Growing confidence from DOE as the planners hit targets on decision making
We must push on and embrace a more decisive approach to government decision making and resist the dangers of drifting back.
That was the defiant message from Environment Minister Alex Attwood as he addressed a packed Northern Ireland Renewables Industry Group (NIRIG) conference in Belfast on Thursday last week.
Earlier he had heard Shane Lynch, chief executive of the Utility Regulator, warn of "the perfect storm" gathering in relation to security of energy supply in Northern Ireland and the absolute need to deliver on key electricity infrastructure such as the north-south interconnector, and have a responsive planning system to deliver on increasingly urgent requirements.
Positively, Mr Attwood demonstrated his enthusiasm for the challenge. He refreshingly talked of the need for government's responsibility to act and intervene appropriately by making improvements to our planning system to enhance its responsiveness while balancing economic and environmental considerations.
Now in its third year, there are clear signs that former conference groans of frustration on planning delays and inactivity are less audible and there is a growing sense of confidence that the planning system is beginning to meet its Programme for Government targets of making decisions more quickly.
Key issues that emerged from the conference were the continued need to enhance the performance of our planning system in deciding major renewable energy projects, a much greater focus being placed on pre-application discussion, meaningful community engagement and consultation, the need to introduce community benefit funds, the essential nature of early discussion and information sharing with Department of the Environment strategic projects team and their consultees and attention to provision of comprehensive environmental information and sharing of survey results prior to planning application submission.
Focus was also on the gathering momentum on preparing for planning powers being transferred to the new 11 councils due to be fully functional within two years, or "800 days," as Mr Attwood warned.
The Planning Bill that will make its way into legislation before the end of the year will bring a number of changes into force prior to the councils being formally constituted, including mandatory community consultation placing an onus on developers to demonstrate how local community views have influenced the proposed development.
Mary MacIntyre, director of strategic projects at DOE, spoke of her "fundamental belief that planning should be a local function with decisions taken by locally elected representatives", but urged the industry of the changing political landscape and the increased importance to be placed on community engagement and consultation. She also warned of the importance that will, in law, be placed on the new development plans to be prepared by new councils and for renewable industry leaders to engage early to ensure these reflect industry aspirations for future development.
Concerns have now been switched to need for action in delivering grid infrastructure.
The industry's impact on the local economy, its huge job creation potential and investment of hundreds of millions across a wide supply chain warrant the highest level of commitment and priority by the Executive. Mr Attwood recognises its importance and appears to be up for the job of seeing through enhancements to his department's planning performance.
That bodes well – the only question is whether he will be given the time needed to oversee the promising work he has presided over to date.
Clyde Shanks is director of Belfast planning consultancy Clyde Shanks Ltd and is progressing a number of windfarm proposals through the planning system