Final planning

Final planning

agendaNi looks at the agreed planning reform proposals.

Extra powers for new councils and a new hierarchy to categorise developments are the main elements in the planning reforms, finalised by the Executive after a long wait. The plans, which met with no major Assembly opposition, are now due to be written up in law but time is again tight.

A consultation on the proposed reforms to the planning system opened in July 2009 and in January this year Environment Minister Edwin Poots presented the final proposals to the Executive.

The reforms were passed by the Executive on 25 February and the Minister announced them that night at a Royal Town Planning Institute dinner in Belfast. These “most far-reaching changes to our planning system in over 30 years” were explained to the Assembly on 2 March.

The final policy was not immediately published but is to be made public “in the coming weeks.”

A DoE spokeswoman explained that the public consultation demonstrated “broad support” for most proposed changes. Many aspects were unchanged but in some areas, the views expressed in the consultation resulted in a change being made.

Described as “streamlined, fit for purpose and responsive”, the new system aims to get district councils, communities and developers working together to prepare plans.

These documents would set a “clear and realistic” vision of how places should change and what they will be like in the future. They will clearly indicate where development, including regeneration, should take place and its form.

Each plan would consist of two separate but related documents, prepared at an early stage of the process. Pilot studies will be taken forward through the council transition committees. A ‘preferred options paper’ will also be introduced in public consultations.

The list of statutory consultees will be expanded too and those contacted will also obliged to respond within a specified timeframe.

To help change the system’s culture to a more responsive one, a new development management regime is being introduced. This categorises the different types of proposals and aims to speed up decisionmaking. Indeed the appeals process will also be subject to a four-month time limit, whether submitted orally or in writing.

Community involvement will also be used more widely at “appropriate points” in the planning process.

The following proposals went through unamended:

  • A new hierarchy of development with three defined tiers i.e. regionally significant, major and local;
  • A requirement for pre-application consultation on regionally significant and major proposals;
  • The power to turn down applications where these consultations have not properly taken place; and
  • The power for new councils to hold pre-determination hearings (for major developments and potentially others).

During the debate on 2 March the Minister reminded MLAs of the “extremely tight” timescale if the proposed changes were to become law before spring 2011. A Bill and a “huge raft” of subordinate legislation would be brought forward and he said ministers were committed to do all they could to meet that deadline.

A full suite of planning policy statements is to be in place by March 2011, he confirmed, including PPS1; this would set out general principles for formulating planning policy. Such statements would sit alongside the revised Regional Development Strategy to provide a “robust and consistent” framework.

RTPI policy officer Brian Sore welcomed the announcement, saying it gave “clarity to the way ahead.” The institute had objected to the local member review panels, which would allow councillors to decide some minor appeals, and was pleased that the Minister agreed not to proceed with this.

Mandatory pre-application community consultation for major projects was welcomed. The institute saw the reforms as an “essential foundation” for transferring powers to new councils, although the Executive needed to ensure that councillors, council officials and planners had the right skills “to enable the new system to be used effectively.”

“The potential for delay in implementing RPA,” he warned, “will cause frustration and a potential for confusion of responsibilities across councils.”

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