How a new era of strategic planning is unfolding in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's local authorities are grappling with the practical implications of new plan-making responsibilities bestowed upon them following a local government shake-up last year.

Northern Ireland: councils have new strategic planning responsibilities
Northern Ireland: councils have new strategic planning responsibilities

When planning functions were devolved to councils across Northern Ireland as part of last year’s local government reorganisation, the requirement for 11 new local plans to be created was not exactly headline news.

Development management, the creation of planning committees, and fears over casework backlogs were the prime areas of interest. Five months later, the Strategic Planning Policy Statement for Northern Ireland (SPPS) gave authorities a roadmap for the two-stage process of creating core local plan documents to replace legacy plans from the Department of the Environment and predecessor councils. An "indicative" timescale of 40 months to produce, consult on, examine and adopt both was detailed in the statement.

First, councils are tasked with creating a "plan strategy", setting out objectives for the development and use of land in their district and strategic policies for the implementation of those objectives. After examination and adoption of the plan strategy, a draft "local policies plan" with site-specific designations is prepared, examined and adopted.

As part of the process, councils must also "prepare and keep under review" a timetable for the preparation of their local plans, including their programme for the production of key documents in the process.

An analysis of progress to date, produced by planning consultancy Turley, suggests that no Northern Ireland authority has yet gone beyond the "preferred options" stage of the "plan strategy", which would mark the first stage of the plan-making process, anticipated by the SPPS to take four months.

According to the data, Antrim and Newtownabbey is most advanced in the process, and currently targets having both a plan strategy and an adopted local policies plan in place by early 2019.

Meanwhile, two authorities - Ards and North Down, and Newry, Mourne and Down - do not predict reaching the preferred options stage until next summer, with targeted adoption of a local policies plan in mid-2020.

Emma Walker, associate director at Turley’s Belfast office, said the magnitude of the task at hand was becoming clear for councils, with strategic planning roles being recruited for, and policy documents being outsourced. She said that, while the requirement to agree timescales for plan-making work was focusing minds in councils, questions also remained about how many local plan examinations inspectorate the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) could deal with at any one time.

"If every local authority hits their timescale, the PAC is going to have a lot of work to do in 2018," she said. "It will certainly put pressure on them, but they may hire in extra help."

Walker said that a bigger concern for the new local planning authorities than any inspection logjam could be the precedents set by the first examination. She said: "If I was a chief planning officer, I’d be thinking, ‘do I really want to go first?’"

Ulster-based planning consultant and adviser Carol McILvar said there was strong developer interest in contributing to the plan-making process because the new housing and economic growth strategies were expected to represent a significant departure from their centrally-created predecessors.

However she said there was also a degree of frustration that they would not be able to give site-specific consultation input for another 18 months or more, under the indicative timescales for the publication of local policies plans. "That’s essentially work that I’m declining at the moment," she said. "I have to be client-focused and explain that they have to be patient because there’s no point in submitting representations earlier in the process."

Both McILvar and Walker said they expected a new degree of competition between local authorities to drive growth in employment and housing, that was absent from the centrally-created plans overseen by the Department for Environment under the old regime. However, McILvar also predicted that anticipation of the arrival of a more favourable development climate would lead to a slowing of pace in the intervening period.

Roisin Wilmott, the Royal Town Planning Institute’s director responsible for Northern Ireland and Wales, said that an additional factor faced by Northern Ireland’s councils was that they had to fit their local development plans with community plans – drawn up by residents, councils and statutory bodies to provide a "shared vision" for promoting the wellbeing of an area - something that is not a formal requirement in other parts of the UK. "It’s early days," she said. "However, the councils are progressing and RTPI NI is seeking to provide support wherever it is able to."

According to the SPPS, community plans - mandated by the Local Government (Northern Ireland) Act 2014 - must be taken into account when local development plans are prepared. It says the local development plans should be the "spatial expression" of community plans.

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