Northern Ireland, like many places across the world, is under increasing pressure when it comes to land-use. Growing populations lead to rising demands for water, energy and food, as well as for suitable accommodation. Combined with the need to enhance the efficient use of resources, while having a minimal impact on future generations, it is clear that effective land-use planning is now more important than ever.
Land-use planning has become increasingly complex and multidisciplinary. Planners deal with multiple issues that involve numerous government departments and agencies as well as local communities, and have to take into consideration both the natural and built environment, as well as socio-economic needs in the context of the planning framework.
Northern Ireland planning reform
In Northern Ireland, the planning system has undergone a period of considerable change over the past number of years. Since 2015, not only have the majority of planning functions been devolved from the former Department of the Environment to local councils, but the reform of local government has seen the replacement of the previous 26 local council areas with 11 newly-defined council areas.
The changes in the planning system mean that the responsibility for planning is now shared by local councils and the Department for Infrastructure (DfI). Local councils are responsible for local development planning, development management and planning enforcement while the DfI is responsible for deciding regionally significant applications and ‘called-in’ applications, regional planning policy, planning legislation, Regional Development Strategy (RDS), oversight and guidance for councils and performance management.
GSNI and the planning system
The Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI) is an office of the Department for the Economy (DfE) and is staffed by scientists of the British Geological Survey (BGS). Its primary role is to provide data, information and advice to support the legislative responsibilities and strategic priorities of the DfE as well as other government departments and agencies. Part of this role is to contribute to the Northern Ireland planning system which it does in a number of ways:
• as stipulated in the Planning (General Development Procedure) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015, the DfE is a statutory consultee for development proposals requiring planning permission for all mineral applications and for all applications for hydrocarbon exploration or extraction. As an office of the DfE, GSNI supports and advises DfE in any planning consultations in these areas. In addition, the GSNI, through the DfE, is a non-statutory consultee for development proposals for a number of other topics including but not limited to abandoned mines, compressible ground and geological hazards; and
• as part of the Local Development Plan (LDP) process, the GSNI has proactively engaged with all local councils to inform decision making and local plan policies. What started with a series of presentations on topics of mutual interest such as minerals, geothermal energy, groundwater and abandoned mines has developed into specific input to the councils’ Preferred Options Papers and Draft Plan Strategies; milestones in the iterative LDP process.
In 2018/2019 financial year there were just under 13,000 planning applications, all of which have had to be considered carefully and a decision made on whether development can take place. From start to finish, the planning application process should be completed in eight weeks. This process is very much dependent on consultation with statutory bodies to obtain comments on a development proposal in relation to their respective areas of expertise. Consultees include Roads Service, Northern Ireland Water, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and of course the GSNI, through the DfE. The role of the consultee is to advise on whether a development proposal is acceptable or unacceptable, and may even propose specific conditions which are attached to any approval decision notice.
The GSNI is consulted on approximately 150 planning applications annually, the vast majority of which are in relation to abandoned mines. As with all statutory consultees, the GSNI is required to provide a response within 21 calendar days of receiving the consultation via the online Planning Portal.
Guidance for planners
The number of consultations that GSNI responds to is small in comparison to the total number of planning applications in Northern Ireland. This means that GSNI has been able to analyse its responses in detail and put measures in place to optimise its performance in this role, primarily through better communication with local councils and their planning officers. This need has been met with the development of a new document entitled Consulting with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland: a guide for planners. This guidance document has been based on similar guides produced by the Historic Environment Division (HED) of the Department for Communities and the Coal Authority in Great Britain.
A number of issues were identified in the delivery of planning consultation documents to GSNI:
• incorrect assignment of statutory consultee status leading to inaccurate performance reporting;
• consultations issued to GSNI unnecessarily; and
• incomplete information leading to a delay in response.
GSNI has addressed all of these issues by developing a guidance document for planners with two main sections; Part 1 includes guidance on when to consult the GSNI, and Part 2 details the information that the GSNI requires to respond appropriately to planning consultations.
• Part 1 is a reference guide for planning authorities when deciding if GSNI should be consulted on an application for planning permission. It provides a checklist to assist planning authorities in screening planning applications prior to issuing a consultation to GSNI.
• Part 2 is a checklist for applicants and agents when preparing a planning submission. It is recommended that planning authorities also refer to this information prior to issuing a consultation to GSNI. Comprehensive applications will assist decision making by facilitating a more streamlined consultation process for both planning authorities and consultees.
GSNI has presented the document to the DfI and to the Chief and Principal Planners from the 11 local councils; all of whom have welcomed this guidance as it will lead to prompt and detailed responses. GSNI is also willing to present the new guidance document to individual local councils, especially those who submit high volumes of relevant consultations to the GSNI.
Local councils are the lynch-pin of the planning process in Northern Ireland making decisions on how an area should grow and develop and helping to meet the community needs of local people and businesses to help create jobs and economic growth balanced with a requirement to protect the environment and/or ensure sustainability. Effective land-use planning is required to ensure that these objectives are met and the GSNI plays a vital role in the systematic assessment of planning applications through the application and provision of expert, impartial and innovative geoscientific information.
Dr Kirstin Lemon
Geological Survey of Northern Ireland
Upper Newtownards Road