'Fast, fair' planning system pledge
The planning process is to be speeded up in an effort to improve service to customers, e nvironment minister Mark Durkan has said.
One shorter and simplified policy and intensive pre-planning application discussion with widespread community involvement will ensure decisions can be taken more quickly, the department said.
Promptly refusing substandard applications will help unclog the system while action is planned to encourage faster responses from consultees like the environment agency, which examines the impact of proposed developments.
Mr Durkan said: "My aim is to create a planning system that is fast, fair and fit for purpose.
"A system which is less complex, more effective, more efficient and more customer-focused."
Last year, proposals were developed to create special economic planning zones, to be designated by the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM), meaning OFMDFM would be in charge of planning policy in certain areas rather than the environment minister.
The changes were opposed by former environment minister Alex Attwood and green campaigners, but supported by the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Following a fierce row, Mr Attwood's successor, the current incumbent, withdrew a proposed Planning Bill from the Assembly in October.
He told a Planning Forum meeting at the MAC arts centre in Belfast that he wanted a planning system that delivered for business, with timely decisions that brought investment and jobs but not at the expense of the environment or local people.
He said: "A system which realises that the environment and the economy should not, and cannot be, at loggerheads.
"A system that fully recognises that a vibrant, sustainable environment can be a driver of prosperity and job creation."
Key reforms included:
:: Creating a shorter and simplified planning policy, to replace 20 publications with one Strategic Planning Policy Statement;
:: Pre-application discussions and widespread community involvement to ensure planning decisions can be taken quicker once forms are submitted;
:: Promptly refusing substandard planning applications, reducing time spent trying to upgrade them;
:: Action to ensure faster responses from consultees, including clearing outstanding consultations with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. A planning control team would provide a single point of contact for consultations.
The minister recognised the need for greater certainty.
The SDLP Foyle MLA said: "These measures provide a real opportunity to speed up decision making and enhance community involvement.
"And it paves the way for the seamless transfer of powers to councils in 2015.
"My vision is for a better environment and a stronger economy.
"These actions will help do that."
Nigel Smyth, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, said the planning system was in the middle of one of, if not the, biggest reform periods in its history.
"It is crucial that we have in place a system that is fit for purpose and assists in driving forward the nascent recovery in our economic fortunes and encourages the investment we need," he said.
"The draft Single Strategic Planning Policy Statement will be key to this and we look forward to assessing its contents once it is published in the coming weeks."