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Steady on: Planning in Northern Ireland two years after major reform

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2015 marked a significant shift for planning in Northern Ireland; two years on, how is it working out? Roisin Willmott FRTPI, Director of RTPI Northern Ireland, looks at  the challenges facing the province and its fledgling planning system

In April 2015 a new plan-led system, accompanied by reforms to public services, was introduced following years of a centralised system. Eleven new local councils with responsibility for many planning functions were introduced. The then Department for Environment, part of the Northern Ireland Executive, retained some powers, as is the case with other UK jurisdictions.

Many planners woke up on 1 April 2015 with a new employer, but generally the ‘big bang’ that was predicted didn’t happen; life carried on. But since then changes have been felt as councils developed confidence, forming their own identities and strategies. During this transition, RTPI NI held workshops and conferences, and advised councillors and officials on how to operate effectively within the new system.

The effort this has required from everyone should not be underestimated. The changes have affected planners in all sectors, as well as the elected members who have had a marked change in their roles. But the hard work has been worth it; planning is now positioned for it to be more responsive and accountable to communities and for long-term gain. A completely new function is the introduction of Local Development Plans (LDPs), linked closely with each council’s Community Plan, the LDP being a spatial interpretation of the latter. Councils are now immersed in writing their LDPs; will they meet the four-year target set to have plans adopted? It’s a big ask, but having an adopted LDP will be an important part of the machinery for meeting the needs of communities and guiding investment. This spring, RTPI NI will provide planners with the tools to write LDPs at a conference in Mid Ulster. 

“The changes have affected planners in all sectors, as well as the elected members, who have had a marked change in their roles”

Last May, the Departments of the Executive were remodelled and the planning function transferred to the Department for Infrastructure, bringing it together with the Regional Development Strategy – the overarching plan for Northern Ireland. This puts planners at the heart of what could develop into a key leadership role for Northern Ireland. Life was settling down under minister Chris Hazzard, but following a political wrangle new Assembly elections were called for 2nd March. RTPI NI issued a set of requests, including stability in the planning system, for the new assembly to implement. We might know who the new Minister for Infrastructure is when you read this, but whoever takes on this portfolio, there is no need for substantial change; the Northern Ireland planning system still needs time to bed in.

Another need for stability is the pending departure of the UK from the European Union. This has implications for the whole of the UK, however, the unique issue for Northern Ireland is its land border with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain a member of the EU. How will this border be treated? What are the implications for strategic planning across the border, for transport links, for energy and for those people from both sides of the border who live their lives across it? We will be exploring some of the issues yet to be worked out with colleagues from the Republic of Ireland at a conference on 25 April.

It is an interesting time to be a planner in Northern Ireland: it is unquestionably a period of significant change we will look back at and comment on. 

Good planning has been taking place in Northern Ireland for many years, and the RTPI is continuing its search for the best places as influenced and shaped by planners and planning. In 2017 we pick up this search in Northern Ireland. Started by RTPI Scotland to mark the RTPI’s centenary, the search for the best places across the UK, as voted for by the public, has crowned Dundee Waterfront (Scotland in 2014), Liverpool Waterfront (England in 2015) and Aberaeron (Wales in 2016). Look out for more information on this and your chance to nominate your best places in Northern Ireland.

Roisin Willmott is director of RTPI Northern Ireland

Nominate your best place in Northern Ireland

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