Speaking in the Assembly, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan announced a public consultation on the new planning process which takes 20 existing policies and reduces them to one.The minister said he hoped the changes would create a "shorter and simpler" process for use when the new so-called super-councils assume control of planning matters.The proposals include implementing a town centre first approach to developments in a bid to rejuvenate ailing high streets across Northern Ireland.The minister added: "The policy seeks to protect and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres and foster a more sustainable approach to future retail provision."This sets out a new planning policy framework that delivers for business, with timely decisions that encourage investment and facilitate employment whilst protecting our environment, planet and people."It provides clarity and certainty for all users of the reformed planning system. I pledged last month to speed up planning and this is a key building block in achieving that pledge.This supports my vision to create a better environment and a stronger economy.Mark H DurkanThe proposals also put in place a new policy on the use of fracking to extract shale gas. It's the first time the Executive has attempted to legislate for the practise.A proposal to use the controversial method of drilling for the gas in Fermanagh has sparked protest and division.The new policy states that there should be a presumption against the exploitation of fracking until the Department of Environment is satisfied there is "sufficient and robust" evidence of the impact on the environment.Minister Durkan said: "My new planning system will realise that the environment and the economy should not, and cannot be at loggerheads."We need a system that protects the environment and fully recognises that a vibrant, sustainable environment can be a driver of prosperity and job creation."Similarly a strong economy and a prosperous society can be good for the environment."He added: "This is an exciting time for planning. I encourage everyone with an interest to contribute their views to this important consultation through our digital on line interactive portal."By working together, we can shape planning policy to ensure an efficient and fit for purpose planning system which delivers for all."The NI Executive now needs to produce a joined up town centre action plan to address regeneration, rates, car parking and progress the concept of the digital high street.NIIRTAGlyn Roberts, chief executive of the Nortern Ireland independent Retailers Association (NIIRTA) welcomed the new town centre approach.He said: "Northern Ireland has not only the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, but twice the UK national average."This new policy should make it harder for developers to gain permission for large out of town retail applications."We want to see major retailers locate their stores in town centres to enhance them, rather than unsustainable out of town locations which destroy jobs and local businesses."Minister Durkan's proposed changes were announced on the same day it was revealed that some Northern Ireland town centres have twice as many empty shops than the UK average.Carrickfergus has more vacant businesses than any other town in Northern Ireland with more than 20% unleased premises.Towns like Ballymena, Portadown, Armagh and Ballymoney are also experiencing a decline in businesses setting up there - with a fifth of shops lying empty.The Draft Strategic Planning Policy Statement is available on the DoE's website and the final proposal is expected to be published in April.