Officials endeavour to defeat flaws in system

Pressure on planning in Northern Ireland has led to a push for modernisation, says Susanna Gillman.

Like its counterparts in England, Wales and Scotland, the Northern Ireland planning system is embarking on a period of change and modernisation.

Reform proposals currently out for consultation take a similar line to those in mainland Britain, aiming to speed up the system, streamline the applications process and generate greater community involvement. Such ambition is welcome news for critics of the planning delays in Northern Ireland.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson stood up in parliament earlier this month to voice his growing concern about hold-ups on applications and policy documents and the resulting loss of investment (Planning, 4 November, p2). He claimed that the promoters of major developments have to factor in a minimum of two years for planning permission, undermining economic growth in the province.

Research by Investment Belfast published earlier this year revealed a loss of £1 billion of potential investment in the city because property developers have instead invested in projects in the UK. This figure equates to the loss of around 15,000 construction jobs and 15,000 full-time posts.

Alastair Adair, head of the University of Ulster's school of the built environment, argues that the perception of delay in the planning system varies. "Investors say it is slow, but other developers say that it is no worse than in England and Wales and in some cases is in fact better," he claims. "Planning has a key role to play if Northern Ireland is to compete for greater inward investment."

Wilson complains that substantial backlogs in bringing policies and area plans forward is creating greater uncertainty in the planning process.

"Planning then takes place in a vacuum. Those who are objecting do not know the status of certain areas and those applying do not know the ground rules," he maintains.

But Marianne Ferguson, director of corporate services at the Northern Ireland Planning Service, defends its record. The service has had to cope with unprecedented growth in the number of applications over the past three years, she says, citing the growth in applications received from 275,000 in 2002-03 to 357,000 last year.

"That placed severe pressure on the service, although we have been successful in bidding for extra resources for staff," says Ferguson. Over the past 15 months the service has taken on more than 100 staff and has around 80 further vacancies to fill. But the mounting workload has impacted on area plans progress.

Last year former environment minister Angela Smith ordered a temporary redeployment of staff from area plans to development control. Ferguson points out that three area plans have been adopted and three draft plans published in the past two years. A strategic unit has also been set up to focus on major investment projects to see how they can be managed in an effective way.

These efforts to turn performance around are now set in the context of the modernisation programme. The latest consultation includes proposals to speed up applications, strengthen enforcement powers, boost community involvement and promote sustainable development.

The right of individuals to be heard at development plan inquiries has been retained, a move welcomed by community and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, Community Technical Aid and Ulster Wildlife Trust. Consultation runs until 23 December, with legislation expected to be in place by next spring.

Meanwhile, plans to restructure councils and devolve more powers, including planning, are afoot. Environment minister Lord Rooker is due to make a statement this month. "Most people welcome this," says Adair. "It will tackle the democratic deficit, since civil servants are often seen as not being accountable."

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