Reform of the Planning System in  Northern Ireland

Ministerial StatementS – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 14th September 2009.

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Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 2:00 pm, 14th September 2009

The Speaker has received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the reform of the planning system in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement to advise formally that I have issued my planning reform proposals for public consultation. Members will be aware that the consultation paper ‘Reform of the Planning System in Northern Ireland: Your chance to influence change’ was issued for public consultation on 6 July 2009. On 3 July, I indicated that protocol did not permit me to make a written or oral statement owing to the paper’s launch falling during the summer recess. I also indicated that I would make a statement to the Assembly as soon as was practical after recess, and that is the purpose of my statement today.

The reforms that are proposed in the consultation paper represent the most far-reaching changes to our planning system in more than 30 years. The proposals will help to transform our mainly regulatory planning system into a more responsive one that helps to enable appropriate development and to manage it in the public interest in order to achieve sustainable economic growth. Members will know that there has been widespread pressure for reform of the planning system from many quarters over the past few years.

We all recognise that the planning system needs to be able to adapt much more flexibly and quickly to the many challenges that face our society. The Executive’s key aim is to grow the economy, and we need a planning system that will help us to do that. The recent global economic difficulties and the very challenging outlook for Northern Ireland reinforce the need to reform the planning system to make it more effective and responsive to the needs of all users.

Economic growth, including major infrastructure provision, requires development, but that development must be sustainable and take account of all relevant considerations in the wider public interest. The competing interests that often emerge in the assessment of development proposals require our planning system to balance important social, economic and environmental considerations.

However, I must stress the importance that should be attached to the economic benefits of a development proposal as a material consideration when a decision is being made on a planning application. My predecessor, Minister Wilson, made a statement on that matter shortly before leaving office.

I realise that the planning system cannot be expected to satisfy all interests all of the time. A reformed planning system should, however, enable timelier decision-making in a way that is transparent, demonstrably fair and delivers better development decisions. No one should underestimate the scale of the reform programme, particularly when combined with the transfer of responsibility for the majority of the planning functions to the 11 new district councils. The reforms that I propose are fundamental and wide-ranging, and, over time, almost every aspect of the system will change.

I will take a few minutes to draw out some of the key elements of my proposal. I propose a new streamlined, fit-for-purpose and responsive local development planning system that will enable the 11 new district councils, communities and developers to work together on the preparation of plans setting out a clear and realistic vision of how places should change and what they will look like in the future. The proposals are intended to produce more flexible local development plans in a shorter timescale, which will reduce from the current six and a half years to approximately three and a half years.

I propose a new two-stage process comprising a planned strategy document and a site-specific policies and proposals document. The introduction of a structured programme management approach will help to ensure speedier delivery. The replacement of the issues stage with a preferred options document will help to increase the participation of the public and other stakeholders early in the process. Plans will be more strategic and responsive, and they will provide greater clarity.

As far as the more effective processing of applications is concerned, we must move away from the current system of development control to a new regime of development management. The proposals are intended to change the culture of the planning application process to ensure that it is responsive to different types of proposals and that it will help to deliver development, rather than mainly control it. It is a question of improving efficiency in determining applications while preserving the safeguards in the system and enhancing public and community involvement at appropriate points in the process.

The creation of a hierarchy of development is a fundamental element of managing development. The intention is to encourage a more proportionate approach to processing applications by focusing resources on proposals that involve a greater economic, social or environmental impact. The hierarchy determines whether a development is classified as regionally significant, major or local, and that, in turn, affects the way in which an application is processed. By introducing new processes, such as performance agreements, pre-application community consultation and predetermination council hearings, we hope to achieve efficiency, greater certainty about timescales and enhanced transparency and openness.

The introduction of arrangements for the delegation of decision-making to officers, thereby building on the successful streamlining project, will also speed up decision-making and enable work on the ground to start more quickly.

Enforcement is also inextricably linked to development management. The power to take action against unauthorised development and breaches of planning control is a fundamental element of the planning process. Without it, the credibility and integrity of the planning system would be undermined. The consultation paper seeks views but offers no firm proposals on the introduction of provisions similar to those proposed as part of reforms in Scotland, such as fixed penalty notices for breaches of planning control. The consultation paper re-examines the issue of criminalisation. The paper sets out in more detail the advantages and disadvantages of making it a criminal offence to commence development without the required planning permission, and it seeks current public opinion on those matters.

I am considering the role and content of planning policy statements. I propose that they should, in future, provide strategic direction and regional policy advice. The new councils would subsequently interpret that information in local development plans. I have asked my officials to ensure that future planning policy statements are shorter, more focused and prepared more quickly.

Another key proposal relates to the role that consultee bodies play in the planning process. I propose to expand the list of statutory consultees to ensure that, post-RPA, planning authorities consult relevant statutory bodies. In conjunction with that, I intend to introduce a statutory obligation on the relevant authorities to respond within a specified time frame.

Although I recognise the current extremely difficult economic climate, there is an important debate to be had in relation to the contribution that the development industry can make to the provision of the infrastructure that is necessary for Northern Ireland’s economic and social improvement, and on the best, or most suitable, efficient, and effective ways for securing such contributions. The consultation paper will begin the debate on those issues.

In view of the previous and continuing interest from some parties, I have re-examined the case for third-party appeals as part of the planning-reform programme. Although there are benefits claimed for third-party appeals, there will also be costs and impacts on the planning system. The proposals relating to front-loading third-party involvement in the planning system will promote better-quality plans and policies that will then provide a firmer basis for decision-making. Therefore, the consultation paper does not propose to make provision for third-party appeals in the current package of reform that is to be brought forward by 2011. However, I am keen to take views on the issue. All views will be fully considered before a final decision is reached.

Building capacity, both in the planning system and with stakeholder bodies, councils, consultees, developers, and so on, will be critical to the success of the proposed reforms. Neither I nor my officials can build that capacity into the system. It requires all stakeholder organisations to consider their roles and to play their part in increasing understanding, knowledge and capacity in order to improve the planning system.

Of course, we cannot ignore the issue of funding. We are talking about a different approach to planning as it is one of the new functions to be delivered by the new councils. I recognise that funding needs to be explored carefully in the new operational arrangements. Although planning fees will continue to be set centrally post-transfer, the arrangement will be reviewed in the future.

If accepted, many of the proposed reforms will require legislative changes, which take time. Of course, we will continue to take immediate steps to improve the planning system where we can, particularly to introduce measures to speed up the system so that it contributes to the Executive’s top priority of promoting economic growth. My officials have taken forward work in a range of areas to improve effectiveness in the short term. In May 2011, the responsibility for the majority of planning functions will move from the Planning Service to the 11 new councils, creating a two-tier system of planning, with new roles for central and local government. The reform proposals were prepared in that context.

Local representatives will become the decision-makers on the majority of planning applications and will set the context for those decisions through their new local development plan functions. The only exception will be a small number of applications that have regional or sub-regional significance. Those will be processed by central government and will be determined by the Minister of the Environment. The new district councils will also act as consultees on regional plans and policies, including the regional development strategy. They will also carry out enforcement against the breaches of planning control. In addition, local government will assume responsibility for associated resources, including the planning staff who will transfer with the relevant planning function. That represents a solid foundation for the development of strong, effective local government that delivers a broader range of services.

Of key importance is the provision of high-quality, efficient services that respond to the needs of people and continuously improve over time. As already indicated, the consultation commenced on 6 July and will close on 2 October. Stakeholder consultation events are running throughout September in each of the 11 new council areas. Planning officials are attending each of those sessions to discuss and to respond to queries on the proposal. Details of the stakeholder events that are still to take place are available through the Planning Service website. I encourage everyone who has an interest in planning to attend one of the remaining events if they have not already had the chance to do so, and to respond to the consultation paper.

All responses will be considered carefully before final policy decisions are taken. If the public consultation process indicates support for the proposals, significant change will be required by all players in the planning system to adapt to new and different procedures and to change culture and mindsets.

The publication of the consultation paper lays the foundation for transforming the current planning system and is a significant step on the journey to securing greater effectiveness and responsiveness for all users of the system. It is important that everybody contributes to the debate on how to ensure that Northern Ireland has a first-class planning system that serves the needs of all the people. I commend the planning reform consultation paper to the Assembly.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 14th September 2009

I thank the Minister for his statement. Last week, his officials drew my Committee’s attention to the fact that no budget has been secured beyond this financial year for the additional staff needed for the planning reform process. The officials indicated that there are insufficient funds of almost £1 million to cover the cost of staff required to address the extensive programme of work needed to reform the planning system and to prepare for the transfer of planning functions to the new councils by May 2011.

How does the Minister anticipate funding the delivery of his planning reform proposals? I welcome his commitment to grow the economy and to give weight to planning applications of an economic bent. However, given the length of time required and the present dire need to grow the economy, will the Minister now advise his Department on decisions on current planning applications that have an economic focus?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Committee Chairperson for her question. I will bid for the full anticipated requirement for the delivery of planning reform, which is vital for the well-being of Northern Ireland. I anticipate receiving the support of the Committee in those bids, because it always strengthens a Minister’s case to have Committee support in making such bids. I assume that the Committee will be unanimous in providing that support.

I will give, and have given, a clear direction to the Planning Service that it must issue decisions in light of economic conditions. I wish to deal with many issues that relate to the existing backlog. I will seek to encourage faster decisions, even if they are refusals, because people prefer certainty rather than uncertainty. It is better to issue refusals than to have indecision followed by refusal two years down the line. I want decisions that benefit the local economy and that can be acted on by applicants.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. A major frustration for Members who have been involved in local government and in the planning process is the length of time that it takes for a planning application to come to fruition. That can frustrate applicants, those dealing with the issue from a local government perspective and, sometimes, objectors.

The length of time that statutory consultees take causes big delays. Will the Minister outline how his proposals will address the problem of the length of consultation time for statutory bodies? Will he expand on his statement on that issue?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Statutory consultees have improved, and many organisations that are not related to my Department have improved considerably. I acknowledge the help of other Departments in that improvement, but there is more work to do.

The worst organisation, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), is in my Department. Although it has made considerable improvements, I want it to make greater improvements. In England, for example, the deadline for responses is 21 days. As part of our reforms, we will seek to introduce a deadline of 21 or 28 days. We await public feedback on what is best. That is how we intend to improve statutory consultees’ reporting processes.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Cuirim fáilte roimh ráiteas an Aire.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I wish him every success in his new role. Perhaps it will be third time lucky for me, and there will be no new Ministers until the end of the mandate.

Third-party appeals are a live issue. If there is strong support for third-party appeals, either in verbal or written form, will the Minister seriously consider implementing them in the final policy?

I wish to raise the matter of the economic benefits of a development proposal as a material consideration. In the absence of draft area plans, people have made submissions to develop ground. Given the potential economic benefits, will the Minister consider examining some of those applications, even in the absence of area plans, because it will be some time before the policy is operating? Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We are considering other systems to deal with third-party appeals. People have asked us to consider various examples, and we are happy to do so. We have to weigh up the advantages of third-party appeals, which provide the public with extensive opportunities to become involved throughout the planning process. However, there are disadvantages. For instance, they can slow up the planning system, and I would be deeply concerned that that might cause the system to stagnate, which would not benefit anyone. Nevertheless, we have certainly not closed the door on third-party appeals, and we will consider the matter further.

I particularly ask people to consider the benefits of front-loading applications, whereby public consultation takes place at an early point. We want developers to consult with the public and, when possible, come to an agreed way forward. We are looking for real and meaningful discussion between those who are developing projects and members of the public, but we will not be satisfied with a box-ticking exercise. We will weigh the advantages of third-party appeals against front-loaded applications, which make the argument for third-party appeals less compelling. Nonetheless, we will consider them.

Given the absence of area plans and the fact that some developments may wish to proceed but not as much land has been approved as might otherwise be available, we are probably not in a position in which there is such a huge demand for development as there was two years ago. With many sites in Northern Ireland, the biggest problem for developers is selling houses. Consequently, many sites are not going ahead as quickly as we would like. Therefore, we need to be careful about introducing additional land that is outside current development plans.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I welcome the Department’s intention to produce more flexible development plans to enable projects to be developed locally. Will the Minister confirm the continuing role of the regional development plan and how it will interact with local area plans? Will he also clarify what will happen to outstanding local area plans that are at an advanced stage, such as the Antrim, Ballymena and Larne area plan, which was consulted on many years ago?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Area plans are working towards completion, and we hope to finish them before 2011. If it is believed that it is not possible to finish plans before that date, we will enter into discussions with the new councils’ transition committees to see how the plans can be completed. That is the route that we intend to take.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I welcome the Minister’s statement and the emphasis on dealing with area plans. I trust that he will focus on trying to ensure that they are in place in a timely fashion to avoid a recurrence of the current vacuum.

What contact has the Minister had with DRD to ensure that the regional transport strategy, for example, dovetails with area plans? I am also interested in the Minister’s views on appropriate weighting for economic arguments versus, for example, built heritage, environment, local amenity, and so on.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Our linking up with the regional development strategy has, of course, always taken place. That will not be lost, because the local transition committees, which will become the local councils, will take over the DOE function of engaging with others on the development of plans. The new council, with those powers, will act in a similar way to which the Planning Service currently acts in identifying the infrastructural needs of the local community and will work closely with DRD on that particular issue.

On the issue of economic development versus built and natural heritage and other issues, we have a planning system that goes through a consultation process whereby each Department and statutory consultee brings forward its opinions. The Planning Service does not lightly overlook those opinions at any point. What Minister Wilson indicated in his statement was that, when a decision was marginal and was not a clear-cut refusal, economic development considerations would be given precedence. So when there is a decision that planners may previously have found slightly more difficult to make a judgement on, if there are considerable economic development benefits, that decision should come down on the side of the economic development benefit.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

As Question Time commences at 2.30 pm, I suggest that the House takes its ease until that time. Questions on the Minister of the Environ­ment’s statement will continue after Question Time, when the next Member to ask a question will be Mr Alastair Ross.

The business stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)