The stalled Planning Bill was on the agenda in Question Time to the First Minister, Peter Robinson. Michael Copeland was keen to know what action would now be taken after the Environment Minister, Mark Durkan, elected not to move forward with the Bill amid concerns regarding DUP and Sinn Fein amendments passed in June. The Environment Minister feared that the amendments represented a dilution of his department’s powers and may compromise the right of appeal to planning decisions. Mr Robinson revealed that he will be meeting with the Environment Minister in due course and that he hopes they can reach agreement because “planning continues to be a significant problem in Northern Ireland”. Potential investors are being frustrated by our planning system as “it is internationally recognised that Northern Ireland has a poor planning outcome” making it “a challenging place in which to invest”. He countered that, while the proposed amendments to the Bill might not be the only way that things can be done, “nobody has suggested a better way of ensuring that we improve the system”.
The First Minister also provided the House with an update on the Social Investment Fund. 89 projects have been ear-marked across 9 zones for funding. Currently £40m worth of projects have passed through the robust appraisal process. These projects will be informed shortly and there is “no reason why money cannot start going out to those schemes immediately”. There is also hope for those projects that weren’t approved initially. There might also be a limited amount of funding made available for smaller projects – perhaps 50 projects receiving £20,000 each for a further total investment of £1m.
During topical questions Adrian McQuillan asked the First Minister for his thoughts on the planned flag protest on 30 November to coincide with the anniversary of Belfast City Council’s decision to only fly flags on selected days and the potential disruption to business in the City Centre. Mr Robinson defended the right of people to protest and picket as part of the democratic process but also spoke of the rights of retailers to conduct business and consumers to spend. He suggested that a weekday lunch time protest might be a “worthwhile compromise”.
Also discussed during Question Time was the cost of the Haass talks process, the devolution of further fiscal powers to Northern Ireland and the possibility of further foreign investment.