Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) issue needs to be resolved.

Plan-making and decisions on major schemes across much of Northern Ireland are now in difficulties following a High Court judge’s ruling over the status of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP).

The plan covers Belfast City, Carrickfergus Borough, Castlereagh Borough, Lisburn City, Newtownabbey Borough and North Down Borough Council areas where some 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population live. Individual council local development plans and major planning applications are meant to comply with the regional land-use blueprint, the BMAP.

BMAP took more than 13 years from publication to adoption. In that period a significant policy vacuum developed where developers and the planning authorities were forced to rely upon outdated planning policies.

Mr Justice Treacy held that SDLP Environment Minister Mark H Durkan acted unilaterally and unlawfully in authorising the BMAP in September 2014 without the agreement of Northern Ireland Executive colleagues. The successful legal challenge was mounted by the then Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party.

The judge backed claims that because the plan’s significance stretched across a number of separate departments it needed approval from the Stormont cabinet.

“In the present case, the minister having failed to achieve any agreement at the Executive sub-group, acted unilaterally and unlawfully by authorising and directing the Department to adopt the BMAP without informing the Executive until after the event and despite objections having been raised by other ministers” the judge ruled.

The court heard that the legal action involved a disagreement along party political lines, with the DUP opposed to the restrictions on retail activity adopted by the SDLP minister in the BMAP which meant that a long-proposed John Lewis store could not be built at the Sprucefield shopping centre on the edge of Lisburn.

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell insisted: “The judgment will mean that a revised BMAP will be brought back to the Executive for consideration and agreement.  The significant area of concern with BMAP as it stands is the restriction that it would have placed on retail development at Sprucefield.”

It is questionable whether lawfully such an amendment can be adopted without further public consultation and the re-opening of a public inquiry.

There will be a remedies hearing in due course which will determine the ultimate status of BMAP going forward and what can be done.

The decision creates significant uncertainty and could deter investment. Local Planning Authorities will be required to refer to planning policies which are more than 20 years old and which are unfit for modern planning requirements. The decision may also have an impact on applications already determined in accordance with the BMAP.

This needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency.

 

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While great care has been taken in the preparation of the content of this article, it does not purport to be a comprehensive statement of the relevant law and full professional advice should be taken before any action is taken in reliance on any item covered.