Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Planning Service can provide stable foundation for economy

The proposed John Lewis store met with a great deal of hostile reaction

The Planning Service in Northern Ireland has an important role to play in making the economy function successfully. This service should facilitate economic change, not restrict desirable outcomes.

The debate about how the Planning Service might be made 'fit for purpose' seems like a dialogue of the deaf. The contestants stand their ground, state their case, and wait for the opponents to go away. Within the Planning Service claims about improvement centre on quicker administration of most applications and more orderly stages of procedure. What the Planning Service fail to appreciate is that the problems are deeper and more critical.

The chairman of the IoD, Joanne Stuart, hit the target firmly in her recent speech asking for a shake-up of 'a really dreadful planning system'.

The search for a relevant planning system whilst acknowledging that there must be a clear planning system, has origins in the range of environmental, aesthetic and negative presumptions that have tended to prevail.

This is not a plea to abandon preservation against development in the wider countryside or to ignore the environment. Already too many quasi-rural areas have been victims of bungalow blight. However, Northern Ireland lacks a planning policy which allows an improved living and working environment in the flexible expansion of urban areas. The Planning Service has Stalinist tendencies. Judgements on environmental and social policies cannot be neglected but the planners too often, by implication, mistrust the operation of market forces. How, in contrast, can the hostile reaction to John Lewis or the enforced urban overcrowding of rigid brownfield limits be explained?

If urban centres cannot allow for adequate personal mobility, on foot, bicycle, car or bus (allowing people to choose) then the role of urban centres will decrease and change. Restrictive planning and over-modest urban regeneration plans are working against the viability of town centres.

The Planning Service is being scrutinised more closely. A push is being made to allow the merits of economic development to be given greater recognition.

The redrafting of Policy Planning Statement 24, at first sight, gives grounds for hope. The current draft says:

'Where the economic implications of a proposal are significant, substantial weight shall be afforded to them in the determination of that planning application. In such cases, substantial weight can mean determinative weight.'

This proposal is a progressive change.

However, the test of significance still leaves broad discretion with planners who may not have sympathy with market economics and be motivated by other planning guidelines.

An improved PPS 24 will not exist in isolation. How can the planning system ensure an objective weighting of economic merits?

How can the range of local, or area, development plans be phrased or rephrased to make developing the economy a Government priority?

These issues have been evolving. The outgoing regional development strategy (RDS), approved with a very limited political debate some years ago, is about to be replaced. A new draft is available for consultation.

What steps have been taken to proof the new RDS for bias against the economic welfare of the people who live here?

The draft RDS claims to set the framework for spatial development up to 2035.

That claim is welcome if the framework is liberal in approach and concept. Unfortunately, the negative restrictive philosophy is still in evidence as is well illustrated by the tight quotas suggested for house building in each urban area.

Every political party and every business organisation should be awake (or waken up) to what the geographical planners are doing.