Planning has a critical role in not only supporting sustainable and inclusive recovery but also positioning Northern Ireland for future growth, says Northern Ireland’s Chief Planner, Angus Kerr.
The Director of Regional Planning is adamant that the planning profession and planning system has a key role to play in the region’s green recovery.
Acknowledging criticism that has been levelled at the planning system both pre- and post-pandemic, Kerr is quick to highlight a context of the biggest change to planning in Northern Ireland in over 40 years.
“There is no doubt that it took time for us all to get to grips with our new roles and responsibilities after the transfer of planning functions to local government and the creation of the new two-tier planning system,” he says, while also highlighting the impact of a three-year absence of ministers and the complexities of the Buick judgement. “Just when we had begun to get things back on an even keel and begun to make some progress, the global pandemic hit, bringing with it stresses and strains for those of us delivering public services.”
In the context of these challenges, the Chief Planner says that “it is perhaps not surprising” that the recent Northern Ireland Audit Office report was heavily critical of the operation of the planning system and identified areas for improvement. However, welcoming the report, Kerr says he is looking forward to getting to grips with further improving the system.
“I really believe we now have an opportunity to build on the changes that have already taken place and to use these to focus for our recovery and future growth,” he states.
Outlining some of the work underway in the Department to improve things across the planning system, Kerr points to the publication of the first review of the implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011, the recommendations from which are likely to shape the Department’s work and the planning system, both in the immediate future and well into the next mandate.
While the review declared that the vast majority of provisions within the Planning Act have been implemented, it also identified many issues with how the new planning system is working in practice and ways to improve the system going forward. In total, 16 recommendations were made, and Kerr says that working through these recommendations will be key in improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning system.
Kerr stresses that progress around the review of the Act has not been the only ongoing work to improve planning performance. Pointing to departmental work to improve processes and increase the efficiency of the planning system to ensure that planning applications are processed in a timely manner, he says that while there are many factors impacting on the overall performance of the planning system, often it is statutory consultee response times which are cited as a core reason for delay.
“As a department we wanted to explore this further and following an independent review we established a cross-government planning forum to implement recommendations made into the role of statutory consultees in the planning process. The forum has already delivered 19 of its 30 key actions, including a focus on improving processes and timeframes for major and economically significant applications and improving the pre-application discussion process,” he explains, adding that work of the forum is ongoing and also under review in terms of expanding and developing its future role.
“I really believe we now have an opportunity to build on the changes that have already taken place and to use these to focus for our recovery and future growth.”
Another area identified by Kerr, where work in progress will support immediate recovery and longer-term growth, is the planned introduction of a new shared regional planning IT system, replacing the Northern Ireland Planning Portal. Kerr describes the system, which is on schedule to be delivered by the end of summer/autumn 2022, as a “unique and challenging” opportunity.
“This is a transformative project, as we seek to drive planning online in this digital age,” he emphasises.
Identifying a range of benefits expected to be brought to the wider planning system, the Chief Planner points to:
• placing paperless submissions at the heart of the business model;
• improved validation and workflows;
• more efficient processing of applications;
• better and easier citizen engagement through improved user experience and functionality; and
• a more reliable and robust IT system through a cloud-based planning website and back-office system.
Stressing that progress in planning goes beyond process-orientated improvements, Kerr says that how people experience and engage planning has also been a key focus. The Chief Planner believes that a soon to be published report, the outcome of a planning engagement partnership established by the Infrastructure Minister in October 2020 to assess how to enhance the quality and depth of community engagement in the planning process at both the regional and local planning levels, will deliver greater inclusivity in planning.
Local development plans
Returning to planning’s role in supporting the green recovery, Kerr reiterates that the pandemic has highlighted the need for effective long-term planning to support social and economic wellbeing. To this end, he believes that it is now more important than ever that local development plans (LDP) policies implement regional policy “in ways that acknowledge the new reality”.
Welcoming recent direction from the Department for Belfast City Council to adopt their LDP (subject to modification/recommendations made by the Planning Appeals Commission), he says that a substantial programme of work is being taken forward as the remaining LDPs pass through the various stages of the process.
However, he acknowledges that the LDP system “will remain in its infancy” until such time as the Department can boast a number of plans have passed through to adoption.
“We recognise that progress of development plan documents has not been as fast moving as initially expected, but we anticipate that timescales will become more streamlined as the system matures,” he states.
Outlining that close engagement from officials in his department with the Department for the Economy on the development of the recently published Energy Strategy and subsequent action plan, as confirmation of a commitment to review permitted development regulations to consider domestic air source and ground heat pumps, Kerr also points to a planned review of strategic planning policy for renewable and low carbon energy, informed by a recently closed issue paper consultation.
Internally, the Department continues to deliver its Environmental Governance Work Programme (EGWP), which aims to enhance good practice and ensure planning authorities continue to understand and meet environmental obligations and ultimately promote and increase good, environmentally sound decision-making.
Kerr explains that to date 135 staff have undertaken core environmental impact assessment (EIA) training and a further 29 have undertaken advanced training, with representation spanning all 11 councils and the department. As part of this work, the Department is developing a suite of practice notes, focused on key impacts of the EIA processes, the first of which was published in December 2021.
Concluding, Kerr says that evidently planners and the planning system have much to offer in regard to recovery and future growth.
“We acknowledge that there is still much we need to do together to build a better planning system that delivers for all stakeholders, and we also know, perhaps more than most, just how complex and challenging that task is,” he states.
“We will continue to build on the work done to date to ensure that planning continues to provide a foundation for recovery and longer-term economic, social and environmental growth.”