The DUP and Sinn Fein joined forces for the second night in a row last night to vote through controversial planning reforms which provoked allegations of “fascism” from rival MLAs.
Members of Stormont’s two main parties had the numbers to comfortably see through a proposal which restricts the ability of individuals to legally challenge planning decisions.
Amendment 26 to the Planning Bill saw fierce criticism of the two lead parties in the Executive, a day after they voted through proposals to give Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ department the power to relax planning regulations by creating special economic zones.
Yesterday’s amendment – which emerged at short notice at the end of last week – faced a barrage of criticism from rival MLAs and only limited defence from the sparsely-occupied DUP and Sinn Fein benches.
And, whereas the DUP’s Peter Weir spoke confidently and took several interventions from rival MLAs as he argued that it was necessary to curtail court challenges to speed the planning process, Sinn Fein’s Cathal Boylan read large sections of his speech explaining the amendment and declined to take questions from other MLAs.
Mr Boylan denied the accusation, made during the previous day’s debate, that his heart was not in what he was saying and that he was unenthusiastic about the proposals, saying that “nothing could be further from the truth”. Mr Weir said that “the planning regime has, at times, been a disincentive” to investment.
NI21’s Basil McCrea said that the proposals were “getting close to fascism and I don’t say that lightly...it’s tantamount to a fascist state in a totalitarian mode”.
Reading a section of the amendment which said that some planning decisions “shall not be subject to appeal or liable to be questioned in any court”, Mr McCrea said it was “a fundamental challenge to our democracy” and argued that any government decision should be open to challenge if it was unlawful. Green Party leader Steven Agnew said that “to err is to be human” and by restricting challenges to ministerial decisions, the two main parties were suggesting that ministers were infallible.
SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said there had been a “power grab from local councils” on Monday night and yesterday there was “a power grab from citizens”.
Alliance’s Stewart Dickson said that he “heard the echo of the jackboot” in the amendment while TUV leader Jim Allister said that it was a “tyrannical” message from ministers to citizens saying: “How dare you challenge my decision?”
But DUP minister Edwin Poots said that “the judicial review process has been abused”.
He argued that judicial reviews had “very often [been] a lawyers’ charter paid for by legal aid” or else a forum for rival developers attempting to block each other.
But Mr Allister said that removing challenge to decisions was “an invitation to bad and corruptible decisions” as there was “no court looking over your shoulder”. And he said that some DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs would vote for the amendments having not even read them and even if they did, some “would probably not even understand them”.