A controversial proposal to relax planning laws has been approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It was feared that the amendments, which give power over planning decisions to the Office of the First and Deputy Ministers rather than the Environment Minister, would provide the opportunity for out-of-town developments to be given quick approval.

Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts said the amendment would destroy the high street. “We have real concerns that these amendments could be used to steamroll more unsustainable out of town superstore applications which will further damage our already struggling town and city centres,” he said. “While not the sole reason, unrestricted out-of-town retail development in recent years is a major factor in Northern Ireland having double the UK national average of town centre shop vacancies. More out of town retail development is the very last thing our town centres needs at this time.”

The amendment was approved by the minsters, with 60 MLAs backing it and 32 voting against it. The Planning Bill is now awaiting Further Consideration before being submitted to the Final Stage and Royal Assent.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood vehemently opposed the amendment while calls came from the TUV party to quit the Northern Ireland Assembly over what it saw as the “most audacious power grab this house has seen for a long time”.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew added it would allow for “complete deregulation of planning at the whim of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister where they so decide”.