When Angus Kerr discusses planning reform, he is always keen to restate the Executive’s vision for local government i.e. strong, dynamic and creating communities that are “vibrant, healthy, prosperous, safe, sustainable and have the needs of all citizens at their core.”
Delivering this vision required high quality and efficient services that respond to the needs of Northern Ireland’s people and continuously improve over time.
The delivery of local government services over large geographical areas is “a very new thing for Northern Ireland” and there was a sense of “new everything” across the sector. He added: “For me, this is a journey and a process that we’re on and over time, if this is successful, there will be more functions and powers transferring to local government.”
Importantly, the DoE will retain responsibility for planning legislation, policy and guidance, the listing of buildings, and determining regionally significant planning applications – either when they are directly submitted or called in from the councils. The Minister will also have a range of oversight and intervention powers.
Councils will be responsible for drawing up local development plans, processing “99 per cent” of planning applications, planning enforcement and conservation. The local development plan will set the vision and policies for the future development and use of land in a council’s district.
“The developers and the public will have an understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable in the future,” Kerr commented. The use of spatial planning will focus the process “much more on delivery”.
There will also be a new hierarchy of development, to allow “proportional processes” for different types of planning applications i.e. regional, major and local applications. Pre-application community consultation will be introduced for major applications and a pilot for this worked “very successfully” in advance of the Windsor Park redevelopment.
Schemes of delegation will allow councils to delegate minor applications to councillors and therefore allow the planning committee to deal with the more significant ones.
The Minister has increased the maximum fine for breaching planning law from £30,000 to £100,000 upon summary conviction – and this should ensure that unauthorised development is dealt with “quickly and effectively”.
Statutory consultees will be defined in legislation for the first time (e.g. the Roads Service and Northern Ireland Environment Agency) and they will be required to provide a “substantial response” to councils within a prescribed deadline.
The Single Planning Policy Statement will consolidate 800 pages of planning policy into less than 100 with sustainable development being its “cornerstone” but it also identifies other key principles e.g. improving health and well-being, “creating and enhancing” shared space, and good design.
Community planning was often confused with land use planning. “I see it, anyway, as being about co-ordination and service delivery across the council area,” he said, “focused really on citizen-focused outcomes.” It would be “a bit like a business plan” for a council area rather than a traditional land use plan.
The reform programme was now “past the point of no return” and “gathering speed” with a lot of collaboration happening. Kerr expected to see more “place-based leadership” for planning and regeneration which has been lacking in central government’s sectoral approach.
Fundamentally, most planners saw reform as “the right thing to do” as local government is the level at which planning is managed in other jurisdictions – and that support is helping officials to get through the hard work of the process.