Planning Reform: No April Fool

April 1, 2015

1st April 2015 is a key day for planning in Northern Ireland with the vast majority of planning control moving to the new Super Councils. The legislation was first made in 2011 but it has only been in the last few weeks that the real detail of what the Councils will be doing has become clear. Regulations have now been made setting out when the thresholds for major schemes (i.e. those where a new specific pre-application process will be required, including community engagement) and also the thresholds at which DoE can opt to retain decision making powers, i.e. the schemes that are potentially regionally significant.

All minor and most major planning applications will be the responsibility of the Council, but DoE has retained the ability to be the decision-maker where an application is regionally significant. Interestingly, no housing or retail scheme is considered to be potentially regionally significant, therefore DoE’s specific powers to retain responsibility for those applications does not apply. It is important to remember though that DoE has retained a very wide power to call in any application it chooses, so this does not mean that the Councils will have a free rein on housing and retail schemes.

The recent Regulations have also clarified transitional measures and the main new processes for major applications, i.e., the need to serve a notice of intention that you are making the application three months before you do so and the need to submit a Community consultation report, will not apply to applications submitted before 1 July 2015.

Although the Super Council will be the decision maker for the vast majority of planning applications, a small minority of applications will actually end up being debated by the Council. Each Council has the power to set up a Scheme of Delegation, which delegates the authority to the planning officers (who they now employ rather than DoE) in respect of the more routine cases.

Even with that, this is the most fundamental change in how planning decisions will be made in Northern Ireland in a generation. Councillors will be the decision makers for the majority of applications and how they perform in this role will be closely watched. Where they refuse an application, which is subsequently granted on appeal by the Planning Appeals Commission, they will be at risk of having to pay the successful applicant’s costs, and where they grant planning permission they will be at risk of Judicial Review by disgruntled neighbours.

This article by Karen Blair, Director and Head of the Planning and Environmental Team first appeared in Farming Week on Saturday 21st March 2015