A former environment minister has said that planning law should be tightened up to help stop the planning system being “bedevilled” by judicial review bids.
Sammy Wilson, East Antrim MP, was speaking on Saturday after leave was granted for a judicial review into the handling of the Woodburn oil exploration project near Carrickfergus.
Protestors have objected to the way the authorities have dealt with InfraStrata’s plan for a borewell in the forest, which lies close to a number of drinking water reservoirs.
InfraStrata has denied that there is a risk posed by the chemicals it is using to the nearby water supply, and had warned in court that interfering with the project risked causing the firm financial “ruin”.
A key aspect of the controversy surrounding the firm’s project is that it has proceeded on the grounds that it is “permitted development” – meaning it did not have to submit any planning application.
Mr Wilson said: “I said this when I was environment minister as well – the planning system in Northern Ireland is bedevilled by these judicial reviews. And the threshold for judicial reviews in Northern Ireland seems to be far, far lower than the threshold for judicial reviews in any other part of the UK.”
He said this latest case is “yet another example of why we probably do need to have a strengthening of the planning laws”, in order to stop protestors using existing rules as a basis to try and halt developments.
He repeated his charge that some of the protestors are “hypocrites”, on the grounds that they own motor vehicles which rely on oil.
He accused them of “NIMBYism” (with NIMBY standing for ‘Not In My Back Yard’), and added: “Unfortunately the planning system and the judicial system in Northern Ireland does set a very low threshold to allow these objectors to hold up investment and hold back planning decisions.”
Meanwhile at the weekend the Stop the Drill campaign group issued a statement about the decision to give the go-ahead for a judicial review of the Woodburn project.
It dubbed this a “massive victory”, adding: “Throughout this process we have sought the right to participate in the decisions that will have a significant environmental impact.
“This is a human right and ratified by the Aarhus Convention.
“Not being allowed to participate in this decision is a violation of that right.”
Mr Wilson’s tough-talking rhetoric contrasts with that of the party’s headquarters.
When the News Letter asked the DUP’s press office what the official party stance is on the issue, it responded: “We believe that it is important to explore different energy sources to help provide a wider and more sustainable energy mix, and to potentially reduce prices for consumers.
“Any potential source should only be exploited however if it can be proven that it can be done so safely and without an adverse impact upon the environment.”