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With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will combine the answers to questions 2 and 9.
The purpose of the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) for Northern Ireland, which I published on 28 September 2015, is to assist in furthering sustainable development under the new two-tier planning system. In the context of development in the countryside, the regional strategic objective of the SPPS is to manage growth to achieve appropriate and sustainable patterns of development in support of a vibrant rural community, whilst, at the same time, conserving the landscape and natural resources of the rural area and protecting it from excessive or inappropriate development.
The SPPS pitches planning policy at a more strategic level than the planning policy statements that have been previously prepared by the Department. It enables councils to bring forward bespoke local policies for the development of the rural parts of their own plan areas through their local development plans (LDPs), which will address their specific economic, social and environmental needs. Such policies can reflect and complement the provisions of the SPPS and may involve recognising areas that are particularly sensitive to change and areas that have lower sensitivities and, thus, provide opportunities to accommodate sustainable development.
The SPPS recognises that the LDP process is the main vehicle for assessing future housing land requirements and managing housing growth across a plan area, both urban and rural, to achieve sustainable patterns of residential development that are consistent with regional guidance in the regional development strategy (RDS). In preparing LDPs, councils must bring forward a strategy for housing, together with appropriate policies and proposals that reflect the approach set out in the SPPS, which is to ensure an adequate and sustainable supply of housing across the plan area. As long as a council’s local planning policy takes proper account of the SPPS and the objective —
Councils may develop their own approaches to deal with the local issues they face.
In addition, due to the responses to the public consultation on the draft SPPS, my Department is now taking forward a full review of strategic planning policy for development in the countryside. That review will require significant additional research and consideration and extensive engagement with key stakeholders, which will give them an opportunity to influence the future strategic planning policy direction in that important area. My officials have commenced preparatory work on the scope and content of the review, including the time frame for completion.
I thank the Minister for a very good answer on sustainable development, the link across councils and regional planning policy. Sustainability, of course, has many interpretations and there is the need for sustainable populations in rural areas. In my constituency, under the area planning policy, white land is not to be developed across the whole of the Craigavon borough area until all the land that is deemed to be area plan policy 1 land is used. It is causing considerable problems in some rural communities. Minister, it would be useful if you could outline that, in some parts of the rural area, there are —
I thank Mrs Kelly for that supplementary question, which might even have been longer than my answer to the previous questions.
As Members will be aware, PPS 21 allowed for the designation of dispersed rural communities. That approach was retained in the final draft of the SPPS, following public consultation, but I was ultimately unable to secure Executive agreement to its inclusion in the final document.
Although dispersed rural communities no longer feature in the SPPS, I am confident that the SPPS retains an appropriate degree of flexibility. As I have said, the SPPS enables councils to bring forward bespoke local policies for the development of rural districts in their area through local development plans that address their specific economic, social and environmental circumstances. As long as the council's local planning policy takes account of the general thrust of the government policy in respect of development in the countryside, councils are free to develop their own approaches to deal with the local issues that they face.
The Minister will be aware of the concerns, as highlighted by his colleague there, across rural communities about the continued rollback of services, including GP surgeries and post offices. Indeed, schools in my constituency have certainly not been immune to it. Can the Minister give the House a commitment that the new strategic planning policy statement will lead to vibrant rural communities in the future and not continued rollbacks?
I thank Mrs Dobson for that question and certainly sympathise with communities in rural areas that are seeing an erosion of services available to them, often due to dwindling populations in those once vibrant communities. Although I cannot give her a guarantee that the SPPS on its own can address these issues, I am confident and can assure her that the SPPS gives councils the opportunity to address these issues through their own local development plans. It affords them the flexibility to do so. No one should be more aware of these issues and the impact that they are having on local communities than the councils and councillors. I am very confident that they will use the flexibility that the SPPS affords them to ensure the best possible outcome for their council areas and their communities.
I am grateful to the Minister for his replies. Minister, I think that you will agree that one of the concerns is the inconsistency with which councils sometimes view planning policies. At times, they are so inconsistent in the application that it causes great alarm among those applying for planning permission for development. Some councils are really struggling to meet any level of service to the public, and long delays are building up. Will he consider setting an Executive target for planning applications?
I thank Mr McCallister for his question. He referred to inconsistencies in interpretation of planning policy statements across council areas, and I can certainly sympathise with that. I often see inconsistency in the interpretation of existing planning policy statements among planners. Indeed, planning is not really black and white, and nor should it be. It allows different people to interpret policy differently. It does and should afford flexibility. Every application should be judged on its own merits. However, there should not be the glaring inconsistencies of interpretation to which the Member referred.
I have acknowledged previously in the Chamber that the transition period of the handover of the planning function to councils on 1 April and subsequently has not exactly been seamless. Nevertheless, I believe that, despite initial teething problems, the majority of councils are now coping admirably with what is, I have to say, a much-increased workload. I was speaking to planners in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area, and they are now dealing with 150 more applications than the same office was at this time last year. That is obviously indicative of an upturn in the economy, which we should all welcome.
However, if there are issues with particular offices or councils, I will certainly be happy to speak to the Member. I will also meet the chief executives of all the councils to see how we can make planning work better for people.
I am grateful to the Minister for his replies. Will he undertake to review staffing levels at the new Newry, Mourne and Down council area? I am aware of significant pressure of work, which means that some assistance is needed to deal with the significant delays that are now occurring in the planning process?
I thank Mr Kennedy for his question — the first that I have had the pleasure of getting and the privilege of trying to answer. Employment levels in councils are clearly a matter for the councils. As I have said, I will meet the chief executives and chief planners in all the council areas in the coming weeks. Certainly, if Members here and members of the public have raised issues with me about problems that they perceive to exist in certain areas, I will urge the council chief executives to pay particular attention to those areas. Often, the backlogs can be due to a multitude of factors: perhaps they are awaiting consultation responses from Transport NI, NIEA or other such bodies.