Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

No meeting of minds in the planning cold war

The John Lewis store proposal is central to the planning row

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are demanding another 'summit' meeting with Environment Minister Mark H Durkan over the planning laws debacle.

But when is a meeting not a meeting?

When Stormont tangles itself up in semantics, that's when.

Thus a statement from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) said they "will meet with the Environment Minister as soon as diaries permit".

But in response, Mr Durkan's department insisted that: "No meeting request from First Minister nor Deputy First Minister to discuss the Planning Bill has been received."

Then, when On the Hill went back to OFMDFM to see whether the diaries they mentioned included Mr Durkan's, there was no response.

Behind all of this is growing pressure from the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition government in their 'pact' with Stormont – as well as some sections of business – for a radical shake-up of the province's sluggish planning system.

Meanwhile, the future of major projects, including the prospect of a John Lewis-led development at Sprucefield, outside Lisburn, hangs in the balance.

At issue is how this can be reconciled with a planning policy which gives priority to town and city centres.

Mr Durkan has defiantly insisted "I am the planning minister," and denied being involved in on-going conversations with Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

"I am the Minister of the Environment," he told the Assembly.

"My department is responsible for making planning decisions.

"I am involved in no negotiations with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister.

"I am fairly certain that my department is not involved in any conversations with the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister around the transfer of any particular application, sensitive or otherwise."

He was responding to Ukip MLA David McNarry who later told On the Hill: "Someone and some office is going to lose face over this and I don't think it is going to be OFMDFM.

"I think Martin and Peter and Mark need to get together and attempt to find a compromise but I think the practical politics lies with Robinson and McGuinness.

"In effect they are saying – 'Durkan's department is not up to speed on this and they cannot rely on it when they go looking for investment', and it is John Lewis which is in everyone's mind.

"But what you also have here is a battle between civil servants each protecting their own fiefdoms."

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