Belfast Telegraph

Row erupts as planning Bill binned: Durkan accused of 'flying in the face of democracy'

BY NOEL MCADAM

The Assembly and Executive have been plunged into a blazing new row, with the Environment Minister being accused of "flying in the face of democracy" for scrapping the new planning legislation.

Despite winning majority support among MLAs, the new rules were binned yesterday – potentially endangering the prospect of retail giant John Lewis coming.

The last Assembly session saw MLAs pass amendments giving First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness powers to establish special economic planning zones – for major projects like John Lewis – but also limiting the grounds for court challenges.

The then Environment Minister Alex Attwood slammed the move as a "power grab". Now, after two Assembly debates and costly consultations and committees, it could still end up in the courts.

There was speculation Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness could test Environment Minister Mark H Durkan's decision to withdraw the Bill in a judicial review. The DUP accused the SDLP minister of "flying in the face of democracy" while Sinn Fein complained he had failed to consult Attorney General John Larkin.

Mr Durkan told MLAs he had reached his verdict over the weekend – and had not informed other Executive Ministers.

He accused the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's Office of attempting to make themselves into a new planning authority for Northern Ireland – while the rights of citizens to oppose developments would be severely curtailed.

He told MLAs legal advice said the bill was unlawful, would breach human rights and rejected claims that not consulting the Executive had broken the ministerial code.

The DUP, however, darkly hinted another minister may now attempt to process the Bill, which had passed a second reading and had been scrutinised.

The party's chief whip Peter Weir said: "Despite a majority being in favour of this legislation, Mr Durkan is allowing party politics to cloud his judgment and defy the will of the Assembly."

However, Mr Durkan was praised for his "courage and commitment" by the chair of the committee which monitors his department, Alliance MLA Anna Lo.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, said: "John Lewis' enormous patience must not be taken for granted and Stormont needs to get to grips."

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