Planning is on the move in 2016

Planning is on the move in 2016

Richard Bowman, Strategic Planning reviews the result of moving the planning process from central to local government and what developments 2016 might bring. 

This is the third year that I have written a planning forecast for the Economic Outlook and it’s always interesting to look back over the previous year and see if things panned out as predicted. 

We were looking forward to the move of planning powers to the Councils this time last year and eight months on we are all starting to get used to the new regime which in many cases is still suffering from teething problems.

The legacy left by Department of the Environment of under-resourced planning teams is going to have to be addressed by the Councils if they are to deliver the more efficient, fit for purpose planning system which the new legislation promised, especially since many are hoping to produce the first part of their Local Development Plans during 2016.

The Strategic Planning Policy Statement was finally published in September 2015 and had an immediate effect by throwing anumber of retail applications and appeals into disarray. The new policy document introduces a few refinements from the old PPSs which present potential opportunities, such as a slight relaxation on the redevelopment of zoned industrial land foralternative uses.

The outcome of the DUP challenge on BMAP is still unknown and this is having an unsettling effect on residential development.  

It’s impossible to predict how the courts will deal with this, but from an economic perspective, a decision which results in a quashing of the plan will have a significant negative effect on investment in residential development in the greater Belfast area, something that we can all do without.

The Environment Minister finally ended the debate as to the need for a new £240 million EfW plant at Hightown with the refusal of planning permission, which ARC21 is planning to appeal. In a similar vein, the Omagh Minerals underground proposal was approved in July 2015, but local objectors have predictably sought leave for judicial review. Meanwhile Dalradian are developing their plans for a not dissimilar proposal near Gortin in County Tyrone, submission of which is expected in early 2016.

In general, the optimism around the economy in 2014, waned slightly in early part of 2015, partly due to likely cooling off following a rally of activity in the previous year, but more probably due to the impasse regarding the budget and other matters at Stormont. The latter part of 2015 has certainly been busier for us, not least because of the new requirement to carry out public consultation for major planning applications kicked in on 1st July resulting in a few key pieces of work.

Student housing proposals have dominated the planning scene in Belfast over the past two to three years, but there is now the perception that there is a potential oversupply, yet there is still interest from a number of providers and 2016 could see a few more proposals around the city centre.

If student housing is on its way out (in planning terms), then office proposals are certainly on their way in, with developers such as Stargime, Kilmona and McAleer & Rushe responding to the demand with a planned 880,000sqft of grade A all of which should be approved in 2016.

The main residential developers are still focusing on sites within a 20 mile radius of Belfast, although, Belfast City Centre is still bereft of any significant residential development. Increased popularity of the city centre for other land uses will eventually create an environment which will attract more permanent city centre dwellers and it is highly likely that we will see residential being part of larger masterplan type schemes over the next year or two.

The talk of a formalised developer contributions policy relating to residential developments has not raised its head again during 2015, but it is doubtful that we will get through 2016 without such policy being put in place. Developer contributions for city centre developments are starting to become the norm, with the recent approval of the All State project at Maysfield netting around £100k for a range of projects which will benefit the local community.

The renewables sector saw many of us through the worst of the recession. However with re-election in May, the Conservatives brought forward the closure of the ROCs scheme from March 2017 to March 2016. This has come like a bolt out of the blue for the wind industry which has led to a legal challenge against DETI. The industry is not dead yet but as far as major advancements and expansion of this sector is concerned, that is a thing of the past.

A number of new players have come into the Northern Ireland retail market in 2015 and are likely to be making their presence felt during 2016. These include retailer/ baker Greggs who have plans for up to 50 stores throughout Northern Ireland and they already have 10 sites identified in Belfast. Oak Furniture Land is soon to open their first store in Shane Retail Park and while not a new entrant, Sports Direct is making a big play about plans for more stores around Northern Ireland.

Public spending on development projects all but ceased during 2015 with a number of key projects, such as Magilligan Prison redevelopment being suspended pending the outcome of debates on Welfare Reform. Now that there appears to be a resolution of sorts to that, I would expect to see Magilligan and other similar projects being reenergised during 2016.

Despite some unwelcome press during the summer, Cerberus has been doing its part in reintroducing some liquidity to the property market with the sales of a number of portfolios of land and buildings which have been snapped up by some of Northern Ireland key property developers and hopefully in due course translated into projects.  

Overall, optimism is increasing and while 2015 was not exactly a bumper year, the deals that have been done over the past twelve months and the decisions taken on public sector spending, will hopefully pave the way for a more prosperous year ahead.

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