Suspicions of corruption will hang over every planning decision, an MLA last night said after it emerged that councillors deciding on planning applications will not have to declare if their party received money from the developer.
Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland’s party donors are secret but until now planning has been handled by officials, with councillors only being consulted on decisions.
The Department of the Environment believes that a mandatory code of conduct for councillors will lower the potential for corruption.
But as it currently stands, that code does not mention party funding.
Last night Green Party leader Steven Agnew, whose party voluntarily publishes details of large donations, said: “I am very disappointed this loophole in transparency has been created during the transfer of powers to the new 11 ‘super councils’.
“I don’t believe a code of conduct goes far enough and suspicions will now hang over every planning decision because of lack of party funding transparency.
“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 interests of party supporters?”
In the rest of the UK, political parties have to declare the identity of their major donors, allowing journalists or members of the public to establish whether a politician is taking decisions which favour someone who has funded their party.
But claims from most of the major parties in Northern Ireland that their donors could be targeted by terrorists mean that the identity of our parties’ financial backers remains secret.
At present, planning is handled by officials, with the minister of the environment ultimately responsible. While councils are consulted on planning applications in their area, they do not rule on them.
But, under the Local Government Bill, which is going through the Assembly, councillors in the 11 new councils will in future rule on planning applications.
Environmentalists have expressed fears that the combination of secret party funding and councillors deciding on planning requests could be a recipe for corruption.
The Department of the Environment (DoE) is developing a mandatory code of conduct for councillors, which will require them to declare interests. That, the department believes, will substantially reduce the potential for corruption.
However, as the bill currently stands, there is no explicit reference to party funding.
A spokeswoman for the department said that the code of conduct would “clarify that a councillor sitting on the planning committee would be expected to be apolitical and to take planning decisions in the public interest”.
The code would also “advise” that party group meetings should not be used to decide how councillors sitting on a planning committee should vote on an application.
In a similar way that Westminster has the ultimate sanction of imposing direct rule over the heads of Stormont, the minister of the environment will retain the power to remove certain powers such as planning from the new councils if serious problems are repeatedly being made.
However, the threshold for such a drastic decision is likely to be very high.
The DoE said that Stormont will provide a “regional planning policy framework, including the Regional Development Strategy and the Strategic Planning Policy Statement, within which the new district councils will develop their own local development plan for their areas”.
Those local development plans could include policies for development in the countryside or special areas of protection. Those plans will have to be submitted to the DoE for “independent examination”.
Regional planning will remain with Stormont, but each of the 11 councils will be responsible for local development plans within their areas.
The process has been further complicated by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’s (OFMDFM) planning ‘power grab’ in June.
That saw, at short notice, the DUP and Sinn Fein combining forces to vote through amendments to the Planning Bill which would allow OFMDFM to designate any area of Northern Ireland as somewhere where they would oversee relaxed planning regulation.
It is unclear whether that power will override the jurisdiction being given to local councils.
Elections to the new councils are to take place next May, with the new councils operating in shadow form for a year before taking over from the 26 councils.