Funding will help planning response
An advice service which helps community groups tackle planning issues in their area has received a funding boost worth almost £500,000.
Voluntary organisation Community Places offers guidance to people living in disadvantaged areas on how to engage in often complex planning bids.
It is currently working with residents who wanted to raise issues on major applications such as the Casement Park redevelopment in west Belfast and the proposed new University of Ulster campus in the north of the city centre.
The Department of Environment funding package of £465,500 over the next three years represents an almost 10% increase on previous allocations.
Environment minister Mark H Durkan said the greater financial commitment would enable greater support to be offered to communities during the period around the transfer of planning functions to local councils in 2015.
"Planning can be complex and has the potential to impact on all of our lives," he said.
"What this fund is about is giving everyone a fair chance, assisting those in disadvantaged and marginalised communities to have their say in applications in their area.
"Local government reform is about bringing planning power closer to people by transferring the majority of planning functions to councils. Local people making decisions. Local people influencing decisions. This is why I am increasing the funding for Community Places and making it available over this key period of change so that all groups understand and feel capable of playing an active part in the current and new planning system.
"My aim is to make a better environment, a stronger economy. Giving all groups a voice and creating a level playing field for everyone to have their say will help do this."
John Crossey, chairman of Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents' Association, a group that has objected to elements of the Casement Park redevelopment, said: " Community Places is advising our group and over 700 residents in responding to the Casement Park plans for a new sports, concert and major events stadium.
"Their support is invaluable in helping us understand the whole planning system and present our views professionally and effectively. We have found Community Places to be helpful and friendly at all times and always willing to go the extra mile."
Cathy Rice from Ards Community Network, another group which has received advice, added: "With the support of Community Places, local community groups in our area have been able to develop new community hubs, environmental improvements and traffic calming and get involved in all the changes in the planning system, new council structures and community planning.
"They excel at linking local communities into the big picture and helping them make sense of and participate in planning processes."
Stevie Johnston, chairman of Community Places, said he was delighted with the funding announcement.
"Our advice clinics reach all parts of the region ensuring that people who can't afford to hire consultants still have access to professional planning advice," he said.
"The minister's decision also means that we will help communities to keep in touch with all the major changes in the pipeline for planning and the role of the new super councils."