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Wary welcome for emergency measures to aid decision-making

Words: Roger Milne
Stormont | Shutterstock_114096184

Planning professionals have given a cautious welcome to emergency legislation published by the UK government designed to give civil servants and departments greater clarity and flexibility when it comes to making decisions in the absence of Stormont ministers.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, which was fast-tracked through the Commons this week, is supported with guidance from the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley.

The measures have yet to be considered by the Lords.

Bradley told MPs on Wednesday: “We need to make sure that civil servants can take decisions, but this is not about their making major policy decisions or becoming lawmakers. This is about civil servants being able to deliver on key infrastructure decisions and other matters relating to the running of public services in Northern Ireland.”

The four-page guidance note states that the absence of Northern Ireland ministers “does not prevent a senior officer of a NI department from exercising a function of the department if the officer is satisfied that it is in the public interest to exercise the function during that period”.

The guidance also makes it clear that decision-making should deliver “previously agreed investment programmes such as those in the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland 2011-2021.”

Dr Roisin Willmott, the RTPI’s Northern Ireland director, said: “RTPI NI welcomes the proposals by the secretary of state for NI in providing guidance to how civil servants can make decisions in the public interest. Northern Ireland has been without the capacity to make decisions on significant projects – approval or rejection – since January 2017; this is far too long.

“Given that Northern Ireland has planning policy in place and the resource of independent Commissioners in the Planning Appeals Commission, the structure is in place for civil servants to make decisions.”

She added: “The real answer, however, is for Stormont to be effectively functioning and MLAs must take up their responsibilities and provide the leadership that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.”

Michael Gordon, who heads Turley’s office in Belfast, told The Planner: “The legislation and guidance should be a positive step in breaking the impasse with Northern Ireland’s most strategic investment and infrastructure projects. 

“The key to decision-making success will be the confidence with which permanent secretaries, including the one in the Department for Infrastructure, feel able to make positive decisions in a culture of judicial reviews.  High-quality application submissions, robust processes and good reporting are more important now than ever.”

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