Planning policy changes aim to lift shutters on ailing high streets
A last ditch attempt to save Northern Ireland's struggling town centres has been launched.
Towns throughout the province have some of the highest rates of dereliction in the UK – with one in five shops vacant in many areas.
But Environment Minister Mark H Durkan wants to transform central areas and give local councils priority when deciding where to site future shops.
The policy forms part of a major new initiative to boil down 21 separate planning policies into one streamlined document which will be simpler for the new super-councils to use.
Mr Durkan launched a 12-week public consultation on his Single Planning Policy Statement (SPPS), which will be the new rule book on building in the countryside, tourism, transport, telecommunications and housing.
Once the new merged local councils are up and running, they will make decisions on smaller planning applications, and only major projects will be processed by DOE planners.
The department's latest figures show that on average 14.5% of town centre shops are lying vacant. The town with the most vacant units is Carrickfergus (21%), followed by Ballymena (20%) and Portadown (20%).
Local councils will be expected to draw up 'town centre first' plans, identifying high street sites for potential retail development. This won't mean the end of big out-of-town retail developments, which will still be permissable, particularly for the sale of bulky goods, but it will become more difficult for planning applications to get approval if they do not fall in line with the new rules.
The policy will prioritise town centre locations for new retail developments, followed by town edge locations if these are not available and then out-of-town locations if nothing else suitable can be found. Applicants will have to show that their plans won't have a detrimental impact on town centres.
The policy document also puts in black and white for the first time a presumed opposition to the controversial extraction of shale gas – fracking – unless the Department is satisfied that there is sufficient and robust evidence on possible environmental impact.
"SPPS sets out a new planning policy framework that delivers for business, with timely decisions that encourage investment and facilitate employment whilst protecting our environment, planet and people. It provides clarity and certainty for all users of the reformed planning system.
"I pledged last month to speed up planning. SPPS is a key building block in achieving that pledge," Mr Durkan said. "I encourage everyone with an interest to contribute their views to this important consultation."
The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has welcomed the more streamlined policy, but the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations has warned that it does not provide strong enough support for building new homes, particularly the new social and affordable homes required by those in greatest need.
The Green Party welcomed the presumption against fracking but warned that there is still a strong political lobby to push the exploitation of shale gas through
Northern Ireland leader Steven Agnew said: "We need to ensure that all planning decisions going forward are made for the common good and not just in the interests of developers or big business."
Michael Gordon, office director with planning experts Turley Associates said: "Anyone with a strong economic or environmental interest will be disappointed to see that there are few obvious clues on how the balance might be struck on some of the big decisions. It looks like there will continue to be room for manoeuvre in most cases," he said.
The SPPS is expected to be published in final form by end of 2014 ahead of the transfer of planning powers to councils in April 2015.
What's it all about? ... the key questions
What is the new planning policy?
The draft Strategic Planning Policy Statement for Northern Ireland carries a central message that the environment and the economy should not be at loggerheads. The early sections are essentially a guide to how the new planning system will operate when it is implemented from April 1, 2015. The aim is to simplify our confusing planning system.
Who will make the decisions on planning?
The vast majority of planning decisions will be made by new local planning authorities, with only regionally significant projects being automatically processed by what will remain of the DoE Planning Service. Major applications will start with the new councils but DoE Planning can be called in.
What are the biggest changes?
The big headline is a new 'town centres first' retail policy. After previous judicial reviews and lengthy controversies over major, much-publicised planning decisions, the policy of the draftsman is obviously 'less is more'. A new set of criteria or tests for out-of-town proposals will be implemented.
What else is likely to change?
Fracking is a 'no', or at least a 'not yet', and the concept of shared spaces finds a place in the policy. Good design across the board, and not just in residential development, is brought front and centre and the concept of aiding development is retained. Noise and air quality also make a substantive appearance in NI policy for the first time on foot of the well-being agenda.
How can the public have an input?
The consultation period ends on April 29. The public are invited to use the online consultation system at https://planningni-consult.objective.co.uk/portal/doe/policy/spss/draftsppsforni?pointId=2806049#document-2806049.