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When the Northern Ireland auditors come knocking … don’t panic

Roisin Willmott OBE FRTPI is the RTPI Director of Wales, Northern Ireland and Planning Aid England

The talk of audit often fills non-audit professionals with dread. What will these ‘outsiders’ find, how can they understand the context? However, as planners we are encouraged to embrace reflection; as policy makers we understand the importance of review as an integral part of policy and practice development – we can achieve so much more this way. So, we should embrace and value the exercise of audit, it does provide an official and independent inspection.

At the start of 2022, the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) published a report on the implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011, as required by the Act and the Northern Ireland Audit Office published its report Planning in Northern Ireland shortly afterwards.

Both reports reflect on changes introduced in Northern Ireland 2015. The changes to both the planning system and local government in Northern Ireland were substantial. They established the two-tier system which offers real benefits to delivering outcomes which are responsive to local need.

The DfI report highlights helpful amendments to legislation and RTPI NI looks forward to responding to the subsequent consultations which will follow with further detail.

Despite the negative findings, these reports both offer a fantastic opportunity.

On first glance, some of the findings of the Audit Office can make for difficult reading. Those working in the planning system work hard and with best effort and we must therefore reflect on the findings not as personal targets but instead in relation to the whole system and how we operate within it.

Despite the negative findings, these reports both offer a fantastic opportunity. They provide evidence and reflection on how the planning system is operating and point towards how amendments can be made to build the system’s strength, introduce efficiencies and lead to good outcomes for society as a whole.

I could list off a string of idioms referring to baby and bath water and how long it took to build Rome, but in essence my message is, let’s seize this evidence and work collaboratively to make improvements. This is a perfect opportunity in terms of evidence and timing.

The RTPI welcome this evidence base, despite its stark reading. If we are all honest, the findings by the NI Audit Office, are known to us already; there were no surprises, but now we have an independent and widely researched report to back up the thinking and we can take action - we have a direction to travel in.

As the RTPI we are a learned society and the professional body for town planners. We have a plethora of information, data and sharing from across the UK and Ireland and beyond, which we willingly share.

There is good planning work taking place in Northern Ireland delivering good outcomes for communities and we must not lose sight of this.

As an example, planners have played a huge role in regenerating and reunifying Derry / Londonderry. So much so, in 2017, it was named as the RTPI’s Best Place in Northern Ireland, as voted by the public. The City’s planners used the Peace Bridge as a catalyst for regenerating languishing parts of the City. It links the once run down Ebrington area, which included former army barracks, now a regenerated square with continuing developments and cultural spaces, to the redeveloped waterfront and Guildhall area on the opposite side, linking to the City Walls.

The regeneration of Ebrington Barracks, the construction of the pedestrian peace bridge and the continued protection of the City Walls and Guildhall demonstrate how planners have successfully protected the built environment and improved connectivity between the Cityside and Waterside.

Another positive example of planning, amongst many is Old Mill Court, Sion Mills. It was the first-born scheme based on the 2014 published Rural Housing Design guide, created by Rural Housing Association and GM Design Associates. Planners worked to develop a housing scheme that is truly rooted within the rich history of the village, but which also goes beyond bricks and mortar in its efforts to reinvigorate the local economy and generate a sense of community belonging. This Shared Housing scheme, delivering much needed social housing, adopted a proactive approach to involving the entire community in the amalgamation of a new housing scheme into an already established community.

The design of the planning system did not end with the Planning Act (NI) 2011. The Act, along with local government reform, have made a significant difference, but the journey continues in enabling planning services to be efficient, effective and importantly delivering positive outcomes for communities across Northern Ireland. These reports are an important step in the journey and provide valuable evidence of where further change is needed.

The RTPI in Northern Ireland is now digesting the findings and recommendations of the reports and is preparing how we can work collaboratively with our members, and with stakeholders and other built environment professionals, to ensure the opportunity which these reports offer to build on the planning system in Northern Ireland. 

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