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3. asked the Minister for Regional Development for his assessment of the cumulative impact on local infrastructure of successive infill development; how this is assessed by his Department as part of the development control process; and what agreement there has been with the Department of the Environment on this issue. (AQO 2673/09)
The divisional development control sections of the Department’s Roads Service work closely with DOE Planning Service in the development of area plans. It is at that stage that the cumulative impact on traffic of infill developments is considered. In addition to that assessment, developers are required to submit a transport assessment form for a proposed development or redevelopment. Roads Service considers that form during the planning consultation process. The transport assessment form demonstrates how the development functions in transport terms and identifies any possible adverse impacts.
Roads Service may, through Planning Service, request a full, detailed transport assessment where a development is considered to be likely to have significant transport implications, irrespective of the development’s size. Infill development, which by nature tends to be relatively small scale, does not normally require a detailed transport assessment. As part of the transport assessment process, the impacts of committed developments that have extant approval have to be taken into account in the analysis. Those developments that are still under consideration are not taken into account in such an analysis. When development plans do not provide for the cumulative impact of developments in an area, Roads Service is required to consider each individual planning application on its merits.
Each application is examined against the planning policies, guidelines and site conditions that pertain at the time of the application. Members will be aware that the regional development strategy for the period to 2025 promotes development on brownfield sites. The strategy defines brownfield land as:
“that which is, or was occupied by, a permanent structure within a defined settlement limit.”
That excludes the gardens of dwellings and apartments.
Under service level agreements, Roads Service is required to advise the Planning Service on the suitability of existing roads and transportation infrastructure necessary to service a proposed development so that the Planning Service can arrive at a decision on an application. The service level agreement does not require Roads Service to provide advice on the cumulative impact of a number of infill developments.
I thank the Minister for his answer, which was very helpful. I note his comment about the regional development strategy and area plans. Does he accept that they are out of date in respect of what is happening on the ground, and that infill development in back gardens, for example, is not covered? Although such areas may not qualify as brownfield, they are still development sites.
Does the Minister agree that there is an issue whereby if someone applies for planning permission for 40 or 50 houses, a detailed traffic-impact assessment will be carried out, but if a number of developers apply for the same number of houses, three or four at a time, a detailed assessment would not be carried out, even though the impact on infrastructure would be exactly the same?
The interim review of the regional development strategy — and we are engaged in a much longer-term review — clearly made a point about gardens as opposed to brownfield sites. That advice was passed on to the Planning Service to use in dealing with applications. There was quite a clamour to be more definitive in citing what constitutes brownfield sites and what constitutes gardens. The interim review tightened that definition up, and passed that advice on to the planners.
I appreciate what the Member said about the cumulative effect of traffic if a single application is made, as opposed to multiple applications, but Roads Service and planners can only consider applications on their merit. They cannot anticipate what may turn out to be further planning applications. They have to consider applications that are extant when an application is received. In that respect, they can measure a cumulative effect, but unless there is a range of applications at one time, it is impossible to do that.
One cannot measure the possible impact from applications that may be made next week or next year. That is even more difficult in the current climate, because many proposed developments have now been put on hold. It is impossible to anticipate what may be planned, but I appreciate the point that the Member made. Perhaps when there is reform of the planning process and more involvement at local government level, some of those matters can be examined.
Does the Minister share my profound disappointment that his definition of what constitutes brownfield development, as a result of the review of the regional development strategy, has had absolutely no impact on the amount of high-density development in Northern Ireland? His Executive colleague Mr Sammy Wilson has confirmed that not a single planning application has been turned down as a result of the redefinition of brownfield development.
We have made a genuine effort to respond to an issue that was raised, and to define more clearly the difference between brownfield sites and gardens. If there was an issue with that, and the planners were not happy or found that that redefinition was not appropriate or satisfactory, we should have heard from them, because planners ultimately approve or reject applications. I do not think that I have heard that from them.
As for cumulative development, I make the same point that I made to Mrs Long: we cannot make decisions based on anticipation. We can only deal with and make an assessment on applications that are in front of us. That is how Roads Service must operate.
If the Member and others perceive a clear problem, I am more than happy to work with the Minister of the Environment to see how we could try to make improvements in the context of planning reform, but it is very hard to deal with planning applications or their impact on transport on the basis of anticipation.
Roads Service and the Planning Service are reviewing the service level agreements, and my understanding is that there are no plans to make provision for assessing the cumulative impact of infill developments. However, as I said, this is the place where Members can raise issues that are important to them, and I am happy to work with the Minister of the Environment if people think that there is a pressing need that is not being met by the current planning policy.