CBI NI’s new report, written in partnership with Jim MacKinnon CBE, the former Chief Planner in Scotland, examines the processes for major planning applications in Northern Ireland, with a particular emphasis on regionally strategic planning, and compares them with similar process throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland lags behind its neighbours in terms of long term thinking for strategic infrastructure, and planning has long been identified as a major obstacle to timely and efficient delivery. But the ongoing legislative review into the 2011 Planning Act, and the work of the Ministerial Panel on long term thinking for infrastructure, creates a timely opportunity to level up the system in Northern Ireland. There is scope to do it, but it will require firm, committed and sustained leadership from the Northern Ireland Executive as a whole.
Based on the report’s findings, a series of recommendations have been developed on opportunities to both streamline the planning process and build a new framework for strategic infrastructure development in the longer term. Prompt action on these recommendations is critical to stimulate sustainable economic recovery and growth in the wake of the COVID-19.
Based on the findings, CBI NI has set out a package of measures, that we believe the Northern Ireland Executive could adopt to radically improve outcomes on major planning processes:
A- Streamlining the Process
- Pre-Application Clarity: The pre-application discussion (PAD) process should be strengthened for regionally significant (RS) applications and major applications. For RS applications this should be delivered through a statutory pre-application process with the aim of securing a clear, comprehensive and co-ordinated view of the requirements for information and analysis, with additional or late requests only in exceptional circumstances.
- Pre-Application Community Consultation (PACC): The 12 week PACC process for major and RS applications should be reduced to 8 weeks where applicants have demonstrated to the relevant planning authority, within the Proposal of Application Notice (PAN) that “meaningful engagement” with the community can be delivered through digital engagement, alongside the existing statutory public event.
- Processing Agreements: A timetable for processing applications in the form of a processing agreement to which all relevant parties are co-signatories, should be agreed prior to an RS application being submitted. Fines could be introduced for failing to adhere to the timetable.
- Statutory Timeframes: Statutory timeframes for determining RS application and major applications should be introduced, with the potential of introducing fines payable to the applicant where mandatory periods are not met in reaching a determination. Consideration should also be given to introducing statutory timeframes for responses from departments and their agencies acting as planning consultees.
- Notices of Opinion: There should be a strong presumption against the using of Notices of Opinion, with all RS and called in applications sent directly to the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) for independent examination.
B- A framework for Delivery to 2050
- An Independent Infrastructure Commission: The CBI welcomed recent moves by the Minister for Infrastructure to establish an Infrastructure Panel with a view to examining the value in an Infrastructure Commission for Northern Ireland. It is our view, that given the statutory commitments to meet net zero carbon by 2050, amongst other things, the Northern Ireland Executive urgently needs to inject long term strategic planning into its decision making. Northern Ireland is the only administration in the UK and Ireland not to have long term infrastructure strategy or framework. Having an independent body that can develop an objective, expert led 30-year strategy with shorter term delivery plans is the overarching statutory framework needed to drive strategic infrastructure efficiently towards long term targets.
- Streamlined Regionally Significant Approvals: An Infrastructure Commission’s primary responsibility should be to develop a 30 year vision for Northern Ireland, followed by a series of short term delivery plans (to achieve that 30 year target), to be scrutinised and approved by the Northern Ireland Executive. For regionally significant developments that are specifically contained in such a delivery plan adopted by the Executive or that specifically forms part of Executive policy (Executive Adopted Projects) such as those recommended to and approved by the Executive by an independent Infrastructure Commission, or that feature in a NI Executive Programme for Government, or other Departmental policy document approved by an Executive Minister, a streamlined approval process should be adopted to ensure timely and efficient delivery.
The CBI has already engaged, and will continue to engage with the Department of Infrastructure (DFI) on its recommendations to support both the DFI’s statutory review of the Northern Ireland planning system, and its further consideration of the recently published report from the Ministerial Panel on Infrastructure.