The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for a digitally-focused overhaul of Northern Ireland’s entire planning service, says the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).
As part of its response to a Department for Infrastructure review of the implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011, the RTPI also pointed out that the planning system in Northern Ireland needed increased resourcing if it was to deliver outcomes efficiently, effectively and equitably.
The Act came into effect on 1 April 2015, transferring the responsibility for most local planning decisions to councils and overhauling the development management and plan making processes.
The RTPI has described the 2015 reforms as ‘the most fundamental change to the planning system in Northern Ireland in over 30 years’.
Director of RTPI Northern Ireland Roisin Willmott FRTPI said:
“The changes ushered in by the implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011 represented a significant step forward in the design of the planning service to deliver sustainable development for communities. However, after six years, now is a good time to review how the system is being implemented and where improvements can be made.
“One area where only limited progress has been made is in the introduction of a streamlined, fully-electronic planning application submission process. A standardised, digital approach to uploading maps and plans for applicants, and a system which allows for better communication between statutory consultees must now be explored.
“However, these types of projects cannot be taken forward without adequate resourcing. Financial support to increase the number of public sector planners, funding for specialist knowledge and investment in more efficient technologies would help support the shift from a largely reactive, regulatory planning system, to a proactive and strategic digital planning system, fit for the 21st century.”
In particular, the RTPI’s response singled out planning enforcement departments as being severely under-resourced, resulting in the inability to investigate cases. Without a strong enforcement service, the RTPI says, the whole of the planning service is undermined.
The RTPI’s Plan the World We Need policy paper, published last year, outlined the vital role of a strong, proactive planning system in helping communities and businesses in Northern Ireland recover from the pandemic.