend was £4 million and £3 million. The Member can get that breakdown from the postcode data that is released, but the figure of £10 million across Antrim and Newtownabbey gives her a good estimation to begin with.
The Member asked about the breakdown of that spend per month, and I can confirm to her and the House that, in October, there was a total spend of £24,634,255. In November, there was a total spend of £81,200,000. In December, there was a spend of £31,000,752. In January, there was a spend of £76,535, which was, o, made by the few people who were able to spend their cards at that stage because they had not received them prior to that. The vast majority of spend was in October and November.
Mr Catney: I thank the Minister. I am looking at the cost and setting up of that scheme and thinking into the future. Have you or the Department been thinking about how part of that might be utilised to look at a scheme for Ulster licensed vintners or trade organisations? Such a scheme might, given that the costs of setting up the high street scheme have been met, come at a discount. Could such a scheme, even if it is only a discount scheme, be rolled out, continued or expanded?
Mr Lyons: I think that the Member is referring to any underspend in the scheme. I believe that, once we close the scheme and meet the cost of the remedy payments, there will not be much budget left to do anything further such as what the Member asks for. It was a unique scheme for one period. Of course, I continue to engage with business organisations and lobby groups. We did something that was new and innovative here. I am more than happy to look at how we continue to work together to drive people back to our high streets and to the hospitality sector. A concern of mine is that, during the pandemic, many comments by organisations, politicians and others were a dampener on consumer confidence. I take seriously the job that we have to increase that consumer confidence today.
Mrs Barton: Minister, you will, no doubt, remember that, when the scheme initially closed, you received a rather long list from me of the constituents who were still waiting to receive cards, could not get cards or were turned down for cards. Do you have an up-to-date assessment of the details of those in the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area and the Mid Ulster District Council area who applied for cards but have still not been successful in receiving them?
Mr Lyons: The first thing that we did was send an email to all those who, we understood, had problems with their cards; for example, those who did not activate their cards or those who activated their cards but had a big spend left on them. Those people were identified as not being able to properly utilise the card in the way that we wanted, and they have been emailed.
There will be others who we perhaps have not picked up on yet who are eligible for a remedy payment because of maladministration by the Department. We will continue to pick those people up, and we will ask Members to get in contact with us about them. I will send out information to Members shortly about how we can make sure that everybody who is entitled to a remedy payment will get one.
Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for coming to the Assembly today, and I thank his departmental officials who have had to administer and deal with the scheme. The Minister outlined in his statement reasons why people can get the remedy payment, one being "service failure by the Department", which is slightly ambiguous. Will the Minister explain what criteria are being used to determine what "service failure" is and how that is assessed?
Mr Lyons: The first and key part is that it will be for those who were verified. People need to have been verified. We gave a lot of opportunity for people who had applied to get in touch and give us those details, and there was a cut-off point for that. The remedy payment is for those who, after that time and through no fault of their own, were unable to get their card or to spend their card. I am not aware of every situation that could fall into that category, so we are keeping it broad. However, if someone's card was verified and, through no fault of their own, they did not get their card, I want to make sure that we do everything that we can to rectify that. That information will be in the letter that I hope to send to Members soon.
Mr Allister: Last week, I wrote to the Minister with the names of approximately 20 constituents who had received neither the card nor an email about the remedy scheme. Writing to the Minister is fine, and I do not object to that, but is there not a less cumbersome mechanism available to MLAs' offices, such as there was when the scheme was in full flow, so that there can be more direct, speedy contact to sort out the issues?
Mr Lyons: First of all, I am sorry to hear that some of the Member's constituents were not picked up in that category and that the email was not sent to them. I hope that the email that I send out will be a direct way to get straight to the people in my Department who are dealing with the issue so that they can check their records directly to see the information that they have on file, and the Member can provide additional information, if he wants to, as well.
My goal in all this is to make sure that everybody who was eligible and everybody who was verified gets the remedy payment. It is in my interest to make sure that they get it as well. I will do everything that I can to assist the Member with that.
Ms Sugden: On the scheme as a business stimulus scheme, I say, "Well done". I received a lot of good feedback from businesses in my constituency. However, as regards access, the Member knows that I have had issues with access to the scheme, particularly for older people. He referred to people who are aged 50-plus, but that is getting a wee bit young. I would be keen to see figures for people who are aged 60 to 65-plus to see where the potential access issues were.
I also note that his statement said that the council areas with the least spend were typically rural and tended to have an older population. Does the Minister see any correlation between the fact that those who were unable to access the scheme were from those areas and were perhaps older?
Mr Lyons: No. There is probably a correlation between population and spend, and we will be able to work that out and see the per capita spend.
I apologise to anyone in the House who was offended by the fact that I mentioned the over-50 age bracket. Apologies to Mr Clarke and others behind me who may have been frustrated by that.
I went on to say that 22·3% of the adult population are aged 65-plus and that 21·9% of verified applicants were within that bracket. So, it is very close: 22·3% versus 21·9%. Most of those who applied got their card; most of those who got their card spent their card. The data that I have received does not show any disparity in the age groups. Perhaps older people are a little bit more cautious when they are filling out forms and got the addresses and dates of birth correct, whereas we had a few problems with other age groups that did not get that information correct. We have to look at not just the top-line figures but at the population, where people are and where they spent their card.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement.
Mr Poots (The Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a statement to the Assembly on the development of an action plan to protect and restore blue-carbon habitats.
The statement lays out the need for a blue-carbon action plan. I will highlight the work that has been completed, the work that is under way, the work that is required and the way ahead to deliver on an action plan. The draft green growth strategy sets out the scale of our ambition to tackle climate change and the importance of the green growth agenda. One of the high-level principles of green growth is respecting our planet by restoring our natural capital. The green growth strategy will be delivered through a number of programmes and action plans. When considering how to manage our land, action will be taken through programmes such as Forests for Our Future and the peatland strategy. Today, I will turn our attention to the marine and coastal environment.
The Northern Ireland marine area is 6,855 km² and represents approximately one third of our natural environment. The coast, and the seas around it, include highly productive and biologically diverse ecosystems. Our marine natural capital, and the ecosystem services that it provides, support tourism, recreation, aquaculture and fisheries. The blue economy is an important component of our Northern Ireland economy. Within our marine and coastal environment, we have special habitats that are important for carbon capture and storage; these are known as blue-carbon habitats. Examples of blue-carbon habitats found in our waters include salt marshes, seagrass beds, shellfish beds, kelp, maerl and subtidal sediments.
The importance of blue-carbon habitats and their contribution to climate change adaptation and mitigation is now globally recognised. Our blue-carbon habitats therefore need to be protected, as, when they are degraded or damaged, their carbon-sink capacity is lost, and stored carbon is released. By acting now and developing a blue-carbon action plan, we can take steps to help protect and restore blue-carbon habitats in Northern Ireland's marine and coastal environment. As well as providing essential benefits for climate change adaptation and mitigation, blue-carbon habitats provide other high-value ecosystem services. Those include providing protection against coastal erosion and flooding, habitats to support wider biodiversity and nursery grounds for commercially important fish species, as well as societal well-being benefits.
In an international context, the development of a blue-carbon action plan will contribute to achieving the targets for natural carbon stores in the recently agreed OSPAR north-east Atlantic environment strategy (NEAES). Further global targets could also emerge after the updated Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) targets are agreed and published later this year.
My officials have been working with other UK Administrations and through the British-Irish Council (BIC) to share learning on blue-carbon habitats. That knowledge transfer is proving very beneficial. In the UK, the value of climate-resilient ecosystems for healthy fish stocks and the value of blue-carbon habitats have been acknowledged in the draft joint fisheries statement (JFS). The consultation on the UK joint fisheries statement is currently taking place and is open until 12 April. Full details can be found on the DEFRA website.
In Northern Ireland, work has already commenced on creating, protecting and restoring blue-carbon habitats. In 2021, my Department provided funding of £27,000 to Ulster Wildlife and its partners to undertake a desk-based feasibility study for blue-carbon-habitat restoration in Northern Ireland. The study looked at historical records and identified locations of coastal blue-carbon habitats, including seagrass meadows, kelp forests, salt marsh and shellfish beds. The study suggests that 56% of our blue-carbon habitats are located within the existing marine protected area (MPA) network. That means that there is an existing way in which to protect those carbon sinks, which is through the implementation and enforcement of effective MPA management plans. Indeed, the legislation that is being introduced to manage fishing activities in the inshore marine protected area network will help provide protection for important blue-carbon habitats, such as seagrass beds in the Waterfoot marine conservation zone (MCZ) and the Skerries and Causeway special area of conversation (SAC), and the maerl habitat in the Red Bay and the Maidens SACs.
The feasibility study also identified areas that could be suitable for restoration or habitat creation. Blue-carbon habitats sequester more carbon per unit than forests. Examples of blue-carbon values from the report are that the estimated current Northern Ireland extent of salt marsh is 31·1km², while, for seagrass, it is 17·2km², and that the estimated carbon sequestration rate for Northern Ireland salt marsh is 8,273 tons of carbon a year, while, for Zostera marina seagrass, it is 3,571 tons of carbon a year.
Ulster Wildlife and its partners are continuing to refine the initial feasibility study and will soon make recommendations for restoration at specific local sites, including the potential for a native oyster restoration project in Strangford lough. Steps have already been taken to create and restore blue-carbon habitats. A native oyster nursery is being established in Bangor marina by Ulster Wildlife, and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council is trialling the use of eco moorings in Strangford lough to provide protection for seagrass beds from yacht moorings.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Castle Espie and see the work of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) that has resulted in the creation of new salt marsh habitat. The site has been carefully and patiently managed for the past 12 years, and the outcome has not only enhanced carbon storage but produced wider nature and societal benefits, such as providing coastal defence, foraging and breeding grounds for wintering birds, and an important tourist facility that overlooks Strangford lough.
Those projects lay the foundation for longer-term sequestration. The carbon sequestration capacity of a salt marsh is age-dependent, with created or restored marshes taking approximately 100 years to achieve the rates of carbon accumulation that are measured in natural marshes. Coastal vegetated habitats, including salt marshes and seagrass, with sedimentary conditions that favour organic carbon storage, may enhance the release of other potent greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. Therefore, more research on the status of Northern Irish habitats is essential as the priority work develops. My Department has identified that as a research need and is seeking to commission a research project later this year.
In my Department, there are no specific blue-carbon monitoring programmes. However, a number of existing monitoring programmes that are being implemented to meet requirements of the water framework directive and habitats regulations, such as carbon and nitrogen sediment monitoring, salt-marsh monitoring and MPA condition monitoring surveys, have helped to provide useful evidence on Northern Ireland's blue-carbon habitats. My Department has already taken important steps to address the evidence gaps and initiated a number of relevant projects. Further projects are in the preparation stage.
Over £400,000 has been invested in a 3D coastal survey of the Northern Ireland coastline. That encompasses a topographic lidar of land within 200 metres of the coast and intertidal area and a bathymetric lidar of the coastal subtidal area. The baseline survey will be used to map the extent of blue-carbon habitats, such as salt marshes, intertidal seagrass and shellfish beds. The data from that will be beneficial for identifying the most suitable locations for investment to create or restore blue-carbon habitats.
A number of studies are being undertaken by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI). One of those studies will help to identify the impact of future climate change scenarios on the coastal habitats of Northern Ireland. Another is undertaking research to quantify the stocks and flows of blue carbon in Northern Ireland, including offshore sediment, and will provide evidence and a better understanding of its role as a carbon sink.
That is a rapidly developing policy area, and it is important that we collaborate effectively with other countries. You may be aware of the creation of a UK blue-carbon evidence partnership, which was announced at COP26. My officials will work with their counterparts in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and other UK Administrations, to address key research questions related to blue-carbon policy.
Blue-carbon habitats are not included in the UK greenhouse gas emissions inventory. Under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) wetlands supplement, the only UK coastal wetland habitats that are suitable for inclusion are tidal marshes and seagrass meadows. Work is being undertaken to account for those habitats, but evidence gaps are hindering their inclusion in the UK land use, land-use change and forestry inventory calculations. It will be important for the UK blue-carbon evidence partnership to work together to address those issues and enhance the evidence base surrounding the other diverse blue-carbon habitats that are found across the UK, particularly those beyond the IPCC's wetlands supplement.
There are significant challenges in responding to climate change and ensuring sustainable use of the marine environment. The development of innovative solutions to those challenges and the unlocking of opportunities will only be possible through collaboration and partnership. That must include my Department, other Departments, research institutes, the fishing industry, the renewable energy sector, environmental NGOs and other interested stakeholders.
I was very pleased to learn about the collaboration between Ulster Wildlife and the Northern Ireland Fishermen's Federation (NIFF), and they have already started to consider those issues. That open dialogue and collaboration demonstrates the spirit of partnership and respect that is needed to find innovative solutions that are consistent with the vision of the green growth strategy. I am very much looking forward to learning more about the outcome of their feasibility study for a multidisciplinary, collaborative marine hub to bring together Northern Ireland's marine stakeholders. The Northern Ireland Fishermen's Federation has demonstrated its commitment to that area by employing a sustainability officer. My Department has been able to support those projects through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.
Recognising the importance of protecting and enhancing our blue-carbon habitats, the development of a blue-carbon action plan for Northern Ireland will be a target in the environment strategy.
In response to the increasing recognition of the role that marine protected areas can play in supporting adaptation and resilience to climate change, I also announce a review of the marine protected area strategy for Northern Ireland and the development of a new strategy that will enable us to respond to the challenges that we face in dealing with biodiversity loss and climate change.
It will be critical to take a co-design approach to develop the blue-carbon action plan and the new marine protected areas strategy. To facilitate that, my Department will establish focus groups comprised of representatives from the fishing industry, the renewable energy sector and environmental NGOs. It is hoped that input from stakeholder focus groups will help my Department to take a balanced and sustainable approach in developing future biodiversity and climate change policies for the marine environment.
My high-level vision for the Northern Ireland blue-carbon action plan is to protect our blue-carbon habitats and, where possible, take steps towards their restoration. An important component of the blue-carbon action plan will be the creation of an accurate baseline inventory of all blue-carbon habitats in Northern Ireland. Further studies will be required to quantify the total carbon storage in our blue-carbon habitats and to better understand their carbon sequestration rates and how the condition of the habitats affects those rates. There will be opportunities to build on those projects. There is a need to progress from feasibility studies to pilot and demonstration projects and, ultimately, to the full implementation of larger-scale blue-carbon restoration programmes.
My Department has prepared a significant bid as part of the green growth capital investment programme. That includes proposed funding for the blue economy that will support the transition to a low-carbon economy and the protection and enhancement of blue-carbon habitats and the wider marine environment.
I would like the blue-carbon action plan and the new marine protected areas strategy to be developed and put into operation by 2024. In the interim, it is important that the current momentum continues and that collaboration and partnership continues to grow so that we can find innovative solutions that are consistent with the vision of the green growth strategy.
The purpose of the statement is to highlight the importance of blue-carbon habitats and how those habitats can contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. I have provided a summary of some of the work that has been undertaken already and of the work that is required. We must now move forward together to develop a blue-carbon action plan to protect and restore those important natural capital assets.
"the stocks and flows of blue carbon",
and paragraph 34 refers to "collaboration and partnership". Will the Minister explain to us what level of cooperation his Department has had with its counterpart in the South of Ireland to realise the actions in the action plan?
Mr Poots: Of course, we have North/South bodies that will help us to deal with those issues, particularly the Loughs Agency. It will be for the Loughs Agency to bring forward proposals for approval on those issues.
Mr Irwin: I thank the Minister for his statement. Minister, what is your view of the use of seaweed, for example, to tackle livestock emissions?
Mr Poots: Global research has shown that seaweeds can significantly reduce methane emissions when used as a supplement in animal feeds. AFBI and Queen's University are working with a number of EU partners to investigate the use of local seaweeds as feed additives for cattle and sheep under Northern Ireland farming conditions.
However, harvesting wild seaweeds for use in animal feed supplements would have a negative impact on blue-carbon habitats and the ecosystem services that they provide, including absorbing wave energy, providing natural protection against coastal erosion and providing a nursery habitat for commercial fish species. Therefore, it would be preferable to use aquaculture rather than wild harvesting, and opportunities for seaweed aquaculture will be explored further as part of the green growth strategy. In order to make progress, my Department is seeking to commission a feasibility study that will explore potential sites that can provide a sustainable source of seaweed for use as supplements in animal feeds.
Mrs Barton: Minister, thank you for your statement. You acknowledged in the statement that:
"Coastal vegetated habitats, including salt marshes ... with sedimentary conditions that favour organic carbon storage, may enhance the release of other potent greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide."
Can you comment further on that? It is worrying if other potent greenhouse gases, such as methane, will result from that.
Mr Poots: That is why we are investigating further and carrying out further studies, and that is why it will probably take two years to be in a position where we have the scientific basis to appropriately move forward on both blue carbon and marine protected areas and to be able do so with absolute confidence that what we are doing will be beneficial.
Mr McGlone: Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Minister, through the challenge fund, your Department funded a feasibility study on blue-carbon restoration, and that report, which came out, I think, in May 2021, made a number of recommendations for action. Will those be lifted by the Department, or will we see more working groups and further study around that?
Mr Poots: It is about the right actions, and Mrs Barton has just raised an issue that demonstrates very clearly to us the importance of getting it right. Therefore, we will continue to carry out scientific investigation and do a course of work to ensure that we get it right. We appreciate the work that has been done thus far, some of which is less clear about next steps than others, but we need to engage in next steps, and that will be primarily on developing the scientific basis to take us to the next platform on using blue carbon for the benefit of the climate.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for the statement. I was pleased to hear references in the statement to salt marshes, as protection of those marine ecosystems is vital for the future. In addition to that, what steps is the Minister taking to increase the restoration of salt marshes and wetlands across the country, and what, if any, designated protection is being considered for those habitats and for the species within them, if that is necessary?
Mr Poots: Salt marshes are very important for us, and we would certainly like to see more of them. That is a significant capacity issue, and we have developed additional salt marshes in Strangford lough. We will continue to engage in that course of work to see where it is appropriate and beneficial to develop those salt marshes, but they have certainly been identified as a key store of carbon. It is important for us to consider the opportunities that exist.
Mr McGuigan: I thank the Minister for the statement and the details. Minister, on an important action plan like this, stakeholder engagement and consultation is vital. I say that as a member of the AERA Committee, and I do not think that there has been any engagement with that Committee so far on the development of this action plan. What stakeholders have been spoken to in identifying priorities, and will continued engagement take place, including with the fishing sector, on the details of the action plan?
Mr Poots: I have made a statement in the House today, and, of course, my officials will be happy to meet the Committee and discuss the issue. Hopefully you have time in your programme to allow for that in the few weeks that remain. On the question of consulting people, we have been working with environmental NGOs in particular and will continue to do that. Going forward, we will work with the environmental NGOs, the representatives of the fishing organisations and the representatives of the renewable energy industry, because all those people will be key to delivery going forward.
Mr Harvey: I thank the Minister for bringing the statement to the House today. Minister, I welcome this approach. However, will you agree with me that there are still a lot of unknowns?
It reinforces the need for clearer research to mitigate any unintended consequences of any policy changes. Does the Minister agree that we need to invest much more in pilot projects with robust scientific monitoring?
Mr Poots: I do. It is critical that, if we are to find a way forward on this, we do the pilot projects and see the beneficial aspects coming through and any potential problems that there might be. We need it to be demonstrated clearly to us that, if we invest in that, we are investing in the right thing, which will deliver the benefits that we assume that we will get. We need to be very clear that we move beyond assumptions and do something that is based on qualitative research and science.
Ms Sheerin: The Minister cited a study that states that 56% of our blue-carbon habitats are located within the existing marine protected network. How effective has that network already been in protecting those habitats?
Mr Poots: Considerably stricter conditions already operate in those marine protected areas than in areas that are not protected. Therefore, it is very important to progress the blue-carbon plan and to revisit our marine protection areas and the respective plans. The marine protected areas will give us the potential for considerable further development of the blue-carbon sequestration that will take place. It is important to ensure that we can do that in a way that allows communities to know what we are doing in their best interests, particularly the coastal communities in the likes of Red Bay and the Skerries and so forth, and so that we can work with them in order to ensure that we have buy-in and support from them for the work that is going on.
Mr T Buchanan: I thank the Minister for his statement. There is a need to involve the fishing community in any proposal going forward. The work that the sector is doing with the environmental NGO sector is to be welcomed. Does he foresee both sectors working together in the longer term?
Mr Poots: Thankfully, we have a forward-looking fishing industry, which is already working in collaboration with one of the environmental NGOs on what is potentially available at sea. That is to be welcomed, and I commend our fishing organisations, and NIFF in particular, which have not had to be forced into doing something and are voluntarily working with the environmental organisations to get the best outcomes for our important coastal areas.
Ms Á Murphy: In his statement, the Minister acknowledged that there are no specific blue-carbon monitoring programmes at the moment but stated that future projects are at preparation stage. Will he provide us with more detail on the blue-carbon monitoring projects that we can expect to see?
Mr Poots: We can do other things as part of the environment strategy. When it comes to marine planning for Northern Ireland and whether it will provide protection for blue-carbon habitats, there is a second iteration of the draft marine plan, which is up for consideration as a final and adopted marine plan by the end of 2022. The draft policies are being updated in order to address the issues that have been raised during the public consultation and will include policies for the protection of blue-carbon habitats.
As well as that, work is ongoing on the green growth strategy, which was presented to the Executive, to continue taking into consideration the feedback and comments from the consultation process. In the green growth strategy, however, it will be important that we recognise that it is not just about land-based operation but about sea-based operation. Therefore, our green growth team will certainly be looking at engaging in the development of blue carbon.
Mr Robinson: I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he foresee blue carbon playing an important part in carbon capture to help to tackle climate change?
Mr Poots: Obviously, reducing the amount of carbon that we produce is important, and that is one element of it. The other element is carbon sequestration. We have a significant understanding of what goes on on land, for example. The process of photosynthesis demonstrates to us very clearly what forestry and grass production can do in the sequestration of carbon, and we all know what the peatlands do in storing carbon. We have a lot of water around Northern Ireland, so we need to ensure that we can maximise what we are doing in Northern Ireland's waters to ensure that we can deliver carbon sequestration in those waters and make a significant contribution from that source going forward.
Ms Bailey: I thank the Minister for his statement. However, I point out that there is a widespread lack of faith that the delivery of these actions will be carried out in a timely manner. Following on from the previous question, some blue-carbon habitats are protected by current legislation, based on the habitats' contributions to our biodiversity, but there are opportunities for blue-carbon habitats and stores to be protected, given their role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Therefore, will blue-carbon habitats be afforded legal protection based on their carbon sequestration and storage processes?
Mr Poots: Of course, MPAs have legal protection, so the areas within those already have that legal protection. Going beyond that, a course of work needs to be done to identify the best way forward. If that includes legal protection, we are open to looking at that. It is entirely up to the Member, but I would prefer it if she was not so cynical about everything that the Department does. It is a Department that cares for the environment, and it is a Department that wants to take the right steps to ensure that we can manage the difficult circumstance of protecting our environment while allowing people to live in it, enjoy it and earn a living in it. Matching all those things is important, but protecting the environment is a top priority for the Department.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Beggs): That concludes questions to the Minister on his statement. The next item of business in the Order Paper is Question Time. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.
The sitting was suspended at 1.53 pm.
On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair) —
Ms Mallon (The Minister for Infrastructure): I fully recognise how important planning is in protecting our environment, shaping local communities and, of course, supporting and developing our economy, now more than ever, as we move into recovery from the pandemic. I am also very aware of the need for significant improvement in the performance of our two-tier planning system, particularly when it comes to statutory consultees.
My Department has been working on a number of fronts to improve the system, including on the establishment of a cross-departmental planning forum, in order to take forward recommendations from a report into the role of statutory consultees in the planning process. A key focus of the planning forum's work is to improve the response times to meet the 21-day statutory consultation target, particularly for major planning applications. I recognise that the level of statutory consultee responses that are needed to respond to consultations on a timely basis is critical and particularly relevant, given the increasing number and complexity of planning application consultations. I recently raised the resourcing issue around planning consultations with the Finance Minister, and my permanent secretary has written to other relevant permanent secretaries seeking their assistance in order to ensure that adequate funding is available for their consultation response teams.
I have also specifically asked to be briefed on a monthly basis by those planning statutory consultees in my Department so that issues impacting on their performance can be addressed appropriately and in a timely manner. A number of measures have been taken in order to ensure that that important work is placed on a sustainable and improved footing, including an inescapable resource bid in the 2022-25 Budget exercise to meet the funding requirement for the additional staff that are needed in the Department.
The Department has also undertaken a review of the implementation of the Planning Act 2011, and that has identified 16 areas where we could further improve the performance of the system for all stakeholders, including in the Department for Infrastructure, councils, statutory consultees, developers and the wider public. Work on that will continue to be progressed in the coming months.
Ms Sugden: I thank the Minister for her response. The Minister and I met recently to discuss that issue. During that meeting, I expressed my frustration on behalf of not only local applicants but significant investors in Northern Ireland, who tell me that they are taking their multimillion-pound investments elsewhere. I appreciate that the Minister has talked about this being a cross-departmental piece of work, which I entirely agree with, but will she give us more detail of what it will entail and how we can genuinely put forward aims and objectives so that we can fix the issue once and for all?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. As I said, statutory consultee response times are important, and we need to see improvement on them. The cross-departmental planning forum that my Department established is focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning system by agreeing, prioritising and implementing the recommendations and actions that emerged from the report into the role of statutory consultees in the planning process. A work programme that involves 30 key actions has been developed, and, in total, 19 actions have been completed, with the remainder expected to be completed in 2022. I assure the Member that I recognise the importance of the issue. I have a firm focus on it, and I requested monthly updates in order to make sure that we continue to make progress on that important area.
Mr Buckley: Minister, I am sure that you realise that there is chronic concern in the industry regarding the performance of planning, particularly when to date not one local development plan has been completed by local councils or has maybe even got to stage 1. I asked the chief planner at Committee two weeks ago to tell me the number of regionally significant applications that had been submitted in the past 12 months. He was unable to answer. Can the Minister perhaps answer that question?
Ms Mallon: Unfortunately, I do not have that information to hand, but I am happy to provide the Member with it in writing following Question Time.
Mr Boylan: The Minister will be familiar with the proposals by the AERA Minister to change the rules on the single farm payment by increasing the threshold for making claims from 3 hectares to 10 hectares. That will impact on small farmers and those people who wish to reside in the countryside in the future. What assessment has the Minister done to ensure that we will have sustainable farms in the countryside in the future?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr McGlone): The Minister can answer the question if she so wishes, but it would, perhaps, be better addressed to another Minister, given that that is just a proposal.
Ms Mallon: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is an important issue. I assure the Member that, although it does not fall within my portfolio — it is led by the AERA Minister — my officials are engaging with their colleagues in DAERA because we recognise the importance of the issue. That engagement will continue, and I am happy to keep the Member updated.
Mr Chambers: Does the Minister accept that many of the delays in the planning system are caused by organisations that are under her responsibility, such as Rivers, Roads and, on many occasions, Northern Ireland Water? Does she have any detailed plans to improve that situation, especially given the impact on private-sector investment, as is being witnessed in Bangor?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for his question. It is an important issue. We have been trying to increase capacity in Roads and Rivers by reallocating staff. As I said, I have also requested monthly updates to ensure that we continue to make progress in the statutory consultees that fall within my Department, such as Roads and Rivers. I also submitted an inescapable bid to the Finance Minister for the three-year Budget. I identified it as inescapable because we need to increase capacity in statutory consultees, not just those in my Department; I am also mindful of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. My permanent secretary has been engaging with her counterparts to ensure that we get sufficient resources. We absolutely need to address it. In saying that, we are seeing a record high number of applications that are very complex. There is, of course, a need to continue to improve, given the importance of the issue to our economy and environment.
Mr Muir: Last year, your Department put a hold on Ards and North Down Borough Council's giving approval for the Queen's Parade development in Bangor. We are still waiting, 13 months later. When will you, as Minister, intervene, give the green light for that to go ahead and lift the holding direction that has been imposed on Ards and North Down Borough Council?
Ms Mallon: The Member and I have met to discuss that issue. He will be aware of the work that has been ongoing between my Department, the council and other key stakeholders to try to make progress. The holding direction was issued by my Department in February last year, and it is in place. The assessment of the notification is being finalised. It is my intention to respond to the council as soon as possible with a decision as to whether the application should be referred to my Department for determination. I assure you that I am mindful of the importance of reaching a decision on the matter and avoiding any unnecessary delays.
Ms Hunter: This is an important matter. What impact will the latest collapse of the Executive have on planning decisions?
Ms Mallon: Notwithstanding the collapse of the Executive, my officials continue to progress to a decision point all the planning applications that are before the Department for its consideration. Indeed, I have continued to take planning decisions, such as the decision to approve the reserved matters details for the maritime museum at Ebrington Square in Derry. I will certainly continue to take decisions where I can and where I am satisfied that referral would not be required.
Miss Woods: The Minister will be aware that a major problem with the planning system is the lack of openness, transparency and public participation. Does she agree that we must have equal rights of appeal for communities in Northern Ireland?
Ms Mallon: I thank the Member for her question. She has raised that issue on a number of occasions. The legislative and structural changes to the planning system that came into effect with the new two-tier system in 2015 are designed to deliver an inclusive, front-loaded system, with stronger third-party engagement and local democratic accountability.
There are concerns that the introduction of a third-party right of appeal at the end of the development management process could undermine an applicant's commitment to community engagement at the start. That risks reducing certainty, and it could impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the planning system at a time when it needs to be responsive to sustainable economic recovery.
I have asked my officials to keep the matter under review. That will include the consideration of recommendations that emerge from the work of the planning engagement partnership that my Department is undertaking, given the importance of having communities involved and at the heart of planning decisions.
Mr Allister: We can all make, and do make, valid criticisms of the planning process, but is it not also fair to say that it is not always the planning departments that are at fault? Take the example of the York Street interchange. It was in 2016 that the Department issued a notice to proceed. I know that there have been legal challenges since, but is it not the case that it is the Department that is dragging its feet and perhaps even playing constituency politics with the interchange?
Ms Mallon: I absolutely refute the suggestion that I play constituency politics with issues that fall within my role as Minister. As the Member rightly identifies, the York Street interchange has been subject to legal challenge. We also had a three-year hiatus, during which no Minister was in place. When I took up the post, I was very clear straightaway that I recognised the project's strategic importance but that we absolutely needed to make sure that we got it right. We need to get it right for all those who will use it and for the community that lives in and around it. That is why I carried out an independent assessment. That report is complete, and we are engaging with all our key stakeholders so that I am in a position to be able to announce next steps.
Ms Mallon: I was pleased to see my proposal for the establishment of an infrastructure commission here included as a key action in the Executive's COVID-19 recovery plan. An infrastructure commission would deliver a step change in how we plan and deliver infrastructure here, by providing a long-term shared vision and agreed approach to infrastructure planning and delivery and an informed basis on which future infrastructure needs can be identified. A cross-departmental group, led by TEO, has been established to progress the matter, and it has held several meetings to date. I continue to offer my support and that of my officials to the group and hope that rapid progress can be made to deliver on that key commitment, given that it is, I believe, the game changer that our economy, environment and community need.
Mrs D Kelly: I know of the Minister's very strong commitment to having the infrastructure commission in place and having powers available to it. Unfortunately, with the latest collapse of the Executive, there will undoubtedly be repercussions for it. What assessment has the Minister made of those? More importantly, what assessment has she made of the lost opportunities and potential for the economy here to grow?
Ms Mallon: The absence of a functioning Executive will undoubtedly slow, or even halt, progress, and that is an unacceptable position to be in, given the importance of the work and what it will deliver for Northern Ireland. I reaffirm my desire to support the TEO group, however, and I really do hope that tangible progress can be made. I know that Members in the Chamber and businesses and other organisations across the North want to see the work progress. We can see the benefits that infrastructure delivers across these islands and across the world, and we should want nothing less for our economy and for our community and our environment.
Ms Kimmins: Minister, can you elaborate a bit more on the work that is being carried out to determine the best model for the infrastructure commission, including its cost and the appointment process?
Ms Mallon: That piece of work is being progressed by the Executive Office. An interdepartmental working group has been established, and its job is to assess options for how an infrastructure commission might be structured, funded and governed and to determine the best approach to ensure that it achieves its objectives and delivers value for money. The group will consider the options and then bring forward advice on the matter. I had really hoped that we would have had an Executive that could meet to consider the options and take an agreed position so that we could move from assessing the role of an infrastructure commission to delivering it and setting it up.
Mr Buckley: I welcomed the infrastructure commission when it was first announced by the Minister, but, given that there are four regionally significant applications in the system, three of which we know have been in for 100-plus weeks, with some having been in for over 350 weeks, does the Minister accept that the planning community and, indeed, investors have lost confidence in the planning system in Northern Ireland and that, as such, the lost opportunity was indeed how far-reaching the review of the Planning Act went?
Ms Mallon: The Member has asked a question that is very similar to the supplementary question that he asked on question 1. I have made no secret of the fact that the planning system needs to have significant improvements made to it. I have not shied away from saying that. We have brought forward the cross-departmental working group, which is looking at consultee response times. Moreover, we have published the findings of the review of the 2011 Act, which has 16 recommendations. One is on validation checks, which is something for which the business community has been asking.
Another recommendation looks at penalties for late consultee responses. We continue to strive for improvement. I recognise the need to do that, and, while I am the Minister, I will continue to press for that agenda, but, along with a fit-for-purpose planning system, investors need certainty. Being without a Government at such a turbulent time does not create a context of confidence for investors, and that is deeply regrettable [Interruption.]
Ms Armstrong: Given that no Executive can meet now and, if the rumours are true, no Executive will be able to meet for some time after the election, is the Minister considering setting up an infrastructure advisory panel as an interim option to achieve some of the objectives that would have been delivered by an infrastructure commission?
Ms Mallon: The Member will recall that that work was initiated by my establishment of a ministerial advisory panel to examine the role of and advantages that would be delivered by an infrastructure commission in Northern Ireland. There was overwhelming support for that among the business and environmental sectors. The optimum approach is to have an infrastructure commission that is able to advise the Executive on infrastructure in its widest sense. Of course, if that does not prove possible, I will have to consider the option of an infrastructure commission that just falls within the remit of my Department. That would be a suboptimal outcome.
Ms Mallon: Following the legal challenge to the asphalt resurfacing contracts competition, my Department has been working at pace to implement a new interim-term contract strategy to ensure that much-needed resurfacing work is carried out in the areas affected by delays. The new strategy consists of four phases with six new term contracts in each.
Procurement of the first phase is well progressed. That phase includes contracts for Newry and Mourne, Down, Strabane, Magherafelt, Dungannon and Omagh. Tenders are being assessed, with the award of contracts anticipated in the coming weeks. Work on the second phase, which includes contracts for Cookstown, Derry, north Belfast, Ballymena, Armagh and Larne and Carrickfergus, is under way, with contracts expected to be awarded in May. The third and fourth phases are scheduled to begin procurement this summer.
A £1·3 million contract to resurface part of the Skeoge Road in Derry was recently awarded, and the award of the contract to resurface part of the A29 dual carriageway at Cookstown is expected shortly. One-off resurfacing contracts for the Coleraine Ring Road and the Castledawson area are out to tender, and a number of others are in the pipeline for implementation in the coming months.
Ms Sheerin: I thank the Minister for her answer. Our rural roads are in a shocking state, and the weather that we have had over the past number of weeks has shown that up, particularly in my area of south Derry in Mid Ulster. The state of our roads is one of the issues that are constantly raised with me, along with the safety concerns that emanate from the fact that so many of the pavements in our rural areas do not have street lighting, which is something that I have raised with you before. What are you doing to ensure the safety of those pavements and to expedite the tendering process to ensure that the contracts are awarded before the end of the mandate so that the resurfacing work can happen as soon as possible?
Ms Mallon: I recognise that that is an issue, which is why I have increased funding to the rural roads initiative by 50%. Some £17 million is in that fund, which is the highest allocation for a specific rural roads initiative to date. On safety, I reassure you that routine safety inspections and subsequent safety-related repairs are still being completed across the network. They are not impacted on by the legal challenge. I reassure you that officials have been working at pace to develop interim procurement strategies so that we can get the resurfacing works on the ground at the earliest opportunity.
Mr K Buchanan: I note the work that section engineer Neil Bratton does in Mid Ulster. His is a wise head on broad shoulders, and he takes a lot of the politics and the nonsense out of the whole Department, which is good. Are there contractors with the availability to deliver the current rural roads work between now and the end of the financial year affected?
Ms Mallon: I reassure the Member that the interim procurement strategy was developed with the engagement of the construction sector; in fact, the construction sector asked for an extension so that it could provide all the information that was required to tender for the contract.
I reassure the Member that we continue to have close engagement with the construction industry because it is vital in making sure that we see that delivery on the ground.
Mr McNulty: Thank you, Minister, for your answers thus far. The roads in Newry and Armagh are deteriorating. I know that the Northstone case has been a factor in the delays in resurfacing works. Can you give me an update on the investigations following the Northstone case? When can we expect to see further resurfacing works completed in Newry and Armagh?
Some Members: Hear, hear.
Ms Mallon: The issue does have relevance. [Interruption.]
Members know that I came to the House to say that I was concerned about the Northstone judgement and, as a result, have initiated an independent investigation. Sarah Hannaford QC is conducting that investigation. I expect to receive a report in the coming weeks, and I have committed to coming to the Assembly to provide Members with an update. That will take place before the end of the current mandate.
Mr Muir: The evidence presented through a recent Assembly Question is that there is a decreasing amount of monitoring-round bid from the Department for roads maintenance. Why is that, given that MLAs report to you so many cases of the need for maintenance across Northern Ireland's roads? Why is the Department not bidding for the funding available?
Ms Mallon: I remind the Member, as I have done in correspondence with him, that this year saw the highest ever capital spend by my Department, compared to any other Department, up to this point. Therefore, we started from a position where we were spending record sums of money.
The Member also knows that, throughout the year, I made a number of bids which were, unfortunately, unsuccessful. However, we find ourselves close to the end of the financial year, and my Department has to operate within the guidelines set out in 'Managing Public Money NI', so we need to make sure we can get the money spent. We will always make efforts to ensure that we maximise capital spend because we recognise the importance of the critical services that we provide to communities.
Ms Mallon: In December 2021, I published the 'Northern Ireland Flood Risk Management Plan 2021-2027', which identifies 12 areas of potential significant flood risk throughout the North. Belfast is the largest