Judge overturns planning approval for 240 social houses in west Belfast
A "substantial failure by the planning authority"
A High Court judge has quashed a decision to approve partial development on a site zoned for at least 240 social houses in west Belfast.
Mr Justice Maguire held that planning permission was unlawfully granted for land bought from the City Council for nearly £1.6 million.
He also identified a "substantial failure" by the relevant authorities in a case involving concerns over building property in the area on a piecemeal basis.
His verdict means Department of the Environment planning chiefs are expected to reconsider the application by housing association Choice, taking into consideration a requirement for comprehensive development.
The legal action centred on land off the Glen Road, zoned under the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) to meet social housing need in the area.
Choice purchased part of the site and sought permission to build just over 90 homes.
But the council deliberately retained a "ransom strip" - a small piece of land crucial to unlocking the development potential of adjacent plots within the BMAP zoning.
That meant it could extract maximum value from any others seeking to build in the area.
A challenge to the granting of planning permission in March last year was mounted by neighbouring landowners Tony and Patrick O'Hare.
They contended that it created a ransom strip which rendered their own plot inaccessible.
It was also argued that the situation was at odds with planning policy, and fundamentally prejudicial to the goal of comprehensive development within the zoning.
Under the BMAP blueprint for the site unsatisfactory piecemeal development which could result in a fragmented new neighbourhood was not to be permitted.
Judicial review proceedings issued by the O'Hares were not contested by the Department.
The court heard that at the time of the decision to approve Choice's application proper consideration was not given to a relevant planning policy.
As the case shifted to arguments on remedies, counsel for the Ohares insisted planning permission should be quashed.
David Scoffield QC contended that the neglected policy amounted to a departmental failure.
The public interest in comprehensive development of the BMAP zoning had been prejudiced by the decision, he told the court.
According to Mr Scoffield allowing 92 dwellings jeopardised a minimum further 148 social houses which planning policy dictates have to be provided.
His clients, he submitted, were cut off from access due to City Council's ransom strip of key land and the failure to comprehensively develop the entire site.
Stewart Beattie QC, for Choice, countered that the non-profit making organisation was trying to help meet an acute need for social housing in west Belfast.
It was also disclosed in court that Choice was being supported by £5.6 million in grant aid from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
Mr Beattie claimed that funding was at risk if the Choice project was not completed.
But despite recognising the potential prejudice to either the housing association or the council, Mr Justice Maguire held that the planning permission decision must be quashed.
Pointing to the importance of the issue, he said: "The unlawfulness in this case goes to the root of the planning authority's functions.
"There has, on any view, been a substantial failure by the planning authority... to consider material considerations and reach a planning judgment which reconciles the various interests and policies at issue."
Even though the City Council now has power to deal with planning decisions, the judge recommended that it should be left with the Department to make a fresh decision on Choice's application.