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The NI planning system ends its infancy: so what have we learnt?

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Four years since inception, is Northern Ireland's decentralised planning system working, for planners, developers and citizens? It's a slow learning process, argues Emma Walker.

April marks the fourth anniversary of the planning and local govern-ment reform in Northern Ireland which, barring regeneration, saw all planning powers transferred to newly established councils.

Four years in and I am not sure we can say we are still in the infancy of change. So as the system reaches pre-school age, are we moving forward? The Department for Infrastructure’s figures relating to development management performance provide a good baseline. For example, 3,188 applications were received by councils in Q1 2015/16. In Q1 2018/19, that figure is similar at 3,254.

There were 94 major planning app-lications received in Q1 2015/16; in Q1 2018/19 the figure was just 37. However, the average determ-ination period for a major planning application has doubled from 37.6 weeks (Q1 2015/16) to 68 weeks (Q1 2018/19). The approval rate across the same period has been maintained and in some locations increased.

In the absence of an Executive, the ability of local councils to determine the majority of planning applications is beneficial, enabling delivery of key projects. However, the time frame for securing an approval has increased, causing concern in the development sector.

It was hoped that new measures such as pre-application discussions and proposals of notice would streamline the application process. However, statistics suggest that this has had varied success.

"The ability of local councils to determine the majority of planning applications is beneficial"

As the new legislative regime beds in, a series of judicial reviews on aspects of the development planning process are generating a library of case law that will assist in guiding the profession.

Resourcing within planning teams remains a bone of contention. When the new councils took on development management, they also took on the task of preparing local development plans for the new council areas. Turley estimates that the time to prepare a new development plan has almost doubled since 2015, to around 8.5 years.

Councils have begun preparation of their plans and we are starting to see publication of draft plan strategies, so momentum around LDPs is growing. In development management, planning committees are becoming more comfortable with the decision-making process with key approvals being made. Engagement with planning officers is also improving.

The private sector is also learning, with a renewed focus on pre-application discussions for major projects, meaningful engagement, and preparation of front-loaded applications.

The new system has demanded more from both public and private sectors. Moving forward, adequate resourcing of planning will be key to ensuring that the people and skills are available to deliver on councils’ growth ambitions.

Emma Walker is associate director at Turley

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