The planning system seems to satisfy no one. If you are a neighbour, a community group, or an environmental interest, your encounters usually end in disappointment. If you are a developer you see inconsistency and delay.
A new local plan hasn’t been started for more than 10 years. Indeed, we wonder whether ‘planning reform’ has achieved anything.
We now face a further period of change, as planning powers are transferred to local government and, while this will result in democratisation of planning decisions, in the short term it will inevitably lead to further inertia.
A year ago, Friends of the Earth published the results of research into public opinion of the planning system in Northern Ireland, undertaken by Queen’s University, Belfast.
The results were fairly damning, highlighting low confidence in the system among the public, developers, politicians and even those who work in the Department of the Environment (DoE).
To our surprise, even representatives of the property industry, who benefit most from our lax approach to regulation, were uncomfortable with the close relationship between politicians and developers.
Everyone seems to recognise that the planning system lacks transparency and is failing to serve our broader society.
A failure to take effective enforcement action on those who are blatantly flouting planning regulation is, however, only one symptom of this disease. In July this year, the DoE issued its latest figures on ‘planning performance’. This measures how quickly the DoE processes planning applications.
While everyone wants an efficient planning system (which we don’t have, according to the NI Audit Office), the amazing thing about the planning statistics was how the DoE boasted about the high level of planning applications receiving planning permission — 95% of all commercial developments gaining permission and, in some areas, 97% of all applications receiving permission. The DoE seems to think this is an unequivocal good thing, yet these figures could suggest that the planning system is not doing what it should.
It is incomprehensible that such high proportions of proposed development would meet a robust test of being in the public interest.
How many of these will end up exacerbating environmental problems, increasing the risk of flooding, aggravating traffic congestion, or eating away at our landscapes?
In the year since we published our survey, we have continued to discuss the planning system with a range of interests, including concerned planners who work in the DoE.
While we may have deep anxieties about the planning system, we recognise that there are committed professionals working within it who care about the damage being caused to our economy, communities, heritage and environment.
There is clearly a high level of frustration among this group at the failure to take their opinion into account when making decisions.
Indeed, several have told us of dictats they have had from senior management to approve all planning applications — regardless of the merits of the case.
So, why bother having a planning system? Why put applicants through the drudge of having to make a planning application if they are guaranteed permission?
And why bother spending the £27m (according to the last published figures on 2011) to maintain the Department of Environment as a planning authority?
Effective planning is an essential element of a civilised society; indeed, we lack any other democratic tool for protecting our neighbourhoods, ecosystems and long-term prosperity. However, if it doesn’t do any of those things, is there any point in having a system at all?
Geraint Ellis teaches in the school of planning, architecture and civil|engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast. James Orr is Northern Ireland director of Friends of the Earth