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Gravis Director and RTPI NI Chair, Chris Bryson, gives views on NI Assembly planning debate

16 February 2024

In this article, Gravis Director of Planning and RTPI NI Chair, Chris Bryson, shares his thoughts on this week’s debate in the NI Assembly which called for an urgent and fundamental appraisal of the planning system.

Stormont

The first week back for Stormont and we’ve already had our first debate on planning. The motion acknowledged the importance of planning but then included a raft of issues ranging from delays in the determination process to opposing rural policies that ‘further constrain development in the countryside’. There was some criticism from some contributors on the ‘scatter-gun’ nature of the motion. However, I’ve tried to pick out some key issues and what was said in the chamber. This perhaps gives us a flavour of what is perceived as the key issues that need to be addressed in the planning system in NI.

Need for and Scale of Reform

Whilst all contributors to the debate supported the need for improvement of the planning system and the motion itself asks for a ‘fundamental appraisal’ of the planning process; the motion stops short of pushing for significant reform. However, given the range of issues debated and the universal acknowledgement that the planning system isn’t operating as it should; one could conclude that the improvements required would constitute a fairly widespread reform of the planning system – something that many practitioners are pushing for. The new Minister for Infrastructure, John O’Dowd, will no doubt need to look at the planning reform agenda closely during his tenure.

Consultees

There was much criticism of the drag effect that consultees have on the decision-making process. One contributor claimed that consultees ‘seem to take great delight’ in frustrating applications. A number of contributors raised the potential for introducing penalties for consultees who don’t respond within timeframes or adopting a ‘deemed consent’ approach to consultees who don’t meet response timeframes. The Minister was quick to dismiss the idea of penalties for slow-responding consultees and / or a ‘deemed consent’ approach; highlighting the potential for adverse environmental impacts in the absence of specialist review and advice. Rather, the Minister called for greater investment across relevant government departments to improve the consultation process. However, given the level of investment required and the limited pot of public money; it should be considered as to whether there will be any improvement in the consultation process without some sort of ‘stick’ is introduced to accompany the investment ‘carrot’.

Checklists

The Minister was keen to highlight progress made in preparing a checklist for local councils to use, comparing some planning application submissions as a car going through the MOT – put it in and see how it goes. There was an admission that legislation was required to make checklists compulsory. Although, one can’t help but wonder how much poor planning submissions contribute to the lengthy determination timeframes. Councils already have the power to return invalid applications and it could be argued that focusing on more obvious obstacles in the planning process would yield more immediate improvements.

PAC

It was encouraging to see that most contributors recognised the importance of the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) in the planning process and the need for any review/reform to include the PAC (even though responsibility falls under the remit of DoJ). The Minister seemed to rule out bringing in independent commissioners to deal with the appeals and inquiries backlog, due to associated costs. Again, the main focus seemed to be more financial resource allocated to the PAC to try and deal with backlogs. Given the current delays in the appeal process and the number of Local Development Plans EiPs coming down the track; it is a concern that the PAC will continue to be overwhelmed with workloads for some time to come, regardless of any injection of additional money.

Overall, it was positive to see planning so high on the agenda of Assembly business, but meaningful reform of the system should now follow. We look forward to working with key stakeholders within DfI and local Councils to support improvements to the planning system in the months and years ahead.

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