What Northern Ireland's reshuffle means for planning

Commentators hope that a new department handed control over planning in Northern Ireland will improve planning for infrastructure but say the minister must ensure councils make the most of their planning powers.

Stormont: government department shake-up
Stormont: government department shake-up

Last month, the Northern Ireland Executive underwent a major departmental restructure, as part of a move to improve efficiencies in Stormont. The number of ministries has been cut from 12 to nine, with the Department for the Environment (DfE) and Department for Regional Development (DRD), both of which previously had planning responsibilities, merged into the new Department for Infrastructure.

A new infrastructure minister, Chris Hazzard, a Sinn Fein assembly member, will lead the department. He has already made an impression by this week announcing plans to remove permitted development rights for oil and gas exploration.

The ministry will take on regional planning and major infrastructure from the DRD, including the Regional Development Strategy (RDS), Northern Ireland’s spatial strategy. It also inherits planning policy, including over-arching policy document the Strategic Planning Policy Statement, and the determining of regionally significant and called-in applications from the DfE. Its responsibilities also include overseeing councils’ new planning roles.

In April last year, planning powers were devolved from the DfE to local authorities, which now determine the majority of planning applications and have been tasked with producing local development plans.

Bringing planning functions together into one department "will be a very positive move" for the province, said Roisin Willmott, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)’s director for Northern Ireland, particularly as the RDS would now sit alongside other planning functions. The RTPI, Willmott added, is keen that the minister recognises "the value of planning in terms of delivering the infrastructure that’s needed".

The departmental merger is intended to "sharpen the focus on infrastructure delivery and make planning for infrastructure more efficient", said Michael Gordon, director at consultancy Turley’s Belfast office. However he added that evidence of these changes remained to be seen.

Gordon hopes that the minister will create a list of infrastructure priorities, something that the RDS does not currently feature. "We’re keen to see if an infrastructure plan flows out of the new government programme over the next few months," he said.

Willmott and planning consultant Eamonn Loughrey said a key challenge for the minister would be overseeing and supporting councils’ new devolved planning powers. Loughrey said the executive had imposed a 2019 deadline for the six counties’ 11 councils to produce their local development plans. He said: "One year in, I’m not sure how much progress councils are making. They’ve got a lot of work to do. The minister will have to check that they’re on target and that what they’re producing will be consistent with the RDS."

Gordon added that Hazzard should also focus on speeding up the planning process for the major infrastructure projects that his department will determine, such as the North-South Interconnector, an electricity project that would link net-works in the Republic of Ireland with those in Northern Ireland.

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