Common sense must prevail with planning
Northern Ireland's planning laws have often been cited as cumbersome, too slow and a barrier to economic development. Critics cite the proposed John Lewis development, which was first mooted in 2005 and is still no nearer a decision due to legal objections and the demands of a public inquiry, as a prime example to prove their case. While laws should never be framed on the basis of isolated cases, this does make a compelling argument for a revamp of the system.
A new planning measure, currently out for public consultation, would go some way to addressing the problem highlighted by the John Lewis case. Called PPS24, it would give added weight to economic considerations when considering a planning application. On the face of it, this would seem to be a commonsense approach, especially given the dire state of the local economy and the need to attract new investment.
But a group of environment experts are threatening to mount a legal challenge to the measure, claiming that it would give developers carte-blanche to despoil the countryside and also create large out-of-town shopping developments at the expense of existing town centre retailers. They also argue that historic landmarks and tourism could be at risk for such uncontrolled development.
As ever, there is a sense of over-dramatisation in the objectors' argument. However, that does not mean their concerns should be ignored out of hand. Any reform of the planning legislation should be balanced, taking due account of the economic, social and environmental issues at stake.
The ideal solution is a planning process which enables speedy decisions to be reached, but not at the expense of valid concerns. As things currently stand, the planners are often hamstrung and objectors to proposals can draw out the process interminably. It does not serve the province's economic fortunes to erect insuperable obstacles. In a global marketplace, investors will simply take their plans elsewhere. It is surely possible to devise a system combining fairness with speed of decision-making.