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PACC events cancelled as NI’s chief planner moots extended planning permissions

Words: Roger Milne
A consultation / iStock

The Department for Infrastructure has announced its intention to remove the requirement for pre-application community consultation (PACC) events for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency. 

Amendments to the Planning (Development Management) Regulations NI 2015 will be required.

The move is highlighted in the latest update (no 5) from chief planner Angus Kerr.

He explained: “We are mindful that active pre-application public engagement is a very important part of our planning system. Therefore, councils are strongly advised and will be expected to exercise their existing powers to specify additional steps for developers to consult the public as part of PACC (e.g. advertising online and seeking written feedback) to ensure the benefits to communities continue to be realised during the current crisis.”

Kerr noted that many planning applications may expire during the current emergency as developers may not be able field enough workers to start on site. Councils were likely to be faced with application for the renewal of planning permissions. He asked planning authorities to “validate, process and determine these as expeditiously as possible”. He revealed that legislative change was being considered.

Also under discussion is extending the statutory time period to allow the department to deal with notifications in relation to conservation area consents, some listed building consents, major development and councils’ own applications. Notifications should be emailed, he stressed, as DfI staff are working remotely.

In addition, Kerr acknowledged that there was uncertainty whether planning committees would be able to meet under the present conditions.

He said councils should consider amending their planning schemes of delegation to ensure that they are fit for purpose. “Councils are advised to explore with their legal advisers what powers they may have under local government legislation to enable greater delegation of applications to officers.”

Kerr said the administration was exploring the possibility of regulations that would enable meetings to be held remotely, as foreshadowed under the recently approved Coronavirus Act 2020.

In terms of decision-making generally, Kerr recognised that processing planning permissions within statutory timescales had become difficult.

“We are very aware of the constraints but would ask that we all take an innovative approach, using all options available to continue the planning service.

“It is recognised that face-to-face events and meetings are highly likely to be cancelled, but we would encourage you to explore every opportunity to use technology to ensure that discussions and consultations can go ahead. We should also be pragmatic and continue as much as possible to work proactively with applicants, consultees and others, where necessary agreeing extended periods for making decisions”.

Kerr stressed that the department’s strategic planning directorate would continue to deal with its current range of cases including regionally significant applications and called-in cases.

He said the caseworks team would endeavour to work with agents, applicants and consultees the best they could using email and teleconferencing where available. “However, in these difficult times we hope you will appreciate that things will move at a slower pace than we would wish.”

Image credit | iStock