You would think that in a small place like Northern Ireland prioritising the environment would be a critical government concern, but seemingly it is the opposite.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) review of planning in Northern Ireland published this month is damning, to say the very least. The PAC was “alarmed” and “appalled” by the planning system. It is failing in its role to protect the environment, be an economic driver or deliver places that people want to live and work in.
The review vindicates the views and experiences of all the campaigners who have raised problems with the system over the years. The report notes that the planning system in Northern Ireland is not working, suffering from entrenched problems.
Like my father-in-law George McLaughlin, some have been trying to get these issues recognised for decades, particularly in relation to the Prehen Ancient Woodland. Finally, some acknowledgement.
Some specific findings include:
- the planning system lacks transparency and public trust; the PAC was “alarmed by the volume of concerns around transparency”
- the PAC was “appalled by the performance statistics”
- there is a lack of accountability for poor performance; the PAC was “alarmed by the Department’s misunderstanding of accountability”
- the planning system is one of the worst examples of silo-working within the public sector
- the Department’s leadership of the planning system has been weak
- members of the public feel excluded and often believe they have no choice but to launch legal proceedings
- the planning committees appear “to take an interest” in particular developments; the PAC was “alarmed to hear that lobbying is happening, even though it shouldn’t be”.
The PAC recommends that a Commission is established to undertake a fundamental review to ascertain the long-term and strategic changes that are needed to make the system fit for purpose.
Let’s hope this Commission is established, and proper planning can be put in place that protects the environment. The current dysfunctional bureaucracy with its unaccountable and untransparent governance that routinely supports destructive (lobbied-for) development must go.
Well done the 60-strong group, the Gathering, who have shone a light on this failed system.
Professor Brandon Hamber is the John Hume & Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace based at the International Conflict Research Institute (INCORE) at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. He is a member of the Transitional Justice Institute. He has lived in Northern Ireland since 2001.