Gravis Director and RTPI NI Chair, Chris Bryson, gives views on NI Assembly planning debate
16 February 2024
16 January 2024
With 2024 well underway, we took some time to sit down with Chris Bryson, Director of Planning in our Belfast Office, to discuss a career highlight achievement (!) - becoming the Chair of the Royal Town Planning Institute for Northern Ireland for 2023 – 2024.
Chris – congratulations on being appointed as the new Chair of the RTPI NI for 2023 – 24! What does this mean to you?
It means a great deal to me personally. I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride in being a chartered town planner and I think all planners should greatly value the role they can play in shaping society. I appreciate that not all planners may feel the same sense of pride that I do; especially as planning can be negatively perceived by the wider public. However, I think such perceptions are based on general misunderstandings of what the planning process can do, and also what it can’t. When asked, I don’t shy away from telling people that I’m a town planner and take every opportunity I can to right some of the wrong perceptions people have of planning.
What experience do you feel you bring to the role?
I’ve been working in the planning industry for over 22 years, so I bring a great wealth of experience to the role of Chair. I started my career in the public sector, with the Planning Service in Belfast. In those days, decisions were made by planning officers and there was no decision-making role for local councils. In that planning system it was clear how important professionalism was and I think most planners carried that burden well. I’ve spent most of my career in the private sector, advising landowners and developers on planning matters. Having experienced planning from ‘both sides of the fence’, means I understand the challenges faced by both public and private sector planning professionals, and I am confident that as RTPI Chair, I can reflect the views of all planners.
What will a typical day as Chair of RTPI NI look like?
My main role will be to chair meetings of the Executive Committee of the RTPI in NI and host / chair other RTPI events throughout the year. As a committee, we are responsible for representing the interests of all chartered planners in Northern Ireland and promoting the role of the planning profession. With the help of the committee, I’ll plan and deliver a series of events and seminars throughout the year, cumulating in the annual Planning Conference in September. I’ll also be the main representative of the RTPI in NI and will host a visit from the RTPI President later in the year along with other representative duties, as required.
Which current projects based in Northern Ireland are you most excited about, and why?
There are a lot of exciting development projects that have either recently been approved or are pending an approval. However, the planning process is a long one and many projects may not leave the page during my term as Chair! I’ve always had an interest in urban and city centre development. With Belfast City Council recently adopting their Plan Strategy that includes ambitious growth plans, I’m expecting to see significant changes to the city over the next 5 years. The Belfast Grand Central Station project and Weaver’s Cross will act as huge economic regeneration drivers for the city. It will be exciting to see some large-scale projects finally being built around Northern Ireland. We also need to see progress on the mixed-use development plans for the former Sirocco lands and the ‘Tribecca’ scheme in the city centre. Both are complex and controversial schemes but could change the cityscape of Belfast if fully developed.
Have you any particular goals for the next year as Chair of RTPI NI?
I’m keen to try and promote a more positive public image of planning this year. As already mentioned, I don’t think planning and planning professionals get the acknowledgement that they deserve, in terms of the positive impact good planning can have on communities. There have also been a couple of critical reports in the last few years about how the planning process is not working as it should (the NI Audit Office report of February 2022 and the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee report of March 2022). Whilst critical of the current planning system, I view these reports as a sound basis to move forward with a review of the planning system, to try and improve it, and thereby instil greater public confidence in planning. Local Councils have had planning powers since 2015 and we need to see a step change in how Councils and communities shape better and sustainable development around Northern Ireland. I think there are a lot of very good people working in planning in the public and private sectors, and I am confident that with greater collaboration and strategic thinking we can deliver better processes and outcomes for everyone involved.