George McLaughlin of Prehen Historical and Environmental Society (PHES) says the long fight to protect Prehen Woodland has shown an apparent “lack of natural justice” within the system as it is currently established.
“There needs to be a real overhaul of all planning procedures and of the Planning Service,” Mr McLaughlin told the ‘Journal’.
“Why, people should be asking, should one organisation be so powerful?
“Even though you know that you are correct in the submissions you make to planners, it seems you can simply be ignored.
“It simply is not a level playing field, and there is no natural justice. The public do not have the same right of appeal as those behind development proposals.”
He says the lobby group has encountered an endless bureaucratic nightmare, ineffective communication and a redundant appeals process within the Planning Service during its campaign to ensure the integrity of the woodland is not compromised.
Mr McLaughlin says the most recent decision to allow developers to build four houses at Prehen - which has already seen the construction of an access road for site works - should be the subject of a full investigation or inquiry.
He claims that planning laws and area plans - designed to govern what developments can and can not proceed - as well as environmental measures like Tree Protection Orders, can seemingly be simply overridden.
“We are not upstarts, we are people with genuine concerns about the environment. But we are also concerned about the justice issue that has arisen through our dealings with the system,” he says.
“What we have found all through this lengthy process is that regardless of the correctness, strength and quality of the submissions we have made, there is always a loophole. It seems there is always a selective use of planning policies and of area plans.
“Those loopholes always seem to be exploited in favour of the developers. Take the Derry Area Plan that took seven years and cost £1million of public money to produce - its stipulation that development that would result in the loss of further woodland will not be permitted, has been ignored.
“These are essentially meaningless documents. Around £30million has been spent on area plans across the north in recent years at a time when there are people dying in our hospitals while waiting on trolleys. Why can this money not be spent on our health service?”
“It says very clearly in the Derry Area Plan that should there be any development in the area we are talking about in Prehen there should be a 20m buffer zone between the woodland and the boundary of any development - in the most recent proposal to be granted planning permission there has been no regard in any way to that buffer zone.”
Steeped in natural history, Prehen Woods represents one of the last tracts of ancient woodland left in the north.
Covering some 18 acres - only a remnant of its former size - the wood is home to the protected red squirrel, long eared owls and bats as well as a mass of flora including bluebells.
Although described by the Woodland Trust as “one of Northern Ireland’s rare and irreplaceable ancient woodlands”, Prehen Woods has been at the centre of a number of planning disputes going back some two decades.
A large scale 34 house development was mooted at one point although did not proceed. A development of four houses did go ahead - with which PHES raised objections.
“The developer used up a large area of the land that was actually zoned for development, and that did not leave any space for further housing nor for access,” Mr McLaughlin claims.
“Because of that we now have the problem that the current developer applied for access through the woodland.”
Those most recent development proposals - granted planning permission in 2007 - are for four houses at the edge of the Wood, a road linking the houses to Prehen Park and the installation of sewerage, drainage and other services.
PHES has made a number of submissions in regard to that development over the subsequent years.
“We have repeatedly queried the access road and asked for an official inspection of the site. The intention was for a small laneway but instead there is a vast clearance. We have made a submission to planners in that regard, but we have been told there is ‘no problem’.
The enforcement officer will not even meet us on this even though we can present evidence showing the conditions of development has not been adhered to. The system does not require him to do so,” Mr McLaughlin says.
He says such difficulties permeate throughout the Planning service - and that a recent academic study carried out by Friends of the Earth and Queen’s University Belfast, shows a crisis in confidence exists around the north’s planning system.
That study, published in December of last year, found that almost 79.4% of people here were dissatisfied with the Planning Service - stating they saw its performance as either poor or very poor.
“The Planning Service is one of the most complained about organisations in Northern Ireland. It’s a terrible indictment against any service or organisation that so many people who try to have their voices heard by planners simply give up,” Mr McLaughlin continues.
“Planners make decisions regardless of policies and procedures.
“For us this started as a fight to protect the woodland and to protect the red squirrel but over the course of the campaign this has become more about justice and the access to justice for the common people.”
After years of bureaucracy and the ever increasing circles of submissions, appeals and the fight to obtain information, PHES say they will continue to fight to protect the woodlands.
As well as launching a Facebook page dedicated to protecting the woods, organising a sit-in at the local planning office in Derry and garnering more than 1600 signatures on a petition, they have now taken that fight directly to the north’s environment minister Alex Attwood.
During their most recent meeting in January, the minister was told of PHES’s serious concerns with the system.
“The first thing he said to us was,‘ I have spoken with Planning Service and I can’t do anything for you,’” Mr McLaughlin says.
“He had spoken with Planning Department before hearing what we had to say. His mind was already made up.
“This is totally indicative of the problems we have faced all along. If a person wants to complain about a planning decision, you first of all write to local planners, if you aren’t satisfied with the response, you then write to Planning Directorate. But they are all one body.
“It’s a point I have raised with the Minister – we write letters to the Minister, yet get replies from local planners – the people we are complaining about – it gets very frustrating.”
“We have presented the Minister with very detailed documentation and as of yet he has not responded.
“We are waiting in the hope that the Minister will actually see and respect our point of view and deal with the issues raised,” he says.
You can read more and keep up with developments online via the No to housing development in Prehen Woods Facebook page.