I have regular meetings with officials to discuss planning policy, as part of my role in making the final decision on article 31 planning applications, and in relation to issues that are raised by elected representatives and members of the public regarding specific cases or general policy queries.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Will the Minister state where he stands if there are court proceedings against his Department with regard to planning applications in Waringstown in my constituency of Upper Bann? To be fair to the Minister, he did not hold the position of Minister of the Environment at the time when that decision was made.
If a court case is taken against the Department on any planning application, the Department must first go to the court to explain why that decision was taken. Very often, the courts are not interested in whether the right planning decision was made; they are interested more in whether the proper process was followed. If the proper process has not been followed, any applicant or objector should have the right to appeal to the court to ensure that a planning application is dealt with in a proper way.
I do not have a specific role in that, except that I am the Minister of the Department from which officials will go along to justify the actions that were taken.
The Minister will be very aware that there is increasing concern that the planning system, and indeed planning policy as expressed through planning policy statements, is not flexible enough to ensure that all potential economic development can be approved. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that developers and planning officials can create a better understanding and relationship in order to process applications?
I believe that the planning system and other parts of Government have an important role to play in economic development in Northern Ireland. Although we, in the Assembly, are continually looking at how the public purse can deal with some of the economic issues and problems that beset society, there are massive amounts of private investment tied up in planning applications in my Department. I accept that there have been criticisms of the ability of the planning system to deal with the economic implications of some planning applications, and whether it gives proper weight to economic considerations. Members are aware that I have commented on that.
I have asked officials to look at how we can give greater weight to economic considerations when it comes to dealing with planning applications; whether through a quick revision or addenda to PPS 1, which outlines the principles of planning policy, or through a ministerial statement in which we give guidance to planning officers so that they can confidently give greater weight to economic considerations. I am exploring that with my officials. Given the current situation, the planning system ought to play its role in ensuring that economic development is permitted in Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Will the Minister tell us if there has been any further work on the preparation and interpretation of draft PPS 21 by the independent working group?
The members of the independent working group have been appointed. From memory, it has to report with recommendations by the end of May 2009. During the intervening period, the group will take evidence from a wide range of people, and if the Member has got any views that he wishes to express to the group, I welcome that.
I am aware that many people expressed fears that draft PPS 21 was too restrictive: indeed, members of Mr Bradley’s party claimed that that was the case. We have now had three council meetings in which recommendations on the backlog have been taken forward. Of the applications that have been taken forward to councils, 37% of the previously refused applications have now been approved. I think that that indicates that the balance is right; the fact that a substantial number of applications, which were rejected under PPS 14, are now covered by draft PPS 21. That is good news for the rural economy, because building those houses will generate work for many small builders in rural areas.