Carol Ramsey, Director of the Strategic Planning Division in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) discusses the evolution of the planning system following the devolution of powers and the Department’s role in ensuring sustainability is at the core of all planning for Northern Ireland.
Significant changes to the planning system in 2015 saw a move away from a unitary and central system to a two-tiered approach, handing the primary responsibility for the implementation of key planning functions to Northern Ireland’s local authorities and brought with it the opportunity for improved local accountability and greater opportunity for communities to shape their own areas.
Alongside the introduction of the two-tiered planning approach, a key element of ensuring sustainable growth moving forward was the new two-document approach to preparing local development plans (LDPs). Under the new system the 11 councils have responsibility for creating LDPs for their area, as Ramsey explains: “setting out a clear long-term vision of how the council area should look in the future by deciding what type and scale of development should be encouraged and where it should be located”.
Ramsey outlines that the old area plans, which were prepared under the previous unitary system, are now out of date. Among the many criticisms levelled at the old style plans were: lengthy public consultations with a lack of meaningful engagement, lack of local identity and inadequate monitoring and lack of regular review.
Ramsey says: “This led to an inability to adapt to changing circumstances. However, these plans were of their time and we are now responding to different pressures and circumstances that require a different approach than was previously offered.”
With an emphasis now strongly on sustainable growth, LDPs should set out a 15-year vision for development of the Council area, including objectives and a range of policies tailored to the specific circumstances of the plan area within the regional policy framework.
For this reason, the LDP is not drawn up in isolation but taking account of: The Regional Development Strategy; the Department of Infrastructure’s Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) and other policy and advice from the Department; and the Local Community Plan.
Ramsey outlines that a key element of the new approach is that it is evidence-based. “The new process requires councils to undertake a survey of the district to inform the plan evidence base. This will indicate key issues and inform the plan vision and objectives and assist in developing reasonable options at the early stage of preparation.
“It also means that, where councils would seek to depart from the planning policy direction set out in the SPPS, they may only do so where their plan’s evidence base supports a different approach.”
Planning can play a central role in creating environments that will enhance people’s health and wellbeing, explains Ramsey.
“The new LDPs are the ideal platform to research, develop and bring forward localised place-making strategies which link people’s surrounding environment to their health and wellbeing.
“The new style of plans should enable councils to create places in the future that are functional, durable, viable, sustainable, good for people to use and that reflect the importance of local character and distinctiveness, and to move plans beyond a land use focus towards ‘place shaping’ which incorporates a spatial analysis and visioning process.”
Ramsey adds: “I recognise that implementing the new local development plan system at the same time as the bedding in of the two-tier planning system, in the context of constrained resources and the added dimension of Brexit, is a challenge. It’s a new system for us all, and the Department, in its dual role in both planning oversight and as statutory consultee, is committed to working with councils to assist them in the preparation of sound local development plans.”
Ramsey explains that the new outcomes-based approach of the draft Programme for Government has provided considerable scope for the integration of departmental and council activities. The Department’s functions in relation to infrastructure, transport, water and in respect of regional planning policy all impact on council activity. At the same time, decisions which are taken locally also impact on how the Department performs its statutory duties.
“The new LDPs are the ideal platform to research, develop and bring forward localised place-making strategies which link people’s surrounding environment to their health and wellbeing.”
For this reason, Ramsey stresses the need for a collaborative approach and a focus within the Department for Infrastructure on delivering on the outcomes that apply to them which are: To improve transport connections for people, goods and services; and to increase the use of public transport and active travel.
“Councils, in addition to focussing on the needs of their own district, need to consider the wider regional context in order to avoid unintended adverse impacts.”
Ramsey points to a number of ways in which the Department is working to assist in delivering sustainable development, which includes the building of “close and effective” relationships with councils, recognising the importance of locally-based decision-making in the form of local development plans and community plans.
One example she offers is the creation of local transport plans alongside the LDPs. Although led by the Department, the plans will be created by working alongside councils. Ramsey says: “The local transport plan provides a golden opportunity, in conjunction with the LDP, to create places which contribute to wider sustainability and health outcomes. The transport plans will address the framework for the delivery of public transport services which reduce congestion, improve air quality and create more sustainable places.”
However, the Department does have some responsibility in areas such as environmental governance. Successful delivery of sustainable infrastructure for the region is dependent on the Department fulfilling its obligations and responsibilities under the relevant EU Environmental Directives and International Treaties through legislation, policies, practices and procedures.
The Department is currently undertaking the development of an infrastructure delivery plan. Ramsey explains that the plan will focus on ‘hard’ infrastructure, taking account of existing provision and developing a number of future projections. It will attempt to identify gaps in existing provision and areas of potential future demand. Ramsey believes that the infrastructure delivery plan, which was approved in principle by the previous minister, should be published within 18 months of Ministerial agreement to formally proceed.
Regarding the preparation of local development plans, to date all councils have agreed a Statement of Community Involvement and Timetable with the Department, while seven have developed a Preferred Options Paper. The next stage will be delivery of a Plan Strategy, the first of the two plan documents, before it is assessed by the Planning Appeals Commission at Independent Examination.
Concluding, Ramsey says that while the delivery of LDPs are a challenge, the Department will also be focused on other potential challenges facing the sector. Outlining Brexit as “uncertain times”, she highlights the range of areas which could be impacted when the UK leaves the EU.
Further to this, she says that good relationships will be key to successful delivery of sustainable growth. “Almost all aspects of planning require collaboration between neighbouring districts. It is very important that we continue to work closely with our neighbours across boundaries but also with our colleagues in the Republic of Ireland.”