Bid to save axed Bill's changes

Northern Ireland's environment minister Mark H Durkan has revealed plans to salvage parts of the province's scrapped Planning Bill by including elements in a new policy statement.

Stormont: Planning Bill dropped last week
Stormont: Planning Bill dropped last week

Durkan dropped the Planning Bill last week, after hearing concerns about two of its amendments inserted by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Durkan represents the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

He said he would work to create a planning system that would be "fast, fair and fit for purpose" through the development of a single Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS).

The minister withdrew the Bill following legal advice that an amendment to restrict judicial reviews of planning decisions would breach obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. The amendment would have prevented any judicial review of a planning decision that was not related to the convention or EU law. Durkan had been advised that this unacceptably narrowed the range of decisions that could be reviewed.

Campaign group Belfast City Airport Watch welcomed the withdrawal of the Bill. It said that a successful judicial review in 2011 against a decision by the environment minister to remove part of the planning agreement between the Department of the Environment and the airport would not have been possible had the proposed legislation been in force, as it was challenged on the grounds that it flouted domestic law.

Durkan also cited concerns over an amendment that sought to introduce economically significant planning zones, which he said would cause "confusion" by making the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister a new planning authority in Northern Ireland.

The Bill has now been withdrawn in its entirety, but Durkan added that he remains "fully committed" to changing the planning system.

The Bill was introduced in January to accelerate the implementation of a number of alterations established in Northern Ireland's 2011 Planning Act.

In a statement to Planning, Durkan said withdrawing the Bill would not affect plans to transfer planning functions to councils, which are due to be implemented in 2015.

He added that he intends to "test the reforms on the ground", and outlined plans to bring forward some of the changes through the single SPPS, which is due in draft form at the turn of the year.

He said: "The elements that can be addressed in the SPPS are policy matters that can be clarified and expanded upon in relation to the promotion of sustainable development and economic development, good design, and affirming that economic considerations are material considerations when determining planning applications.

"Some reforms which will not have a legislative footing until the 2011 Act is commenced can be brought forward and tested administratively," he added. "Pre-application community consultation is already being tested on a voluntarily basis with developers."

However, he acknowledged that aspects of the Bill will require legislative provision, such as shorter time limits for submitting planning appeals and increased penalties for a range of offences.

Richard Harwood QC, of Thirty Nine Essex Street, confirmed that some elements of the Bill cannot exist without legislation. He suggested that, "once the dust has settled", the minister may look again at statutory levers to implement change.

Durkan told members of the legislative assembly that he had "evidential concerns" over the Bill as well as legal ones. He said the "planning system is now much better placed to support economic development, providing greater certainty on outcome and timeframes for applications".

PLANNING BILL CONTROVERSY: A PRIMER

Q: What were the two controversial amendments?

A: Environment minister Mark H Durkan's concerns centred on an amendment that would have restricted judicial reviews of planning decisions, and an amendment that sought to introduce economically significant planning zones in Northern Ireland. Durkan said the intention of this latter amendment was to make the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister a new planning authority in Northern Ireland, which he said would introduce "confusion into the planning system". The amendments were added to the Bill during Consideration Stage in June.

Q: What advice did Durkan receive that led to the Bill's withdrawal?

A: He said that he had held meetings with representatives of the business community, local government, environmental groups and academics from Queen's University and the University of Ulster to hear their thoughts on the Planning Bill. In withdrawing it, he also cited legal advice that suggested the amendment to restrict judicial reviews of planning decisions would breach obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Q: How has the Bill's withdrawal been received?

A: There were calls to continue with reforms to the planning system. Roisin Wilmott, head of the Royal Town Planning Institute in Northern Ireland, said: "The Bill has obviously gone. We need to move forward - that is important for Northern Ireland." Michael Gordon, office director at Turley Associates in Belfast, said the impact of the Bill's withdrawal would not be "cataclysmic".


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