Mr Robin Swann, the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Party Assemblyman and member of the Stormont Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, has challenged the SDLP Environment Minister Alex Attwood “to implement a realistic planning strategy which will eliminate the scourge of derelict building blight”.

Assemblyman Swann is the former chairman of the influential Rural Youth Europe organisation, and is currently North Antrim UUP Chairman and Party Chief Whip.

Mr Swann publicly threw down the planning gauntlet to Minister Attwood during Ministerial questions in the Stormont Chamber.

The North Antrim UUP man had asked: “Given that there are an increasing number of derelict buildings in villages due to deterioration, do you agree that the planning criteria for townscape character need to be reviewed to allow for a more practical opportunity for demolition and rebuild?

“I stressed to the Minister that such a policy would go some way towards the re-enhancement of Ballycastle, Bushmills and other towns and villages through the constituency.

“In his response to me, the Minister said many planning applications have been granted where work has not progressed. Therefore, he said his department was in a bind: there is planning permission for sites that have been abandoned, are in decay, are half-finished or are derelict.

“He told me there is an immediate problem - be it Ballycastle, Bangor, the Lisburn Road, Portrush, Portstewart or many places in between - about what is done to improve the appearance of those sites.

“He said decay, dereliction and the negative impact have had effects on local trading conditions, on one hand.

“There was also the problem of using planning powers to enforce against developers and others who have money and planning permission and have the opportunity to improve the appearance of sites, but singularly fail to do so.

“That is the immediate crisis that his department faces, and the Minister thinks that there should be immediate intervention from government,” said Mr Swann. Minister Attwood added: “Mr Swann raised fundamental issues that also need to be addressed, including whether we will be more flexible in allowing those with planning permission to extend it, given that economic circumstances have meant they have not been able to develop sites. In all that, I will take on board what Mr Swann just said,” said the environment minister in response to the UUP MLA.