Planning ahead

Recent statistics have ranked Mid and East Antrim Borough Council as one of the highest performing planning authorities of the 11 local councils. Head of Planning Paul Duffy discusses the progression that will soon see the Council publish its own Local Development Plan.

The devolution of planning powers to Northern Ireland’s 11 local authorities went some way to rectify what Paul Duffy describes as a “political deficit”, caused by a perceived lack of local accountability for decisions taken by the then Department of the Environment.

Duffy explains that while a lot of the day-to-day work among his office remains largely similar, the switch has been majorly significant in increasing engagement and responsibility within the planning system, while also building a sense of collective ownership around local development.

“In the past it was often the view that planning decisions were taken centrally. That has changed in many ways and locally elected councillors are now at the heart of an open and transparent process with a large emphasis on driving a pro-business agenda.

“The transition wasn’t just simply handing over the responsibility of the process, it was a whole new planning system with fresh legislation.”

Duffy notes that one significant difference between the old system and the new, is a dramatic increase in the level of public engagement. While the ability of a member of the public to register to speak at a planning committee has always existed, previously the process was hindered by the general assumption that the process lacked decision-making clout. He states that the volume of people now registering to speak is notably higher.

Another major change is the speed in which applications are now being processed. Duffy outlines that while every council is different, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council agreed a Scheme of Delegation tailored specifically to ensure high performance as a planning authority.

“Growing the local economy is this council’s top strategic priority and the members were convinced that in order to be a high-performing planning authority then a strong Scheme of Delegation would have to be given to their officers. This means that the planning committee has more space to appraise those strategically important applications and those applications that are deemed contentious.”

The Scheme of Delegation is under constant review and amendments are made to it annually, he explains: “With it being a brand new planning system, there were some things we didn’t think of at the outset, that as we have worked through, have become necessary. Thankfully our members appreciate, and are keen to, have a strong planning system and are open to these proactive changes.”

While the advantages of handing over planning powers to locally accountable members, with a working knowledge of the borough are clear, one potential pitfall of such a move was the introduction of a greater level of politics into the planning system. Asked how he has managed this new, closer relationship with elected officials, Duffy says: “There will always be the potential for an element of politics in any planning decision but the elected members and I work very closely together. My aim is to make sure that they are aware of policy and of the implications of a decision, meaning that they are in an informed position.

“In terms of relationship, I believe having a close one is vitally important to successful planning. I meet regularly with the members as it is important to me to build up a trust. I am glad to say that the Scheme of Delegation which has been developed is based on a strong level of trust and confidence between members and officers.”

Statistics

One problem facing all of the new councils was striking a balance between processing the outstanding legacy cases, which were submitted to the Department prior to transfer, and dealing with new incoming applications. While some councils have prioritised one over the other, Duffy is proud of the efficiency shown in MEA Borough Council, where there is now only one outstanding legacy case still open and last year MEA ranked as the top performing council with regard to local applications, making decisions on an average of nine weeks, well below the statutory target of 15 weeks.

“Although we have an aim to reduce our processing time for major applications, the only way that we can do this is through pre-application discussions. Through that scoping exercise we can identify the issues early and make that process swifter. However, this requires a complete culture change.”

Local Development Plan

Formally adopting a Local Development Plan (LDP) is currently the key priority for planners in most of the local authorities. At the beginning of summer the council published its Preferred Options Paper, a document outlining the key priorities over a whole range of land use and how they wish to shape the future of the borough. The document is out for public consultation until 6 September.

The importance of formalising an LDP, Duffy explains, is that planning policy is currently outlined in extremely dated plans, some drawn up by the Department almost two decades ago.

The new LDP will be produced in two stages. Firstly, a Plan Strategy must be formally adopted before work commences on the second stage, the Local Policies Plan. The Local Policies Plan will be the document that identifies and zones land for specific use.

“It’s important that we work from policy informed by local input. A good example is a theme that has been recurring a lot in our workshops and stakeholder meetings is the appropriation on land zoned for industry. Large scale manufacturing has taken a hit in our area in recent years and the Council has taken steps to create space for entrepreneurs and start-ups. What we are now realising and encouraging is a need for space for those successful businesses as they grow to medium size. Our job will be to establish policies that are going to support development in the future.”

Concluding with the challenges the Council faces in bringing forward the LDP, Duffy says that the track record of the former Department, where many Development Plans faced legal challenge, means that they must ensure the process is robust and less vulnerable to challenge.

“To be attractive to investment you need to have an up to date Local Development Plan and you need to offer certainty to developers. Getting an LPD adopted is our number one priority,” he explains.

“Another big challenge for planning will be in managing performance. While we have our statutory indicators from the Department, the Council is seeking to go over and above. Our performance improvement plan will apply across all council services, but for planning I am developing a performance improvement framework that will help us demonstrate to developers and investors that this council is committed to leading the way in improving local planning.”

Chief Executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Anne Donaghy, adds: “Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is passionate about sustaining, protecting and enhancing our natural environment, safeguarding our built heritage, driving retail growth and addressing our housing needs.

“We are hugely excited by the creation of our first Local Development Plan (LDP), a blueprint which will inform all planning decisions within the area until 2030. When published, the plan will identify the right amount of land, in the right place to meet anticipated needs for housing, employment and services, all supported by the necessary infrastructure.

“It will also seek to deliver sustainable development that meets economic and social needs without adversely affecting our precious environment.”

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