The Planning Bill is probably the most important Bill to come before the Assembly, as it will affect all planning decisions for decades to come. To develop our economy, we need a new planning system, as the present system is not fit for purpose. No one is happy with the present system, whether they be developers, councillors, environmentalists or residents. In saying that, I do not blame planning staff, whom I have always found to be efficient, helpful and very professional.
The planning system was drawn up to address the problems in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The system is unnecessarily bureaucratic, lengthy, inflexible and undemocratic and is not suitable for the twenty-first century. It is necessary to carry out a fundamental reform of the system, and, therefore, I welcome the Bill. However, given its size and scope, it is disappointing that the Bill has been introduced so late in the session. Like Members who spoke previously, I am concerned that we will not have adequate time to debate many of its important clauses and will not be able to hear from as many of the stakeholders who want to give evidence as we would like.
I declare an interest as a member of North Down Borough Council for the past 30 years. In that time, I have probably dealt with 30,000 planning applications, attended hundreds of site meetings and given evidence to dozens of Planning Appeals Commission inquiries. I have experienced all the frustrations of the present planning system. As a result, I have no doubt that there must be major reform of the system. It is undemocratic, and there is great frustration among councillors and the public, whose views are often ignored.
I shall give a recent example. The Planning Service has failed to protect our built heritage. Over the years, I have sat in the council chamber as hundreds of applications were approved that were, in fact, acts of environmental vandalism. In many cases, the applications were opposed by every member of the council and hundreds of objections were submitted, yet planning permission was still granted. That cannot be acceptable.
As a result of the present situation, we in north Down have seen leafy suburbs destroyed and turned into concrete jungles, picturesque villages dominated by apartments, and mature native trees felled to enable another row of townhouses to be crammed in. Although I support the return of planning powers to councils, it is essential that there are appropriate safeguards to ensure that the powers cannot be abused by councillors. I will come back to that point later.
I have some concerns with the Bill. Although it is full of aspiration to achieve a new efficient Planning Service, there are few details of exactly how that will be achieved. The role of planning is to facilitate development while protecting the environment. In the Bill’s explanatory and financial memorandum, there is much emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness but little on protection of the environment. It is not clear that the Bill has got the balance right, and it appears that it has not, because no provision for third-party appeals is included. Ms Ritchie raised that issue. The legislation is biased in favour of applicants, who are given the right of appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission. Even if objectors have the full support of the council, as has been the case on many occasions in north Down, they have no right of appeal. The new Bill should have included third-party appeals to give equal rights —
The present system is undemocratic, and I hope that the new system should be much more democratic. I welcome the transfer of enforcement powers to local councils. That will be welcomed by residents.
There is a widespread public perception that the Department does not have the will or the resources to take action against breaches of planning law. In fact, there is a massive backlog of enforcement cases that could be resolved if adequate resources were made available. If the Department had the will, some of the surplus planners who are now being redeployed or made redundant could be allocated to clear up the enforcement cases. Two years ago, I raised the case of trees that were felled at Myrtle Lodge, Bryansford, in Newcastle, even though they were covered by a tree preservation order (TPO). That case has not yet been resolved. There is a backlog with enforcement, and more resources could be given to that.
I have no doubt that, if that power were transferred to councils, they would take much more energetic action. The failure to reach early resolution on such cases reinforces the public perception that developers can get away with ignoring environmental laws. The transfer of responsibility for enforcement to the councils will help to restore public confidence. Will the Minister confirm that the full power to prosecute under TPOs will be transferred from the Department to the councils?
I support the Minister’s decision to go ahead with the proposals on the basis of the existing 26 councils — an issue that has been raised on a number of occasions. It is perfectly acceptable to go ahead with the 26 councils. As I have argued on many occasions, the RPA has failed to meet any of its objectives. In particular, it has failed to identify any significant savings and would cost £150 million upfront to implement. To go ahead with reorganisation now would be financially irresponsible and result in large cuts to other services. The reforms can apply just as easily to the 26 councils, and I support their going ahead.
I wish to raise a number of issues relating mainly to Parts 2 to 5. The Green Party welcomes Part 2, which concerns local development plans. There should be more local and council involvement in the preparation of local development plans. The involvement of the council and the preparation of the statement of community involvement will give local people more influence and ownership of their plans. However, it is essential that local councils co-operate in the drawing up of plans, particularly in the greater Belfast area.
A major development in one district council area can have a significant impact on neighbouring council areas. Under the new Ards area plan, for example, there is a development of thousands of houses on the Bangor side of Newtownards. The people who live in those houses will use the Rathgael Road in Bangor, which is already gridlocked, to get to Belfast. Ards Borough Council is improving thousands of houses, but the infrastructure that those houses require is in Bangor. Therefore, when drawing up those types of plans, consultation should take place between councils.
We must learn lessons from BMAP and not ignore our experience. Each council is responsible for the delivery of its own plan, but should consult neighbouring councils. I am pleased that clause 17 provides for that option.
The present situation in north Down is totally unacceptable. The previous north Down and Ards plan expired in 1995 and is now 15 years out of date. We still await the completion of BMAP, which will supersede that. The draft BMAP plan sets out measures, such as those that councils have been talking about, to protect our local villages, and it designates Helen’s Bay and Crawfordsburn as areas of village character. Those measures were included in the draft plan that was published in 2004 but is not yet in operation. Over that period, a number of architecturally important houses have been demolished and replaced by apartment blocks, and we lose more and more of our built heritage every year. If BMAP is not adopted soon, there will be nothing left to protect. That would not have happened if North Down Borough Council had had the responsibility of drawing up the plan.
We support Part 3, which details the transfer of planning control to councils. However, we have reservations and will require some assurances on whether the necessary safeguards have been provided to prevent the abuse of power.
If the transfer of planning control to councils is to be successful, it will require a total transformation of the culture and role of the councillor in planning matters. It would be unacceptable for a councillor to campaign for a particular planning application at the same time as being involved in the decision-making. Members of planning committees cannot be seen to be biased in making their decisions.
As other Members said, there must be intensive training for councillors. Members of planning committees, for example, should not discuss planning applications or give any opinion prior to hearing the evidence of the committee. There must be no whipping system or attempts to pressurise planning officers. A code of conduct based on the Nolan principles should be drawn up. Councillors must be impartial and perceived to be impartial. Anyone involved in making planning decisions cannot take part in the campaigning in which all councillors are, at present, involved. Councillors involved in planning decisions must keep above the debate until they hear the evidence. That way, those councillors will be perceived as being impartial.
The emphasis in Part 3 of the Bill appears to be on getting quicker decisions. However, previous experience shows that, in cutting the time required, one reduces the opportunity for consultation and limits the power of objectors. Therefore, that emphasis should be balanced with a more comprehensive form of neighbourhood notification and the requirement to post a notice of planning application on the site, as is the case in the Republic of Ireland and in some parts of England.
We also believe that the legislation should include the right of the applicant and objectors to address planning committees. Indeed, that right is included in the planning legislation in Scotland and England.
Although the Bill will transfer responsibility for development control to councils, it is not clear exactly how councils will exercise that power. That raises a number of questions, which I assume will be dealt with later through subordinate legislation. However, I will perhaps put those questions to the Minister now. How will the various categories be decided? Will the practice in England and Scotland, where 90% of planning applications are decided by planning officers and never reach the full council, be implemented here? We have to decide which applications will be dealt with by planning officers and which ones will be referred to the whole council. When the applications reach the council, will it be the full council that makes the decision or will it be a planning committee with delegated powers? Will every councillor be involved in the decision? That is an important issue. There is a practice, particularly in Scotland, whereby planning committees, which are made up of a portion of councillors, make the decisions. However, they can call for a local review if the application is turned down. Local review committees can be set up which include other councillors who were not on the original planning committee. Perhaps we should look at how councils make decisions.
We welcome the transfer of planning powers to local government. Until we feel confident enough to take over responsibility for planning, we have not reached full maturity as a democracy. Those issues should be decided by local councillors and local representatives. However, given recent controversies, I am somewhat concerned. The public perception of public dealings in the past year is one of dishonesty, and, if we transfer planning powers to local councils, we must ensure that we retain public confidence in the integrity of the planning process. Therefore, it is essential that we adopt safeguards to prevent the abuse of power. Following the rows last year about expenses and planning, the public perception of politicians is not high, and planning has always been a controversial issue.
We can look at the experience of the Irish Republic. Charlie Haughey’s re-zoning, the handing out of brown envelopes and the Flood tribunal all related to the abuse of planning powers. At the time of the Macrory report in 1970, I recall evidence being given to the effect that one of the issues that resulted in the transfer of powers away from local councils was local government abuse of those powers. Therefore, councils’ abuse of planning powers is a long-standing issue.
I hope that those details will be included in subordinate legislation, as they are important in ensuring safeguards and integrity in the planning process. Without safeguards, I would not support the transfer of planning to local councils.
I will raise many other important issues when the Bill comes to the Environment Committee. I look forward to playing a part in bringing forward the Bill, which will facilitate development for decades to come while promoting sustainability and protecting our environment.