Row over new Northern Ireland economic planning zones

A bitter row has broken out within the Northern Ireland government after an amendment to allow for the creation of new 'Economically Significant Planning Zones' was added to the a new planning bill which is progressing through the legislative process.

Northern Ireland's environment minister Alex Attwood
Northern Ireland's environment minister Alex Attwood
Last week an amendment to the planning bill was tabled with the support of Northern Ireland’s first minister Peter Robinson and deputy first minister Martin McGuiness, who represent the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, respectively.

The amendment proposed allowing their department, the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), to create "Economically Significant Planning Zones" (ESPZ).

The amendment said that the "adoption of an economically significant planning zone scheme has effect to grant in relation to the zone, or any part of it specified in the scheme, planning permission for development specified in the scheme or for development of any class so specified".

It also said that such a zone "shall consist of a map and a written statement, and such diagrams, illustrations and descriptive matter as OFMDFM thinks appropriate for explaining or illustrating the provisions of the scheme and must specify - (a) the development or classes of development permitted by the scheme; (b) the land in relation to which permission is granted; and (c) any conditions, limitations or exceptions subject to which it is granted".

A statement from the second largest nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), of which environment minister Alex Attwood is a member, said the minister had not been informed of the proposed changes prior to the amendment being tabled.

In a heated debate in Stormont
yesterday, Attwood hit out at Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Attwood said there had been "whispers" about the plan last week in an economic plan, drawn up by the British government in conjunction with Robinson and McGuinness, which was unveiled before the G8 meeting in Fermanagh. This document said the British government and Northern Ireland Executive were committed to "creating a planning system that supports economic growth".

Attwood said: "Whatever the narrative may have been over the past number of days regarding these amendments, there was a narrative before recent days.  It was a narrative that was, in part, driven by the British Government, with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party and with God knows what when it comes to Sinn Féin.  It was their agenda, not simply the DUP agenda.

"Sinn Féin has to ask itself this question: did we struggle for so long to have devolution in this part of the world, control of our own law and our own destiny, only now to see that responsibility of power pass to a British government who, on the basis of the Budget negotiations, demand of this Assembly new law when it comes to economic zones and impediments to judicial review? That is the question that Sinn Féin has to ask".   

Attwood said he had consulted his legal team to consider the legality of the amendment with relation to European law. He said his legal advice stated there would be problem with the amendment because it envisaged "that planning permission will be granted by the designation of an ESPZ for whatever is specified in the scheme" which would be contrary to EU legislation.

The DUP has defended the amendment. In a statement, the party’s chief whip and environment committee member Peter Weir said the new zones would not circumvent normal planning procedures.

He said: "Whilst OFMDFM will have a key role in the ESPZ given the significant of economic development in the Programme for Government and that Department’s statutory role in cross-cutting matters, the day to day work will remain with DOE. In addition schemes will require the consent of Department for Environment or of the Assembly to be created. These are not Enterprise Zones but would be areas drawn to attract investment providing a faster process to obtain planning permission.

"The kind of knee-jerk opposition from some quarters is either based on a lack of understanding of the detail or simply an attempt to score political points. Companies must be able to react quickly to emerging opportunities and government should facilitate this. For those who may criticise the proposals, undoubtedly their words will be unaccompanied by any concrete proposals as to how they would deal with these issues".

The amendment was approved by 60 votes to 32.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Sign up now
Already registered?
Sign in

Join the conversation with PlanningResource on social media

Follow Us:
Planning Jobs