Effective planning

Angus Kerr, Director of Planning Policy Division at the Department of the Environment spoke to Adam Morton about the raft of changes in planning policy in Northern Ireland.

 

Planning plays a very important role in our society. It provides us with the opportunity to look long term instead of short term and provides certainty through a framework for decisions that attempts to strike a balance between the economic and social needs of society, according to Kerr.

 

Planning roles

Planning is in the middle of a fundamental overhaul in Northern Ireland with many powers that used to lie within the department now resting in the hands of local councils.

 

Kerr is of the belief that the transfer of planning powers to the local council will be highly beneficial as it brings decisions closer to local people and takes the local knowledge that is required in the planning process much more into account. “There has been a fundamental shift in roles and responsibilities. Councillors make all the decisions with the advice of planners but ultimately, it’s the responsibility of councillors to set and agree the local development plan, determine up to 98 per cent of planning applications and get involved in enforcement issues and breaches of planning control,” said Kerr.

 

Despite the changes, the department’s role is still the same in some respects, it remains responsible for overall planning policy and new legislation. The Minister also retains over arching responsibility for regionally significant planning applications. Examples of regionally significant planning applications in the energy context would be the Gas to the West scheme and the North South Interconnector and it will be these types of applications that will be prioritised and decided on by the department.

 

There are other significant changes too, perhaps the biggest of which for any would-be applicant is the new pre-application community consultation process required for major planning applications. This new stage will serve to speed up the overall process, according to Kerr.

 

 

“The more that can be done at an early stage through pre-application discussion the better. This stage will tee up all the issues early on,” claimed Kerr. “That’s critical to planning delivering on the Executive’s expectations around infrastructure development. The scheme of delegation [A provision of the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014 that allows a Council Committee to delegate certain matters to an officer of the council] will also help make the planning process more efficient. It is a new system which allows councils and the planning committee to delegate to officers for more minor issues, similarly there now has to be a substantive response within 21 days from consultees. All these changes will serve to make the planning process more efficient.”

 

Strategic Planning Policy Statement

The final draft of the Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) was completed in March 2015 but as of yet has not been not been ratified by the Executive. Speaking about the new SPPS, Kerr was keen to extol its benefits.

 

“The purpose of the new SPPS is to bring all the complexity around the 34 policy documents with 790 odd pages and 123 polices all together into one much clearer document that at the same time reflects the new two tier system and is around one hundred pages in length,” Kerr explained.

 

“The main benefits of the new SPPS will be that once it is published, it will provide one clear and concise document that is easy for everyone to understand and make decisions on. It was a logistical challenge to get it to this stage. Not only was it a matter of summarising and consolidating policies, all of this coincided with the transfer to the two tier planning system that obviously had to be taken into account.

 

“All of the changes that are happening to planning will enable the planning function of central government to focus attention and resources on larger infrastructure programmes. The process is being streamlined for both sides with the caveat that it also improves consultation with communities. This can create a tension as the more consultation the slower the process but we needed to find time to engage with communities and that’s where we came up with the idea of front loading.”

 

Renewable energy

With regards to planning’s impact on the growing renewable energy sector in Northern Ireland, Kerr claimed that the new SPPS will show the Executive’s commitment to energy network development.

 

“The initial approach in PPS18 was to facilitate provisions for renewable energy projects in appropriate locations. No unacceptable or adverse impact on visual landscape character was allowed and that was really reflected in the draft SPPS and was probably one of the biggest areas of comment,” claimed Kerr.

“The industry pushed for greater emphasis on facilitating that type of development however environmental groups and various councils were concerned about this. What will emerge will be a balanced policy. When the SPPS does come out it will be used by councils primarily to support and guide them. The Executive’s commitment to energy network development is underlined in the new SPPS which emphasises the importance of ensuring the planning system supports key energy infrastructure development such as the North South Interconnector.

 

“Recently, the renewables sector has worked well with the planning department. As we go forward, a period of bedding in will be needed. There will be a lot of new processes and relationships but they are positive changes. DOE Planning will be moved to the new Department for Infrastructure and whilst this is a positive move we are aware that wider changes will present a challenge. The network development challenges will require a lot of pre-development work but we’re confident the new systems in place will provide for a better planning application process for all concerned.”

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