Best laid plans

So the marathon Stormont planning debate is over. But will the bill become law?

Predictably, the DUP and Sinn Fein voted through the inclusion of two far-reaching amendments, only published last week.

One enabled the first and deputy first ministers to create special economic zones in which planning may be unconditional. Another potentially restricted the right of objectors to go to courts to challenge planning decisions.

However, the Environment Minister Alex Attwood says that, if the SDLP remain in government in the autumn, he has the "nuclear option" of choosing not to move the bill at its next stage. So it might never reach the statute book.

The DUP and Sinn Fein argue that the new powers could prove important for creating much-needed jobs.

On Twitter, Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff has described Alex Attwood's threat as putting the selfish needs of the SDLP before the needs of the economy.

By contrast, campaigners like Friends of the Earth regard the latest measures as "Thatcherite", tilting the balance of the planning process too much in favour of economic concerns at the expense of protecting the environment.

During the Stormont debate, the TUV and the newly formed, NI21, echoed Alex Attwood's opposition to the new clauses, describing them as a "power grab" by the first and deputy first ministers at the expense of the environment department.


But Jim Allister and Basil McCrea went further than Mr Attwood, questioning why the SDLP remained in the Executive when their minister was being humiliated by the bigger parties.

It's interesting that Alex Attwood, talking to Stephen Nolan, put in his caveat about whether the SDLP will still be in government come the autumn.

However the speculation, recently reported by my colleague Martina Purdy, that Alasdair McDonnell may replace Mr Attwood with the West Tyrone MLA Joe Byrne appears to point towards a leader thinking more about rotating his ministers than quitting the administration.

Alex Attwood isn't the only minister who may soon be rotated. It's expected that the Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton (who acted as a front man for the DUP during the planning debate) will take over from Sammy Wilson as Finance Minister next month once the assembly goes into recess. Edwin Poots, by contrast, expects to remain in place at the Department of Health.

Something else to watch out for over the summer break might be any further word from the First and Deputy First Ministers on streamlining the number of Stormont departments.

In mid-May Martin McGuinness told me on Inside Politics that he wanted to move "as quickly as possible" towards cutting the number of MLAs and the number of Stormont departments.

Any re-jig (for example creating a new combined Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development) would have an inevitable impact on planning.

That said, 18-months have passed since the First and Deputy First Ministers said the last rites over the Employment and Learning Department, yet Stephen Farry has still to give up his ministerial Skoda.

So don't hold your breath waiting for a more radical restructuring of the Stormont architecture.