Infrastructure and transport reportPlanning

Planning improvements: Resource dependent

New Minister for Infrastructure John O’Dowd MLA has said that progress on improvements of Northern Ireland’s planning process is resource dependent.

Northern Ireland’s planning system was deemed “not fit for purpose” by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in 2022, however, widespread acknowledgement of a need to improve the system could be financially hampered, even with an Executive in place.

Expressing alarm, the PAC said it was “appalled” by the performance of the planning system following an examination of how the Department for Infrastructure and local government have delivered planning decisions since reform was introduced in 2015.

In 2022, none of Northern Ireland’s councils met the statutory target for making decisions on major planning applications, with the average decision time of 57.8 weeks far exceeding the 30 week target.

An efficient planning system is critical not only to aspirations of economic growth for the region, but also enabling green energy infrastructure to help meet a legally binding net zero emissions by 2050 target.

In March 2024, Ian Snowden, Permanent Secretary for the Department for the Economy told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the “speed at which we can progress planning applications, or indeed the ability to get them passed at all, will be a significant barrier to” achieving the 80 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 target.

“From our perspective, we would like quite a radical approach on the planning policy to make it more feasible for us to deliver the renewable energy that we like,” he told MPs.

In 2021, the Department for Infrastructure undertook a review of the 2011 Planning Act, which informed a wider Planning Improvement Programme (PIP), a collaboration between the Department, local government, and other partners, aiming to create an efficient, effective and equitable planning system.

With the return of ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive in February 2024, it had been hoped that planning reform would be an early priority for the new Minister for Infrastructure, however, budgetary pressures are set to have an impact on any planned reform.

Responding to a written question by the DUP’s Infrastructure spokesperson, Phillip Brett MLA, asking for details of his legislative plans to improve the planning process, John O’Dowd MLA said that “good progress” had already been made.

Progress pointed to includes an inflationary increase in planning fees of some 12.9 per cent introduced in April 2023, aimed at assisting councils and the Department to cover the cost of processing applications.

Additionally, the Department says that it is progressing work to bring forward arrangements for statutory validation checklists, to improve the quality of applications entering the system, following the conclusion of a public consultation in January 2023.

A public consultation was also launched in December 2023 into a fundamental review of the Planning (Development Management) Regulations (NI) 2015. Proposed changes include a review of the classes of development; making pre-determination hearings discretionary for councils; and the introduction of online/digital methods into the pre-application community consultation (PACC) process.

Further progress listed by the Minister include a review of the internal administration of the ‘call-in’ process and the introduction of the regional planning IT system.

However, responding to the question on planned legislative progress, Minister O’Dowd says: “I will be reviewing progress with my officials; progress is however dependent on the resources available to me within my department.”

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