Uncertain returns

Northern Ireland's new Planning Act should see powers revert to local authority control for the first time since the Troubles. However, Adam Branson reports that the reforms remain up in the air.

Belfast: councils are set to gain planning powers. bea y fredi photo
Belfast: councils are set to gain planning powers. bea y fredi photo

Northern Ireland's planning system is an anomaly. With all significant planning decisions made by a body within the Department of the Environment in the Northern Ireland executive, albeit with six regional divisions, it remains western Europe's most centralised planning system, says Dr Anthony Quinn, a planning academic who has many years experience as a consultant in the province and is currently director of Braniff Associates. Councils and their elected members play little part.

The current system dates back to 1972, when the British government introduced direct rule as a result of the Troubles. Numerous powers that had been the preserve of Northern Ireland's local authorities, including planning and social housing, were taken away in a move intended to stop sectarian misallocation of resources and biased decision-making. Councils were left to administer low-level services - "cemeteries, dog shit and streetlamps" as Greg Lloyd, a professor at the University of Ulster and until recently the main adviser to the environment minister on planning reform, bluntly describes it - and became mere statutory consultees in planning decisions.

Apart from the powers transferred from the British government to the Northern Ireland executive, first in 1999 and then in 2007 after a hiatus brought about by the refusal of unionists to share power with Sinn Fein, the fundamentals of Northern Ireland's planning system have changed little. However, in recent years there has been a move to return planning responsibility to councils.

Quite apart from the democratic deficit involved in a system that removes real power over planning decisions from locally elected politicians, critics of the current system have two main complaints. First is the time it takes the Planning Service within the Department of the Environment (DoE) to decide applications. The second is the woeful coverage of up-to-date local plans: at present, only four of the 26 council areas have plans that are less than ten years old, according to the latest DoE reports.

As a result, in 2007, the process of reform began, culminating in the publication of the Planning Bill a year ago that was passed in March. Among much else, the act legislates for planning powers to be devolved from the DoE down to local authorities.

However, progress on the Planning Act has been delayed by a review of public administration (RPA) in Northern Ireland, which aims to reorganise local government and reduce the number of councils. Environment minister Alex Attwood has maintained in negotiations that he wanted 15 local authorities, while other ministers called for 11. The scuffle over the number of councils seemed to have been resolved, however, when the executive's programme for government was published in November. In this, the First Minister and deputy first minister said that they would work towards establishing 11 new authorities, with a tentative target date of 2015.

"We're past the stage of deliberating and there is a recognition of the fact that we need to reform government and it needs to happen fast," says Brian Sore, the Royal Town Planning Institute's policy officer in Northern Ireland. "Business, the economy and the public want reform and a reduction in bureaucracy. We've been hanging around too long."

However, whether it is preferable to replace Northern Ireland's 26 councils with 11 or 15 is in a sense a distraction. The more important question is how the reforms intend to address the potential for councils led by a party representing one half of the sectarian divide from making decisions that are unfair to the other community.

"Checks and balances have been written into the Planning Act to make sure that no council is going to go off and make a wayward decision," says Sore. "The department can call in planning applications." But not everybody thinks the checks and balances will be adequate. Dr Quinn for one says that although planning decisions will be audited, "I don't think that will amount to a hill of beans."

Then there is the issue of timescales. In September, Attwood said the DoE would push through some reforms in the act, mainly concerned with speeding up the decision-making process. But ultimately wholesale reform of the planning system will only be completed once the RPA takes effect. Making that happen is a tough proposition in the bearpit that is Northern Irish politics. Eamonn Loughrey, a partner in consultancy DPP's Belfast office, says: "Attwood is very enthusiastic and wants to get the job done, but he's in an incredibly difficult position in driving things forward."

However, even if the local government reforms happen smoothly, direct rule will continue to cast a shadow over planning in Northern Ireland. In addition to the emasculation of councils, the 1972 reorganisation involved the separation of statutory land use planning, wider economic planning and housing. This separation remains to this day, with statutory land use planning the preserve of the DoE, Northern Ireland-wide economic development planning sitting with the Department of Regional Development and housing and regeneration resting with the Department for Social Development. To compound matters, each department is currently led by a minister from a different political party.

Ultimately, Northern Ireland's challenging political landscape can make it hard to achieve even the smallest administrative gains. But the fact that the planning reforms are predicated on the RPA, not to mention the administrative and party separation of the various strands of planning, makes things all the more tricky. Robin Newlove, associate at consultancy URS Scott Wilson, says: "Let's hope that the new structure will not suffer from political divisions that could emasculate the benefits to derive from the impending changes."

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