A major planning development, once focussed on inspiring investor confidence in the greater Belfast area and assisting local development plans, has reverted back to its draft form awaiting political consensus.
The absence of a functioning Executive means that Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) is unlikely to be approved soon, if ever. Critics of Stormont’s inability to put BMAP, originally drafted as a concept in 2000, in place, have highlighted that foreign investors are likely to be put off by the absence of a decision-making body. While, leaving the planning context of Northern Ireland’s capital city in a state of flux is further damaging to investor confidence.
Belfast City Council recently challenged and overturned an effort by former Economy Minister Simon Hamilton and Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard to push through BMAP, a move the Court of appeal described as “impermissible” steps.
BMAP covers Belfast City, Carrickfergus Borough, Castlereagh Borough, Lisburn City, Newtownabbey Borough and North Down Borough council and a large part of the contention around BMAP centres on its blocking of the creation of a John Lewis store at Sprucefield, County Down.
Originally published in 2004, then Environment Minister Mark H Durkan issued an adoption paper in 2014 following a public enquiry. The decision was challenged by then Environment Minister, Arlene Foster, who argued that Durkan’s decision had breached the Ministerial Code as he had not engaged with his wider Executive college.
Foster opposed the element of BMAP which prevented expansion of Sprucefield beyond the sale of bulky goods, effectively blocking the John Lewis proposals. In March the High Court ruled that Durkan acted unilaterally and unlawfully in authorising BMAP.
On the creation of the new Executive, lawyers for Ministers Hamilton and Hazard were granted an order allowing for the rest of BMAP, not relating to the heavy goods restrictions, to be implemented.
Speaking at the time, the Economy Minister had said: “It will provide certainty and clarity for councils, developers and investors. My number one priority is to bring more and better jobs to Northern Ireland. I believe the decision by the Court today will further strengthen our message that Northern Ireland is a great place to invest and do business.”
However, hearing the argument that BMAP as a whole had not been validly adopted, the Court of Appeal agreed and stated that the implementation order had been granted beyond the judge’s legal power or authority. “The draft BMAP remains in its entirety unadopted,” said Lord Justice Weir.
“We consider that this approach was impermissible and that the successors to the principal parties led (the judge) into error by pressing upon him the draft order for which they both contended.
“It would be for government to decide how to proceed, should it wish to revisit the adoption of BMAP, with or without amendment.”
Belfast City Council have recently published a preferred options paper on its new local development plan. Critics have argued that although the new plans will effectively replace BMAP, there is no reference to or review of the long-standing plan.