Planning Bill: Attorney General John Larkin enters row branding Environment Minister Mark H Durkan's decision 'illogical'
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan's axing of the new Planning Bill has been challenged by Northern Ireland's law chief.
In legal advice requested by the First and Deputy First Ministers – seen by the Belfast Telegraph – Attorney General John Larkin warned the legal basis on which the SDLP minister took his controversial decision is "mistaken" and "illogical".
A row erupted in the Assembly when Mr Durkan dramatically withdrew the Planning Bill, which has been in preparation for four years.
He insisted the Bill had turned "toxic" in June after the Assembly voted through two controversial eleventh hour amendments that would have restricted the power to challenge planning decisions, and handed over some powers to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.
The move prompted warnings from a number of organisations that it would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the UN's Aarhus Treaty, which governs access to justice in environmental matters.
Withdrawing the Bill, Mr Durkan also cited similar advice he had received from barrister David Elvin QC – but this has since been countered by the advice from the Attorney General.
Appearing at Stormont's environment committee yesterday, Mr Durkan said he had only seen the advice from the Attorney General for the first time on Wednesday.
He said: "He hadn't said it prior to that."
The Attorney General also concluded there was "no basis" for an assumption that new planning zones proposed by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness could override other legislation.
It is understood the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister sanctioned the request for advice on the Planning Bill from the Attorney General during their trade trip in the United States, as speculation swept Stormont on Monday that Mr Durkan had decided to withdraw the legislation. The SDLP minister then confirmed to MLAs on Tuesday he had not sought the advice of Mr Larkin, who is legal adviser to the Executive, or informed other ministers of his decision to scrap the planned legislation.
Mr Durkan is likely to come under fire at next week's Executive meeting, at which the two larger parties say they could even force through a vote to 'redesignate' the Bill to another minister.