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With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement to underline the importance that I attach to ensuring that the planning system contributes to the growth of our economy, especially at this difficult time.
The Executive’s Programme for Government makes economic growth and wealth creation our top priority, to be taken forward in a fair and sustainable manner. That strategic priority is echoed as a key theme that underlies our planning system, which seeks to deliver economic development while protecting and enhancing the environment. As Members will know, over the last few years there has been widespread pressure for the planning system to be reformed. We all recognise that the system needs to adapt more flexibly and more quickly to the many challenges that we face, particularly in the current economic climate.
My Department has already achieved a range of process improvements. We have created two strategic project teams at planning headquarters who will handle all large-scale investment proposals. To enhance their effectiveness, those teams include specialists from Roads Service and the NIEA, two of our key consultees. That is contributing to faster and better decisions. Many economically significant planning applications will be dealt with by the strategic project teams; it is high-profile and important work.
It is vital that proposals that may bring investment be processed as quickly as possible. The achievement of that will require the commitment of everyone who is involved in the planning process. We need better planning applications that contain all the necessary information to allow a decision to be made. The strategic project teams also work alongside the Strategic Investment Board to ensure that capital-spend projects flow smoothly through the planning process. That partnership has been particularly effective in delivering new schools in the Belfast area, for example.
Furthermore, I am pleased to say that the strategic project teams processed 25 article 31 applications in 2008-09. Those included a number of high-priority cases such as the £29 million investment in the Public Record Office; the new acute hospital at Enniskillen, which will cost £250 million; and signature tourism projects at the Giant’s Causeway and the Titanic Quarter, which have a value of £110 million. Those projects were all processed in line with the six-month target that is set in the Programme for Government, and they will give a boost to our economy’s construction sector over the next few years.
More locally, my officials give priority to applications on which grant aid may depend and to those with an employment, community or public-interest dimension.
Furthermore, working with the city council in Londonderry, we piloted a streamlined consultation scheme for non-contentious planning applications. I am pleased to say that we had rolled out this scheme to all councils before the end of March, and approval decisions now take, on average, 24 days to issue. That means that extensions and alterations are approved more quickly, as well as other planning issues such as agricultural buildings, advertisements and shop fronts. That will make life much easier for those who wish to get on with development and grow their businesses, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises. That more proportionate approach benefits councils and the Planning Service. Decisions are made faster, the economic and social benefits are realised more quickly, and council and departmental officials are able to focus on more important applications, particularly those with significant economic and social implications.
I also want to encourage developers to engage with local communities before an application is submitted. That applies to people who should discuss proposed house extensions with neighbours and to developers who should engage with the local community and interest groups. Too often, it is only after an application has been submitted that people hear what is being proposed, and they often object to issues that could have been resolved, had the proposal been discussed beforehand. As with the other process improvements that I have highlighted, I expect that such front-loading will ensure that applications have a smooth passage.
In addition to the process improvements, there are some planning policy statements in the pipeline that will facilitate economic development both in settlements and in the open countryside. I look forward to publishing the revised and updated PPS 4, which concerns economic development and has been awaiting Executive clearance since January 2009. PPS 21, which I published in November 2008, also contains policies for economic development in the open countryside, including farm diversification. The Executive are committed to the development of our tourist industry, and it is vital that we have the right planning policies in place to underpin appropriate tourism-related development projects. That is why I will soon bring forward draft PPS 16, which will set out the policy for tourist facilities and accommodation. Subject to Executive clearance, PPS 18, on renewable energy, will be published before the recess.
The planning system cannot be expected to satisfy all interests all the time. Economic growth, including major infrastructure provision, requires development. However, that development must be sustainable and take into account all the relevant material considerations in the wider public interest. My Department’s guiding principle to development management is set out in paragraph 59 of Planning Policy Statement 1: General Principles:
“in determining planning applications … development should be permitted, having regard to the development plan and all other material considerations, unless the proposed development will cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance.”
Competing interests often emerge in the assessment of development proposals. That requires the planning system to balance important social, economic and environmental considerations. The weight given to those is a judgement that lies with the decision-maker and will vary with each planning application.
That brings me to the main point of the statement. I want to give decision-makers the confidence and support to make judgements that will give greater weight to economic considerations where it is appropriate to do so. I want to give clarity and to leave no one in any doubt about how to deal with economic considerations. That is not a change of policy. The purpose of this statement is to provide certainty and to give guidance so that the planning system can play a positive role in encouraging investment and kick-starting regeneration. To that end, the following paragraph clarifies the weight that should be accorded to economic aspects in the making of planning decisions.
Full account shall be taken of economic aspects of a planning proposal, including the wider benefits to the regional or local economy, alongside social and environmental aspects, in so far as they are material considerations in the determination of the planning application to which they relate. In cases where the economic benefits of a proposal are significant, substantial weight shall be afforded to them in the determination of that planning application. However, in order that my officials can do that and determine planning applications without delay, it is essential that they have all the relevant information about development proposals at their disposal. It is, therefore, up to everyone involved in the planning process, including developers, agents and public representatives, to ensure that all information about economic benefits is provided at the outset.
In these difficult economic times, I want to ensure that our planning system plays a full and positive role in assisting economic recovery so that we can benefit from better times when they come.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. He said that the proposals were not a change of policy. I understand the general thrust of what the Minister appears to be saying. However, for those Members who sit through Committee meetings on the interpretation of policy — many of whom are present today — will the Minister provide a bit of clarity on his statement’s anticipated impact on the interpretation of policy if, in fact, it is not a change of that policy?
Will the Minister comment on the concerns that members expressed at a Committee meeting on 30 April 2009 about the 20% increase in planning fees that he proposed and that his permanent secretary relayed to us? Go raibh maith agat.
First, the current planning policies are peppered with references to the importance of economic considerations. All Members will know that, because they have probably been in planning offices with developers or objectors when dealing with planning applications and making arguments.
From day to day, planners find themselves torn between the various strands of policy, some of which are complementary and some of which are, by their very nature, in competition with one another. Given the passion that many planning applications can generate among objectors, developers and, indeed, public representatives, every planning officer has to weigh up the importance of different parts of policy.
This is not a change of policy. If it was a change of policy, it would have required widespread consultation etc. This is simply an attempt by me, as Minister of the Environment, to translate a priority of the Executive that I want to see in the planning system down to those officers who have to take difficult decisions on the ground.
It means that, if planning officers, in weighing up all of those considerations in the circumstances that I outlined, have to give greater weight to an economic consideration, they can be confident that they are reflecting the wishes of the democratically elected Assembly, the Executive and the Minister. That will be important for planning officers from day to day. However, it does not mean that they can ignore certain policies. As no planning decision is based on one particular policy, where that balance is to be made, I hope that this clarification will give greater confidence and information to those people who are making the decisions at the coalface.
Secondly, I note that the Environment Committee made some comments on planning fees. The decision to increase planning fees was not taken lightly. However, it is the first increase for four years, and most of it is based on the level of inflation that applied over that period. I took the decision only after considering all the efficiencies that I could make in the planning system and in the Department to make up the impending shortfall in available staff and resources. I put a bar on recruitment, cut overtime in the Department, stopped the upgrading of posts, and so forth. I have taken action to save money in all those areas. I took money from other parts of the Department’s budget and transferred it into the Planning Service. My colleague the Minister of Finance and Personnel also provided some money. However, given the economic downturn, a shortfall remained. To keep the planning system running effectively and to avoid losing expertise, an increase in planning fees was considered as a last resort.
I remind the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment that most planning fees in Northern Ireland remain substantially lower than those in the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland, a cap of £12,500 on planning fees applies to large developments of more than 50 houses whereas the cap in England is £125,000, which is a huge difference. The increase in the price for an application to build an individual house will be approximately £110, which is also lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom and represents a small proportion of the total cost of building a house. The increase in planning fees does not, therefore, disadvantage applicants. The planning system would have been considerably more damaged by the loss of expertise through sufficient planning officers not being available to deal with applications. Developers tell me constantly that speed is the single most important element of a planning application, and speed can be achieved only by having enough resources available to process applications.
I thank the Minister for his statement. He touched on the answer to my question in his response to the Chairperson of the Committee for the Environment. Will he outline the practical economic benefits of the direction that his Department has taken? Will he also update the House on the position of PPS 4, to which he referred in his statement?
As I said in my earlier answer, the practical benefits are that the planners will have greater clarity and will, therefore, be able to make decisions with greater assurance. That will be particularly true of cases that are finely balanced. In future, when planning officers are wondering how to balance the environmental, social and economic considerations, they will have the full weight of the Executive and ministerial priority behind them, which will be helpful.
PPS 4 is another issue that is being held up at the Executive as it awaits the approval of the parties. In the past, I have made no bones about the fact that the process of receiving Executive clearance can be extremely difficult, even for some hugely important issues. Whether the issue is planning reform or PPS 14, those who delay the process must consider whether they are serving the economy of Northern Ireland.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas.
I am grateful to the Minister for making his statement. However, Assembly policies must be based on equality, and opportunities must be provided for people in rural and urban areas.
I welcome the new policies that the Minister mentioned. However, will he assure the Assembly that those who implement the policies will be properly trained? Different divisions, for example, clearly interpret draft PPS 21 in different ways.
No matter what policy is devised and implemented, those people should be properly trained in the interim period. There should be one interpretation across the board, because confusion is being caused in the public domain. That must be looked at. I reiterate that any policy should be based on equality, and people should be given the opportunity to apply and develop. Go raibh maith agat.
I do not wish to get into a debate on the differences that I have with Sinn Féin on the planning reform proposals, which are as important as today’s statement in making the planning system effective for delivering for the economy. All the assessment that has been done on the equality implications of the planning reform proposals is exactly in line with the requirements of the equality legislation. It mirrors exactly what has been done by Sinn Féin Ministers on the proposals that they have brought forward to the Assembly. The equality screening has been done to the same standard as that which has been carried out by Sinn Féin Ministers. The conclusions were based on the same information as was used by Sinn Féin Ministers when they looked at equality.
The commitment that I have given to ensure that no equality issues are involved once the proposals go into the public domain is far greater than what some other Ministers have done. The planning reform proposals, which are important in this context, have been equality screened to the same degree as would have been done by any other Minister. This is not an excuse for not progressing with the planning reform proposals.
I take the Member’s point about consistency of application, and I will be surprised if that point is not raised by a number of other Members. With any new policy, there will be an issue of ensuring that the people who have to apply it are fully aware of all the details of how it should be applied. The good thing is that, even where there have been some differences, no decision notices have been issued, because the final version of PPS 21 will not be available until the autumn. Any refusals are still being held until that final version is available. Once it becomes available, the applications can be looked at again.
It is important to ensure that the same kinds of standards and interpretations are applied across offices. A large number of Members have written to me to point out where they believe that there have been differences of interpretation. I have asked officials to look at that, because I take the matter seriously and there is no point in having a policy that is more draconian in one part of the country than in another. The Planning Service must address that issue. We have to accept that it takes a bit of time for a new policy to bed in and that it takes time for people to ensure that they are applying the policy equally.
The Minister wants planners to give greater weight to economic considerations when it is appropriate to do so. He says that developers, agents and representatives need to lobby to make their case. The Minister remains active on Belfast City Council’s planning committee, and he lobbies on individual cases. Does the Minister recognise that he is putting planners in an impossible situation in that they may not be giving what he considers to be appropriate weight to the views of their Minister?
I have been the Environment Minister for a year, and the one thing that I would have expected of the Member is that, by now, he would have found a different question to ask me.
I understand that the Assembly is interested in environmentally friendly policies, and so on. However, to recycle the same question practically biweekly is going a bit far. The Member has heard my answer to that question already, and he knows my attitude to that issue already. Rather than my simply recycling my answer, I implore the Member to try to get a different script. If he does not have a researcher who can provide him with a more incisive question, he ought to employ someone else.
As Mr Beggs just pointed out, the Minister highlighted some of the ongoing difficulties in the current process. Specifically, given the fact that the Minister says that he looks forward to publishing PPS 4, which is being held up in the Executive, can he inform the Assembly whether the economy is still the Executive’s number one priority? Is draft PPS 16 held up in his Department or in the Executive? Can he tell the House what has happened to PPS 18, which is also being held up somewhere between his Department and the Executive?
The Minister stated that he proposes to give greater weight to economic considerations. What does that mean? Does it mean that greater weight than previously will be given to economic considerations? Does it mean that greater weight will be given to economic considerations than to the social and environmental considerations that planners are also obliged to take into account?
Subject to the Executive’s approval, I hope that PPS 18 will be published before the summer recess. We are working to publish draft PPS 16 as quickly as possible.
I am reluctant to suggest a timetable because those issues are not always in my hands. As the Member well knows, under the checks and balances of our system of Government — which, incidentally, the Alliance Party was partly instrumental in setting up — those policies are subject to, and must have, the approval of a number of parties. I cannot comment on how quickly or slowly other parties will operate on the matter. All that I can say is that my desire is to put in place a suite of appropriate policies that offer guidance and certainty to planning applicants and to those who must make decisions on those applications.
I said that greater weight will be attached to economic considerations. I believe that, in the past, I have made my view clear that when it comes to material considerations, sometimes economic considerations have not been given as much weight as I would have liked. I must say that when I look at the correspondence and the number of meetings about planning applications that other Members seek with me, I get the impression that a large number of them, through the course of their work, believe that much greater weight should be given to either the preservation or creation of jobs in their constituencies.
Therefore, it is partly in response to my gut feeling, partly in response to representations that other Members have made on the issue, and partly in response to people in the development industry that I want to clarify the weight that I believe must be given to economic considerations. Greater weight means simply that: in circumstances where there is a balance of arguments and where it is appropriate, greater weight must be given to economic considerations.
I must make it clear to the Member that that does not mean that a bad planning application will be accepted simply because someone attaches a paragraph to it that states that it is of economic significance. Moreover, it does not mean that we can override policies to which we are already committed.
The irony is that most of those planning reform proposals have been well circulated in the public domain. They first came to the Assembly and to the Committee for the Environment in the form of emerging proposals. Thereafter, given the lack of opposition to those proposals, I increased their status to planning reform proposals and circulated them among Ministers. At that stage, Ministers made no adverse comments. I had hoped to publish the proposals in January and that the consultation would have been completed by now.
Good sound proposals will be attractive to those who wish to develop and to those who are affected by development. A range of people, from environmental groups to developers, welcomed the emerging proposals. One implication of delay is that people will be disappointed that the Assembly is not doing the work that it should be doing. However, more importantly, the reform proposals refer to the devolution of the planning function to councils. Given that we will establish the new councils in 2011, we are working to a strict timetable. As I said in the Assembly a couple of weeks ago, I question whether we will be able to devolve planning powers to those councils within the agreed timetable. Those councils might begin their work without significant devolved functions.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement.
Sinn Féin believes that the special guidance notes that are attached to PPS 18 are contrary to the spirit of the policy. Indeed, the industry estimates that the special guidance notes will result in at least a 75% reduction in investment in onshore and offshore wind farms. How will the limitations cited in the special guidance impact on investment in the renewables sector? Has an economic impact assessment been carried out on that guidance? Furthermore, the Minister should rest assured that Sinn Féin will ensure that any planning policies that come to the Executive will be effectively equality-proofed.
I sometimes feel like a broken record when I discuss that matter. As it stands, the policy is generous to the wind-farm industry. Under the current policy, we have issued enough approvals to meet the Executive’s target for generating electricity from wind by 2012. There are 50 applications in the system, which, if approved, will enable us to meet the targets that have been set for 2025.
There has been considerable debate about the guidance notes that are attached to PPS 18. The industry, the Planning Service and I are battling on that issue at the moment. I want to put my views on the guidance notes on record.
The wind-farm industry has circulated the story that the guidance notes will restrict the height of wind turbines and reduce their effectiveness and efficiency. They want no restriction on those wind turbines. The guidance notes indicate a height limit. If developers then propose to build a turbine higher than that limit, they will have to make a case for that.
We are speaking about turbines that, very often, will be in sensitive areas of Northern Ireland. A balance must be struck when approving a planning application. There are beautiful tourist areas, and people go to those areas because they enjoy the landscape and the natural heritage, but someone may want to build a wind turbine of a size equivalent to the BT Riverside Tower beside the Waterfront Hall in the middle of that area. All that the guidelines say is that — and we are speaking mostly about land-based turbines — if an applicant wishes to make a case for a wind turbine that is higher than 80 m, they must be able to justify it. That will then become a material consideration, and what I am announcing today will be part of that.
When judging the acceptable height of a wind turbine for which someone is seeking planning permission, the environmental considerations should be taken into account, as should the social considerations because they will, of course, generate more noise, flicker etc for people who live nearby. The economic considerations should also be taken into account. Someone may well argue that a bigger turbine is needed to make the proposal economically effective. That will be a consideration of which the planners will have to take account.
Rather than opposing the point of view that Mr McKay expressed, my announcement should actually be helpful. I do not think that people would be happy if I were to introduce a policy stating that developers could build turbines of whatever height they wanted, regardless of the context in which they were to be placed. If developers want to build bigger turbines, they should make the cases for them. Those cases will be examined by the planning officers, and decisions will be made.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. There are quite a few planning applications in my area, and greater consideration of the economic aspects of those would be very welcome.
The planning system that the Minister and his predecessor inherited was criticised from all quarters, but he has set out a programme of many wide-ranging reforms, some of which he has mentioned, including the streamlined consultation process and the creation of the strategic projects unit. Another piece of work that has been carried out is the review by the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU). Will the Minister provide the House with an update on the outworkings of that review, and how it is impacting on reforming the planning system even further?
My Department instigated some work on the planning system by PEDU, which considered a number of issues, including the internal processing of planning applications, case management, etc. It also considered how we could be more proactive in managing cases in the planning system. Nigel Dodds, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, and I have held joint meetings with the Planning Service and PEDU. We are happy that many of the suggestions have been taken on board.
A number of issues arose, including internal case management and how we could be more proactive about that. There was also the issue of the service-level agreements with consultees, which, I must say, were sometimes service-level agreements in name only, because although they included timescales, those timescales were missed time and time again. We have looked at how those could be tightened up.
The planning reform proposals now include more definite proposals, such as statutory limits on the length of time that consultees have, and ways to ensure that developers make better planning applications.
PEDU has made a range of recommendations, and we have taken those on board. Those recommendations are already improving the way in which planning decisions are made.
I thank the Minister for his statement. How will he ensure consistency of approach to the new policy on the part of planning officials? He will be aware of Planning Service’s significant staffing problems in recent years because of retirements of senior staff and headhunting by the private sector. It is important that any new policy, or suggested policy, should be applied consistently throughout Northern Ireland.
I am concerned about the application of the new policy. How does the Minister intend to curtail the rather aggressive approach of Planning Service’s enforcement section, which seems to be intent on making it almost impossible for owners of small businesses to operate, particularly in rural areas? The Minister will be aware of a couple of cases that I have raised with him directly. The enforcement section has a potential key role to play in making it possible for owners of small businesses to operate by not being overly restrictive or insistent on some regulations, which, quite frankly, are extreme.
I will correct the Member, as I do not want it put on the record that this is a new policy. It is not a new policy; it is guidance on, and clarification of, existing policy. We must ensure that there is consistency of application of policies such as PPS 21. Otherwise, people will ask questions about the way in which the planning system is working. Training of staff within the system by way of exchange and movement is important in achieving consistency, because it will allow staff to see what happens in different areas and offices.
There is a degree of subjectivity and discretion to the matter in hand; none of us, when asked to weigh up the same set of arguments, will come to the same decisions, because we will give weight to different aspects. Given those elements of discretion or subjectivity, it is impossible to have 100% consistency. All we can do, through building up cases and examples, is to seek to ensure that that consistency happens.
On the issue of enforcement, this guidance does not give people who have been in breach of the policy the opportunity to set aside that policy. In many enforcement situations, it will be the case that individuals, either because they could not be bothered or because they thought that they could get away with it, have not even considered the policy, or they may not even have applied for planning permission, and then they get caught. There is no point in my giving the impression that this policy will deal with such cases; it will not. I know of many examples in which more consideration could have been given to the jobs that were lost because businesses were closed down in a particular area. I hope that the guidance will help to preserve such businesses.
The consultation has finished, and those results will go before the Environment Committee next week. I think that that will happen next Thursday. The Executive subgroup will also consider the consultation results.
On 26 June, I will receive the report from the review group that has been considering what can be done for non-farm rural dwellers. We will consider changes to draft PPS 21 over the summer, and that should be finalised in the autumn, when the policy will go to the Executive for final ratification.
We are emphasising the retention of vernacular buildings in respect of replacement dwellings or dealing with disused buildings. I hope that the design guide will be available towards the end of the year. That will offer guidance to people who must restore old buildings on the type of additional features that can be added.
I spoke at a conference in Cushendall a couple of weeks ago. We looked at some old vernacular buildings and modern additions that had been made to them. I would be quite excited if the design guide could incorporate some of those ideas so that we can make good use of some of the old buildings in the countryside. Consequently, those buildings would not have to be knocked down, but could be turned into useful, liveable properties.
I refer the Minister to PPS 18 and the draft supplementary guidance. How does he respond to the criticisms that have been made about what some people view as subjective criteria in that draft? How can those subjective criteria give assurance to people who are seeking to invest in renewables?
Will the Minister assure the House that PPS 18 will be pitched in such a manner that will not just meet the minimum targets that have been set, but will give Northern Ireland the opportunity to emerge as a world leader in both onshore and offshore wind-energy production?
I am not sure what subjective guidance the Member is referring to. It may have been better if his question had been a bit more specific.
The criticism that I have heard from the wind industry is not that we are being subjective, but that we are being too prescriptive on turbine heights, and so on. I hope that I have explained in my earlier answer why we have set those limits, and what developers have to do if they wish to make a case for taller turbines.
As for renewable energy and its implementation in Northern Ireland, we must be careful not to regard wind power as some type of panacea. There are downsides. We have introduced and will introduce planning policies that seek to assist those who wish to introduce renewable-energy projects to their own homes at a micro level. One of the proposals of the planning reforms is to allow some of those projects as permitted developments, so that there would be no need to apply for planning permission. That cuts down time and cost.
Permissions that have been granted for large-scale developments and onshore applications demonstrate that we have been fairly generous. Members will also have an opportunity to debate the impact of legislation on offshore wind farms when they consider the Marine and Coastal Access Bill [HL].
I wish to be very clear: even if we have a large number of renewable-energy projects across Northern Ireland, the baseload must still be provided by energy providers that can assure consistency of supply. That adds cost, because parallel systems will tend to be run.
That is why we must be very careful that we do not simply see the construction of wind farms as some kind of panacea. We should not think that if we stick up wind farms, we will get all our energy for nothing because the wind will provide it and we will not have to buy oil or coal. It does not quite work like that.
That is one of the reasons why planning policy must reflect the balance between getting renewable energy where it is feasible and protecting our natural environment. It should not be forgotten that many wind farms are built on environmentally sensitive sites, because that is where the wind blows strongest and it is where they are easiest to locate.