Local government in Northern Ireland is undergoing its biggest change in 40 years. Reform will mean a reduction in the number of councils from 26 to 11 and a significant transfer of powers from central government to local government. The transfer of planning functions is one of the most complex challenges in the reform programme.
The majority of planning functions are transferring and this means that the new councils will be responsible for producing their own development plans, determining the vast majority of planning applications and handling enforcement cases.
Understandably, that may create nervousness in the business community, reliant on effective planning to create jobs and wealth. I would like to take this opportunity to re-assure the business community.
In advance of the transfer, I am ensuring that significant improvements are also being made to the planning system – faster decisions and fairer planning appeals and simpler, tougher enforcement. When councils pick up the planning mantle on your behalf, they will be working with a new and improved system.
So the product will be better. And so will the process.
I have taken significant steps to make sure that the transfer of planning to local councils is done smoothly and efficiently and that councils are ready to hit the ground running and are immediately able to make planning decisions from 1 April 2015.
Through a planning reform and transfer project, 14 teams made up of officers from both central and local government have been working hard to take forward the varied and important work that is key to ensuring that a reformed and fit for purpose planning system is transferred.
This project is, amongst other matters, ensuring that sufficient resources are transferred to the councils to allow them to fully carry out their new responsibilities. It is also taking measures to ensure the successful transfer of staff from central to local government and that staff and councillors are fully prepared for the transfer.
And we have funded that process. Over £3 million of Executive funding has been secured to deliver a comprehensive and robust capacity-building and training programme to ensure that councils are ready to take on planning on 1 April 2015.
I know some businesspeople have a fear that planning could be too fragmented, leading to inconsistency.
I can re-assure you that councillors will be required to comply with a mandatory code of conduct. This is very important. The code will refer specifically to how councillors should behave when it comes to dealing with planning matters and will be accompanied by detailed guidance.
For councillors who end up sitting on planning committees, mandatory training will be carried out in good time and will mean that they are well equipped for and have the confidence to make sound planning decisions right from day one.
And I and the DoE will not be far from the process.
My department will have an appropriate oversight role to ensure regional policies and objectives are implemented and that a consistent approach is applied to planning across the region. It will, by means of audit, inspections, performance management and monitoring, ensure that planning functions are carried out, and are seen to be carried out, in a fair and efficient manner and that best practice is applied.
There is no reason to think that, from day one, councils cannot make sound planning decisions.
With all of these steps I am taking, I am confident that a purpose-fit planning system will be delivered to local councils on time and that councils will be ready and up for the challenge of delivering it. I hope this goes some way in allaying any fears the business community have.