Planning reform – on paper but not yet in practice
Few with experience of the planning system in NI would disagree that radical reform is long overdue. In recent years many high-profile developments have been mired with delays, both through the application process and often in the courts.
Other equally important applications have been subject to processing times of years rather than months. The Planning Act (NI) 2011, which entered the statute books in May 2011, proposes much-needed reforms to the Northern Irish planning system, but much uncertainty remains. Most of the Act is not yet in force and quite when it will be implemented, and what the practical effects will be, remains unclear.
The Planning Act and associated reforms promise a “speedier, simpler and more streamlined” decision-making process along with more effective enforcement controls. Reforms propose a “development management” rather than a “development control” process, suggesting a shift to a more pro-development ethos. Consultees – often blamed for increasing delays – will have statutory timeframes in which to respond.
Possibly the most radical change will be the transfer of planning powers to District Councils. With the exception of regionally significant proposals, which will remain with the Department of the Environment, planning applications will be dealt with by Councils. “Planning Service” as it was known has already disappeared (leaving the organisation somewhat nameless at present) creating five “Planning Areas” aligned with existing councils.
Full transfer of powers to councils will not occur until council reorganisation under the Review of Public Administration programme is implemented as anticipated in 2015. How this will impact upon planning decisions remains to be seen, but the shift to local decision-making may result in inconsistencies between council areas. Proposals to establish new governance arrangements and ethical standards for councillors form part of the reform package. However, the steep learning curve required for councillors possessed of new decision-making powers runs the risk of creating a wave of legal challenges against planning decisions. Good news for objectors perhaps, but faster decision making may not mean faster implementation of development proposals.
The appeals system will also receive an overhaul, with the timeframe for commencing an appeal falling from 6 to 4 months. Importantly, the Act also has provision for imposing costs, either on appellants or the planning authority, for example where appeals are spurious or reasons for refusal are unnecessary. This mirrors the current position in England and will undoubtedly focus minds on better decision making at the outset. One issue not contained in the Act is the right of third parties to appeal planning approvals, but this controversial power is still being considered by the incumbent Minister and may yet be implemented.
In terms of enforcement, the sometimes confusing distinction between time limits (4 or 10 years) for immunity from enforcement will be standardised to 5 years for all development. Fixed penalty notices will be available for non-compliance with enforcement notices or breaches of conditions, but maximum fines for breaches of planning regulation will increase to £100k and already have for certain offences.
The Planning Act stretches to some 250 pages and will require multiple implementing orders to bring all of its provisions into force over time. The subtleties of the Act and the implications for planning in Northern Ireland - particularly whether it will provide real benefits to development - will take some time yet to be fully appreciated.
Should you have any queries regarding the issues raised in this article, please contact Andrew Ryan, email@example.com, Telephone 028 9082 0527.