Poor Anna Friel – if she had breached planning in NI, it would have been OK

Anna Friel, who has been ordered to demolish an extension to her �1m Windsor home

Anna Friel, who has been ordered to demolish an extension to her �1m Windsor home

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The actress Anna Friel is reported to have been embroiled in a major planning dispute over an extension to her £1 million home in Windsor.

The star, who has appeared in programmes such as Brookside, was ordered to tear down the addition to the Grade II-listed townhouse.

Apparently neighbours complained that she had not used the approved materials in the single storey extension, the cost of which has been estimated in the media at £100,000.

Conservation and enforcement officers are said to have decided that the materials used were not appropriate for the surrounding area.

Anna’s father is from Belfast. If she was going to breach planning, she should have done so in Northern Ireland.

A demolition order?

Not a chance.

Retrospective planning would probably have been granted, even if it had been a serious breach.

If the breach had merely related to materials, it is almost inconceivable that demolition would have been the outcome, even if it was a conservation area.

Planning enforcement in Northern Ireland is pitiable – and an insult to the majority of people who patiently play by the rules and put in planning applications by which they then abide.

For more than 15 years in Northern Ireland as a reporter or news editor, I have followed or been aware of or reported on or commissioned stories about cases of weak enforcement by planners.

My colleague Adam Kula this week put together some statistics on the issue. He found that a tiny fraction of planning breaches have been prosecuted.

Out of 7,905 alleged breaches between 2009 and 2015, just 78 led to prosecutions. Only 17 cases led to a fine of £1,000 or more.

You do not need to be journalist to know that planning enforcement is inadequate.

Close to my Belfast home, I can think of two serious breaches. In one of the cases, an extension that is entirely out of character with the neighbourhood, that takes up almost all of what was a garden and that was turned into a separate dwelling was approved retrospectively.

There is not a chance that someone who had formally applied for such an ugly separate dwelling would have got permission.

There are many examples of this across Northern Ireland, in which breaches that cause great distress to neighbours have been waved through retrospectively.

It sends out a signal to people that they might as well not bother with the planning process. Of course very few people would be so bold (and despicable) as to dispense with a planning application altogether, but many more know that they can push their development far beyond the permission that was originally granted, safe in the knowledge that there will be minimal repercussions.

NI has notably slack planning compared to three other countries in which I have spent a lot of time: England, France and the United States.

I was born in the latter, in the state of Maine. America has a reputation for being a country of free-wheeling capitalism but planning regulations in those parts of New England with which I am familiar are very tight – as they should be in any well-organised society.

If you breached planning in most of France, England, or New England in the way that is routinely allowed here, you would be subject to demolition orders – as Anna Friel has just discovered to her cost.

Until planners here take a similarly high profile enforcement approach, widespread breaches will continue.

If you know of a serious planning breach that has been met with a weak enforcement response, email adam.kula@newsletter.co.uk or call 02890 897721

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry: From Stormont to the Falls Road, via the York Street junction