Northern Ireland environmentalists have said “bad planning and decision-making” and “professional corruption” are affecting our surroundings and personal wellbeing, at a public accounts committee meeting.
It comes as the Stormont committee conducts an inquiry into planning here, with accusations from environmentalists that there is a “lack of transparency” in the system.
A group called The Gathering, an amalgamation of community organisations which started in 2017 and now has 60 affiliated groups, gave evidence to the inquiry on Thursday.
One member Nuala Crilly said the group was formed after concerns were raised about the Mobuoy dump, where more than one million tonnes of illegal waste was left on the outskirts of Londonderry.
Dean Blackwood of the group said community organisations only exist because of “bad planning” and a deep sense of injustice at what their collective experiences suggest is an “increasingly dishonest planning system”.
Bad planning, he said, affects the public purse, environment and most importantly personal health and wellbeing. “It’s in everyone’s interests that Northern Ireland has a fit for purpose regime because frankly we could have filled this chamber today with people traumatised by engaging with a dysfunctional planning system,” he told committee members.
Many committed planners are afraid to speak out, he said – but The Gathering said public officials are aware of neglect and withhold information, refuse to clarify actions, are adverse to record keeping and remove documents from planning files and portals without authorisation.
As a planner who spent his entire career in public service in Northern Ireland, he said, it is “with deep concern” that they are all examples of “professional corruption” that he regularly experiences when raising concerns about planning at central and local government level.
If unaddressed professional corruption will become normalised into the culture of institutions, he argued. Commenting on an audit office report on Planning in Northern Ireland, published in February, he said it missed an opportunity to meaningfully address evidence-based public concerns.
Effective oversight and scrutiny of the planning system is needed, he said, including robust mechanisms where the public can raise concerns about professional corruption with the assurance they will be taken seriously.
They need equal rights of planning appeal and planning portals that are fit for purpose.
Anne Harper, of The Gathering concurred with Mr Blackwood’s assessment saying very often reasonable questions go unanswered.
She referred to a turbine at Knock Iveagh in Co Down which was controversially built on an ancient burial ground but may become “immune to enforcement action” due to protracted delays which “looks deliberate”.
Ms Harper said it is recognised that the turbine, built in 2017 was an error, but nothing is being done about it.
Another member of The Gathering, George McLaughlin suggested there should be an “independent referee” who can step in to settle complex cases.
Chair William Humphrey said the downsizing of 26 councils to 11 appears to have been a problem and suggested there may be a skills shortage.
UUP MLA Roy Beggs asked for examples to justify the use of such strong language about “professional corruption”.
Mr Blackwood said he has been dealing with one case for seven years and there is “very strong” documentary evidence that he could share with Mr Beggs.
Chairman Mr Humphrey concluded that it is “very clear” from the inquiry at this stage that the system is “disjointed and not working”, there is a “standardisation problem” and “a huge issue around capacity and public confidence”.
The Department for Infrastructure has been asked for a response.
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