With new legislation having taken effect from 1st July 2015, Strategic Planning's David Kerr believes statutory community consultation will demand a higher level of professionalism in the preparation of applications than ever seen before.

The key principle at the heart of Planning reform and the transfer of planning powers to Councils has been to place local communities and elected representatives at the forefront and centre of the consultation and decision making process. 

The Super-Councils are now responsible for creating their Development Plans. Councillors are decision-takers on planning applications, rather than consultees. The luxury of influence with no responsibility has gone! Arguably most important for developers, is the huge statutory emphasis now placed on professionally managed and transparent community and stakeholder engagement. This is all good for Planning and we as a business have championed this pre-app pro-active consultation for many years.

The new legislation means that all major planning applications submitted must now include a statutory pre-application community consultation process, leading to the submission of a Pre-Application Community Consultation Report alongside the formal planning application.

Twelve weeks before submission of the planning application, the applicant is required to provide the planning authority with a Proposal of Application Notice (PAN).  Along with other details of the proposal, this must include details of the pre-application community consultation proposed to be undertaken by the applicant.

When the PAN is issued, the planning authority will have up to 21 days to confirm if it accepts the proposed pre-application community consultation plan, or if it feels it should be extended to include additional stakeholders.

When this is agreed, the applicant can then carry-out the community consultation. Subsequently, formal submission of the planning application must include a detailed Pre-application Community Consultation Report.

This report must demonstrate the consultation has been meaningful and show how stakeholder feedback has been considered in the design and development of the proposal. If the report is deficient, the authority has the power to refuse to determine the application.

Strategic Planning has pioneered an integrated Planning and stakeholder engagement approach to applications over the last 10 years and we are the only Planning consultancy in Northern Ireland with an ‘in-house’ community and stakeholder engagement consultancy team.

We have managed planning applications and consultation programmes for some of Northern Ireland’s most high-profile developments, including the £120m Lisanelly Shared Educational Campus in Omagh, which involved extensive pre-application community consultation.

As well as communities, effective engagement with elected representatives is also a key aspect of successful pre-app consultation. This now requires a much more structured approach than before. Councillors who sit on the relevant planning committees are governed by a new code of conduct, which has significant implications for how they are lobbied. Applicants of all descriptions need to be aware of these issues and seek advice before contacting Councillors.

The key message here is that the new requirements for community consultation mean it is no longer an optional add-on for major applications. To ensure projects are delivered on time and without costly delays, it has to be managed professionally and within the new boundaries of the codes of conduct and practice. 

All of these changes represent a huge challenge for decision makers and planning applicants. Councils will need some latitude during the ‘bedding-in period’ but no-one is expecting the honeymoon period to last very long!

David Kerr is Director of Community and Stakeholder Engagement at Strategic Planning.

Follow David on Twitter: @davidwkerr

You can view examples of Strategic Planning's previous work in community and stakeholder engagement here.

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