The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is a statutory consultee for certain planning applications submitted to local planning authorities and DFI under the Planning (General Development Procedure) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015. The natural environment division of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in the Department is responsible for providing advice on planning consultations that have the potential to have a significant impact on natural heritage features.
Planning consultations have to be considered against a wide range of planning policies, including, for example, those in local development plans, planning policy statement 2 and the strategic planning policy statement, all of which have provisions and policies for the protection of wildlife and species protected by law, such as the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.
It should be noted that NIEA has an advisory consultee role in the planning process and is not responsible for directly assessing the impact of a development on wildlife or for determining applications. That is the responsibility of the applicant, who must assess the impacts of their proposal, including on wildlife, and submit associated evidence in order to obtain planning permission, and the planning authority, which must consider and determine the application.
In order to obtain planning permission, the planning application should be supported with evidence of any potential impacts to natural heritage features that could occur as a result of the proposal. It should also provide details of any proposed mitigation and compensation that may be required. Some developments may require the submission of an environmental impact assessment under the Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 in support of the application in order to ensure that all potential likely significant environmental impacts, including on ecology and wildlife, have been considered.
NIEA has published advice and guidance that can be used by applicants and agents to inform their projects and raise awareness of the necessary ecological requirements to accompany an application. That advice and guidance can also be used by the planning authority to inform its assessments of and determinations in planning applications.
I thank the Minister for his detailed answer. The Minister will be aware that assessments of that nature are guidance-based and that there is no legislative mandate to provide outcome and risk-based regulatory assurance. How does his Department ensure that assessments for ecological and biodiversity impacts are followed up and verified? Would he support legislation to strengthen those assessments in order to ensure that developmental impacts are properly considered?
The division of NIEA that deals with those matters has the ability to go through the assessments that have been provided to it by the applicant in order to identify and challenge their robustness. That can be test-based. It also involves site visits. Therefore, NIEA has the ability to adequately address those issues.
Very often, I hear of issues to do with bats, for example, where NIEA has delayed planning applications until further assessments are taken in the appropriate periods. If a planning application is granted, it is very often only on the basis that various steps are taken that will allow the bats to move to fresh roosts and so forth. Similar steps are taken where badgers are to be displaced. There is a whole series of things that NIEA will do to protect wildlife. No one should be under any illusion that there are no mitigations in there to ensure that wildlife is protected.
The council, in the first instance, is the planning authority and decision maker.
NIEA will use all the information that will be provided to it and assess that on the basis of what it recognises, as experts in the field, needs to be done to ensure that wildlife is protected. That work has been carried out for many years, and NIEA will continue to do it.
Shared Environmental Services is an independent body that was established by a previous Minister, Alex Attwood, to look at those areas of special interest. It gives advice to councils and is paid for by councils. The body has no responsibility whatsoever to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.