Posted on Tuesday 12 February 2013 by Ulster Business
Environment Minister Alex Attwood, pictured with Gary Connolly of the Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group, wants to introduce new planning legislation.
However, final approval is being withheld by leading figures in planning and environmental protection, with concerns over whether the bill and the decisions taken so far are striking the right balance between economic and environmental considerations.
Minister Attwood has regularly said he wants to make planning more efficient and accountable.
"Since becoming Environment Minister, ensuring we provide a much better, more speedy and decisive planning service has been a top priority for me. Planning as a vehicle for strengthening our economy, without compromising on protecting the environment is also a key driver for me," he said.
The big decisions he has taken to date on economically important Article 31 projects have divided opinion. Rose Energy's planned chicken litter power station and the long delayed John Lewis at Sprucefield were rejected, while planning was granted for the much anticipated Royal Exchange development, the police and fire training complex at Desertcreat and a golf resort on the north Antrim coast.
The primary aim of Minister Attwood's Bill is to reproduce key provisions in the Planning Act 2011 to allow his Department to speed up reforms prior to the transfer of planning powers to local government in 2015.
Dr Roisin Willmott, head of the Royal Town Planning Institiute (RTPI) Northern Ireland believes there are a lot of positives to be taken from the new legislation: "What's important is that any changes to the planning system are in place in time for local government reform, so that when new councils come in, they aren't tackling more changes. It will make sure things are as prepared as well as they can be in the time scale."
Promotion of economic development is a key part of the Bill, which asks local planning authorities to give regard to any economic advantages or disadvantages likely to result from granting or refusing planning permission.
James Orr, Director of Friends of the Earth NI, believes the Bill is flawed.
"On the face of it, all of us agree planning should help economic development there's no question about that, but what this provision is saying in regards to economic advantages and disadvantages means a brand new principle of planning law is introduced. We think this legislative provision will introduce complete and utter chaos in the planning system," he said.
However, Richard Bowman, Director of planning at the consultancy practice Strategic Planning thinks a forthright consideration of economic factors is necessary.
"It's not an unusual policy to adopt," he said. "I was reading about energy policy in England and their attitude is that if something is needed and is useful to the economy you can't bake a cake without breaking a few eggs. Something has to give."
He adds: "If the economy is the key thing that is going to drive you, then the environment has to compromise to a degree. I'm certainly not a proponent of chopping down every tree I see around me, I'm a great believer in the environment. But there are times when the environmental lobby takes the biscuit really. Certainly at the minute the economy is slightly more important."
An attempt to emphasise the economic factors in planning decisions, was previously attempted in the draft Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 24 'Economic Considerations'. This was issued for public consultation in January 2011 by the then Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, but was quickly dropped by Minister Attwood.
James Orr believes a new way of operating within the planning system will cause an array of problems.
"You can foresee a situation where major retail developers compete with each other so one says they will create 200 jobs and then the other says they'll create 250 jobs. You're in the business of analysing individual's aspirations for economic advantage or disadvantage.
"What we'll find is this new Bill is PPS 24 by stealth and it's actually much more serious because we'll end up in endless litigation because of these issues. In other words people are going to go through the courts more and more to fight these cases," he said.
With variable options, there is no concrete way of predicting which one will provide the greatest economic benefit. Orr sees the planning feud over the proposed golf course near to the Giant's Causeway as a fitting example: "The National Trust could say protecting the setting of the Giant's Causeway world heritage site is a really important economic driver for that area, which it is as it's part of a micro-economy of the north Antrim coast. Alistair Hanna the developer could well say in this particular case "I'm going to create a £100m development that will be of significant benefit to the economy."
Northern Ireland's planning system has been regarded as a hindrance to the economy, with many high profile applications being drawn out over a number of years.
Galantas, a gold mining company in County Tyrone, is one of Strategic Planning's clients, who are suffering from delays in the current planning system. Richard Bowman believes something needs to be done to improve efficiency in the planning structure.
"We were brought in a year or two ago to help out Galantas and as a result of the judicial review challenge it really pushed up the necessity to get the underground mine approved very very quickly, as all the various planning blunders resulted in people losing their jobs.
"We have been pushing and shoving to try and get the thing over the line and there really hasn't been the drive from the statutory bodies in planning. They just go along at their slow pace. The upshot of it is, I'm managing a client at the minute who is regularly saying to me 'I'm going to throw the towel in', and I'm spending my time trying to talk him around," he said.
Roisin Willmott gives an example of the different factors that play their part in planning.
"I think the planning system is being burdened with lots of other things to take account of – the European Habitat Directive is a big one, protecting European threatened species or ecosystems. It's the planning system that has to do that, its required to help out with all sorts of different things, that's kind of slowed it down slightly," she said.
Richard Bowman hopes the major Article 31 applications can be completed: "Planning is a very difficult balancing act. There are lobbies from all sides shouting at them – 'think of the economy, think of the environment' but I have faith that when the economy improves that a lot these schemes will to go through a lot more smoothly."
James Orr, on the other hand, predicts a steady dismantling of the planning system until it all grinds to a halt in appeals and legal challenges.
He said: "If this goes through, it means Northern Ireland is not just open for business as the Minister said, it means Northern Ireland is up for sale."