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Northern Ireland sees collaboration amid political uncertainty

14 December 2018 Author: Claire Williamson

RTPI NI have produced a paper looking at whether the changes made to the planning system since the reform of local government in April 2015, which transferred  planning powers from central government to the newly formed local councils, are resulting in more effective planning. 

Northern Ireland politics and planning has not been receiving the most positive of press in recent years.  As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, while our Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) do not seem to be able to get on with the job, we in the planning community are very aware that the wheels continue to turn.  Our planners are making headway in  the process and delivering often unnoticed yet noteworthy results in a politically vulnerable and unstable environment.     

Making changes

One of the major changes to the plan making process since 2015 has been the development of the statutory link between the Local Development Plan (LDP) and the Community Plan.  An entirely new approach to public engagement, the concept of the Community Plan has encouraged a partnership- led approach to plan development with each individual council approaching it in a unique way. 

Not without its challenges, we are beginning to see how the aspirations and visions of the Community Plans are influencing the preparation of the LDP with greater awareness of themes such as health and well-being, community safety and cohesion, environmental and spatial development,  economic growth, and connectivity.  

Cross-council collaboration

The paper shares emerging best practice and also focuses on the collaboration occurring within councils to highlight evidence of ‘joined – up’ thinking, as well as  working between councils that could not have existed under the old regime.  Several of the new councils are taking the opportunities to optimise cross -council working on boundary-spanning issues and shared services. 

The report highlights the development of the Shared Environmental Service (SES), established in April 2015 to support the newly formed councils to meet their environmental responsibilities.  The service is hosted by Mid and East Antrim Borough Council with a primary role of assessing planning applications and support LDPs to meet Habitat Regulation requirements. 

The paper also reflects on experiences from Lough Neagh Management Forum.  Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the United Kingdom covering an area of 383 km2, is a unique environmental asset with significant cross boundary issues.  Transcending five Council areas, the forum consists of both elected representatives and professional planning staff.  The concept of the forum is a relatively innovative one in the planning system in Northern Ireland facilitating, for the first time, the opportunity for such a wide group of common interests to address Lough Neagh for the benefit of future generations. 

Looking forward     

There is a new spirit of community involvement in Northern Ireland that is shifting the emphasis to the delivery of results that work environmentally, economically and socially at a local and regional level.  But while there are clearly workings that should be shared, there have also been many challenges.  Some of the key points that the report highlights are:

  • Work needs to continue to establish the working link between the Community Plan and LDP in addition to the statutory link;
  • Continued meaningful communication should be promoted by councils between Community Plan and LDP teams;
  • Clarity on how to deal with tensions between the plans, regional planning policy conflicts and the aspirations of local visions;
  • Continued and increasing emphasis should be placed upon community planning partners to deliver commitments;
  • There are opportunities in other areas to build upon the Lough Neagh Forum model which will result in further cross-council collaborations in dealing with sensitive and shared assets.

While the paper reflects upon the areas of collaboration and plan making, we look forward to carrying out similar work in the future that will share best practice around the changes made to the Development Management process.

A full copy of the report can be viewed here.

Claire Williamson

Claire Williamson

Claire Williamson MRTPI is Northern Ireland Policy Officer at the RTPI.