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NI planning regime needs fundamental reforms, suggest Belfast CC and RTPI

Words: Roger Milne
Planning / iStock_000035898050

Northern Ireland’s planning system needs fundamental reform, the country’s largest planning authority has told the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

Meanwhile, RTPI Northern Ireland has called for a digitally focused overhaul of Northern Ireland’s entire planning service as well as a significant increase in resources.

These are some of the headline responses in submissions to the DfI’s statutory review of the Planning Act (NI) 2011, the legislation which underpins the country’s two-tier planning regime. The deadline for submissions by planning authorities and other interested parties like the institute has just passed (16 April).

According to Belfast City Council the present two-tier system is not fit for purpose. City planners have recommended that an independent review of the planning regime is required, which should be carried out by an outside body “with particular expertise in international land-use planning and governance”.

Submissions seen by The Planner stress that enforcement was in crisis while plan making was “protracted and cumbersome”, as claimed by Mid Ulster Council. The overall concern is that the whole system was underperforming.

This was highlighted by the fact that over the six years since the new arrangements were established, only two development plans had been submitted to the department and the average processing time for major applications was 52.8 weeks, still nearly double the statutory target of 30 weeks.

The submissions reveal widespread frustration that the DfI retained too many checks and balances when planning powers were transferred to councils.

The institute emphasises that the structure of central and local government in Northern Ireland added significant complexity to the planning process.

“Whilst planning powers were transferred to local government in 2015, many key responsibilities such as transport, historic environment or housing remain within central government and their agencies.

“There is therefore a lack of expertise within councils to address many of the issues raised in relation to these areas, so advice from these external agencies is relied upon. The bureaucracy and delay in getting this advice is unhelpful in both policy writing and dealing with planning applications in councils, which slows down all processes,” it pointed out.

The RTPI also highlights its 2018 member survey, which showed that the role of the planning committee varies considerably between councils when it comes to the determination of planning applications.

“The general majority view is that the quality of decision-making has not improved since 2015, with calls for further training for councillors who continue to make decisions along the party line or after being contacted by constituents – decisions that are not in line with planning policies or principles.

“Planning was meant to be cost-neutral to councils at the point of transfer, but the funding seems to have been insufficient to establish effective services.

“It is also clear that many of the statutory consultees are not resourced sufficiently to provide timely, specialised responses to consultations, which is beyond the control of councils, but which has significant implications for the speed of processing applications,” said the institute.

Director of RTPI Northern Ireland Roisin Willmott added: “The changes ushered in by the implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011 represented a significant step forward in the design of the planning service to deliver sustainable development for communities. However, after six years, now is a good time to review how the system is being implemented and where improvements can be made.

“One area where only limited progress has been made is in the introduction of a streamlined, fully electronic planning application submission process. A standardised, digital approach to uploading maps and plans for applicants, and a system which allows for better communication between statutory consultees must now be explored.

“However, these types of projects cannot be taken forward without adequate resourcing. Financial support to increase the number of public sector planners, funding for specialist knowledge and investment in more efficient technologies would help support the shift from a largely reactive, regulatory planning system to a proactive and strategic digital planning system, fit for the 21st century.”

In a separate but related development, the NI Audit Office report into the province’s planning system is scheduled to be published later this year.

The RTPI's submission can be read here.

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