Out of order – MLA’s question on potential for planning corruption

Steven Agnew
Steven Agnew

Assembly Speaker Willie Hay has stopped an MLA from asking a question about the potential for corruption in Northern Ireland’s planning system.

Green Party MLA Steven Agnew yesterday attempted to ask Environment Minister Mark H Durkan about the anomaly in Northern Ireland – unlike the rest of the UK – whereby councillors are to be given control of lucrative planning decisions but not have to reveal whether developers bankroll their parties.

The North Down MLA was responding to the SDLP minister’s announcement of a new draft strategic planning policy statement for Northern Ireland which simplifies 20 existing policies into one much smaller document.

Mr Agnew, one of many MLAs to ask questions of the minister, asked Mr Durkan: “Does the minister accept that, for as long as parties fail to publish who donates to the party, the planning system cannot be transparent and, indeed, will continue to be open to corruption?”

At that point, in an unusual move, Mr Hay ruled the question out of order, stopping the minister from responding.

Mr Hay said: “The member is well outside the ministerial statement. It is very unfair to ask the minister to comment on donations to political parties in Northern Ireland. I think that we should leave it there.”

Speaking outside the chamber, Mr Agnew said that although he welcomed Mr Durkan’s new policy, voters still could not see “who is really pulling the strings in politics through funding and donation of political parties”.

Mr Agnew, whose party voluntarily publishes details of all donations over £500, said: “Every political decision in Northern Ireland is open to questions of undue influence from vested interests – from planning decisions to procurement contracts, the question is always asked: ‘was this decision made in the public interest or in the interests of party funders?’.

“As it stands at the moment, what is proposed in this draft legislation does not go far enough as donors can still hide behind a veil of secrecy.”

The DUP’s Jonathan Craig highlighted that councillors would “become decision-makers, whereas, at present, they are lobbyists in the planning process”. He said there was “a massive conflict of interest between those two roles”.

Yesterday’s planning policy – which is now out for public consultation – contains several significant policies.

The document as it stands would strongly favour the development of town centres as opposed to out of town retail parks. Mr Durkan revealed that a fifth of shops in some town centres are lying empty, with Carrickfergus and Ballymena in the worst positions.

It also specifies that there should be a presumption against fracking for shale gas until the department is satisfied about the environmental impact.

Last year the News Letter revealed that when the 11 new ‘super councils’ – which from next year will replace the current 26 councils – are given control of most planning decisions councillors will not have to declare whether an applicant is a donor to their party.