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New system for planning has its risks

AS a regular visitor to Belfast from Sydney, I have noted certain similarities between the proposal to establish a special planning regime for "economically significant" projects in Northern Ireland and a system introduced in New South Wales some years ago, which allowed the usual planning processes to be overridden for projects determined by the State government to be of major significance to the State.

The essence of the New South Wales system was to substitute Ministerial approval for normal planning processes in the case of these projects.

Its objective was to reduce the scope for narrow local obstructionism to delay or block the development of key public infrastructure, such as dams and port facilities, or of major economic developments, such as mines, manufacturing facilities and agricultural projects.

The experience, however, was that the criteria applied in determining what was a development of State significance eventually became quite generous, so that after several years even suburban apartment blocks and housing estates were accorded 'State significant' status. Predictably, a public perception developed that decisions to designated projects of this kind as 'State significant' could be influenced by the closeness of the developer's relationships with the governing party.

Whilst one would hope that this perception was incorrect, its result was inevitably to reduce popular confidence in the integrity and fairness of the planning system. This became an important issue in the most recent State election, which was won by the opposition. The new State government promptly terminated use of the fast track planning process following its elation.

A study of the former New South Wales system might provide a helpful perspective to the Assembly in considering the current proposal.

A BOXALL

Sydney, Australia

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