'Northern Ireland's planning system will change to aid new business' - Environment Minister hits back at Justin King's criticism
Mark H Durkan's pledge after Sainsbury's chief executive complains of bureaucratic tangle
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has said Northern Ireland's planning system is evolving in to a body "much better placed to support economic development".
He was defending planning policy following an attack by Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King, who said that the Executive needed to make the process of setting up business in Northern Ireland easier or risk losing out on investment to other parts of the UK.
Mr Durkan said root and branch changes to the planning system, set to be in place by 2015, would create a "shorter, clearer and more accessible" planning system.
Mr King complained last week that the "lack of speed, logic and joined up thinking when it comes to issuing planning permission for supermarkets makes Northern Ireland a challenging place to invest".
But in a statement yesterday Mr Durkan expressed "wholehearted commitment to the planning system playing a role in facilitating economic development".
"There is clear evidence that DOE Planning is responding to that imperative," he said.
"As a result of vigorous action by my predecessor (Alex Attwood), action which I am continuing, the planning system is now much better placed to support economic development, providing greater certainty on outcome and timeframes for managing applications."
He cited examples of "speedy" planning decisions, including the approval of the Peace Bridge in Londonderry and the redevelopment of Windsor Park, which received the green light in under six months.
"Decisions such as these demonstrate that such applications are being handled consistently within the Programme for Government (PfG) target to ensure that 90% of large-scale investment planning decisions are made within six months and applications with job creation potential are given additional weight," he said.
He added he was "fully committed to transferring a reformed planning system to councils in 2015 that is fast, fair and fit for purpose".
He said the changes would impact every aspect of planning, from "how development plans are drawn up, how development proposals and applications are managed, and the way in which these functions are delivered".
He added that his intended "single Strategic Planning Policy Statement," will be "shorter, clearer and more accessible regional planning policy, and consolidate existing policies in to one document".
Colin Mathewson, a retail director at commercial property consultants Osborne King, said it was "not uncommon for a large food store to take two to three years for the planning process to take place".
He said that in contrast to the system in Great Britain, where councils retain planning authority, "here it can be very drawn out and you can understand why the big stores feel that they are nearly being stymied to invest here".
"As a region, Northern Ireland is well off the pace compared to other parts of the UK," he added.
Though Mr King didn't raise the issue of the large retail levy – imposed on firms with large developments in April 2012 – the tariff has been identified as another economic barrier to potential investors.
The levy currently affects 75 properties across Northern Ireland and is set to remain in force until April 2015.
A spokesman for the Department of Finance and Personnel, however, said that there was "no evidence of downsizing or disinvestment in Northern Ireland as a result" of the levy.