Planning - a balancing act

Planning balancing act image

Press release: 21 February 2013

Article written for Business First by Michael Gordon, Office Director, Belfast

Careful balance is required - not just in crossing Niagara falls

Wanted: Chartered Town Planners with a heightened sense of balance. Planning is all about balance right now. Striking the right balance features in almost every one of Minister Attwood’s press releases and is writ large in the rationale behind every major planning decision – from John Lewis to Runkerry Dunes to Rose Energy. Experienced planning commentators will say balancing competing considerations has always been a core activity in planning but for the first time, in the recently published Planning Bill, now at Committee stage, our planning law formally captures the need to balance economic considerations, sustainable development and well being in reaching planning judgements.

It isn’t always an easy task. With the tomes of planning policy available it is usually possible to find something to justify a decision either way - indeed this is a driver in the Department’s quest to capture planning policy in a single shorter policy ‘bible’. There will be loud voices and big stakeholders with contrary views and the planning challenge is to safely navigate a way through. But the most important thing is to be decisive. The Minister and his senior officials are working hard to change the culture away from tick box planning. Balanced and decisive decision making is at the core of the planning profession.

No one could accuse Minister Attwood of procrastination. He has set about his task of making major planning decisions with pace and energy. Most people driving projects through the system welcome this. Chairman Gary Connolly introduced the Minister at the Northern Ireland Renewable Industry (NIRIG) Conference by welcoming this approach. The Minister responded raising the bar for his officials once more by speaking of new targets for clearing the backlog of windfarm applications. His theme of the Department as a leading environment Ministry and a leading economic Ministry chimed with the thoughts of the new Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency Terry A’Herne who set out a vision for a decisive new Agency which will focus on the relationship between the environment and the economy.

The Minister reminded delegates that it is only 800 days until the majority of planning functions are handed over to newly empowered local councils. Planning Director Mary MacIntyre made it clear that this is their normal and proper home. Engagement with local communities ahead of submitting major planning applications will be a big part of the new normal for those keen to progress projects through the planning system. Recent trials with the stadia projects at Windsor and Casement have demonstrated the value of this by virtually eliminating objection, leaving planning officers free to focus on the planning decision.

So it is all change for planning. Or is it? Hasn’t it always been about weighing up competing considerations to come up with a robust decision as quickly as possible? Hasn’t it always been about engaging with local communities and stakeholders to avoid misinformation and develop projects which will land well? The step change in the planning system has been likened to a big bang but it is not just back to basics?