Eamonn McCann - Is planning secrecy about to get worse

Prehen Woods
Prehen Woods

Is planning secrecy to get worse?

The secrecy surrounding planning decisions in the North has long been a source of frustration and anger. And it could be set to get worse.

Environment Minister Alex Atwood.

Environment Minister Alex Atwood.

Campaigners to save Prehen Wood faced point-blank refusal by the planners to explain the basis on which they had overriden objections and given the go-ahead for a development abutting the Wood.

The planners went on to ignore an instruction from the Information Commissioners to comply with the law and provide the information.

Throughout a wearying saga, the planning officers gave every impression of believing themselves answerable to nobody.

Now Environment Minister Alex Attwood has signalled an intention to turn the screw of secrecy even tighter, depriving the public of knowing how the Minister’s own agencies advise him on any planning matter until after the decision has been taken. That is, until it’s too late.

So if the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, for example, were to express concern to the Minister about a particular project, this fact would be kept secret until such times as the issue had been disposed of.

Take the controversial proposal for 250 houses at Knock Golf Club, given the green light despite being in clear breach of planning guidelines.

A senior planning officer had recorded his view that the scheme should be turned down, but was overruled.

Under the proposed Attwood regime, this information would have been withheld from objectors.

The Belfast Telegraph has highlighted the concerns of the Landscape Architects Branch (LAB) - a unit within the DoE - about the loss of open space in a built-up area where Asda wants to open a store.

Under the Attwood rules, this, too, would have been kept from the public.

Or consider the decision to approve demolition of the Athletic Stores in Belfast city centre, despite the opinion of a case officer that the building is of architectural and historical interest and important for the integrity of the Conservation Area where it is located. Had the new guidelines been in place, we wouldn’t know about this.

Whatever happened to all those commitments to openness, accountability and transparency? Maybe the answer is confidential