Belfast Telegraph

Minister throws a veil of secrecy over advice he receives on building plans

By Linda Stewart

The environment minister has clamped down on transparency in a move that means the public will not know how the minister’s own agencies have advised him on planning applications until after he makes the decision.

In a Kafkaesque development, minister Alex Attwood has introduced new rules taking away the ability of members of the public to scrutinise the views of Department of the Environment (DoE) experts on planning applications — until it’s too late.

It means that if a body within the DoE objects to an application, its response will no longer be made public on the Planning Portal website while the issue is live.

Major decisions affecting everyone from individuals to entire communities will now be taken without anyone knowing in advance how they could impact upon them.

Bizarrely, the DoE has insisted that the minister believes that the disclosure of the advice of those consulted, be it internal DoE or external organisations, should be disclosed early — not late.

A DoE spokesman said: “The reason for this was that the view of an in-house DOE section, was being treated, by objectors for example, as gospel, whereas it is for the Planning Department to make decisions, with regard to all advice received, be it from within or outside DOE.”

The Green Party has questioned how the public can now have full confidence in the planning system objections from the DoE’s Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Under the new rules, NIEA’s response would have been kept confidential and could not have been scrutinised until after the decision had been made.

And recently, the Department’s Landscape Architects Branch opposed plans to build pitches on Loughside Park, one of the few areas of green parkland on north Belfast’s Shore Road, to make way for a shopping complex centred on an Asda store.

The Belfast Telegraph recently highlighted the concerns of LAB over the loss of open space in a built-up area — but this would have been impossible if their views had been kept from public view.

Another case saw proposals to build 250 homes at Knock Golf Club get the go-ahead from planners, despite breaching five planning guidelines. A senior planning officer recorded his personal view that the plan should be refused but was overruled by colleagues.

Again, the documentation revealing this would have been kept back under the new rules.

A DoE spokesman said the new arrangements were introduced “not in any way to avoid disclosure of advice, but to ensure that the planning system worked best and still upheld the principle of disclosure”.

Case study

The DoE’s Planning Portal contains consultation documents about the controversial decision to approve demolition of the Athletic Stores in Belfast city centre, retaining only the facade. They reveal concerns raised by the case officer, who said the building was considered to make a significant contribution to the Conservation Area through its architectural and historical interest. He expressed concern that the decision could set an “unfortunate precedent” for future similar applications, diminishing the integrity of the Conservation Area. His full comments would not have been available to the public if the new rules had been in place.

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