Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Think twice before letting our politicians in the zone

Zoning-in: the now-abandoned John Lewis development at Sprucefield
Zoning-in: the now-abandoned John Lewis development at Sprucefield

How comfortable are you with the prospect that politicians such as Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness could have the power soon to adjudicate over planning applications?

The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein are pushing through legislation jointly which would enable the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister to grant, or refuse, planning in areas of Northern Ireland which they would designate as "economic zones". Not surprisingly, the legality of what is proposed is likely to be challenged.

One senior legal figure told me: "This is probably one of the most significant issues which have faced the Assembly. Planning powers are to be removed from the primary control of professional public servants and placed in the hands of politicians, with the supervisory function of the courts nullified to the full extent of the Assembly's jurisdiction to do so."

It is argued that the existing redress which people have in the courts to challenge planning decisions will be severely restricted.

The fear is that politicians and political parties will have too much influence and that the current impartiality of the planning services will be jeopardised.

A senior academic at Queen's University has set out 10 reasons why the proposals are "unworkable".

Professor Geraint Ellis, of the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering, says they "undermine the key principle of planning that it should only consider issues related to the use and development of land".

He argues that the effect of the changes will lead to more, rather than less, bureaucracy, confusion and delay in the planning system. "At present, planning approval rates in Northern Ireland are the highest in the UK and there is no robust evidence that planning regulation itself is a barrier to economic development."

The Planning Bill was introduced at Stormont in January, with the laudable purpose of streamlining the existing procedures and enabling the transfer of responsibility for planning to the new local councils across Northern Ireland.

However, it is also proposed that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness can designate land for economic development and then grant planning approval for whatever they believe will develop the economy in that "zone".

What constitutes an "economic zone"? Where will the boundaries begin and end? What if a "zone" happens to be right next door to where you live, work, or play? And what legal redress have you if you wish to object?

For example, what if a sharp-nosed investor exaggerates the benefits to the economy of his development to enable him to get planning permission?

And what if – as happened with the brown-paper envelopes of bribery and corruption in the Republic in the Charles Haughey era – some future Stormont politician succumbs to the same temptation?

Many more questions surround this controversial legislation. Will existing planning officials require to be retrained to understand what constitutes economic grounds for a development?

What role is there for the Department of the Environment if the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister has control of major planning applications in some areas?

Why should legal redress regarding a planning application be more restricted in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK, as appears to be the case with the current proposals?

Under the existing rules, anyone who wishes to use land for, say, property development applies for permission, which is assessed by trained, experienced and impartial officials. If permission is not granted, the applicant can appeal.

The DUP and Sinn Fein will argue that they are speeding up the existing cumbersome procedures, which have led to embarrassing delays in the granting of planning for high-profile developments, such as shopping complexes and golf resorts.

However, short-circuiting the planning laws of this country to give more influence and control to politicians and their political parties deserves the closest scrutiny.

In the absence of any official Opposition at Stormont, it is left to others to raise questions in the public interest as to what the DUP and Sinn Fein are proposing.

More investigation is required. The legislation is a challenge for the new SDLP Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan.

While arguments over flags, parades and our troubled past may well distract the politicians at Stormont this autumn, they would be well-advised to look more closely at the Planning Bill, which has far-reaching consequences for the whole of Northern Ireland.

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