Planning: Rural Communities

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 4th October 2021.

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Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 4th October 2021

6. Mr McAleer asked the Minister for Infrastructure, further to the publication of the new planning advice note (PAN) on development in the countryside, for her assessment of the impact that the planning approval process for single houses will have on rural communities. (AQO 2501/17-22)

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

The PAN provides advice that councils, as planning authorities in their own right, will take into account when determining planning applications for development in the countryside along with all other material planning considerations. It is important to note that the PAN does not, however, change planning policy. It is intended to assist planning authorities and users of the planning system in the interpretation and implementation of extant planning policy as contained in the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS). It re-emphasises and clarifies several policy issues and will assist in ensuring a consistent interpretation of the policy across the North.

I firmly believe that the current policy approach for development in the countryside remains appropriate and facilitates sustainable patterns of development while supporting a vibrant rural community. I will, of course, continue to consider current and emerging issues to ensure that strategic planning policy for development in the countryside is fit for purpose.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that there are a lot of concerns about planning in the country. The planning note to which she refers appears to restrict the interpretation of planning policy and make it more difficult for people to build in the countryside. In most instances, that will affect young couples who want to build beside the home place. There is enough pressure in rural communities at the minute, between Brexit, broadband and rural isolation in the middle of the pandemic. Will the Minister reconsider and perhaps withdraw the planning advice note?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:30 pm, 4th October 2021

I thank the Member for his question. I want to make sure that we support our rural communities and ensure that they are vibrant places to live. I stress that the PAN does not change planning policy. As I have said, it is intended to assist councils, as planning authorities in their own right, to give their assessment of what material weight is to be afforded to planning considerations. Therefore, as I say, it is, ultimately, up to councils to make that determination, and I emphasise again that the PAN in no way changes the planning policy that was consulted on and agreed prior to me taking up post.

Photo of Jonathan Buckley Jonathan Buckley DUP

Despite what the Minister has said, she will understand that some councils have interpreted the new planning advice note as a change of policy, and it has therefore created complications in different council areas. What consultation did the Minister have with Executive colleagues before issuing the note?

Photo of Nichola Mallon Nichola Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his question. As I said, it is up to councils, as planning authorities in their own right, to determine the relevance of material planning considerations.

The Member asked about the consultation that took place. Since the publication of the SPPS, the Department issued a call for evidence in March 2016 to help inform the scope of a potential review of strategic planning policy on development in the countryside. It attracted responses from a wide of range interests, including local government, environmental groups, business, industry, residents' groups, professional bodies and individuals. In March 2017, the Department procured consultants to undertake research and provide an updated evidential context to inform the best strategic planning policy approach for development in the countryside. That research involved focused stakeholder engagement, including seminars with council planning managers, professional institutions and environmental interest groups. It also included individual meetings with relevant organisations, including the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Construction Employers Federation, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Rural Community Network and the Ulster Farmers' Union. The aforementioned work helped inform the preferred way forward for strategic planning policy for development in the countryside and my decision to issue the PAN.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

That ends the period for listed questions. We now move on to 15 minutes of topical questions.