NI Water: Planning Application Consultations

Oral Answers to Questions — Infrastructure – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15, 16 April 2024

4. Mr McGlone asked the Minister for Infrastructure to outline how many planning application consultations NI Water has taken over six months to consider in the past two years. (AQO 282/22-27)

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

My Department does not produce a live count of planning consultation data in its published statutory consultation performance reports at present. However, my Department's statisticians will consider options for the production of live consultation reports, going forward.

The information available at this time confirms that NI Water has returned 85% or more of its statutory responses within the 21-day target in four of the last five published annual performance reports and reported its best performance to date — 97% of responses considered in time — in 2021-22. That level of performance has been achieved despite a high number of consultation requests, with approximately 3,500 received per year during that time.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for that detail. Perhaps we could establish whether there is more information around the level of delay that has been experienced by some people.

In a previous debate, the Minister referred to the need for or the use of pre-application discussions. Will he commit to providing extra resources to NI Water to facilitate that?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

That will be an operational decision for NI Water. In defence of NI Water, it is also facing severe financial constraints, as all other public services are, and is trying to deal with the pressures that that brings to bear.

Yes, pre-application discussions are vital. What is also vital — this has come up time and time again in discussions around planning applications — is the quality of the initial planning application. A significant percentage of the original applications are returned to applicants because they do not have the correct information or are not clear or because submissions are missing. I encourage anyone who is submitting a planning application to fully outline their case as much as possible. That will speed up their application and make the work of the statutory consultees, such as NI Water, much easier.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

Does the Minister agree that there needs to be some form of penalty or sanction for the statutory bodies that do not meet the targets for planning consultation responses, given the adverse impact that such delays have on new developments and investment in Northern Ireland?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

With respect to the Member, that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul. We would be taking that money out of the public purse. All the statutory consultees are publicly funded, so, if we fined them, we would take money off them and make their job much more difficult. All the statutory consultees are under-resourced and understaffed. I am looking at my budget to see how I can support the organisations that are under my control.

We are also involved in the planning improvement process. As I said to Mr McGlone, it is vital that planning applications are properly fulfilled before they are submitted. We are looking at bringing forward legislation on the validation list, having learnt lessons from Belfast City Council. Measures are being taken to continue to make improvement in planning. I am not convinced that fining government bodies is the way forward.

Photo of Maolíosa McHugh Maolíosa McHugh Sinn Féin

We know that time is of the essence in planning. Can the Minister detail what Northern Ireland Water has done to speed up its response times to planning consultations?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

In June 2021, NI Water introduced new responses to the planning process. They provided not only a more robust response to planners but more information to inform planners of NI Water's decision-making process. As has been said by Mr McGlone and others, developers should always follow NI Water's three-step pre-development enquiry (PDE) process. Importantly for developers, PDEs are valid for 18 months from issue. The pre-development enquiry enables issues to be considered at an early stage with the aim of resolving them.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Does the Minister agree that there are significant economic constraints due to water and waste water infrastructure issues being raised at the planning stage. I think in particular about town centre regeneration and the fact that such restrictions have been placed on converting premises for, for example, hospitality purposes. The matter needs urgent attention.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Yes. There are definitely challenges with the financial framework within which NI Water has to operate. I am doing my best, as a Minister, to support NI Water. I am awaiting confirmation of my budget for the financial year, and I have engaged with my Executive colleagues on the matter. As I said during the debate on NI Water funding last week, we have to get the balance right. We have to ensure that we recognise the challenges and take them on head-on, but we also have to make sure that we do not send out a message that we are not open for business, because we are open for business. The pre-development engagement process has proved worthwhile for many who have engaged with NI Water to seek solutions in cases where there may be constrained areas.

I am not shying away from the challenges that NI Water faces, nor am I shying away from the challenges that they bring for the economy, but I also want to give a balanced message: we are open for business, so come and talk, and let us see what solutions we can find together.