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Northern Ireland planning bill scrapped

Northern Ireland’s planning minister has torn up a controversial new Planning Bill over legal concerns about proposed amendments

According to Mark Durkan, suggested additions to the 2011 Planning Act restricting the judicial review of planning decisions would have breached human rights.

The amendments to the Planning Bill were added by the assembly in June against the advice of then environment minister Alex Attwood, but these were never scrutinised by Stormont’s environment committee.

Durkan said ‘we should exercise caution’ over the controversial planning clause, which potentially clashed with the European Convention of Human Rights.

In a statement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, added: ‘Judicial review plays an important and legitimate role in ensuring the proper administration of government and Clause 15 would, in effect, remove the court’s ability to review the legality, the rationality and the reasonableness of planning decisions.’

Durkan added: ‘Over the past three years there have been less than 20 judicial reviews of the 44,000 decisions made by the Department of Environment. That’s a tiny fraction of the total number of decisions made. It seems to me that restricting the right of citizens to challenge planning decisions is not only incompatible with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights but also represents taking a hammer to crack a very small nut.

‘The fact is also that the grounds for the most significant and high profile planning JRs of recent years will be unaffected by these amendments to the Bill which acknowledge that a right of appeal to the High Court must remain where there is a question about the compatibility of a decision or determination with EU law.’

He also raised concern over an amendment which would introduce new economically significant planning zones, saying the plans were intended to make the Office of First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) a new planning authority in Northern Ireland, and that this ‘could only introduce confusion into the planning system’.

Aspects of the proposed bill, which was originally designed to speed up planning reforms, will be incorporated into a new document entitled the Single Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SSPPS), which is expected in the new year.

Roisin Willmott, head of the Royal Town Planning Institute in Northern Ireland commented: ‘This is a surprise but it is not a catastrophe.

‘We don’t know what will be contained in the proposed SSPPS. We had been told that there would be no major revision of planning policy unless necessary, but now we don’t know what is likely to happen.’

Michael Corr, director of Belfast’s PLACE Centre for the Built Environment, added: ‘The decision to withdraw the Planning Bill was clearly a difficult decision for the Minister. Issues around Amendment 20 (Special Planning Zones) and 26 (Limiting the right to challenge planning decisions) caused significant concern with many organisations.

‘It is important as we move back to a two tier planning system in Northern Ireland that local councils acquire a quality, fit-for-purpose planning system. A planning system that has sufficient protection for the built and natural environment, but also facilitates sustainable economic growth and development.’ 

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