People who believe that all roads lead to prosperity will have been dismayed that Mr Justice Stephens is considering a halt to the £330m A5 dual carriageway, because of the failure of the Department of Regional Development to carry out an adequate survey of the likely impact on the River Foyle and River Finn Special Areas of Conservation.
Flowers, fish and furry animals, ancient ruins and ravishing scenery — how on earth, the same people ask, could such fuzzy considerations be allowed to stand in the way of progress?
Many people living in areas along the route, organised into the Alternative A5 Alliance, challenge the notion that construction of the road would constitute progress: instead, they argue, damage to the environment would be a step backwards.
The position of the main Executive parties is that economic imperatives trump all else. Lamenting Mr Justice Stephens’ comments, West Tyrone Sinn Fein MLA Declan McAleer declared it “essential” that the road goes ahead: it “could create around 800 construction jobs”.
His colleague, the DUP’s Jimmy Spratt, saw Declan’s 800 and raised him four, referring to “the 1,200 jobs which could result”.
Neither felt a need to explain the basis of his guesstimate. Mere mention of “economic development, “job creation”, etc liberates politicians from the restraints of logic, or need for explanation.
The fact that the green agenda could create more, and more sustainable, jobs is rarely factored into any of the main parties’ assessments. A separate and more urgent expression of the same priorities emerges from proposed amendments to the 2011 Planning Act. Tomorrow is the last day of consultation on the changes.
The Assembly’s environment committee specifies that, “The aims of the Bill... include: faster processing of planning applications; simpler and tougher enforcement of planning offences; enhancing the environmental aspects of planning; fairer and faster consideration of planning appeals and enhanced community involvement in the planning process.”
What’s most significant is what’s left out: there is no mention of the new clause which would elevate “economic development” above all other criteria. The duties of the Planning Appeals Commission already include “furthering sustainable development”. The new proposal would add to this “promoting economic development”. Broadly speaking, “sustainable development” refers to striking a balance between economic, social and environmental factors, whereas “economic development” refers to growth.
So planners would first have to balance the economic arguments against the other criteria, then balance the conclusion against arguments arising from economic growth on its own. Professor Geraint Ellis, of the Department of Planning and Architecture at Queen’s, has described the measure as “overly complex” and “absurd”.
The absurdity is evident from the fact that there is no agreement on what “economic development” means in a particular context. There’s obviously more to it than jobs. But what?
Professor Ellis mentions that the phrase can refer to “job displacement, impact on the balance of payments, multiplier effects and the evaluation of alternative development options... the potential cost to public service ... increases in traffic congestion…”
Which of these criteria should apply to this, or that, planning application? And who is to make this decision? Planning staff have no necessary expertise in economics or economic forecasting.
If, say, an applicant boosts her project’s appeal under “economic growth” with a job-creation estimate of 100 jobs and, five years later, only 23 have materialised, can planning permission be withdrawn and the factory, or whatever, demolished? The absurdity of the scheme is multifaceted.
But, surely, if things go awry, the independent appeals procedure will kick in and make everything right? That’s old thinking. In the new world, where economics is all, the minister will have power directly to appoint Planning Appeal Commissioners. Friends of the Earth (FoE) pointed out that there can be no reason for this — the PAC can already draft temporary commissioners if their workload becomes too onerous — other than to introduce new officials answerable to the minister and with up-to-the-minute disdain for fuddy-duddy environmentalists.
FoE invites us to consider a plan to raze St Anne’s Cathedral to the ground in favour of a high-end shopping and entertainment complex, providing hundreds of jobs. Let’s be honest: what does St Anne’s contribute to the economy? Or, now that I think of it, the Glens of Antrim. And couldn’t we demolish Derry’s Walls and create a ring-road? To link up with the A5, perhaps?