Change and opportunity on the horizon for Planning in 2015

Change and opportunity on the horizon for Planning in 2015

2014 has been a busy year for the planning sector in NI. While we have yet to return to the heady days of 2007, the reality for the past year has been slow but steady growth across all sectors, with a strong indication that developers who have been in hibernation are making a tentative and cautious return to the development game. 

The move of planning powers to 11 new Super-Councils will take place on April 1st 2015, when Councillors will become the decision makers on all but a handful of major applications. Applicants will, on most occasions, wish to ensure that planning applications are decided or at least well advanced by April for fear that applications could get bogged down in rounds of deliberations by new local Councillors finding their planning feet. New planning legislation will introduce a new way of processing planning applications as well as new requirements such as Design and Access Statements and Pre-application Community Consultation for the more major applications. The changes should not be feared by the development sector however, provided you take the right advice in preparing applications.

The final version of the Strategic Planning Policy Statement is to be published in early 2015 which could see some changes to policy, such as retail which is due to be marginally more restrictive with the introduction of a few extra hoops to jump through for out of town proposals.

The new shadow Councils are already working on the early stages of development plan production which will ramp up in April for what DoE Planning promise will be a 3½ year plan making programme for all 11 Councils. We have been guiding Lisburn City Council on its plan for West Lisburn, which should see a published plan for the area in February 2015.

The adoption of the Belfast Metropolitan Area Plan (BMAP) took everyone by surprise in September 2014. DUP is now seeking leave to challenge this decision which, if successful, could well see the quashing of the new plan even before it has had time to take effect.

Student housing and offices are the in-vogue land uses at the moment in central Belfast. The on-going development of the university at York St has resulted in a land grab for student accommodation. There is talk of a potential over-supply, however, anything that brings life back into the city centre can only be a good thing and will inevitably attract further private sector investment.

The commercial office developers are also vying for city centre space to provide the much needed grade ‘A’ offices. We have come across a number of investors, some from outside the UK looking to snap up key sites and buildings for development of offices.  

Many of the big residential players are back in the game and actively seeking sites along with housing associations who are still as keen as ever to acquire sites. DSD/DoE published draft policy on Developer Contributions in June 2014 which caused a bit of a stir during the summer with the main house-builders. The good news for the industry is that further research and debate will continue throughout 2015 and as a result it could be later in the year before we see any such policy.

Renewables continue to be a strong sector, but has experienced a bit of a slowdown during 2014. ROCs tariffs seem fairly settled now until 2017 and as such this sector should continue to develop steadily during 2015/16. Grid connection continues to be the key issue for NIE and many major generators will be hoping that 2015 will the year that the SONI/Eirgrid North South Interconnector project makes planning progress, along with their plans for other major grid connections in the west.

Debate continues as to the need for the new £240 million EfW plant at Hightown when Bombardier’s approved EfW gasification plant within the Belfast Harbour Estate could itself cater for the waste requirements of the ARC21 area. A decision on the ARC21 project is expected in 2015.

Fracking seems as far away as ever due to the recent decisions by DoE and the DETI regarding Tamboran’s plans in Fermanagh. Meanwhile on the oil front Rathlin Energy’s application for an exploration well could come to fruition by the middle of 2015 and Providence will continue to find a way of tapping into the oil resource in their licence area.

Minerals development generally gets a bad press and none more so than the gold mine in Omagh for which we are hoping to secure approval for expansion of the underground mine in early 2015.

2015 will also see advancements being made on the planning of a number of other major projects, such as the Lisanelly Schools Project, for which we secured outline approval in 2013, the Belfast Transport Hub, and despite recent reports to the contrary, the Desertcreat project on which a scaled back project may yield some development. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, we are about to submit an application for the new Colin Town Centre on the Stewartstown Road.

In retail, discount operators will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future with Home Bargains, B&M and Lidl continuing their expansion plans. The major retailers appear to have halted all development of large stores, with Tesco opting for development of small scale town centre stores such as the one planned for Dromore.

Finally, the purchase of property portfolios such as NAMA’s by various investment firms, is certainly creating plenty of transactions which are keeping the lawyers and property consultants busy. No doubt the further off-loading of property loan books will see continued activity and development projects in 2015. Our property market may be recovering slower than in ROI, but that’s OK provided our recovery is stable and gives investor confidence through sustainable long-term returns.

Richard Bowman is Director of Planning at Strategic Planning.

This article first appeared in the January - February 2015 edition of Business First Magazine (available here:

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