Another big year for planning

It’s hard to believe that it is almost two years since the biggest shake up of planning powers in four decades, when planning was repatriated to local government. Our new planning system continues to balance the competing demands of the desire to progress beneficial development and the need to protect the best of our environmental assets.

Environmental matters are high on the agenda of departmental and local authority planning teams as they make difficult decisions on complex and high-profile planning applications and prepare a fresh set of Local Development Plans (LDPs) to guide development over the next 20 years.

The high profile 2016 legal challenges to much needed infrastructure projects, such as the A5 and A6, is a stark reminder for applicants and decision makers alike to take care when preparing applications and making decisions. The relatively low bar of judicial review and availability of Protective Cost Orders to ensure public access to environmental law continues to focus the minds of those planning development, with Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) well established as vulnerable areas. It sounds obvious but legal analysis of recent cases point towards an expectation on the part of the courts that environmental challenges are grounded properly in the legislation and supported by expert evidence. That said, as demonstrated by the A6, an applicant need only succeed on one ground of challenge to derail a project. The amount of financial and political capital invested in these, and private sector projects. mean the stakes are high.

Those with an interest in environmental law will be watching how the amendments to the European Directive on EIA will be transposed into Northern Ireland legislation in 2017. Amongst other highlights, this will enhance the prominence of the assessment of climate change, better co-ordinate the overlapping requirements of EIA and HRA and set higher standards for EIAs, by requiring them to be prepared by competent experts. Equally there will be a requirement for the competent authority to have, or have access to, the right expertise to assess an Environmental Statement (ES), pointing up the need to get yet more from the planning resources transferred across from the Department.

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Mid Ulster District Council are the first of the 11 new planning authorities to have published their LDP Preferred Options Papers (POP). Belfast, Antrim and Newtownabbey, and Lisburn and Castlereagh are expected to follow suit early in 2017. Environmental interest will have been on the sustainability appraisals for each. Strategic Environmental Assessment challenges threatened to bring down the last round of plan-making in Northern Ireland. The new local authorities will want to avoid a repeat this time round to give their plans the best possible chance of success.

Belfast City Council has secured £2.5 million of committed developer contributions since April 2015, principally for investment in city centre public realm. At the Chartered Accountants Ireland Ulster Society infrastructure conference in November 2016, NI Water explained what would be required to upgrade Belfast’s ageing waste water infrastructure. An infrastructure plan for the city has been trailed recently to ensure that the Council’s ambitious Growth Agenda can be supported by the delivery of the right infrastructure at the right time.

High standards of environmental compliance underpin the strategic thinking which will be further developed in 2017, another big year for planning.

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