Minister pledges to fast-track planning

Minister pledges to fast-track planning

The planning process is to be speeded up in an effort to improve service to customers, Environment Minister Mark Durkan has announced.

One shorter and simplified policy and intensive pre-planning application discussion with widespread community involvement will ensure decisions can be taken more quickly, the department said.Promptly refusing substandard applications will help unclog the system while action is planned to encourage faster responses from consultees like the environment agency, which examines the impact of proposed developments.Mr 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."Last year, proposals were developed to create special economic planning zones, to be designated by the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers, meaning the office would be in charge of planning policy in certain areas rather than the Environment Minister.The changes were opposed by former Environment Minister Alex Attwood and green campaigners, but supported by the DUP and Sinn Féin.Following a fierce row, Mr Attwood's successor, Mark Durkan withdrew a proposed Planning Bill from the Assembly in October.On Thursday, he told a Planning Forum meeting at the MAC arts centre in Belfast that he wanted a planning system that delivered for business, with timely decisions that brought investment and jobs - but not at the expense of the environment or local people.He said: "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."Key reforms includeCreating a shorter and simplified planning policy, to replace 20 publications with one Strategic Planning Policy StatementPre-application discussions and widespread community involvement to ensure planning decisions can be taken quicker once forms are submittedPromptly refusing substandard planning applications, reducing time spent trying to upgrade themAction to ensure faster responses from consultees, including clearing outstanding consultations with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.A planning control team would provide a single point of contact for consultations. The minister recognised the need for greater certainty.The SDLP Foyle MLA said: "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."Nigel Smyth, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, said the planning system was 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," he said."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."Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association's Chief Executive Glyn Roberts, said:"NIIRTA welcomes the broad thrust of Minister Durkan's statement on Planning, particularly the need for a timely, transparent and sustainable Planning Process."We look forward to examining the details of his proposed Single Planning Policy statement when it is published later this month. Given that our town centres now have the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, this new Policy needs to ensure a strong Town Centre first approach to major retail applications," the Planning Forum Member said."A key challenge is the devolution of significant planning powers to the proposed eleven new Councils in 2015 and we look forward to working with the Minister and the newly elected Councillors to ensure this process is as smooth as possible." 


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