In the run-up to the launch of Northern Ireland’s local government reforms adverts assured the general public that the new councils with additional powers would create a “stronger”, “more cost effective” and “citizen focussed” government. One month on from the super-councils take-over what are the major issues facing the new councils?
Considering the fact that the biggest change to the councils has been the devolution of planning responsibilities it is hardly surprising that an issue connected to planning has proven to be the first stumbling block. The primary concern appears to be over the possibility of corruption and incompetence in the new planning processes. But what planning powers exactly have been transferred and why?
As far back as 2002 the Northern Ireland Executive commissioned a review into public administration across Northern Ireland. Many suggestions were made as a result of this inquiry, importantly the recommendation that the number of councils (26 at this time) be reduced. By 2008 the Executive was finally able to reveal plans, after several years of delays, to condense the 26 councils to 11 and devolve some centrally held powers to the local government. A package of £47.8 million was set aside to fund the changes. The chief aim being to create cheaper, more efficient local government.
The transfer of planning responsibility from the Department of the Environment to the super- councils was a major part of the 2008 reform package. It was felt that giving councils the work of planning would mean that decisions would be more transparent, more likely to reflect the local communities, and support local needs. This transfer also afforded the government the opportunity to overhaul planning procedure: in theory it has now become a much quicker, simpler and more streamlined process.
There are three planning application categories: local, major and regional. Councils have sole responsibility for the decision-making on all local and major applications, while all regional applications are to be decided on by the DoE. The DoE will also retain legislative, policy and oversight responsibilities.
Each council must establish a planning committee that will create a document known as a “Scheme of Delegation” and this will dictate what is dealt with by the committee (most probably controversial applications or plans for large developments) and what is dealt with by planning officers. There are also local planning offices opening in each council area, meaning more communication and clarity for those applying. Mark Durkan has said of the reforms: “these improvements will bring planning closer to the public and make it easier for the public to access and participate in the planning process”.
Mr Durkan’s comments seems reasonable: these reforms to planning are certainly an improvement on the old system which left un-elected civil servants making the majority of planning decisions centrally, but there are major areas of concern which have been flagged-up in the last few weeks.
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman Tom Frawley has spoken out about his anxieties over the possibility of corruption infiltrating the planning process. His concerns are related to the fact that Northern Ireland’s political parties do not currently have to declare donations made to their party. Mr Frawley therefore believes it may be possible for property developers to bribe councillors into approving applications.
Northern Ireland’s Chief Planning Officer Fiona McCandless countered Mr Frawley’s misgivings by claiming that the new code of conduct that was drawn-up for councillors who sit on the new super-councils will ensure impartiality. The code stresses the importance of acting in the public interest at all times and specifies that no councillor should act in order to gain financial or material benefit. A section that specifically refers to planning has also been included. Ms McCandless has said of the transfer of planning powers to councils: “We have done a huge amount of work in terms of making sure the necessary procedures are in place to ensure that there is accountability in order to secure confidence in the system”.
However this new code of conduct and the procedures that have been introduced to councils are not universally popular. Belfast City Councillor Claire Hanna, for example, was unconvinced when I interviewed her:” I’m not yet persuaded that the changes will be effectively worked between a restrictive code of conduct (particularly as regards advocacy on planning) and potential log-jam from the ‘call in’ (qualified majority voting) mechanisms, which are likely to be abused in a similar manner to the petition of concern at Stormont.”
Others are aware that a balance between bureaucracy and transparency must be reached: Councillor John Hussey was clear on this matter when I spoke with him: “people worry that poor or dubious decisions will be made if the members of the Planning Committees don’t properly understand their role and function. To prevent this, a great deal of training has been given to Councillors who will serve on the Planning Committee which should ensure they make proper and fair decisions.”
On the question of possible venality in the planning process Cllr Hussey said: “The potential for corruption in the administration of government functions is always a concern. However there is less possibility of corruption in a planning system which is entirely open to the public as this new system is, than in the previous system where planning decisions were taken by civil servants acting alone and out of public view.”
The Northern Ireland Local Government Association is keen to emphasise the great gains that will come with planning reforms: Chief Executive Declan McCallan has said that there will be no “poverty of ambition” from politicians and rate payers alike. The potential for regeneration is being held-up as the legacy of new council powers and politicians have only to point to the transformation of Manchester, where the city council were given development responsibility, to show what can be achieved.
Despite controversy and apprehension for better or worse these powers have been devolved and only time will tell whether this move will lead to regeneration and growth, or exploitation and ineptitude.