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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.