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High Court decision on BMAP ‘undermines confidence in planning system’

Words: Laura Edgar

The decision by a High Court judge that sees a major planning blueprint for Belfast blocked “undermines confidence in the planning system”, says the director of RTPI Northern Ireland.

Roisin Willmott, RTPI director of Northern Ireland, also said the decision undermines certainty for investors.

On Friday 11 March, a High Court judge ruled that Northern Ireland environment minister Mark H Durkan had no legal power to approve the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan 2015 (BMAP), which was adopted in September 2014.

The decision followed the launch of a judicial review by former enterprise minister Arlene Foster.

Mr Justice Treacy held that Durkan acted unlawfully in authorising the BMAP without securing consent from executive colleagues. He agreed that because the significance of the plan stretched across departmental responsibilities it needed approval from the Stormont cabinet.

Foster’s legal adviser also argued that BMAP is a controversial matter that the whole executive needed to agree to. Durkan, though, had insisted that efforts should be made to get the issue on the agenda at executive meetings.

The judge said: “A minister has no power to take a decision in violation of the Ministerial Code relating to the obligation to bring to the executive committee any matter that requires to be considered by it for discussion and agreement by reason of being cross-cutting, significant or controversial.

“In the present case the minister, having failed to achieve any agreement at the executive sub-group, acted unilaterally and unlawfully by authorising and directing the department to adopt the BMAP without informing the executive until after the event, and despite objections having been raised by other ministers.”

A decision on a remedy to the case will be taken at a later date.

Willmott said: “One of the RTPI’s calls to the parties for the forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election is to build confidence in the planning system. The block on the BMAP does not support this; it undermines confidence in the planning system at a time which is crucial for bedding the new planning system in Northern Ireland. It undermines certainty for investors and affects the confidence of communities in Northern Ireland in their new planning system.

“BMAP needs to be adopted so that there is a plan in place to provide confidence and a framework to make decisions for this important area. The councils in the Belfast Metropolitan area can then focus their attentions on developing the new local development plans within the new system.”

The BMAP identifies zones for retail, residential and commercial development across Belfast, including Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. The blueprint also features retail zoning, which would restrict future expansion at the Sprucefield shopping centre to just bulky goods – stopping a proposed plan to build a John Lewis store.