In a way, planning policy in Northern Ireland will be ‘coming home’ on 1 April next year. The province’s first piece of legislation in this area – the Planning and Housing Act (Northern Ireland) 1931 – granted planning powers to 37 local authorities i.e. the county boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry, the six county councils, and the 29 borough and urban district councils.
The next major development came in 1964 when the Matthew Plan laid down a stop-line to control Belfast’s suburban expansion. Neighbouring market towns were enlarged to accommodate the growing population and an entirely new town took shape in Craigavon.
Terence O’Neill’s administration took a growing interest in planning, especially its economic aspects, and it was formally transferred to central government in 1973. Over the years, it has been administered by the Ministry of Development, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Planning, the Department of the Environment, the Planning Service – and the DoE again since April 2011.
At present, planning applications go directly to the department with councils being formally consulted during the decision-making process.
The Executive has agreed to transfer local development planning, development control and enforcement powers to local government. Councils will therefore receive, process and decide upon the vast majority of planning applications. The Environment Minister will retain responsibility for the Single Planning Policy Statement and the handling of regionally significant planning applications.
Lisburn councillor Jim Dillon chairs NILGA’s working group on planning. Speaking at this year’s Northern Ireland Environment Forum, he said that the sector was determined to inherit an improved planning service which will “improve further” thereafter. Dillon added: “We want to ensure that we have a robust, effective policy for our local areas to be able to turn round local government plans quickly, to turn round planning decisions quickly and to enforce planning decisions effectively.”
Local government reform aims to create communities that are vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe and sustainable “and have the needs of all their citizens at their core.” Services need to continuously improve over time with central and local government working in partnership.
Place-shaping was a core principle of how to plan for the future. Town centres needed to be “vibrant not vacant” but councils also needed to work together and take a collective view on the placing of major infrastructure and regionally significant retail or industrial developments.
It was vital to maintain and develop “healthy working relationships” with the Department of the Environment, the Department for Regional Development and the Strategic Investment Board.
Councils were working to change their culture from consultation with a “passive public” to actively involving and informing the citizen, which would also require a “massive culture change”. The increasing use of ICT would help but it will be “hard work” to ensure that the changes to the system are understood and that everyone has an opportunity to engage in the planning process.
Dillon commented that the vast majority of councillors are “extremely keen” to have a robust code of conduct. Councillors had been the “chief critics” of the DoE over the last 40 years but the responsibility will now rest with them.
“We need to know that the decisions we make are legally sound, based on evidence and made in the best interests of the community we serve,” he explained. Councils will also be more open and transparent with public and press access to committees and sub-committees as well as main council meetings, the recording of debates and permitting the use of social media.
“There is a huge amount of change happening all at the same time,” he remarked. “Merging councils plus adding functions plus reforming the planning system equals a change earthquake.” Elected members will have get to get to grips with their new responsibilities very quickly.
Councillors from the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon cluster recently attended a planning committee meeting in the London Borough of Camden and came back with a much greater understanding of their new role.
A programme of pilots is also being rolled out and developed to help prepare staff and councillors for the transfer. Initially the focus will be on planning functions. These pilots test the new procedures and are building links between planners, councillors and council officers.
Aside from training, NILGA sees the following building blocks as fundamental:
• ensuring that costs are covered in an unstable policy environment;
• being rates-neutral at the point of transfer;
• adequate timing for legislative passage and training;
• official guidance “long before” the councils go operational on 1 April 2015; and
• greater clarity on an agreed transition process.
He was confident that the transfer of planning will be achieved on time and affirmed that councillors, local government officers and planners were up to this task.
“I am convinced that by the end of 2015, we will have an efficient, effective set of planning committees making sound local decisions for their area and robustly enforcing decisions made,” Dillon commented. By 2020, the councils would have an effective robust set of development plans in operation linked to other policies.
“It’s going to take time,” he said in conclusion, “but it’s going to be better.”
The number of planning staff to be transferred will be finalised in June or July of this year. It is unlikely that planners will transfer before next April unless councils decide to use secondments. Some councils already employ a planning officer and NILGA has said that their insight has been “invaluable” during the transition process.
The Local Government Act will require each council to produce a community plan for its district, to be reviewed every four years. Councils, though, will have the flexibility to tailor the plan to the needs of communities.
While the number of councils is decreasing from 26 to 11, the number of local planning offices will increase from eight to at least 11. At present, these are in Belfast, Ballymena, Coleraine, Craigavon, Derry, Downpatrick, Enniskillen and Omagh. Decisions on where to locate the offices will be considered in detail over the summer.
Councils have been lobbying the Executive to ensure that the Sustainable Development Strategy is implemented and that compliance is monitored. The strategy was published by OFMDFM in 2010 but was criticised by environmentalists for being vague with few clear objectives.
NILGA has set up a ‘local government sustainable development forum’ for council officers and councils want to become leaders in this area. It recognises that the concept is changing – to include a greater focus on the needs of communities – but there is a risk that it could become a “nebulous concept” which has different meanings for different groups of people.