Allister denounces OFMDFM power grab of Planning powers

Admin —  June 26, 2013

Below is the speech delivered by Mr Allister during the debate on the Planning Bill on Monday past.

The position that we have arrived at is a most illuminating commentary on the system of government in Northern Ireland. We appoint, by a specific means, Ministers to various portfolios. We appoint an Environment Minister, and planning is a large part of his portfolio. That Minister is then ambushed by an eight-page amendment to a Bill that he, in good faith, has brought to the House, and that has been through the relevant Committee of the House, without a whisper of that ambush. The amendment was presented to the House a few hours, in working terms, before the Bill was due to have its Consideration Stage. Not just the House but, most particularly, the specifically appointed planning Minister has been ambushed. That is, I suggest, a most illuminating commentary on how government works or does not work in this House. It is also an illuminating insight into the political motivation and intent of the ambushers, and the respect or disrespect in which they hold their Executive colleagues.
It is one thing to take a certain attitude to those of us who are outside the Executive in this corner of the House. However, to take that same overbearing, pull-a-fast-one attitude to Ministers in the Executive is quite staggering. This has to be the most audacious power grab that the House has seen for a very long time. Indeed, it is such a power grab that it would do any totalitarian regime proud. Totalitarianism may be no stranger to Sinn Féin, but you would have thought that those who call themselves the Democratic Unionist Party might have some hesitation about it. Clearly not. Totalitarianism rules supreme in this amendment. This amendment is about garnering all power to themselves. It is clear that the DUP has learned a lot from Sinn Féin and that it is now “ourselves alone”.
It is about garnering all that power of a strategic nature on planning to themselves and, in the doing of that, humiliating the planning Minister in the House in such a calculated and deliberate fashion that it can only be intended to humiliate him. No consultation whatsoever. No pulling him aside after an Executive meeting and saying, “We were thinking about this. What would you think?”. No. They hit him with the detailed, considered eight-page amendment, about which he knew nothing — no more than any of the rest of us, outside those two parties, knew anything about it — while, all the time, going through the motions of debating the Committee Stage of the Bill, knowing all that time what was intended and what was going to happen. That is, I think, even by the standards of this House, quite, quite shocking.
Some people, of course, will be delighted by this direction of travel. The development donors to the Democratic Unionist Party will be delighted by this direction of travel. I am sure that some of them are rubbing their hands with glee, thinking that investments made are going to make a good return. When they think that things are now safely in the hands of the First Minister, who knows about a good £5 land deal, I am sure that they are much comforted about where things are going strategically on planning in this House.
Mr B McCrea: Will the Member give way?
Mr Allister: Yes.
Mr B McCrea: Given the well-founded accusations that he has just made, does the Member not express surprise that the once talkative DUP have not thought to stand up from their Benches and say, “That is not the case. That is not what is happening”. Why is it that the DUP, on this particular issue, remains silent against the charges that you have made? Would you, Mr Allister, take an intervention from any DUP Member who would like to challenge your assertion?
Mr Allister: I will certainly take any intervention from anybody who wants to tell me about the Fraser donations, the Sweeney donations, the Campbell donations —
Mr Speaker: Order. I just warn the Member of the allegations that he is making in the House. Members will know that I allow them quite a bit of latitude when it comes to Bills in this House and amendments to them, because I understand that, when it comes to amendments, there are sometimes wider issues. However, I warn the Member not to go down the road that I think he might want to go down.
Mr Allister: I do not think that I made any allegations that are not public knowledge.
So the proposition is that a Department, OFMDFM, with no planning officers within its ranks — yes, it has 400 staff, but none of them works as a planner, and it may have special advisers by the legion, but none is a planning specialist — should become the strategic planning Department when it comes to economic zones in Northern Ireland. The Department that cannot even answer questions in the House in a timely manner, and cannot address strategies that are its responsibility in a timely manner; the most failing, dysfunctional Department of all the failing, dysfunctional Departments that there have ever been; that Department, because we need economic regeneration, will take upon itself the strategic planning function. Even it must know that it has neither the capacity nor the ability to do the job, yet it has an irresistible urge to power-grab on the issue, knowing full well that the losers will be the people of Northern Ireland, who want a functioning, working, good planning system but are going to trade in what they have got for the standard dysfunctionalism of OFMDFM. No matter what way you look at that proposition, it is utterly indefensible.
Even if we take the proposition that there is a need for a co-ordinated approach to economic zones and that you need to have economic zone planning — let us all accept that argument for a moment — why would you ever want to remove those economic zones from their natural home and hinterland, the Department of the Environment, where the rest of planning resides? Even if we need economic zones, that is no justification whatsoever for the extraction of those and the delivery of them to OFMDFM. The fact that they are going there is confirmation in itself that this is just about power and the grabbing of power.
There is much in the eight pages of amendments that goes unanswered. We must have had the most hapless, uninformative speech from the proposer of an amendment that the House has ever heard from Mr Boylan, who patently knew and understood nothing about the detail of those eight pages. Someone said that his heart did not seem to be in it. That might be so. I do not know what the deal was whereby Sinn Féin agreed to the DUP driving force on that power-grab, but I know that it was a deal. I do not know what the trade-off was — whether it was the Maze or something else — but it patently was a trade-off. It is obvious to the House that the driving force for the amendment comes from the DUP Benches and that Sinn Féin Members are largely passengers, though willing passengers.
Mr Boylan’s speech was a classic example. The only Member in the House — of course, he is ever eager to please, no more so than now, when he can see the limousine beckoning —
Mr Hamilton: It is only a Skoda.
Mr Allister: It is only a Skoda. Well I am sure that Mr Hamilton aspires to much more than a Skoda. [Laughter.] The ever-eager-to-please Mr Hamilton seemed to be the only one who had any grasp of what anything in those eight pages might actually mean. I did try to intervene with him latterly to ask for some illumination, because we are in the bizarre position where the Minister will not be able to answer the questions, because he has not seen the draft for any longer than the rest of us have, and the proposer — patently, it would have been cruel to ask the question. [Laughter.] So one is left with no one to ask. Let me ask one question, and let me go no further than the first of the eight pages of the amendment, where it says, in the proposed article 13A(2):
“The adoption of an economically significant planning zone scheme has effect to grant in relation to the zone, or any part of it … planning permission for development specified in the scheme or for development of any class so specified.”
Let me reread that, leaving out some of the superfluous words, so that I can make the point that I want to make:
“The adoption of an economically significant planning zone scheme has effect to grant in relation to the zone … development of any class so specified.”
Is that class as specified by the use classes order? Answer comes there none. Or, is it as specified in some other way? If it is class as specified in the use classes order, does that mean that, by creating an economically significant planning zone, we grant, at a stroke, planning permission to anything that is within a particular class of development? If you grant planning for mining, offices or anything else in the use classes order, you are gifted, without any further questions from any upcoming user, that area for mining, offices, manufacturing or anything that is in the use classes order. You are gifted planning permission without even having to ask.
Where does that stand with the long-established fundamental principles in planning that say that, when you come to make your application, you have to address the basic issues of location, siting and design?
Where does that stand if you are gifted a global right to have a particular class of development in a zone and you never, it seems, have to address within that zone the questions of location or siting and you certainly never seem to have to address the question of design?
Are we just giving a carte blanche in these zones to anyone who comes up with any scheme, no matter how hare-brained, provided that it is in the class that is being used?
The situation is this: there is supposed to be devolution of some planning powers to the new councils. What is going to be left for the planning Minister? The strategic planning that touches on the economy through the zonings, with no limitation on their extent, will be removed from him. The Minister stood at the Dispatch Box earlier and said that he was here to put forward good law. He said that it was his aspiration, as Minister, to bring to the House good law. Although there is a challenge for those who peddle this amendment, there is also a challenge for the Minister. Does he think that this amendment is good law? If he thinks that it is bad law, is he going to return to the House at Further Consideration Stage and say, “Approve this bad law.”? That is the challenge that the Minister will have to wrestle with.
Is he prepared to be overborne by the DUP/Sinn Féin cabal in the House and be brought to the point at which something that he brought forward in good faith as good law can be overwhelmed by what he thinks is bad law and yet still bring it back to the House? Or will the Minister find the courage to say, “I will move no further stage of this Bill if it is made into bad law by the passing of this amendment.”?
As Mr McCrea suggested to him, will he go one step better and say, “There is a limit to which I will be humiliated. There is a limit to which the rights that the SDLP has in this Executive will be trampled on.”? When you get to the point of denuding a Department of key, fundamental powers, the time has come to go. If there is anything good to come out of this amendment, it could be that. At last, those who have been trampled on and used as doormats might act, whether it was forcing them to announce an A5 project that they did not even believe in and then, when it began to fall, humiliating them by saying, “We will decide where the money will be spent”, or saying to the planning Minister, “Any planning powers that matter, we are taking them from you.”
There surely has to come a point at which the parties in the House who are treated in that way by those whom they prop up in the House reach the point of saying, “There is a line. It has been crossed, and we must go because we can do no other.” That would be the dignified and honourable thing to do. I trust that even yet some will find the courage to do that. Government in this House will be the better for it, because at least then you will force the issue of opposition in this House.
The situation with the planning Minister is scandalous. I do not agree with all his decisions: I most certainly did not agree with his John Lewis decision or his Rose Energy decision, but he is the Minister. He is the man who has been given the authority. I say in his defence that it is wrong that, for the political expediency of the ruling cabal, he should now be humiliated in this way and robbed of such powers as he has. For what it is worth, I will most certainly vote against this amendment.

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