In cases involving some of the Province’s most important planning rules, less than 3% of those alleged to have disregarded the law have been taken before a court – and of those only a handful of guilty parties have received major fines.
Data which details the number of times legal proceedings were issued by the now-defunct Department of the Environment (DoE) over suspected development breaches show that in statistical terms it is overwhelmingly likely that a developer who flouts planning law will never be taken before a court.
Last night a leading architect warned that if developers know they are likely to get away with flouting the rules “they’re not going to bother going through the system”.
The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that between 2009 and 2015 just 0.98% of the 7,905 alleged planning breaches were taken to court. Due to delays in before a decision to prosecute is taken, a more representative figure is that from 2010, when just 3% of the 1,670 alleged violations were prosecuted.
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Over the last six years, just 17 convictions for planning breaches have resulted in a custodial sentence or a fine of more than £1,000.
When presented with the figures, Marcus Patton, chairman of the Department of Communities’ Historic Buildings Council, said that “if developers know they can probably get away with a breach they’re not going to bother going through the system, so it is important for breaches to be followed up”.
He added: “The departmental solicitor has too often decided not to pursue a case because of a chance of failure.
“But not pursuing is tantamount to losing a case whereas taking it to court might lead to a result.
“If a judge only rarely sees planning prosecutions he will look at most of them and wonder why that particular one has been brought to court when many similar ones have been ignored – if they are taken regularly then they are more likely to be taken seriously.” He added that “a few well-publicised victories will act as deterrents”.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “In my own constituency of North Down I have witnessed the frustration of people seeing others flout planning laws and not facing any sort of repercussions for this, whilst at the same time having to jump through hoops to seek approval for relatively minor alterations themselves.”
THE FIGURES IN DETAIL:
The figures span three categories – demolition of buildings in conservation areas; demolition or modification of listed buildings; and “operational development”, which includes erecting buildings without permission.
They cover the period from 2009/10 up to the end of 2014/15, at which point responsibility for planning shifted to local authorities. The DoE itself no longer exists, and its former functions have been split across different Stormont departments.
The data provides a snapshot of how much legal action had been instigated up until last . More legal cases could have been launched since then, due to the time which it takes to start a case after a breach is spotted.
Nevertheless, the number of alleged breaches outstrips the number of prosecutions by a colossal degree. In the whole six-year period, there were 7,905 alleged breaches of planning across all three of the categories mentioned. The number of prosecutions relating to these was 78 and out of those just 17 cases resulted in a conviction and a fine of £1,000 or more.
On a year-by-year basis, the year with most alleged breaches was 2009/10, with 1,670 recorded.
Of those, 40 involved knocking down a building in a conservation area, or destroying or modifying a listed building. All these activities are supposed to be tightly regulated and require prior consent.
The number of prosecutions which were taken in relation to the 1,670 cases was just 50 – barely more than 3%.
Fast-forward to the last full year of figures, 2014/15, and a total of 1,146 alleged breaches were recorded that year. This included 27 relating to listed buildings or demolitions in conservation zones.
But by the time the figures were compiled last July, zero prosecutions had been launched in relation to any of those 1,146 cases.
A ‘LACK OF WILL TO ACT’:
Nikki McVeigh, chief executive of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, said that the “past record of built heritage-related enforcement is perhaps an indication of a lack of appreciation” when it came to the Province’s architectural and historic fabric.
She said there was a “lack of will to champion and fund enforcement”.
She added that “enforcement needs to be followed through to high level prosecution, fines, and like for like reinstatement where appropriate”.