Planning policy vital to a greener, more prosperous Northern Ireland

Andrew Muir is the Alliance MLA for North Down 

Planning policy rarely makes the national headlines but directly touches upon the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland. Whether it’s an extension in your local area, a new housing development around the corner, or a major new business development that could provide jobs for thousands, planning matters. As an MLA at the Northern Ireland Assembly, planning issues are never far from the top of my inbox.

Earlier this month the Department for Infrastructure released some grim figures about the planning system. Larger planning applications take on average 61 weeks, versus a target of 30 weeks. No council in Northern Ireland met their targets for processing larger applications last year.
Very large applications that are of particular importance are known as “Regionally Significant”. Some Regionally Significant applications have been waiting over ten years for a decision. An inability to decide upon Regionally Significant decisions in a timely manner is a real barrier to attracting much-needed investment in Northern Ireland.

Just like with health and education, problems with our planning system pre-date COVID-19, but have been exacerbated by it. The Northern Ireland Audit Office is currently undertaking a review of the planning system, and it would not be at all surprising if it finds major issues of concern.
The Department for Infrastructure is currently undertaking a review of the 2011 Planning Act, which was the biggest shake-up of Northern Ireland’s planning system in a generation.

This review could either be an unambitious hand-washing exercise, or it could lead to real, tangible improvements in the system. The Alliance Party’s Green New Deal proposes significant changes to the planning system to support a green recovery from the pandemic. As a member of Stormont’s Infrastructure Committee, I am calling for the Department to be similarly bold.

One area where changes should be made is in Local Development Plans. Since 2015 councils have been developing these plans for their areas which set local policy for years to come. Six years later, none of them are anywhere near complete. When eventually finished, they risk being out-of-date on arrival.

The Department should take a more active role in co-ordinating and streamlining the production of Local Development Plans. It should also offer firmer guidance, so that regional priorities such as green energy development are implemented locally.

Another area for improvement is in the quality of applications. Councils often have to accept sub-standard applications from developers, invest time in improving them, and then repeat the process when new information is submitted late in the day.

The department should give councils greater power to send back poor-quality applications, and to limit the amount of new information that can be provided. This would save councils time and money, and force developers to ensure their applications include all the details required.

The consultation process, whereby certain statutory must be consulted before applications are decided upon is also a major source of frustration and delays. The system should provide resources to statutory consultees when they meet their deadlines, and allow for applications to move ahead when they don’t.

If the department gets the review right, we could have a planning system that is efficient, protects the environment, and encourages investment. There’s a chance for change in planning, and the department must grasp it.

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