Belfast Telegraph

New blow as planning bids have tumbled in five years

By Margaret Canning

Planning applications have halved over the last five years, mirroring the downturn in construction.

A Department of Environment bulletin said there were 13,500 applications in 2011/12, compared to just over 27,000 in 2006/07.

Just over 90% of last year's applications were given the green light and at 97%, approval rates were highest in Ballymoney and Cookstown.

The drop of the last five years explains the dramatic contraction in the construction industry, which thrived during boom times when home owners and businesses embarked on improvements, house moves and expansion.

According to GDP figures on Wednesday, UK-wide construction output fell 5.2% between April and June. But research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) show that construction activity is at its most sluggish in Northern Ireland.

DoE's annual development management bulletin yesterday said commercial planning applications had more than halved from 2010/11 to 2011/12 from 1280 to 580 while planning bids by homeowners dropped by one third.

The department said application processing times were longer than last year and targets were not being met.

Construction Employment Federation managing director John Armstrong said: "Obviously the drop-off in applications reflects the state of the industry - but one of the key things for a vibrant economy is an efficient, effective planning system.

"You would think that with a significant reduction in the number of applications, planners would be more than able to meet their targets in processing them."

David Wright, director at commercial property consultants CBRE, said the fall in commercial applications was evidenced in Belfast, which he said faced a lack of new office development at a time when foreign direct investment (FDI) was growing.

"Banks are not funding speculative development and a lot of the schemes don't stack up because rent is only £12-£13 per foot - the same as 15 years ago.

"Builders can't afford to build them."

But green applications were up, with renewable energy-related bids up 17% to 816. Over four-fifths were approved.

Dwyer O'Neill, chief executive of Co Tyrone renewables firm Amber Green Energy, said: "It is encouraging to see the continued uptake in renewable energy projects.

"We believe that the input of single site wind turbine applications has peaked and the focus is moving from application to implementation."