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Councils given bigger planning role

Local councils in Northern Ireland are to take on responsibility for planning decisions in their areas under proposals.

Environment minister Edwin Poots told the Assembly the legislation should be passed before the end of the Assembly term in April and would hand powers to the existing 26 councils.

The same powers would then be taken on by the new 11 council model to be introduced by the next Assembly, while new safeguards would also be put in place.

“Councils will no longer be consultees,” said the minister.

“They will be the planning authority – responsible for drawing up their own development plans and making the vast majority of planning decisions.”

The proposals will now go to public consultation, with the new powers potentially available from 2012.

Poots said: “Councils will also be responsible for determining planning applications.

“Councillors will be the decision-makers.

“They will have the recommendation of their professional planners – but they will make the decision and live with the consequences.”

Councils lost planning powers through an overhaul of local government ordered in 1970. And, after the imposition of Direct Rule government, which replaced the old Stormont administration, the new central Planning Service was created in 1973.

The Planning Service will cease to exist and, while 200 of its staff will remain in central government, 450 will work in planning offices linked to councils under the new arrangements.

The current six divisional planning offices will be cut to five which will in the new 11-council model.

Safeguards will be brought into ensure power-sharing on the new councils.

Poots said the shift in responsibility back to locally elected councillors would increase democratic accountability of decision making.

But it will run in tandem with new safeguards, including:

  • The introduction of a new ethical standards regime;
  • A mandatory code of conduct for councillors;
  • A threat that councillors who breach safeguards could be banned from public office, possibly for up to five years;
  • Mechanisms for investigating and adjudicating on planning appeal;
  • Councillors will also receive special training.

The reorganisation of local government has been a major political controversy, with Sinn Fein accusing Mr Poots of failing to press ahead with the downsizing to 11 councils.

But the minister said cost considerations had delayed the move, though he signalled it would be introduced in the next Assembly term and become a reality prior to 2015.

Poots denied the new way forward was a “soft landing” for the failure to introduce the promised reorganisation of local government.

The minister said the reforms would improve democracy and make savings.

“This is a sea change for councils and councillors,” he said.

“Also for those who work in the planning system and for the developers, agents and the public who use it.

“I will do everything in my power to prepare the way for that change.

“I will take practical steps to help councils, planners and the public prepare.”

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