NI planning reform briefing

29 January 2013

Most planning functions will transfer to Councils in 2015. The Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 provides for this.

To speed up the proposed reforms of the 2011 Act, the Planning Bill was introduced to the Assembly on 14 January 2013, with a second reading on 22 January. The Bill will bring forward many of the reforms in advance of the transfer, as well as making provisions to underpin the role of planning in promoting economic development.

The rationale is that this will allow the benefits of the reforms to be realised sooner. It also means the Department will transfer a system which Councils, planners, developers and the public are already using and which they know and understand. The Bill is intended as an interim measure most of which will remain in place only until it is possible to fully commence the 2011 Act, at which point it will be repealed.

Key provisions in the Bill aim to deliver:

  • Measures to strengthen the planning system in order to promote economic development - this is a new provision establishing a legal obligation to have regard to the economic consequences of development; this provision is likely to provoke the greatest debate as a late entry to the draft legislation
  • Measures to further sustainable development and enhance the environment - planners will have to balance these considerations, good design and regard to well being against the new economic imperative
  • Faster processing of planning applications - mainly by a new statutory period (likely 21 days) for consultees to respond
  • Faster and fairer planning appeals system - this means a reduced period to submit appeals, new controls on introducing fresh information at appeal and the award of costs for unreasonable behaviour
  • Enhanced community involvement - for (presently undefined) major applications a new legal requirement to have a 12 week community consultation period ahead of submission with a report detailing how the scheme has responded to issues raised
  • Simpler and tougher enforcement - higher fines and fixed penalty notices instead of lengthy legal proceedings.

The legislation will be subject to scrutiny at the Environment Committee and is expected to be in force before the end of the year. The Environment Committee seeks views by 15 March 2013. Key to its interpretation will be subsequent secondary legislation which establishes the thresholds between regionally significant, major and local applications.

The time limit for consultees is particularly welcome. It remains to be seen how decision makers will balance the various competing considerations in assessing proposals.