Agenda item


            The Committee considered the following report:


“1.0     Purpose of Report/Summary of Main Issues


1.1       The purpose of this report is to seek Committee approval for the revised Dual Language Street Signs Policy to reflect the approach agreed by Members which was ratified by the Council in January 2021 for the purposes of issuing for public consultation.


2.0       Recommendation


2.1       The Committee is asked to approve the draft policy, as attached.


3.0       Main Report


3.1       Background


            Legislative basis


            Article 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, provides for street naming, street numbering and the provision of street signs. It also gives Councils the discretionary power to erect dual language street signs or secondary nameplates in a language other than English. Article 11(4) requires the Council in deciding whether to exercise its discretion in relation to the erection of a second nameplate, to have regard to any views on the matter expressed by the occupiers of premises in a street.



3.2       Background to the Dual Language Street Signs Policy


            The Council first agreed a Dual Language Street Sign Policy in 1995 but deferred implementation of it to enable resource implications to be agreed. In 1998, the Council agreed to implement the policy which provides that only applications supported by a petition of one third of residents of the street will trigger a formal consultation of residents on the street. If two-thirds of the residents of the street respond positively to the consultation, the threshold is deemed to be met for the erection of a second language street sign.


3.3       In 2007, the Council agreed a one-year pilot whereby any application submitted through local Elected Representatives be progressed directly to survey stage. In 2008 Council agreed to revert to the original policy.


3.4       The policy was incorporated into a new wider Policy on Naming of Streets and Numbering of Buildings which had been drafted to provide clear guidance on the naming of street and numbering of buildings in 2009. In 2012, the Council reaffirmed the existing policy after considering a number of proposed amendments. 


3.5       The policy was subject to a judicial review in 2014 which was successfully defended by the Council (the results of which were reported to committee in 2015). In summary, Mr Justice Horner found that the Council’s decision making process was lawful; as a general proposition, international treaties or agreements which have not been incorporated into national laws are not enforceable; and that the Council had a residual discretion within the policy to allow due consideration being given to the particular circumstances of each application.


3.6       Key Issues


            New agreed approach


            On 7th January 2021, the Council ratified a decision taken by the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee on 23rd October to adopt a new policy position, following a Notice of Motion which was raised in February 2020. Different approaches were proposed. Legal advice was given setting out the need to include certain parameters otherwise some of the proposed approaches would be vulnerable to judicial review such as the need for setting a minimum response threshold and the need to have regard to the consultation response in full, including non-responses even if they are no longer deemed as not being in favour of an application.. The decision made in October was called in and counsel opinion was sought which found that the decision did not satisfy the following grounds for call-in:


·        the procedural grounds on the basis that there was no failure to take into account relevant considerations including resources;


·        the disproportionate adverse impact grounds on the basis that the policy when drafted will be subject to equality screening and consultation; and that the operation of residual discretion will allow for appropriate consideration of any potentially sensitive decisions.


3.7       Language Strategy Context


            This policy applies to all languages although the majority of applications to date have been for signs in Irish. The revised policy aims to reflect historical international frameworks aimed at protecting and promoting regional and minority languages[1] which, while not legally binding until enshrined into domestic law, the UK is a signatory state. These recognise the value of bilingual or trilingual signage as affirmation that the presence of linguistic diversity is appreciated[2] and as a demonstration of the diverse character of the region[3].


3.8       The proposed lower thresholds proposed in the policy is based on the level of population thresholds recommended by the guidebook of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues[4] (emphasis added):


            ‘Street and locality names and topographical indicators intended for the public are important as markers of social identity, culture and history. A good, practical approach adopted in most countries is for the authorities to provide transparent legislation or procedures to allow bilingual or even trilingual signs, usually following the proportionality principle where there is a sufficient concentration or demand for such signs in minority languages. While national legislation varies, the low threshold where it is considered practicable and reasonable to provide such signs tends to vary between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of the local population, with the lowest threshold usually associated with the use of a minority language that also has some kind of official status or for traditional, historical reasons. The criteria for the display of signs in minority languages must be given a clear and unambiguous legislative basis for it to be effectively implemented. Bilingual or multilingual signs used by public authorities demonstrate inclusiveness, and that various population groups share a locality in harmony and mutual respect.’


3.9       In addition, the Committee of Experts who annually audit signatory states on their implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages have made references to the need for lower thresholds in their reports:


            ‘The Committee of Experts urges the Czech authorities to adopt a flexible approach ensuring the implementation of the relevant provisions of the Charter to all regional or minority languages and to encourage local authorities to apply the Charter where there is a demand, irrespective of any thresholds.’[5]


            ‘The Committee of Experts notes that limiting the possibility for users of regional or minority languages to submit oral or written applications in these languages to municipalities where 20% of the population belong to a minority amounts to a territorial reservation which is incompatible with the Charter. Besides, the 20% threshold appears in any case too high, as the number of people justifying protection measures under the Charter is commonly well below this percentage.’[6]


3.10     The Key Changes


            The updated policy is attached. The key changes are as follows:


·        the trigger for a consultation of the occupiers of a street will be an application to the Council by a resident / residents of the street or an Elected Member representing that District Electoral Area, as opposed to an application from anyone, supported by a petition of 1/3 of occupiers. In order for further consideration as to the erection of a second language street sign to take place, the threshold for the percentage of residents responding positively is 15% instead of 2/3;


·        People not returning a reply are no longer deemed not to be in favour of the application;


·        Each application will be equality, good relations and rural needs screened;


·        Members may want to consider whether they will exercise their residual discretion at the point when an application is received and decide as to whether to progress that application to the stage of surveying the street in question or not.


3.11     Checks and Balances


            In the previously agreed report, some key principles were suggested which have been incorporated into the policy:


1.     That the policy will be used for the promotion of language rights and for the benefit of linguistic communities.


2.     That the principles of equality, promoting good relations and respect will underpin the application of the policy in addition to the rights promoted by the policy itself:


·        Based on legal advice, each application will be subject to an equality, good relations and rural needs screening.


·        The Council retains an overriding residual discretion to take the particular circumstances of each application into account in deciding whether or not a second language street name plate should be erected. In summary, there may be circumstances when notwithstanding the consultation response it may be appropriate to depart from the policy when there are clear reasons for doing so. Guidance will be provided to Members on the factors which should be considered when using this discretion.


·        And, as is the case at present, the Council will consider the best approach for any applications relating to long streets.


3.     That, as with any statutory consultation which the council is required to undertake, the City Solicitor may intervene if any complaint is made and a basis for that complaint established.


4.     That any decision relating to the erection of a second nameplate in the city centre(business core) will, in addition to the current policy considerations, be subject to a wider public consultation to reflect the community of users.


5.     That the policy will cover the corporately designated Gaeltacht Quarter until such time as a policy which may contain specific proposals in respect of a bilingual strategy have been adopted.


3.12     Equality, good relations and rural needs

            screening of each application


            The Council is bound by its duties under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under its own Equality Scheme to have due regard to the need to the promote equality of opportunity and to have regard to promoting good relations.


            The Council’s Good Relations Strategy, adopted in 2019, is committed to creating shared spaces. It states (p. 17): ‘This Strategy aims to promote sharing over separation and the economic, social and environmental benefits of such. We need to continue to create spaces for communities to interact and make connections with each other, moving from parallel living to meaningful relationships and casual interactions’. Based on legal advice, each application will be subject to an equality, good relations and rural needs screening.


            Information gathered during the screening process will be considered by the Committee as part of its residual discretion. The exercise of the Committee’s residual discretion will ensure that second language street signs will not be erected in a manner which could undermine Good Relations at a neighbourhood level.


3.13     Public Consultation


            A public consultation document is being prepared and will be published on the Engagement HQ platform. The consultation will run for a period of [12/14] weeks and will include a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods of assessing public opinion in order to ensure widespread and meaningful engagement including two remote public meetings. Informal pre-consultation engagement has taken place with the indigenous language community groups namely Foras na Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency. This consultation document will be sent to the other relevant language community groups in Belfast for their feedback. Advice will be sought from Marketing and Communications for communications support due to the high level of interest when this decision was made at Committee.


3.14     Next Steps


            The following timetable is proposed:


·        April: commission EQIA

·        May – Sept: carry out 12/14 week public consultation

·        Sept/Oct: update documents based on consideration of consultation responses and prepare consultation report

·        Oct: submit final policy to the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.


3.15     Financial and Resource Implications


·        As agreed previously, given the potential for increased numbers of applications the council will deal with no more than 5 in any given month. If numbers are excessive they will be held in a queue and dealt with in the order in which they have been received. This will also be managed in the context of the existing staffing resource and the established annual budget for street signage. A report will be submitted to a future meeting outlining the potential for increasing the number of applications which could be processed on a monthly basis, taking into account the new procedure emanating from the revised policy. 


·        Screening each application will have resource implications for Building Control, the Place & Economy Policy team, the Good Relations Unit and also the Equality and Diversity Unit.


·        The budget for commissioning an EQIA will be covered within existing budgets in Place and Economy. The proposed budget for an EQIA is £6,000 - £8,000. This takes into account a number of supporting workshops and engagement events and the option of including additional equality expertise in the EQIA contract. 


3.16     Equality or Good Relations Implications/

            Rural Needs Assessment


            It is anticipated that the updated policy will be screened in for an EQIA which will be commissioned externally and issued for feedback as part of the public consultation. It is also anticipated that each application for a dual language street name will be screened for equality / good relations / rural needs implications.”


Draft Dual Language Street Signs Policy


1.0               Legislation


              The statutory basis for this function is contained within Article 11 of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 which commenced on 15 March 1995. It provides for street naming, street numbering and the provision of street signs. It also gives Councils the discretionary power to erect dual language street signs or secondary nameplates in a language other than English.  



2.0               Introduction


              The legislation requires the Council, in deciding whether and how to exercise its discretion to erect a street name in a language other than English, to have regard to any views on the matter expressed by the occupiers of premises in that street. 


              The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, to which the U.K. is a signatory, was taken into account when developing this policy, as was guidance published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the practical implementation of language rights of linguistic minorities. The Council’s Language Strategy adopted by the Council in May 2018 sets out the Council’s commitment to establish a transparent set of principles for promoting, protecting and enhancing the linguistic diversity of the city.


              The European Charter establishes an obligation on state signatories not to create barriers in respect of the use of a minority language. The UN Special Rapporteur guidance notes that the threshold where it is reasonable and practical to provide such signs varies between 5 percent and 20 percent of the local population. While this policy applies to all languages, the Council recognises that Irish and Ulster Scots are recognised as minority languages in the European Charter.


              For the purposes of this policy “Occupiers” shall be taken to be any person whose name appears in the current Electoral Register plus the owners or tenants in actual possession of commercial premises, but not employees in such premises. 


              These policy proposals were developed in close consultation with the City Solicitor and are designed to promote consistent and reasonable responses. However, the policy should not be applied in such a way as to prevent due consideration being given to the particular circumstances of each application. See in particular Section 3(xi) below.


              Having regard to the significant resource consequences of administering the implications of the policy, the policy will be reactive in nature. The policy will be managed and implemented based on the resources available and the established annual budget for street signage. The Council reserves the right to pause the processing of applications in the event that resources are not sufficient.



3.0               Procedure


              The procedures for seeking and assessing the views of Occupiers and the criteria to be applied in deciding whether to erect a street sign in a language other than English are as follows:


                                             (i)          Applications for the erection of a street sign in a language other than English must be made by an Applicant submitting an application form either by post or electronically to Belfast City Council.


                                           (ii)          An application for the erection of a street sign in a language other than English may be made by an ‘Applicant’ which for purposes of this policy means: (a) an Occupier or Occupiers of the street for which the application is made, (b) an Elected Member of Belfast City Council who represents the District Electoral Area in which the street is located or (c) a developer of a new street. Any application submitted by a developer with regard to a new street will be considered by the Council in accordance with Section 3(xi) of this policy. With regard to streets without any Occupiers, applications for the erection of a street sign in a language other than English may only be made by an Elected Member who represents the District Electoral Area in which the street is located. The Council will have regard to Section 3(xi) of this policy when considering any such application.


                                         (iii)          When an application is received, the Council will canvass by post all Occupiers of that street and seek their views on the request to erect a street sign in a second specified language.  Options for a response will be ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘No Preference’. The Council will note for its records those Occupiers who do not reply. Reply will be by way of a pre-paid envelope and should be returned within one month of receipt.


                                         (iv)          Each survey that is sent out by the Council to the Occupiers of a street for which an application is made will have a unique identifier number. Survey responses received by the Council for that application will be cross-referenced against that unique identifier and will be recorded. The Council may choose to audit certain responses to surveys. These measures are to provide assurance that each Occupier’s view is taken into account.


                                           (v)          Applications will be dealt with in the order that they are received.


                                         (vi)          Each application will be subject to a screening on equality, good relations and rural needs. This screening will commence when the application is received and will incorporate the results of the survey completed by the Occupiers.


                                        (vii)          Where fifteen percent or more of the Occupiers of that street have indicated that they are in favour of the erection of a second language street sign, then such a sign may be erected, subject to the residual discretion of the Council as specified in subsection (xi) below. 


                                      (viii)          If the minimum threshold of fifteen percent is not met, the Applicant will be given two weeks to advise the Council of any special circumstances in relation to the application. If such special circumstances relate to the processing of a survey, the Strategic Director of Place and Economy, in conjunction with the City Solicitor will determine whether such exceptional circumstances exist to refer the matter to Committee. Where exceptional circumstances relate to matters other than the processing of a survey, the matter will be referred to Committee. If there are no special circumstances, the application will end.


                                         (ix)          A report on all applications (other than those ended in the circumstances specified in subsection (viii) above) will be brought to Committee for a decision.


                                           (x)          Consideration will to be given to “long streets” where opinion on whether to have a second language street sign may differ between readily identifiable, substantial lengths of the street.  In these circumstances, the decision as to the erection of dual language nameplates in certain portions of the street will be made by Committee, exercising its residual discretion and taking into account advice from officers.


                                         (xi)          The Council will retain a residual discretion to decide to erect or not to erect a street sign in a language other than English in certain circumstances. This will be done on a case by case basis. It may be appropriate to depart from the procedures in this policy when there are clear reasons for doing so. This may include taking into account:



(a)        the views of the Occupiers of the street;


(b)        the results of the equality screening for the application, which will include the results of any adverse impact on good relations and rural needs;


(c)        consideration of the local context of the application;


(d)        any other Council policies or strategies related to the application and


(e)        all material considerations relating to the application.


                                        (xii)          When a decision has been taken to erect a street sign in a second language, appropriate arrangements for the translation from English to that second language will be made. The translation will be carried out by an independent, competent body such as the appropriate Language Department at Queen's University or other appropriate, independent and competent institution.


                                      (xiii)          With regard to the design and placing of the street signs the second language sign shall be located immediately below the English sign and the size of lettering shall be smaller than the English version to avoid any risk of confusion to the emergency services.


4.0               Adoption by Council


              This policy was adopted by the Council on….. (date to be left blank until the policy receives Council approval)”


            On a vote, thirteen Members voted in favour of the recommendation to adopt the draft Dual Language Street Signs Policy and six against and it was declared carried.



[1] UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966; UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966; Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML), 1992; Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), 1994

Supporting documents: