“Although the delivery timetable for local government has not yet been finalised by the Executive…”

The Northern Ireland Environment Minister, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, may be introducing a Planning Bill to the NI Assembly next week – with the intention to absorb Planning Service within the Department of the Environment before transferring planning powers to local councils.

And he may be seeking views “on proposals aimed at modernising and strengthening local democracy”. 

But as he admits in his press release, the timetable for the proposed “transfer of Development Plan and Development Management powers to councils” has yet to be agreed by the NI Executive.

That will be because it’s all based on the 11 council model – which remains foundering on the semi-detached polit-bureau rocks.

The BBC’s Mark Devenport notes the proposed default method of selecting carving up council posts – the D’Hondt method.

And there’s a proposed default method for local council decision making – from the consultation document [pdf file]

The key elements of the default model will be:
• the operation of a committee-based system;
• the opportunity to devolve powers from the full council to a committee or committees;
• the establishment of a scrutiny committee, if powers are devolved from the full council to committees; and
• the establishment of a central policy committee.

And there’s a proposed “call-in” procedure to be used to review specific decisions by councils – “similar manner to the ‘petition of concern’ procedure in the Assembly”.

And a new “power of well-being”.  Don’t ask…

Which, apart from the last point, makes it sound like the Assembly model being extended to local government.  But that can’t be right since the DUP leader, and NI First Minister, Peter Robinson, has said that the DUP regard the current Assembly arrangements as “a transitional phase to a more normal form of democracy”.

And what ever happened to the Single Waste Authority?

Did Edwin forget to “bring a paper back to the Executive on this issue”?

Or did the NI Executive fail that particular test too…

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  • Cynic

    …and I thought I was cynical!

    This really i too much. You need to take a balanced view. Look at the positive benefits the Assembly has brought. For example, the focus on the size of hen cages and on sewage in Greyabbey are just two of the vital issues debated in our time of National (however you define it) need.

    Where-else at such a time can the people turn to for light relief and the sense that however badly off you feel, there’s always another edjit making an even bigger full of himself somewhere else

  • The other week on the anniversary of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and tucked away in the News Letter features, was a piece on responses to Agreement by unionist Parties. One was the suspension of business by Unionist dominated Councils on a rolling basis. Arnold Hatch noted that Craigavon Council ran perfectly well for over a year with just him and one other Councillor liasing with the Council staff. Suspect it could have run perfectly well a lot longer and the public would never have noticed, still less cared.

    Just what are local councils for? With a 108 person Assembly, why not simply abolish the lot and run 6/7 local offices for counties and Belfast?

  • Angry Planner

    The planning system is in complete chaos and what is our esteemed Minister’s answer? Dump it off on to someone else!! Forget the 11 supercouncils Poots wants to give planning to the existing 26 councils without any of the other powers envisioned in the RPA such as roads and regeneration, the result will be a fragemented planning system with individual councils refusing to see beyond their own little fiefdoms.

    I can assure you all that the last thing local councillors want is planning powers as they’re terrified of the responsibility. They won’t be able to play to the gallery and plead powerlessness against “Dem un’s in the DOE!” but they will have to make locally unpopular but correct decisions. The result will be dozens of applications refused against the recommendation of case officers, nevermind Poots’ vaunted safeguards, ways will be found for councillors to get round them, leading to a big increase in appeals to the Planning Appeals Commission and bogging down that system even more. We simply don’t have the calibre of councillors to have an effective planning system, most will bury their heads and a few will want to carry out the sort of gombeen planning that played a part in creating the property bubble in the Republic.

    The one good thing to come out of this is that Planning Service will be wound up and subsumed back into DOE meaning the end of all the little empires that the previous management regime built up over the last 10 years. Resources that could have been spent on improving frontline services instead went into creating “directorates,” with “Assistant Directors” and “Deputy Managers” who spent most of their time pursuing vendettas against each other. There was also a spate of promotion boards for largely made up posts intended for the little pets of senior managers which resulted in a massive increase in labour costs and 270 people having to be redeployed when the money ran out!

  • just sayin’

    Sorry AP but that is BS! Councillors have been pushing for return of planning for ages and this aspect of the ministers statement has been warmly welcomed.

    Get real … where else in Europe is local planning not in the hands of local representatives? From memory the answer is one of the remnants of the former Yugoslavia!

    The planners screwed planning. Lets see if councils can sort it.

  • The Impartial Observer

    They may say one thing in public for the benefit of residents groups but all I and my colleagues have heard from them since the RPA was first launched nearly a decade ago is “Err we’d rather you guys carried on as is!” I would love to see us have the sort of effective planning system they have in much of Europe where local representatives create a vision for their areas and take responsibility for unpopular but necessary decisions. Sadly in my experience what we’ll get is Liam Lawlor style planning with rampant clientelism. If it is to be handed to Councils let’s have transparency for political funding so we’ll know if developers are funding political parties

    You’ll find that it wasn’t “planners” who “screwed planning” but the politicians who put in place the current system and the weak policies and the planning service management who pissed away resources and effort in trying to put one over each other and saddled frontline staff with a near unusable IT system.

    If you are hoping that Councillors will sort the mess out then I’m sorry to say my friend that you are likely to be sorely disappointed!!

  • just sayin’

    Well that’s one we will simply have to disagree on. Time will tell.

    Planners screwed planning by trying to do planning outside of properly thought through, locally sensitive area plans. Anytime anyone suggested taking a wider view and they cried ‘foul’ running off to the Tele and NIPSA.

    As you allude to, genuine and open integrated strategies around place where planning is fully part of the bigger picture is the prize. Simply can’t happen with planners being part of a civil service system.

    Transparent political funding – absolutely! But where is the block to that nowadays?

    Unpopular decisions? Already done with many enforcement and licensing powers. Why do people believe our councillors (and indeed public sector employees) are incapable of doing what their counterparts across the globe routinely do. And I won’t accept ‘experience’ as a response 🙂

  • Angry Planner

    I actually agree with most of that. The planning system is a political creation, you will always need architects but planning as a profession exists purely because there is a political consensus that it should. Much of the problems in the current system stem from the fact that we were late to adopt planning, it was only in 1972 that NI got a provincewide planning system before that there was a piecemeal system. During the troubles the politicians, mostly direct rule, wanted to encourage economic development so a minimalist system was put in place. The problem was that the area plans and regional policies were and are so nebulous and poorly written, largely at ministerial behest to try and be all things to all men that they fail to provide the necessary framework, PPS21 is a good example of this. Planning policies in GB say “Yes” or “No” in NI they say “Well, maybe…” and that’s were a lot of the problems start from but instead of blaming “the planners” you have to take account of the political context in which they operate.

    Believe me I want to be proven wrong about giving planning back to Councils, I want Councillors when confronted with the responsibilty of planning to raise their game and create a system that works well for all of us but I’m not very confident that’s will happen.

  • Down South

    This is a real opportunity for local areas to compete against each other to have more progressive municipalities for investment and development. The bit where it could fall apart is with the longer term strategic plans that are needed to set the local agenda. If the Power of Wellbeing is well understood (it is a power of first resort where local authorities have the power to act ultra vires as long as it is in the interest of their residents and which allows them to borrow money and to create companies) then it could be a positive force. The underpinning part of that power is a Community Plan which is ostensibly agreed by the community it impacts. There is no reason in the world to think a community cannot be led in a process to create a vision and have that broadly agreed by key stakeholders including the awkward buggers so when it comes to the hard decisions the bulk of the hard work has already been done. It happens like this in the best places.

    I would love to see more innovative resourcing being given to local authorities – such as local taxation and directly elected mayors who have exec powers rather than ceremonial bullshit that is there now. It is a shame we have to fall to de Hondt – when will we move on? Some of the best performing international councils have far fewer councillors too – in the States and Canada sometimes only 5 or 6 – they are full time and they have power over Police, Schools, Housing, Social Services etc.

    Also – the 6 county model makes more sense from an identity perspective and economy of scale. I hope they drop the 11 council model in time as an embarrassment – it will be no improvement on 26 which is better from a local identity perspective.

  • “run 6/7 local offices for counties and Belfast”

    thedissenter, I recall Phelim O’Neill, the Stormont MP for North Antrim, making a suggestion similar to this during a debate on the reform of local government around 1966. Of course, a multitude of local Unionist, Nationalist and Socialist councillors would have had to forgo their (limited) powers of patronage.

  • just sayin’

    Couldn’t agree more on the idea of counties. The block to this came 1st from direct rule who became obsessed with getting councils similar size/ rate base and then locally who confirmed only option to be to nail existing councils together (some of which aren’t that coherent anyway).

  • joeCanuck

    Piecemeal planning for a country (province, whatever) the size of N.I. is ludicrous.
    Let’s say I’m a farmer, and my daughter will take over the farm in due course. We want to build a house for her as she is about to get married. We can get permissin on this side of the road but there is a beautiful site across the road which she would prefer. Too bad it comes under another council who have a “keep the Countryside green” philosophy. Bah.

  • Local Government Officer

    There’s too much wrong with Councils for this to come back to them. The members would admit it themselves. Too old, too much lack of knowledge, too much politicking, too many hidden agendas, too easy now to pass the buck.

    I had one councillor say to me today that he’d love to see more independents coming through, perhaps based on non-party-political lines – maybe candidates on behalf of local residents groups or from chambers of trade. Perhaps then, proper debate could ensue and decisions be taken where the need is really demonstrated, and in a semi-professional manner.

    Me personally – I say they can keep it. It’s too big a concept for the minds of our local reps. Someone also mentioned brown envelopes. Well, if they existed, I never saw one or even came close to proving the existence of those which were mooted. I’ve only been in Councils a short time, so I can’t speak for any further back than a couple of years. It’s an easy accusation to bandy about these days – but I’d love to see widespread evidence of it.

    Down South – I heard mention of a council in the States, I believe, which met only once or twice a year, and that was to award tendered services. I’d love to see that here.

    Joe, I have to say, we haven’t much unblemished countryside left. I was all in favour of many elements of PPS14. Anyone who doubted the need for it, only has to see Co Donegal from the air.

  • drumlins rock

    LGO, I am sorta with you, but think there is room for some improvement, for example can the administration of planning and building control be combined? and as it stands the planners are accountable to no-one. So it would be good if local reps have a bit more say but only overrule in extreme cases.