The future for Northern Ireland's countryside is still mired in planning stages
A surprisingly high level of approvals on a backlog of planning applications to build homes in the countryside has come as a shock to those fearful of a return to a building free-for-all, but our Environment Correspondent Linda Stewart asks whether the figures are misleading
They say it never rains but it pours — and there are fears that that is precisely what is now going on in the countryside.
With more than 2,000 planning applications for rural dwellings shelved since the controversial Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS14) was brought in, the latest developments would suggest that the floodgates are now re-opening.
There was quite a stir last week over figures that suggested 98% of planning applications that came under PPS21 (PPS14’s replacement) had been approved, sparking fears that the old rural free-for-all was back and new bungalows would once again be mushrooming across Northern Ireland’s green hills.
The figures emerged after SDLP environment spokesman Patsy McGlone wrote to the Environment Minister seeking information on the number of applications determined under PPS21.
Of 1,178 applications for single or replacement dwellings in the countryside between November 25 and the end of March this year, only 25 were refused. All the applications had been deferred after the Department for Regional Development introduced draft PPS14 in March 2006, effectively banning the development of single dwellings in the countryside.
The draconian PPS14 was welcomed by many in the environmental lobby keen to see an end to the proliferation of houses dotted across the landscape, but sparked outrage among rural dwellers who felt it had a stifling effect on communities and families, preventing people from settling near the homes where they had grown up.
It wasn’t long before rural dwellers were banding together to challenge the hated policy, launching a High Court challenge which led to PPS14 being declared unlawful by the courts.
The policy was republished as PPS21 by then Environment Minister Arlene Foster who instructed officials to undertake a review. Any applications for development in the countryside brought in after March 16 2006 were assessed under PPS21.
The policy allowed for the reinstatement of dispersed rural communities, more opportunity to build replacement dwellings and a new policy allowing non-residential buildings to be replaced as dwellings.
Social and affordable housing groups of up to 14 homes are now allowed, and a hardship policy reintroduced. The maligned farm viability test was thrown out so that it was no longer necessary to have a large farm in order to qualify for a house.
So far the changes have gone down quite well although there may yet be a little tinkering following the end of the consultation in March. The Planning Service has been able to get cracking on more than 2,000 applications which would have been refused under PPS14 and have been held over to be assessed under PPS21.
Some were expected to get the green light, yet the proportion of approvals revealed in this week’s figures has come as a shock to those concerned with Northern Ireland’s landscape.
However, Mr McGlone has stressed that the figures need to “come with a health warning” as the first of the backlog to be assessed were the applications deemed most likely to win approval — skewing the latest figures.
And he insists the new policy is still treating rural dwellers unfairly, saying that Northern Ireland has a tradition of thriving scattered communities which should be protected.
“I want to see people being able to live in the area where they grew up and this is some evidence of this starting to happen.
“Instead of seeking to dismantle our rural communities we should be looking at ways of making them work better and reducing negative environmental impact by better technology and site planning and tighter control of speculative building which has no relation to the local community,” he said.
But many will be fearful that the figures could represent the most extreme edge of a policy that is allowing the pendulum to swing too far back the other way. Environmentalists will be keeping a very close watching brief on how the next tranche of decisions on this planning backlog unfolds, fearful that we could be reverting to the days of a house on every hillside and a countryside peppered with septic tanks and commuters.