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Northern Ireland needs affordable housing

A step-change is needed in housebuilding. And our planning system has a key role to play in ensuring high-quality homes are built in the right places.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has just launched the draft Strategic Planning Policy Framework (SPPS) to guide the new 'super councils' when they take over planning powers next year.

The minister and his officials deserve credit for distilling thousands of pages across 20 policy statements into a short, single document.

Unfortunately, however, the draft statement does not provide strong enough support for the building of new homes – especially social and affordable homes for those in greatest need.

Scotland and England have recently produced their own single planning statements, both of which enable the meeting of housing need.

They rightly require the need for all types of homes to be robustly assessed and for that objectively assessed need to be fully met over the plan period – typically 20 years.

Scottish and English councils must also show that they have set aside enough land in their plans to meet the identified requirements for homes and must ensure that land supply is readily available.

Our draft SPPS is weaker and less clear. For example, councils are expected to carry out housing needs assessments, but these only have to 'influence' how new local plans ensure the range of housing needs are catered for.

While the localisation of planning can succeed, stronger policy is vital, so that local communities' right to shape development in their area does not become a veto blocking the good growth our society and economy depend on.

Mark H Durkan is a strong advocate for social and affordable housing. The consultation still allows scope for the necessary strengthening of the SPPS.

We look forward to working with the minister and his officials to ensure that our new planning system supports the right of everyone to a decent, affordable home.

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