Planning reform is producing higher quality development but not faster planning decisions

Planning reform is producing higher quality development but not faster planning decisions


As the Northern Ireland property market emerges from the worst crash we will hopefully see in our lifetimes, all the signs are that confidence is returning. External investors have been in the market for the past few years but crucially we are now seeing, through our clients, that the local banks want to lend and support projects again.

For the first time since the crash, the property market is bullish, but with a sobriety and perspective that only comes after a major bust. So, as we enter a new era of growth, we are often asked, is the Planning System ready for it?


Council’s Planning performance

Planning powers were devolved to the new Councils in April 2015. The figures published by the Department of Environment (now Infrastructure) in April 2016 outlined that between October-December 2015:

  • Only 3 of the 11 Councils met the 15 week decision making target for processing smaller or ‘local’ development applications. The average processing time for small applications across all the Councils was 20.6 weeks.
  • Only 2 of the 11 Councils met the 30 week decision making target for determining ‘major’ applications. The average processing time for major applications across all Councils was 47.6 week

Council Planning Committees have had ample time to bed in with local Councillors and Planning officers. In fairness to Belfast City Council, under the leadership of Suzanne Wylie and Phil Williams, it has made significant progress and has worked through a large backlog of legacy applications transferred to them from DOE. Some Councils, however, are struggling and the threat of a ‘no confidence’ motion from Councillors in one particular area, due to perceived poor service levels, is evidence of that.

So the challenge for the new Minister for Infrastructure and all the Council Chief Executives, is to sit down as early as possible in this new Assembly term to put in place the necessary resources and training to dramatically improve performance across all of Northern Ireland. There cannot be a tolerable level of poor performance in any Council area because the economy of that area will suffer as a result.


Pre-Application Community Consultation (PACC)

So, where are the big positives in the Planning Reform story? For us, the introduction of the statutory requirement for Pre-Application Community Consultation, ahead of the submission of major planning applications, is the biggest step forward – but not the only one.

PACC has forced everyone involved in major projects to take the issue of engagement and design consultation much more seriously. From that, we are seeing everyone raising their game, creating better schemes along with more satisfied communities, planners and clients.

We have championed early and pro-active community engagement for over 10 years and this formalisation of the process has created more focus and attention to detail than we have ever seen before - and that’s good for everyone involved.

PACC can be taken forward through a range of methods and is dependent on issues such as the proposal itself as well as the individuals or groups to be consulted. Importantly, if your project qualifies as a major planning application you must undertake the minimum 12 week PACC process before you can submit the application.

If the PACC process is not carried out properly the relevant Planning Authority will simply refuse to determine the application or refuse it altogether. To date, we have found that planners have demonstrated a willingness to work proactively with applicants in this area and set out any additional consultation actions required at an early stage.

The majority of ‘major’ planning applications we have managed in the past year have been for Grade A office developments, but others including residential schemes, mixed use retail, and electricity grid infrastructure, have all benefitted from PACC.

Projects we have managed of note in the past year have included new electricity transmission projects at Curraghamulkin in County Tyrone and Brockaghboy in Counties Antrim and Londonderry for the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI).

We have also managed PACC for some of the most important office development projects in Belfast in recent years, including the proposed £60million Kilmona development at East Bridge Street in Belfast, where we have worked closely with residents and key stakeholders.

Many clients, architects, planners and community groups were sceptical about PACC but our experience and feedback suggests that practitioners like it and communities embrace it.


Developer Contributions – another positive step for Planning

The other major development of note in Planning reform, relatively unnoticed at the moment, is the area of Developer Contributions. Put simply, the Planning authority can seek to compel a developer to deliver infrastructure contributions through planning agreements. Those living in the vicinity of the development can also request the developer provides community benefit which can be in the form of funding for community facilities.

Under section 76 of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, Planning Authorities can enter into planning agreements, which can include contributions to be paid by the developer. However, there is currently no set framework to give certainty to the scope of what these agreements should include. Belfast City Council is currently preparing an Interim Framework document to cover the issue in advance of a new Area Plan. We expect other Councils will do the same in advance of preparing their own new Area Plans.

We expect Developer Contributions to form a central part of many major projects in the coming years. Our clients have embraced the concept and sought to work with the Planning authorities. As with PACC, this can only improve the quality of development proposals and further reassure affected communities that their interests are being addressed.

So for the new Minister for Infrastructure and the new Council Planning authorities, there is much to review one year after the devolution of planning powers to Councils. Whilst its always easy to focus on the negatives, significant progress is being made and I’ve no doubt we’re on the right path.


David Kerr is Director of Public Affairs, Stakeholder & Community Engagement at Strategic Planning

(E: dkerr@strategicplanning. T: @davidwkerr)

This article first appeared in the June / July edition of Business Eye Magazine

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