Belfast Telegraph

Fresh twist to Northern Ireland's Planning Bill bust-up

Minister questions Attorney General's advice on abandoned legislation

BY LINDA STEWART

The Planning Bill row has heated up several notches after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan claimed that the Attorney General "doesn't always get it right".

His comments followed the publication of advice from Attorney General John Larkin last week, that branded concerns over the legality of the Planning Bill "illogical".

A row had erupted in the Assembly chamber when Mr Durkan (right) dramatically withdrew the Planning Bill, which has been in preparation for four years.

He insisted the bill had turned "toxic" in June, after the Assembly voted through two controversial 11th hour amendments that would have restricted the power to challenge planning decisions and handed over some powers to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

The move had prompted warnings from a number of organisations that it would be in breach of the European Convention for Human Rights, as well as the UN's Aarhus Treaty, which governs access to justice in environmental matters.

Withdrawing the bill, Mr Durkan also cited similar advice he had received from leading barrister David Elvin QC – but this has since been countered by advice from Attorney General John Larkin (above right), made public by the Belfast Telegraph last week.

Appearing at Stormont's environment committee on Thursday, Mr Durkan said he had only seen this advice from Mr Larkin for the first time the previous day.

"He does advise ministers on issues. I don't know if he advises every minister on every issue – if that is the case, he is not always right."

Mr Durkan told MLAs at the committee that Mr Elvin is one of the top five QCs on the island of Ireland, specialising in planning law, and he firmly stood by the advice he had received from him.

"Had the bill gone through with the amendments intact, I have no doubt that it would have been subject to judicial review and legal challenge," he said.

Groups opposed to the amendments were "queuing up" to do just that and it would not have done anything to speed up the transfer of planning powers.

The bill is aimed at accelerating some of the reforms that would allow for the transfer of planning powers to the new councils.

Many of these reforms can still be brought forward without the bill, "administratively or through policy", Mr Durkan said.

Some work has already been done on drawing up 11 development plans for the new council clusters and there is also work being done on addressing pre-application community consultation and enforcement.

Meanwhile, some powers will be brought forward in an SPPS policy, expected to be complete by the end of the year. Mr Durkan said it would then go out to public consultation and should be in place before elections in 2015.

Officials are currently working on this SPPS with academics from Queens' University Belfast and the University of Ulster, he said.

Sinn Fein MLA Cathal Boylan asked why the bill had to be scrapped after all the scrutiny carried out by the environment committee.

But Mr Durkan said that following consideration stage, the amendments had become part of the bill and, in his opinion, couldn't be separated from it again.

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