THE Northern Ireland Environment Agency has been told it will have to carry out a "backlog blitz" aimed at clearing 95% of 230 outstanding planning consultations dealing with natural heritage by the end of March.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan pledged that the agency will be carrying out a series of drives to clear outstanding consultations that are holding up planning decisions.
The first will require all brownfield site consultations greater than 12 months old to be cleared by the end of March and the rest to be cleared by the end of June.
Meanwhile, 95% of all natural heritage consultations, of which there are 230, must be cleared by the end of March.
Further backlog clearances are expected to follow.
The minister said he will also be setting new statutory deadlines for NIEA consultations on planning applications in a bid to cut down on planning delays.
Deadlines will also be set for other agencies outside the minister's control, including the Roads Service and the Rivers Agency.
It was part of a series of measures announced by the minister to speed up the planning process ahead of devolution of planning powers to new super-councils.
Last year Mr Durkan controversially decided to scrap the Planning Bill, intended to carry out these reforms, thwarting feared DUP and Sinn Fein efforts at a "power grab" over planning.
The minister withdrew the Planning Bill in October, voicing concerns that two amendments added by the Assembly could be unlawful. One amendment would have given powers to the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister to set up special economic planning zones, and the other limited the power to legally challenge planning decisions by judicial review.
Yesterday Mr Durkan set out his agenda for delivering improvements to the planning system, insisting that the environment and the economy should not be at loggerheads.
He announced a series of measures to streamline the system, including the reduction of 20 separate planning policy statements to one single strategic planning policy statement.
Consultation on this measure will be published later this month.
The minister also announced the introduction of intense pre-application discussions with the widespread involvement of the community, so that planning decisions can be taken more quickly, as well as the prompt refusal of substandard planning applications to "unclog" the system.
Mr Durkan also promised greater access to planning case officers and "backlog blitzes" to clear outstanding consultations in NIEA.
He said he would be setting up new arrangements for future consultations in NIEA, including a planning control team, a single point of contact for consultations and new protocols for processing consultations.
He said: "As I listen to councils, businesses, communities, environment groups, one of the issues I hear most is the need for greater certainty.
"Certainty in terms of the timescales for processing applications to decision, be it a yes or no; certainty of the policy context so stakeholders will know what is likely to be acceptable or unacceptable; certainty that the views of local communities will be sought and considered in a meaningful way and certainty that the planning system that we transfer to councils in 2015 will be fair and fit for purpose."
Business leaders and the CBI welcomed the announcement.