Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Stormont is planning to remove democracy

Crucial decisions about the next stage of th Planning Bill 2013 are likely to be taken very soon. Image: Shutterstock.

Imagine a country where a law is passed, without consultation, which allows the government to bypass the normal planning system, giving carte blanche to unfettered development.

Imagine a country where ordinary people can't challenge irrational, misinformed, or biased, planning decisions – because the grounds for legal challenge have been severely curtailed.

Imagine this happening where people are already suspicious of the planning system, because they don't know who's funding political parties.

This doesn't sound like a democracy – but it is. It's happening now in Northern Ireland.

When the Planning Bill 2013 was introduced last January, it attracted controversy because of clauses which prioritise economic matters over environmental and social considerations.

But events took an unexpected turn in June, when the DUP and Sinn Fein tabled last-minute amendments with the anti-democratic measures referred to above. It's claimed that these measures will help boost the economy, but there's no evidence to demonstrate that they will have any positive impact on growth.

Amendment 20 provides for new "economically significant" planning zones, in which the normal planning rules don't apply.

Amendment 26 introduces restrictions on legal challenges of planning decisions, which don't exist in the rest of the UK, Republic, or other European countries.

In deciding applications, a minister will be able to ignore inconvenient evidence, or give preferential treatment and it's unlikely there will be anything you can do about it.

The very threat of legal challenge is one of the key reasons that the planning system has remained fair and objective; the removal of such a safeguard would be a crushing blow to democracy.

Crucial decisions about the next stage of this Bill are likely to be taken very soon. Politicians need to wake up and smell the coffee. This Bill, as drafted, is set to lead us on a dangerous road where elected representatives can act with impunity, public trust in politicians eroded and the rights of people are swept aside.

 

Geraint Ellis is Professor of Environmental Planning at Queen's University, Belfast

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