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Northern Ireland faces planning policy shake-up

Northern Ireland’s environment minister Mark Durkan has launched a consultation into its proposed Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) which is set to consolidate more than 20 planning documents into just one  

The new policy proposes a town centre approach to retail planning to ‘support and sustain vibrant town centres across Northern Ireland’.

The policy also sets out changes which will see a presumption against fracking until there is robust evidence on its environmental impacts.

The consultation comes after Durkan scrapped a controversial new planning bill over legal concerns about proposed amendments which were to restrict the judicial review of planning decisions. Aspects of this proposed bill will now be incorporated into the proposed SPPS.

Durkan commented: ‘My aim is to create a planning system that is fast, fair and fit for purpose. A system which is less complex, more effective, more efficient and more customer focused.

‘A system that delivers for business, with timely decisions that bring investment and jobs but not at the expense of our environment, planet or people.

‘A system which realises that the environment and the economy should not, and cannot be, at loggerheads. A system that fully recognises that a vibrant, sustainable environment can be a driver of prosperity and job creation.

‘These measures provide a real opportunity to speed up decision making and enhance community involvement. And it paves the way for the seamless transfer of powers to councils in 2015. My vision is for a better environment and a stronger economy. These actions will help do that.’

He added: ‘SPPS sets out a new planning policy framework that delivers for business, with timely decisions that encourage investment and facilitate employment whilst protecting our environment, planet and people. It provides clarity and certainty for all users of the reformed planning system. I pledged last month to speed up planning. SPPS is a key building block in achieving that pledge.’

The new SPPS is expected to be published by the end of 2014 ahead of the transfer of planning powers to local councils in April 2015.

Previous story (AJ 24.10.13)

Northern Ireland planning bill scrapped

Northern Ireland’s planning minister has torn up a controversial new Planning Bill over legal concerns about proposed amendments

According to Mark Durkan, suggested additions to the 2011 Planning Act restricting the judicial review of planning decisions would have breached human rights.

The amendments to the Planning Bill were added by the assembly in June against the advice of then environment minister Alex Attwood, but these were never scrutinised by Stormont’s environment committee.

Durkan said ‘we should exercise caution’ over the controversial planning clause, which potentially clashed with the European Convention of Human Rights.

In a statement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, added: ‘Judicial review plays an important and legitimate role in ensuring the proper administration of government and Clause 15 would, in effect, remove the court’s ability to review the legality, the rationality and the reasonableness of planning decisions.’

Durkan added: ‘Over the past three years there have been less than 20 judicial reviews of the 44,000 decisions made by the Department of Environment. That’s a tiny fraction of the total number of decisions made. It seems to me that restricting the right of citizens to challenge planning decisions is not only incompatible with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights but also represents taking a hammer to crack a very small nut.

‘The fact is also that the grounds for the most significant and high profile planning JRs of recent years will be unaffected by these amendments to the Bill which acknowledge that a right of appeal to the High Court must remain where there is a question about the compatibility of a decision or determination with EU law.’

He also raised concern over an amendment which would introduce new economically significant planning zones, saying the plans were intended to make the Office of First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) a new planning authority in Northern Ireland, and that this ‘could only introduce confusion into the planning system’.

Aspects of the proposed bill, which was originally designed to speed up planning reforms, will be incorporated into a new document entitled the Single Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SSPPS), which is expected in the new year.

Roisin Willmott, head of the Royal Town Planning Institute in Northern Ireland commented: ‘This is a surprise but it is not a catastrophe.

‘We don’t know what will be contained in the proposed SSPPS. We had been told that there would be no major revision of planning policy unless necessary, but now we don’t know what is likely to happen.’

Michael Corr, director of Belfast’s PLACE Centre for the Built Environment, added: ‘The decision to withdraw the Planning Bill was clearly a difficult decision for the Minister. Issues around Amendment 20 (Special Planning Zones) and 26 (Limiting the right to challenge planning decisions) caused significant concern with many organisations.

‘It is important as we move back to a two tier planning system in Northern Ireland that local councils acquire a quality, fit-for-purpose planning system. A planning system that has sufficient protection for the built and natural environment, but also facilitates sustainable economic growth and development.’ 

Previous story (AJ 30.04.13)

Northern Ireland local councils to receive planning powers by 2015

The Northern Ireland government has set a date for transferring planning powers to local governments

Environment Minister Alex Attwood has announced an agreement which will shift a package of functions to the 11 new councils from central government departments in April 2015.

Powers will transfer in planning, roads, urban regeneration, community development, housing, local economic development and spot listing of buildings. These are currently all dealt with at a central government level.

The measures to allow the transfer were set out in the Planning (Northern Ireland) Act 2011 and form part of a major reform programme for the NI planning system first announced in 2007.

Atwood said: ‘This is all about bringing power closer to citizens. The more power in local hands, the more democratic our society and the more likely that local people will get the local services they need.

‘With planning and development plans transferred, councils will have the opportunity to shape the life of the council area so that it is better planned and offers better job potential. They will have economic powers strengthened.

‘Getting all of this right will help transform the way we plan and sustain our cities, towns and rural areas while boosting our economy and protecting our environment.’

Powers to be transferred to local councils:

  • Planning
  • Local development plan functions
  • Development control and enforcement
  • Roads
  • Off street parking
  • Urban regeneration
  • Community development
  • Environment improvement schemes
  • Neighbourhood renewal
  • Community development programmes
  • Housing
  • Local economic development
  • Local tourism
  • Delivery of the EU Rural Development Programme
  • Authority to spot list
  • Authority to draw up local lists of buildings that are of architectural and historic interest

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