News 27th October 2022

Northern Ireland’s Planning System Lacks Meaningful Transparency and Community Engagement: New Report Calls for Reforms in Favour of Public Interest

by Connor McLean

Northern Ireland Open Government Network (NIOGN) launches the report ‘Open Local Government – Community engagement in local planning in Northern Ireland’. Through analysing two community consultation processes, one in Newry Mourne and Down District Council and one in Mid Ulster District Council, the report provides an insight into the lack of transparency of decision making and challenges of meaningfully engaging with Northern Ireland’s planning system from the community perspective.

The proposals for Newry City Centre and the former Maghera High School site provide two clear examples of the failure of councils to meaningfully engage with communities and take into consideration the public interest when deciding on important development proposals, despite significant community opposition.

Speaking at the report launch last week, Brian Cleland, representing Newry 2020, the campaign group calling for a public park in the Albert Basin area of Newry, said, “Why do ratepayers have to fight to be heard? The council’s plans for Newry do not represent the public interest. In fact, the council has used its power to oppose what people want. Consultations are meaningless when they happen after decisions have already been made.”

This was echoed by Jennifer Young, representing Maghera Park Action Group, who spoke of ‘community consultation’ as actually being ‘community presentation’ and a ‘box-ticking’ exercise.  Mid Ulster District Council proposes the development of an industrial park on the former Maghera High School site, which the Action Group wants to see retained as valuable community woodland and green space.

In both cases, the report finds that the scope of the consultation exercises and the broader context in which they took place meant that they have largely failed to give the community a meaningful voice in the use of land which has been used by the community for generations.

The two examples also demonstrate a pervasive lack of transparency in Council’s decision-making which not only acts as a barrier for communities to meaningfully engage but also undermines public trust in the entire system.

In response to its findings, the report offers multiple recommendations for reform, include developing indicators which monitor the quality of community engagement at council level, a co-created vision at the local level for Local Development Plans and introducing a requirement for community representatives to be involved in Pre-Application Discussions, which they are currently excluded from.

Speaking about the report, Rebekah McCabe, Chair of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network said, “We are delighted to have been able to commission this important research. Planning is a crucial function of local democracy and it is important that planning decisions reflect the best interests of current residents and future generations. Though this report is highly critical of the current system, it also presents a number of recommendations that focus on the practical steps that can be taken by stakeholders both at council level and within the Department for Infrastructure. We hope to see these recommendations taken on board, and we will be continuing to work with government through the Open Government Partnership to progress reforms.”

This report, written by independent researcher Andy McDevitt, was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Open Government Network under the project ‘Open Local Government – Creating Local Action Hubs’, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.  It draws on existing research, media reports, and publicly available documents available through the Northern Ireland Planning portal, as well as key informant interviews with stakeholders including Department for Infrastructure representatives, local councillors and planning officers, academics, and representatives of non-governmental organisations and community campaign groups.

Download the report here.

Slides presented by Andy McDevitt at the report launch can be found here.