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Smaller parties support minister on planning bill

UNWILLING TO BACK 'BAD LAW': Mark H Durkan John Manley Political Reporter j.manley@irishnews.com

STORMONT'S smaller parties last night rallied behind environment minister Mark H Durkan after he ditched the planning bill.

The SDLP minister confirmed to MLAs yesterday that he would not support the proposed legislation because of legal concerns.

He said DUP and Sinn Fein amendments introduced to the bill in June had the potential to breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

One amendment would have enabled the first and deputy first ministers to set up special economic planning zones, while the other would limit the grounds on which planning decisions could be challenged in the courts.

Mr Durkan said he had received legal advice which suggested that the bill was unlawful and would breach human rights.

He described it as "bad law" and said the amendments would create only confusion.

The bill was introduced in 2011 by his predecessor Alex Attwood. It was designed to speed up planning decisions and give greater consideration to economic factors.

Mr Durkan said these provisions exist without the need for amendments.

"As environment minister I want to help create a better environment and a stronger economy -- regrettably, this bill as it stands does neither," he said.

The contentious amendments were added at the 11th hour before the proposed legislation was considered by the assembly prior to the summer recess.

This meant that, unlike other elements of the bill, the amendments were not put out for consultation.

It is unclear what alternative measures will be brought forward to replace the shelved planning blueprint but Mr Durkan said he would continue to make "prompt and sound" planning decisions.

The minister's 'nuclear' option angered the DUP, who described it as an "antidemocratic decision".

"Defying the democratic will of the assembly severely damages the credibility of the SDLP," DUP chief whip Peter Weir said.

"Despite a majority of nationalists and unionists being in favour of this legislation Mr Durkan is allowing party politics to cloud his judgment and defy the will of the assembly."

Sinn Fein was more measured in its criticism but said Mr Durkan's decision would have implications for local- government reform.

"Clearly the minister has expressed concerns about the legal competence of amendments to the bill," Newry and Armagh member Cathal Boylan said.

"He should consult with the attorney general to that end and we would anticipate that any concerns that he has can be adequately resolved."

The UUP backed the minister. Leader Mike Nesbitt said the two controversial amendments had "fatally weakened the credibility" of what was otherwise a positive bill.

Anna Lo of Alliance said she was glad the bill had not proceeded because it was not in the north's best interests.

"Brought as they were at the last second, these amendments were not subject to consultation or scrutiny," she said.

John McCallister of NI21 described the bill as a "shambles" and said the minister's decision not to move the bill was illustrative of a "dysfunctional executive".

Green Party leader Steven Agnew commended Mr Durkan for "holding firm".

TUV leader Jim Allister also welcomed the minister's move.

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