Planning reform - no April Fool

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1 April 2015 will be a key day for planning in Northern Ireland with the vast majority of planning control powers 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 new Councils will be doing has become clear.

As well as the transfer of the planning functions from the Department of the Environment to the Council, there is also a major revamp of how applications will be dealt with. For major applications there will be a requirement for community consultation in advance of the application being submitted, and it has been finally clarified what constitutes a ‘major’ application.

For example, for housing schemes it is major if fifty units or more are proposed, or where the area is over two hectares in size. For windfarms, anything with a capacity of over five megawatts will also be deemed as major. For most other schemes a development will be major if its area is more than 5,000 sq.m. All minor and most major 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, and for energy schemes DoE will consider whether or not it is regionally significant if it is over 30 megawatts.

The Permitted Development Rights for agricultural buildings and operations remain broadly unchanged, although the ability to erect, extend or alter a building on agricultural land no longer applies if it will be the first building or structure to be erected on the agricultural unit. If this is the case it will be necessary to apply to the new Council for planning permission. 

Although the Super Council will be the decision maker for the vast majority of planning applications, very few of the 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 (whom 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 is definitely no April Fool.

Karen Blair is Managing Director of leading Belfast law firm Cleaver Fulton Rankin. She has been a Legal Associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute since 1999 and specialises in planning and environmental law, energy, licensing and public law. Her vast experience in these fields allows clients to obtain proactive, practical advice quickly and easily on even the most complex legal situations.