Clientelism means councillors pressure management to grant permissionsAnton McCabe 


Planning in the North suffers many of the same problems as that in the Republic: an excessive number of one-off houses in the countryside, political interference, and deference to vested interests. Although the North has been spared the depredations of the Republic’s boomtown lack of planning, one aspect of Northern planning is worse than the Republic’s. There is no right of third-party appeal, as there is in the South to  An Bord Pleanála. However, on the other hand the developer has the right to appeal a refusal, to the Planning Appeals Commission.

Northern planners regularly permit more one-off houses in the countryside than England, Scotland and Wales combined, despite the fact that the North has an area of 5,345 square miles while the other three countries comprise 88,744 square miles. According to the North’s Planning Service, 95% of applications for new single dwellings in rural areas were approved in the last year for which statistics are available (2010-11). That was very significantly higher than the 81% approval rate for new single dwellings in urban areas.

As in the Republic, many of these rural dwellers are commuters who have no involvement with the area, except to sleep in it.

The North’s Planning Service is centralised and covers all 26 district council areas. It is an executive within the Department of the Environment. The current 26 councils are to be replaced by 11 larger councils. Planning powers are to be devolved to these.

Officially, councils do not have any planning powers. Their role is consultative. In practice, councillors put pressure on planners – usually in favour of development.

The North’s political culture is very pro-development. This can be seen in the fate of Planning Policy Statement 14, introduced in 2006 under Direct Rule: it restricted development in the countryside. Within 18 months of devolution returning, the Executive overturned it with PPS 21 ‘Sustainable Development in the Countryside’.

Village has spoken to a former planner, who worked for over 30 years with Planning Service. He said that his experience was that senior management yielded too often to political pressure and permitted development. “When they were put under pressure, they just gave way”, he said. Much of the countryside around most of the North’s larger towns is “like a low-density suburban development”.

“I would say that if a particular councillor or group of councillors put on enough pressure, then Planning Service would give way”, the retired planner said. Paradoxically, he considered many of the same councillors disliked how excessive development had changed the countryside.

The former planner had experience of wishing to uphold proper planning and being told to back off by management. On one occasion he was dealing with an application for a house in the

Sperrins’ Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. “I was looking for a better design, and the developer, the person building the house, got on to my principal, and my principal called me in and said ‘lay off’”, he said.

Under pressure, planners have permitted suburban-type developments in the countryside. They often did not insist on conditions such as planting tree so houses integrated with their surroundings. Even where conditions were imposed, this was not followed up. Enforcement was lax and under-resourced. It was “the poor relation, there was very little done”. Often new builds were not inspected, thus conditions of the grant of permission not enforced.

Once Planning Policy Statement 21 was adopted “the stable door was opened, and I don’t think there is very much more that can be done”. It speaks about not allowing development on skylines “but you can see sites that never should have been developed because they’re skyline sites. There was a presumption that a house in the countryside would be granted, and that is what has happened”.

Planning Service management would not stand up for proper planning. Planners would recommend rejection of a development.

However, if management thought the developer would appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission, and had a chance of winning, they would overturn the refusal and grant permission. This was for operational reasons: “The time that’s involved in preparing a defence to a planning appeal is considerable. For the sake of a principle, I don’t think management would stick its neck out”.

As a planner, he personally experienced the disproportionate strength of developers: “The pro-development lobby is better organised than the conservation lobby. The conservation lobby could bite the heels of the planners, but the development lobby could put megabucks on the table. Not for the planners. They could show the number of people that were going to be employed as the result of a development. Politically that speaks volumes”.

In 2002 there were 358,000 one-off dwellings in the State. In 2011 there are 410,000, 52,000 more.