Planning for the future

Clyde Shanks image 1 Clyde Shanks takes stock of the local development market and explains how the new planning system will require a culture change among political representatives and developers alike.

It is a pleasure to be able to sponsor this feature on the transition of planning powers to our new 11 Councils. We are about to enter a new era in how we administer our planning system across Northern Ireland. From the beginning of April next year, we will have a new Planning Act and new structures and processes to govern planning decision-making.

As a very progressive planning consultancy operating across Northern Ireland, we work hard to make development happen for our clients. The current positivity across our local property market should certainly see early demands placed on the new planning system to perform and be responsive. Over the course of 2014, there has been significant movement with inward investors focusing on Northern Ireland and acquiring a significant foothold here. New players have quickly entered the scene, notably Cerberus, Lone Star and Marathon to name a few, and assets are being traded.

Inevitably, securing enhanced return on these assets will require engagement with the planning process to refresh or replace previous approvals, and ensure these are reflective of current and future market needs.

We are placing ourselves to be ready to respond to this increased activity and to achieving successful outcomes through the planning process. In addition to this welcome increased investment there are further signs of recovery in the local housing market with higher levels of construction activity and stronger sales. Developers are doing deals again to both acquire land on the open market and to negotiate joint venture deals with banks on legacy sites from the property crash.

Pleasingly, we are re-engaging with clients bringing forward new housing sites across Northern Ireland and who are slowly widening their sights from short-term commitments to getting back to mobilising a supply of housing land in strong locations.

Sectoral growth

Across all sectors, we are experiencing continued activity and demand for our services. We remain busy in progressing wind turbine development (at all scales) and continued interest in anaerobic digestion plants for farmers and commercial interests.

There is also healthy demand for our services in regularising and extending waste operator activities.

We are also seeing increased activity in commercial and retail proposals and through 2014 have been increasingly advising agri-food companies to expand and diversify their business requirements. An example of that is continuing to secure pleasing results for Moy Park as part of the plans for significant growth of its business across Northern Ireland.

The drive to introduce the new planning landscape seeks improvement and greater local input in decision-making. Decisions about how all of our areas develop are fundamentally ones which have their proper place at a local Council level.

The new regime offers important accountable decision making that is in the local public interest.

The changes will establish a two-tier planning system. Regionally significant and some major development projects will continue to be processed by a retained Department of the Environment Planning headquarters team but the vast majority of all planning applications for development will be processed by the new Councils and their planning teams.

In effect, DoE Planning and its area planning office network will give way on 1 April next year to newly assembled planning teams aligned to each of the new 11 Councils.

Can-do culture

The challenge is in quickly bedding in a can-do culture, a desire to embrace investment in each area and to engage in partnership working to balance all competing interests and take informed decisions more quickly. It is also in earning a reputation for wanting to make good development happen and move away from the dithering and delay culture of the past. In short, we want to see consistently strong civic leadership in decision-making within our new planning committees.

This presents a formidable challenge to our elected Councillors to step up to the mark. They will be tasked to take what will sometimes be controversial decisions. They will be mindful that in doing so they are likely to put noses out of joint amongst their constituents, the very constituents they place reliance on for votes to maintain the positions they hold.

The changes will be immediately evident. The planning committees will be where the decisions are taken by the Council. No longer will they be merely a consultee and seeking to influence DoE; the Council’s planning committee will decide whether you can proceed with your development plans or not.

Assessing whether development falls in to one of three categories – regionally significant, major or local – will become the norm. This new hierarchy of development seeks to introduce a more proportionate and responsive approach to the processing of planning applications.

The objective is to prioritise resource in processing the applications which have greatest economic and social significance with management of these tailored to the scale and complexity of the proposed development. Articulating the economic case for development is increasingly becoming a very key factor across all types of projects.

At the lower end of the spectrum, there will be a sieving out of more straightforward and non-controversial planning applications extending the powers of planning officers to take decisions to avoid the need to present all applications to planning committee.

Engagement

The principal change for developers will be the requirement for engagement with local communities. For major developments, that will be essential. That promises to apply to all proposals for more than 50 houses, retail development greater than 1,000 square metres, energy infrastructure generating more than 5MW of power, and any development exceeding 5,000 square metres or more gross floorspace.

It will demand a more considered approach to how proposals are devised with a requirement to engage with local communities to present proposals prior to the submission of a planning application. That will require a focus on understanding local character and responding appropriately to it, achieving better design and capturing the accessibility and sustainable credentials of new development.

It will place a sharp emphasis on local community participation and engagement in the evolution of major development proposals prior to planning applications being made. Developers will be required to engage in sharing their proposals and seeking feedback before a planning application is submitted.

For us, this is not new ground. Our team has substantial experience of community engagement across all types of development projects.

We are skilled in preparing quality consultation exhibition material, bringing together local community and business interests, local Councillors and wider political representatives. We confidently share what our clients propose to do to secure meaningful and helpful feedback and enhance the final application submission.

The new Councils will undoubtedly wish to place their own stamp on their areas and that will include launching new development plans. This provides the opportunity for promotion of land within revised settlement limits, adjusted town centre boundaries, new housing and employment zonings with early initiation of these anticipated from 2016 onwards.

As 2014 nears a close, 2015 brings the promise of what we hope will be positive change and increased opportunities. It is an exciting and momentous time to be at the forefront of guiding development through our rapidly changing planning system.

We look forward to continuing to provide the highest quality of planning consultancy services to our clients and to planning exciting development across the province.

Clyde Shanks
5 Oxford Street
Belfast, BT1 3LA
Please visit our updated website: www.clydeshanks.com
Email: clyde@clydeshanks.com

If you are planning a development please talk to us. Call Clyde, Thomas or Gavin on Tel: 028 9043 4393

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