Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Proper planning laws are crucial

Earlier this year leading retailer John Lewis withdrew its plans for a department store near Lisburn, its first in the province. Essentially the company had run out of patience at the planning process which had been ongoing for nine years at that point and had involved numerous judicial reviews and countless objections to the development.

Given the profile of the retailer it was a bad blow to the image of Northern Ireland as a place to do business. It was not the first company to cite the protracted planning process as a disincentive to investment.

It might seem strange then to congratulate new Environment Minister Mark H Durkan for withdrawing a new planning bill which has taken four years to draft. But many will have sympathy with his description of the 11th hour amendments made to the Bill in June which he said had turned the proposed legislation toxic.

The amendments would have restricted the rights to protest at developments and also gave some powers to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

Mr Durkan saw the interference of the OFMDFM as intolerable and it does smack of the DUP and Sinn Fein using their numerical superiority in the Assembly to grab powers for themselves irrespective of what others may think. But this must not become a battle of words or wits between the parties or even between competing legal advice. Compelling reasons for new planning laws remain and Mr Durkan must move swiftly to bring new regulations before the Assembly and into force.

There has been a concerted effort made this year to attract new investors to Northern Ireland. That would be a great waste of time unless the planning process is sufficiently streamlined to deal with new applications in a proper and fit manner. That includes enshrining the right to protest.

No developer has an inherent right to a positive response, but they deserve a speedy decision taking into account all relevant proposals and objections.

Mr Durkan's job is to provide such a process as soon as possible and he should be allowed to do so without undue interference.

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