Plans to devolve decision-making will stunt development, claim consultants in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland's construction community fears that government proposals to devolve planning powers will paralyse construction and investment in the province.

All planning decisions in Northern Ireland are taken by Department of Environment planning officers rather than locally elected representatives on a local authority planning committee.

But consultants fear the government is proposing to scrap the system and give planning powers to the new Northern Ireland Assembly or to local authorities as part of the ongoing peace process.

The current system has been in place since 1973 and was introduced after complaints that applications were decided on sectarian grounds rather than practical planning considerations.

Barrie Todd, vice-president of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, said: "Politics and planning don't mix. In some cases, it will be difficult to get impartial decisions from local authorities because of political bias related to sectarianism." He added: "Any change will slow the planning process and slow investment into the province. Only professional planners can see through bias and make a rational judgement based on planning considerations." The director of one large contractor described the move to devolve planning power as "positive" but cautioned that the traditional enmity between politicians in the province could impair its efficiency.

"There could be a problem in that our elected representatives have spent years running each other down for political ends. If they are to be entrusted with real business decisions, they will need to think beyond narrow party lines.

"Let's hope we can all prove capable of doing that." A spokesman for the DOE in Northern Ireland said no decision had been made with regard to which powers would pass from central government to elected authorities.

The spokesman said: "There are no hard and fast rules about what powers the new devolved administration or local authorities will have in the short term. It's pure press speculation." However, a DOE insider said: "Planning will definitely go back to elected officials. The only problem is, there will be an argument over who gets it, the new assembly or local authority councillors."