Policy Briefing: Northern Ireland statement raises risk of duplication

Northern Ireland's new Strategic Planning Policy Statement isn't as tough as those behind it think it is, Emma Walker maintains.

Northern Ireland environment minister Mark Durkan
Northern Ireland environment minister Mark Durkan

Q What are the policy’s goals and how is it trying to fulfil them?

A Planning in Northern Ireland has recently undergone major changes, with most powers devolved to councils, although the Department of the Environment has retained a strategic policy and call-in role.

The province’s Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) is a key part of these changes, aiming to provide a framework for new local development plans (LDPs) and a consolidated and refreshed statement of national and regional strategic policy similar to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in England and Scottish Planning Policy.

The SPPS was meant to replace the existing planning policy statements (PPSs). However, only three PPSs have been cancelled, with the other 22 retained under transitional arrangements tied to adoption of the strategic element of forthcoming LDPs. This will lead to a policy patchwork, with some councils still using PPSs long after others have moved to the SPPS. A pejorative view is that the SPPS simply adds another 120 pages to the policy library.

Environment minister Mark Durkan is clear that sustainable development is central to the SPPS. Like the NPPF, the SPPS identifies economic, social and environmental factors as the three pillars of sustainability, the basis of its five main principles.

The document also deals with the procedural matters resulting from the new system, placing an emphasis on the need for "proactive" and "positive" planning to give greater certainty for all. The document includes all the right terminology around efficiency, but this may take some time to bed in as planners get to grips with the new system.

Q What are the key differences from the NPPF?

A The golden thread of sustainable development is more visible in the NPPF than the SPPS. The SPPS is more of a compendium of planning policy, with the expression of operational policy more prominent than the thread in places. As a result, there may be less chance of planning by appeal where applicants seek to position projects as consistent with the SPPS or sustainable development in the absence of an up-to-date LDP.

The SPPS does set a presumption against fracking, though – a first for UK strategic policy, in stark contrast to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s current line.

Q How will the transition to the SPPS be managed?

A A clear link has been made to the delivery of new LDP strategies. While councils are keen to move quickly, there are no statutory deadlines and indicative timescales suggest that the earliest that a plan strategy could be in place would be the end of 2017. Given that each council’s plan will have to pass through a single set of central government consultees and the Planning Appeals Commission, this seems unrealistic. In the interim, policy uncertainty could deter investment in some sectors.

Meanwhile, conflicts between the remaining PPSs and the SPPS may offer grounds for appeal. The SPPS holds greater weight, but where it is less prescriptive, the retained policy may still be deemed valid.

Q What are the document’s strengths and weaknesses?

A In terms of strengths, the document is clearly intended to improve planning’s efficiency and efficacy and places sustainable development at the heart of the system. It is clear in setting out what should be considered in the preparation of local plans and the framework for preparing documents.

But the document is weak in that it fails to sweep away the existing policy suite. Instead, we now find ourselves having to consider another layer of policy to determine whether the SPPS or PPS should be given weight. Transitional arrangements will create ambiguity and could dilute the status of the SPPS in the interim.

It is also unclear about renewable energy applications, saying "appropriate" weight shall be given to their environmental, social and economic benefits but without defining what "appropriate" means. Furthermore, the minister has confirmed that the strategic renewables policy will now be subject to a review, resulting in further uncertainty for the industry.

Emma Walker is an associate director at Turley’s Belfast office

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