Question Time: Environment Tuesday 11 February 2014

“More can be done” to improve the planning process in Northern Ireland. That was the concession of Environment Minister Mark Durkan in answer to a question from David McNarry during today’s Question Time. And this realisation is what led to a series of new actions announced In January with the intention of streamlining the process. It is hoped that initiating new development plan work, encouraging more pre-application discussions and community consultations, improving consultee performance and enhancing customer service will shorten and simplify the process. The Minister wants to create a better environment and a stronger and the aim is to “create a planning system that works to achieve that”. When pushed on whether there are any moves to restart the stalled Planning Bill, Mr Durkan said that this would not happen while the outstanding issues are not resolved, pointing out that his decision has been well received outside the Chamber with a consensus that “that the Planning Bill, as amended, was not the way to go about improving our planning system”.

The Minister also gave his assessment of the effects of the future transfer of planning powers to local councils, explained why Craigavon Borough Council failed in their application for dereliction funding and discussed the voting system as set out in the Local Government Bill.

During topical questions Colum Eastwood asked the Minister about the role that the Environment Department can play in relation to the consumption of alcohol on public service vehicles (an issue prevalent in the news after many young people were taken ill on their way to a recent DJ performance at the Odyssey Arena). The Minister revealed that officials from his Department put proposals to a public consultation in July 2013 but that genuine issues were raised with each one and, together with the difficulty in policing such issues, makes this a very difficult problem to legislate. Mr Durkan has been in discussions with the Justice Minister to try and find a resolution bt emphasised that wider society as a whole “have a responsibility to work together to address those issues”.  

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