Commenting after today’s statement by Environment Minister Mark H Durkan MLA to the Planning Forum on proposed improvements to speed up the planning process, CBI Northern Ireland Director Nigel Smyth said: “While there have undoubtedly been improvements in the planning process in recent years, we welcome today’s statement as an acknowledgment that more needs to be done by the Minister, his Department and other statutory consultees to speed up and simplify processes as a means to further enhance our attractiveness as a region to do business and encourage investment.
“The measures announced by the Minister are strongly welcomed, must be implemented speedily and we must also have greater transparency regarding performance. Businesses have expressed significant frustration with the role, in some instances, of statutory consultees in the planning application process and we therefore particularly welcome the steps that have been detailed today to address this.
“Once necessary consultation with local communities and stakeholders on the part of applicants is complete, it is crucial that planning officials process applications speedily. The certainty in decision making that the Minister spoke about is therefore something we strongly support.
“Undoubtedly the planning system, with the development of the Single Strategic Planning Policy Statement and the transfer of the majority of planning power to local councils in 2015, is in the middle of one of, if not the, biggest reform periods in its history.
“It is crucial that we have in place a system that is fit for purpose and assists in driving forward the nascent recovery in our economic fortunes and encourages the investment we need.
“The draft Single Strategic Planning Policy Statement will be key to this and we look forward to assessing its contents once it is published in the coming weeks.”
The minister had announced improvements to speed up the planning process in Northern Ireland.
In October last year, the Minister decided not to move the Planning Bill to further consideration stage but emphasised his commitment to driving forward reform to speed up the planning system.
In a keynote speech at the Planning Forum today Mark H Durkan announced:
· Shorter and simplified policy. At present there are twenty separate planning policy publications. This will be reduced to one single Strategic Planning Policy Statement. Consultation on this should issue later this month.
· Intense, pre-application discussions, and widespread involvement of community in discussions, thus ensuring planning decisions can be taken much quicker.
· Promptly refusing planning applications that are substandard. This will unclog much time spent on trying to upgrade substandard applications.
· Action to ensure faster responses from consultees. This includes “Backlog Blitzes” to clear outstanding consultations in NIEA. Also new arrangements for future consultations in NIEA, such as a ‘planning control team’, a single point of contact for consultations and new protocols for processing consultations.
· Much greater access to planning case officers.
Mark H Durkan said: “My aim is to create a planning system that is fast, fair and fit for purpose. A system which is less complex, more effective, more efficient and more customer focused.
“ A system that delivers for business, with timely decisions that bring investment and jobs but not at the expense of our environment, planet or people.
“A system which realises that the environment and the economy should not, and cannot be, at loggerheads. A system that fully recognises that a vibrant, sustainable environment can be a driver of prosperity and job creation”.
“As I listen to councils, businesses, communities, environment groups, one of the issues I hear most is the need for greater certainty. Certainty in terms of the timescales for processing applications to decision, be it a yes or no; certainty of the policy context so stakeholders will know what is likely to be acceptable or unacceptable; certainty that the views of local communities will be sought and considered in a meaningful way and certainty that the planning system that we transfer to councils in 2015 will be fair and fit for purpose. I believe these measures individually and collectively will deliver this certainty for the benefit of all users of the planning system.
“These measures provide a real opportunity to speed up decision making and enhance community involvement. And it paves the way for the seamless transfer of powers to councils in 2015. My vision is for a better environment and a stronger economy. These actions will help do that. ”
Minister Durkan also encouraged all stakeholders to play their part in delivering the new system. In particular he encouraged applicants to submit good applications informed by pre application discussions and pre application community consultation.
The Minister said: “I encourage applicants and developers to work with planners in ensuring quality, soundly based applications are submitted. In return, they can expect quicker decisions. Better performance based on better, comprehensive and complete applications is the way forward. “