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NI political impasse casts a shadow over regeneration schemes

Words: Roger Milne

Stormont’s power-sharing arrangements collapsed this week after the five major parties failed to reach agreement. No budget or Programme for Government has been set to govern public spending during the financial year, which begins next month.

Given the recent transfer of planning powers from central government to reconfigured local authorities, local planning decisions and development planning will not be affected.

But there is uncertainty about ministerial sign-off from the Department for Infrastructure on regionally significant planning (or ‘called in’) applications, agree planning professionals and academics.

Gavan Rafferty, lecturer in spatial planning and development at Ulster University, said: “In broader planning terms, the current impasse will delay the ongoing debate about the reclassification of housing associations as private bodies and future implications this has for Northern Ireland’s public finances.

“While Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance has taken responsibility for setting 75 per cent of Stormont’s budget, there is a growing concern among many built environment professionals that not having a fully functional Assembly and a cross-party agreed Executive budget will have implications for regeneration schemes – as regeneration powers remain with the Department for Communities, a central government responsibility – as well as major infrastructure projects, and for spending on key public services, such as social housing and health services.”

Roisin Willmott, the RTPI’s director for Northern Ireland, said: "Given that planning is now largely devolved to councils in Northern Ireland, the current situation should not affect the service on a day-to-day basis, particularly if an Executive is formed in the next few weeks.

“However, if this period of impasse becomes protracted, it could start to affect investor confidence, which would have implications for a region which is increasingly seeing more activity. This would add to the uncertainty caused by the ongoing discussions around the UK’s departure from the European Union.

“A protracted delay in forming the Executive would also delay any decisions required of a minister on planning issues, particularly relating to large-scale developments.”

James Brokenshire, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, remains hopeful that the parties could agree a power-share by Easter. But if that doesn’t happen the prospect of another election and possibly the return of direct rule from Westminster loom ever larger.

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