OFMDFM’s planning ‘power grab’ approved

Environmentalists fear that the Planning Bill changes could lead to reckless development in scenic areas such as Strangford - picture Gavan Caldwell
Environmentalists fear that the Planning Bill changes could lead to reckless development in scenic areas such as Strangford - picture Gavan Caldwell

The DUP and Sinn Fein’s MLAs last night joined forces to back changes which would see new planning powers given to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’ department.

The amendments to the Planning Bill – which would allow the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) to designate any area of Northern Ireland as an area where they would oversee relaxed planning regulations – were tabled at short notice on Thursday evening and debated yesterday.

Today another DUP-Sinn Fein amendment, which would restrict the circumstances in which planning decisions could be legally challenged, will be debated before the final chance to change the bill passes next Tuesday.

Prior to the late-night vote, Environment Minister Alex Attwood said it was “the most one-sided debate” about a law in the Assembly which he could ever remember with “relentlessly one-way traffic” and little response from the big parties, particularly from Sinn Fein’s near-empty benches.
The SDLP minister read to MLAs legal advice which he said showed the proposed ‘power grab’ was illegal.

The haste with which the proposal materialised meant that many Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs appeared ropey on the detail of their own plan, but it passed by 60 votes to 32.

Mr Attwood praised the DUP’s Simon Hamilton for “putting his head above the parapet” but the UUP’s Tom Elliott said that the amendment’s other proposer, Sinn Fein’s Cathal Boylan, had seemed “unenthusiastic...he didn’t even seem to be fully across this amendment”.

After SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said that it was a “fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-citizen” move, Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan said: “It’s hard to disagree with Patsy.” Mr Flanagan complained that he had only two pages of information on which to make a decision about the merits of the plan but insisted that it would not lead to fracking in Fermanagh. He admitted that it could have been handled “a bit better”.

At another point, DUP MLA Jim Wells – himself a qualified planner – said that he was not certain about aspects of the amendment.

DUP colleague Simon Hamilton defended the proposal and said it would benefit areas chosen for the relaxed planning rules. He added: “The reasons that OFMDFM would take a role in this is because of the cross-cutting nature of economically significant planning applications for our number one priority, which, I hope we all agree, is growing, rebalancing and rebuilding our economy.”

Basil McCrea said it would “at a single stroke do away with the Department of the Environment”, something the DUP’s Lord Morrow said was wrong.

The SDLP’s Dolores Kelly claimed it was “yet another power-grab by Peter and Martin” to enact a “developers’ charter”.

At one point, Speaker Willie Hay stopped Green Party leader Steven Agnew from referring to the DUP as the “Developers’ Union Party”. Mr Agnew said there was “already suspicion of corruption in the Planning Service” and said that as parties do not have to reveal their donors, developers could be funding parties who decide lucrative planning applications.

He said it would allow for “complete deregulation of planning at the whim of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister where they so decide”. Amid a barrage of opposition to the proposal, TUV leader Jim Allister said that the Environment Minister had been “ambushed by an eight-page amendment” a few working hours before it came to the Assembly”. He said that it was “the most audacious power-grab that this house has seen for some time...such a power grab that it would do any totalitarian regime proud”.

And, rounding on his former party, Mr Allister said: “The developer donors to the DUP will be delighted and some are rubbing their hands with glee thinking that investments are going to make a good return.”

Alliance’s Anna Lo claimed the amendments were “cooked up by Sinn Fein and the DUP working closely together behind closed doors”.