A major Executive bill yesterday dramatically collapsed after the SDLP’s minister said that he would not tolerate far-reaching DUP and Sinn Fein amendments.
The Planning Bill, which was to have set in statute major planning reforms which had broad cross-party support, fell while Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were addressing a health conference in America.
The bill, which would have sped up the planning process and toughened fines for those who flout planning decisions, was radically changed following controversial last-minute amendments jointly tabled by the DUP and Sinn Fein in June.
Those changes would have allowed 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. It would also have curtailed the rights of those who object to a planning decision to challenge it in court – changes which the DUP and Sinn Fein insisted were necessary to boost the economy, but which opponents said were a ‘power grab’.
Yesterday the SDLP Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, told the Assembly that after receiving legal advice he would refuse to move his own bill after the amendments.
Last week the News Letter revealed that the legal advice from David Elvin QC, one of the UK’s top planning law experts, said that the changes were unlawful and open to challenge in several areas.
Yesterday’s collapse of the bill throws the Executive’s legislative programme into fresh disarray.
Already one of the few other major bills to have come from the five-party coalition, the Welfare Reform Bill, is months behind schedule because of Sinn Fein’s refusal to allow it to proceed.
Yesterday Mr Durkan told MLAs that while judicial reviews are often high-profile, they are relatively rare.
But despite that, he argued that they were a crucial judicial check on political power.
He said that to give some planning powers to another department “would only introduce only confusion into the planning system”.
He argued that the OFMDFM proposals would also disempower local councils, which are to be given planning powers after being shrunk from 26 councils to 11.
He told the Assembly: “As Members will appreciate, I have grave reservations for legal, procedural and evidential reasons about the amendments to the Planning Bill...therefore, after very careful and lengthy consideration, I have decided not to move the Planning Bill to Further Consideration Stage either now or in the future.”
The Alliance chairwoman of the Assembly committee which scrutinises Mr Durkan’s department, Anna Lo, said there had been “an extremely large number” of responses from the public and others, many of whom “expressed grave concerns” about what was being proposed.
She added: “I congratulate and commend the minister on his courage to stand up to others who want amendments to take away civil liberties and the rights of citizens to bring judicial reviews.”
But DUP MLA Pam Brown said she was “deeply disappointed at the minister’s statement, which, for me, flies in the face of the democratic legislative decision of the Assembly. What approval was sought from the Executive on the decision? Were they even consulted?”
Mr Durkan hit back: “That is a bit rich, when we look at the lack of consultation on the amendments that have made the Bill the toxic legislation that it now is.”
The SDLP minister added: “To be accused of being anti-democratic is a bit rich, when the amendments were not subject to consultation with the Executive, the Environment Committee or even — as far as I am aware — the parties whose members tabled the amendments.”