Warning: planning will not be a ‘free-for-all’ for local councillors

Environment Minister Mark Durkan
Environment Minister Mark Durkan

Councillors have been warned they will risk suspension, being expelled or fined if they abuse controversial new planning laws that will devolve to the Mid-Ulster council.

The so-called super council, covering Dungannon, Cookstown and Magherafelt, is due to get a range of fresh powers when it takes over local government from April 1.

They range from extra responsibility for off-street parking, through to tourism.

Potentially, though, the most contentious issue will be giving councillors the power to accept or reject developments.

Vice chair of the Mid-Ulster Planning Committee, Sinn Fein Councillor Sean Clarke welcomed the new powers, saying they were a great opportunity to add local knowledge and at times common sense into local applications.

“The planning committee makes decision making more democratic and give applicants and objectors more transparency in the system”, he said.

“Council will also create a new Mid Ulster Area Plan which in Tandem with Planning Policy will give us our own opportunity to shape our area according to our needs and not have a one size fits all policy for everywhere. It important to note however that until that plan is ready, the current policy and area plan will be used.

“It certainly does not make planning a free for all and those councillors who will be sitting on the Planning Committee will have to abide by a very strict code of conduct. If any rules are not followed councillors could be suspended, expelled and fined depending on the breach.

“It will take a while for everyone to get used to the new system but it’s a challenge local government are up for and looking forward too.”

Minister of the Environment, Mark H Durkan said: “I want a system that delivers for business, with timely decisions that bring investments and jobs, but not at the expense of our environment, planet or people.

“I want a system for local councils that realises that the environment and the economy should not, and cannot, be at loggerheads. The system will fully recognise that a vibrant, sustainable environment can be a driver of prosperity and job creation. ”

“The benefits of the transfer of planning to local councils, which takes place on 1 April 2015, will be wide-ranging: from improved service delivery to gaining greater community buy-in; from supporting the creation of a shared society to delivering sustainable development.”

Minister Durkan concluded: “From my personal experience as a councillor I understand the importance of having locally elected members who can speak for our local communities. As Minister with responsibility for local government, I value the hard work and commitment that it takes to be a good representative for local people.

“Under the new system, local councillors will have a real opportunity to transform the look and feel of their own areas and create places that reflect the local culture and environment.

“It will bring planning back to where it belongs, in the local community, making it more locally accountable. It will also bring the North into line with the other jurisdictions in these islands.”