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'We need a plan to move forward to ensure Northern Ireland development continues'

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Belfast city centre pictured as the majority of businesses remain closed

Belfast city centre pictured as the majority of businesses remain closed

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Belfast city centre pictured as the majority of businesses remain closed

‘Sure, the Northern Ireland development industry can take it. Didn’t it weather the economic crash?’ Well, just about, if you discount the bankruptcies, the lights put out, the slow crawl back to well-being. But this is so much worse.

Never before have we as a society faced such a severe, and lasting, public health crisis. Never before has our economy been shut down, with no date for re-opening. Never before has our development management system been so paralysed. Never before has our economy – dependent as it is on development and construction – been so endangered.

In that context, there is mounting concern among those engaged in Northern Ireland’s planning system that the system is overall not responding effectively, collaboratively, and expeditiously to the challenges of Covid-19 and the related imperative to protect the local economy against severe and lasting damage. We compete for investment with Ireland and Great Britain.

That requires a comprehensive, co-ordinated system from local council to planning appeal to court, if necessary, for all citizens. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, business detests stasis. If we cannot deliver an effective decision-making process we will lose that investment.

In particular, it is clear that the planning systems in Great Britain are well ahead of Northern Ireland in mounting a co-ordinated and proactive response, with widespread use of digital working and an embracing of video conferencing for hearings. So, for example, many planning authorities in GB were working digitally even before Covid struck, and the English Planning Inspectorate is being very proactive in its response. The Inspectorate is holding its first fully digital hearing on May 11, with additional cases to be heard by digital hearings/inquiries in May/early June with a view to scaling up digital events further over June/July.

In terms of cases postponed because of the pandemic, the Inspectorate is assessing them to establish whether they can proceed by digital, traditional or a ‘hybrid’ approach, in order that they can be re-arranged, and a trial of virtual site visits is underway involving thirteen Inspectors.

What NI needs is a technologically-savvy, regional, co-ordinated, proactive, collaborative response, where stakeholders are brought into the fold, and public and private sectors join forces, to secure efficient decision-making. And we need it now, in case stasis sets in, as the summer approaches, and to allow us to play ‘catch-up’, and compete, with GB.

To that end, the Northern Ireland Planning Bar Association (NIPBA) has been engaging with key players in the planning system to advocate the early use of technology to enable council planning committee meetings and Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) hearings to proceed using video technology, if a solution based on social distancing is not feasible. That technology proved its worth to the private sector even before this crisis, and we are confident that its time has come at this critical moment in our planning system. If it is felt not to be suited to the job, then we need to know why, and what the alternative is.

In that context, NIPBA has welcomed the fact that the PAC is taking positive steps to explore with their colleagues in the Department of Justice the use of technology to enable hearings to proceed.

It has urged the PAC to expedite that process, and to do so in a way that engages all stakeholders in formulating the way forward. To that end, NIPBA remains willing to do its part to assist, now, and is happy to co-ordinate input from other key stakeholders, with a view to advancing a working proposal to allow hearings to proceed by video conferencing, in the near future.

All of us in Northern Ireland need a development industry to come back to, on a brighter shore. Stasis is not an option.

William Orbinson QC LARTPI is a specialist planning barrister, and chairman of the Northern Ireland Planning Bar Association (NIPBA)

Ulster Business