NI ministers’ ‘burnt fingers’ for meddling

Edward Poots, Northern Ireland’s environment minister, is facing contempt of court proceedings following comments he made in the media about a John Lewis planning application for an out-of-town 500,000 sq ft department store at Sprucefield, near Lisburn, in County Antrim.

A judge has asked the Attorney General to consider Poots’ remarks which were broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster. Poots has since made clear that his comments were not intended to influence the current judicial challenge over the scheme involving businesses opposed to the proposals.

They have been granted leave to seek a judicial review over claims that a proper environmental assessment was not carried out on the impact the store would have on badgers, bats and newts.

A public inquiry has been put on hold while this legal case is sorted out.

Lord Justice Girvan ruled that there was an arguable case that the minister’s remarks amounted to “bias and pre-determination”.

In a subsequent statement read to the court by a departmental lawyer, Poots said: “I wish to make it absolutely clear that I did not intend and do not wish to exert any undue or inappropriate influence on the outcome of either the court’s proceedings in this case or the public inquiry itself.

“I am very conscious of and I fully respect the distinct roles of the courts, the PAC (Planning Appeals Commission) and the department in planning matters.”
This came just days after the High Court ruled that the former environment minister, Sammy Wilson, acted unlawfully when he changed planning policy by telling planners to give more weight to economic considerations in planning.

This ruling could have significant implications for large-scale planning applications in Northern Ireland.

The plans for the flagship John Lewis store at Sprucefield have been the subject of controversy since they were first announced in 2004, as part of an expansion of the existing retail park.

Last week the company which owns Rushmere Shopping Centre – Central Craigavon Limited – argued that statements made by the former environment minister in May and June of last year were designed to increase the weight given to the economic benefit of proposed development.
The company has opposed the John Lewis store on the grounds that creating a fourth retail hub within a 30-mile corridor from Belfast to Craigavon would be excessive.

In court the Department of the Environment’s legal team argued the statements merely offered clarification and guidance within an existing and well-established policy framework and did not amount to a change in planning policy.

However, Mr. Justice Treacy disagreed and said they went beyond mere advice or information aimed at resolving a difficulty.

He ruled there should have been a public consultation on any change of such significance and quashed the statements.

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