Planning Applications: NIEA Responses

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 5th December 2016.

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Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP 2:00 pm, 5th December 2016

5. Mr Dunne asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the time taken by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in responding to councils’ consultations on planning applications. (AQO 820/16-21)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

The interim figures for the NIEA’s performance in 2016-17 show that 91% of statutory responses have been issued to councils within agreed time frames. The NIEA remains on track to meet its key business target of 90% this year and has an ongoing programme of initiatives that aims to continually improve its performance. Up to this point in the reporting year, the NIEA has received 2,055 consultations, of which 1,865 were responded to within the 21-day target or an agreed time frame. The average time for a response to a consultation is 12 days from NIEA. It is important that appropriate information is provided by applicants to enable the planning authority to make timely and positive decisions. The Department aims to contribute to this process by providing clear guidance and standing advice to help applicants and planning officials understand what information is required to facilitate timely planning.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she agree that an efficient and effective NIEA is important for an effective planning process? Can she give us some more information on the performance of the NIEA so far this year for the different council areas?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. The NIEA has an important role to play in all of this. The Member will also be mindful of the fact that the ultimate decisions with regard to planning applications lie with local councils. The number of consultations that the NIEA will look at varies considerably across council areas and, where its response performance for a particular council is above average, this obviously could reflect a large number of straightforward applications, for example, for single dwellings or different development types where it has issued standing advice. Lower than average performance in response times may be due to a higher proportion of major or, perhaps, complex applications that have been received and which require the provision and assessment of large amounts of environmental information.

I can provide the Member with a general overview of some of the councils. He will be pleased to note that, in our council area, Ards and North Down Borough Council, where 242 applications were received, 97% of the responses issued within 21 days and agreed extensions. On average, it took only 10 days to respond in that area. The area that has the lowest return is Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, where the average is around 17 days.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 2:15 pm, 5th December 2016

I am grateful to the Minister for her answers thus far. Is she aware of the discrepancy in the times that it takes local councils to process agricultural planning applications? For instance, in Antrim and Newtownabbey, agriculture-related applications last year took an average of 18 weeks, compared to over a year in Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Will the Minister investigate whether there are any issues for NIEA and with her ministerial colleagues?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I will indeed refer that to colleagues in the NIEA. However, I reiterate that, since planning does not lie in my Department, it is, perhaps, something that needs to be taken up directly with local councils.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Does the Minister agree that an independent, well-funded agency could respond in a more timely manner to such consultations?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for her question. I thought that I had outlined quite well that the NIEA responds in a timely manner. I have answered the question about an independent environment agency several times before, and it is not something that I am minded to look at.