Planning in Northern Ireland – will things improve?

22 January 2024 - by Adam Newton

Anyone involved in planning in Northern Ireland will be painfully aware that our defunct planning system is the biggest barrier to investment here. Reform of planning is one of the areas where political parties, the business community and those who have been through the process will agree upon.

At the end of the 2023, statistics from the Department for Infrastructure showed that planning applications received were down from the previous year. Hardly surprising when the average time for major applications to brought to a decision is over 59 weeks, almost double the statutory target of 30 weeks.

In reality, a poorly performing system means delays could be substantially longer than that.

In fact some major and regionally significant applications have taken years, not months to complete their journey through the planning process. The Casement Park stadium in west Belfast was one of those applications. The application was originally submitted in February 2017, and it was finally approved in July 2021.

ABO Wind submitted an application to build a wind farm in the Mourne Mountains in March 2015. The application, which has been referred to the Planning Appeals Commission, is still awaiting a decision, nearly nine years later. Yes, nine years.

A planning application for a gold mine in Tyrone was first submitted by Dalradian in 2017. The company claims the mountains could contain £3bn in gold and provide a £750m boost to the Northern Ireland economy. And yet seven years later a public inquiry is yet to be held…

Unacceptable delays in the system leading to costs and uncertainty are undermining investment in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Chamber has published its recommendations for the reform of the region’s planning system.  These recommendations include investing in the system; improving processing of applications; introduce a system of potential sanctions for failure to meet deadlines by both planning authorities and consultees; and prioritisation of renewables.

The real question though is, will things improve?

Well the Civil Service thinks so. The Department for Infrastructure has launched a public consultation on proposed revisions to the planning regulations.

The proposals are part of the Planning Improvement Programme being brought forward by the department in a bid to improve current processes and the performance and delivery of the planning system in Northern Ireland.

Major and regionally significant development will be given appropriate priority to avoid undue delay and risk to investment decisions.

Welcome news for the renewable energy, housing and other projects stuck in the system.

The Department for Infrastructure is inviting views on proposed revisions and changes to the Planning (Development Management) Regulations (NI) 2015. The consultation closes on 3 March 2024.

Contact Adam Newton, Senior Consultant at Stratagem for more information.