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Planning in the province needs more collaboration, say experts

A group of leading housebuilders has urged greater flexibility and collaboration in Northern Ireland’s planning and roads services to help deliver high-quality new developments.

The recommendation was one of several to come out of the visit of a 16-strong delegation to the town of Poundbury in Dorset, famous as an example of sustainable urban development.

The visit in November was led by Environment Minister Edwin Poots and leading architect Dawson Stelfox of Consarc Design Group. It included delegates from Karl Construction, Connswater Homes, the Patton Group, Turkingtons and North and West Housing, among others.

In a feedback report published this week by Business in the Community (BITC), which facilitated the trip, the delegates said the visit highlighted shortcomings in the local development process, but also many principles that are transferable to Northern Ireland.

“The main lesson from Poundbury is that it needs collaboration from planners, road engineers and developers to produce the best schemes. We don’t have that here,” said Mr Stelfox. “We have a process-led planning system where planners assess what they are given. We need to move to a system where stakeholders all have a say, where you can see what’s possible rather than having a confrontational approach.”

Northern Ireland’s planning service has been criticised for being the slowest in the UK.

Delegates said planning in Northern Ireland is currently “more a regulatory regime than an opportunistic one” and urged Planning Service to become more flexible, using policies to guide rather than dictate and reviewing alternative methods of planning.

They said Poundbury illustrated the need for planning officers here to show more discretion with ideas outside normal policy.

The report said the planned regeneration scheme in Glenarm would test whether a sustainable approach to planning can work in Northern Ireland, and would probably show the need for closer collaboration between the planning and road service to be successful.

Among the key recommendations made by the BITC group were that the Government and industry:

Improve integration and communication between agencies and other industry stakeholders such as Planning Service, Roads Service, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, architects and developers.

Promote a collaborative |approach to planning based on sustainable design principles.

Promote and develop a more flexible interpretation of existing guidance to embrace the key principles of urban design and deliver sustainable communities.

If necessary develop further design guidance based on sustainable design principles to interpret and implement different planning policy statements.

Help promote existing Poundburys already developed in Northern Ireland such as Woodbrook ‘Eco Village,’ in Lisburn, built by the Carvill Group or Mayfield Garden Village in Newtownabbey.

Consider best practice from other models of sustainable planning such as Manchester Local Authority where all related services are under one roof with political consensus and support.

Promote and run the Poundbury Series training courses in Northern Ireland for relevant professionals.

Responding to the report’s recommendations, Anne Garvey, director of operations at Planning Service said: “I am pleased to confirm that Roads Service has agreed, following receipt of the draft Poundbury Feedback Report, to play its part in any change process with Planning Service in the lead and involving other key stakeholders.

“I can assure you that both Planning Service and Roads Service are aware of the desire for change in the planning of residential developments, and are prepared to play their part, including learning lessons from elsewhere in terms of policy guidance and the general approach to handling planning applications and pre-application discussions.”