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Northern Ireland: planning in a political void

14 February 2018 Author: Claire Williamson

Northern Ireland has been without devolved government for more than a year, with no real progress towards a power-sharing agreement. It seems an appropriate time to reflect on how the planning system has been affected by not having an accountable devolved Government or a Minister in post, and how urgent it is to get things back on track. 

Some politicians here would argue that the impact on planning could be much worse and that we are lucky that planning powers went back to the newly formed councils in April 2015.  

Consequences only beginning to become apparent

But the consequences of the impasse are only beginning to become more apparent.  Words frequently used include unsustainable, frustration, divided, unwilling, failure, reckless, small-minded, farce and sickening uncertainty.  That’s just the start and only scratch the surface of the funding crisis around health, education, policing, infrastructure, arts and troubles legacy issues. 

The current situation is breeding uncertainty within the industry and across all sectors.  Investors do not like uncertainty – why would you invest in a region that lacks direction or political commitment?

Impact on capapcity in local authorities

Local councils are starting to feel the knock-on effect as a result of budget implications from not having a Minister to administer or approve financial decisions.  Already we are seeing that local councils are unable to recruit permanent planning staff, many relying on temporary contacts. This has implications on the level of knowledge and experience available in delivering necessary planning roles, which is in turn bearing negatively on the private as well as the public sector. This also has implications for developing our profession.

Regeneration powers continue to be a government function and have not yet been transferred to local councils despite being a commitment of the Review of Public Administration.  Councils are ready to take on these powers to kickstart new initiatives in towns and cities, but are hamstrung now because of the lack of ministerial leadership.  

Decisions being made in a void

We are seeing colleagues in the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) making decisions in the absence of a Minister, but can this continue for too much longer?   DfI planners continue to progress planning applications and Local Development Plan requests as far as they can, but there are serious ramifications to this.  

The lack of ministerial oversight in aligning daily departmental operations against Programme for Government outcomes may negatively impact progress of advancing social, economic and environment wellbeing in Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, the absence of ministerial oversight and leadership is likely to have implications on the ability to agree, or revise, a shared set of social, economic, environmental and infrastructure priorities and policies, and arguably may contribute to Northern Ireland’s deficit.

How about the budget implications for new schemes and projects across Northern Ireland that require Ministerial approval, such as affordable housing and infrastructure?

Brexit

And of course Brexit continues to skulk in the corner.  In the North West we have a major city straddling the border with the Republic of Ireland, but so far we have heard little about the implications Brexit will have on Northern Ireland for cross-border working and cross-border planning?  Having no Minister, not just in relation to planning but for education and health, leaves a political vacuum on negotiating the best administrative and spatial outcomes for Northern Ireland. 

In a recent article in Agenda NI, Northern Ireland’s leading business and public policy magazine,  Dr Gavan Rafferty stated:

“While Brexit represents uncertainty, we must take comfort in the fact that local authorities here have a broader remit now to co-design and co-deliver public services, through community planning powers, and to manage developments and land use change in places, through spatial planning functions.”

Thus, local councils – including planning staff and CEOs – need to provide inclusive leadership that responds to the current macro political stalemate. Let’s hope they have the necessary resources in place to do this

Impact on infrastructure

And finally, without an Assembly who will make the decision to spend the £400 million secured through the deal with the Tories? This is earmarked for major infrastructure projects - infrastructure that is required to facilitate the economic growth of Northern Ireland and which will impact on the much needed physical development of many areas.

So, not having a Minister or Assembly in place is without doubt failing the planning process in Northern Ireland.  Like so many other sectors there is a feeling of disbelief and lack of optimism.  Can the new Secretary of State Karen Bradley break the stalemate and rebuild the trust so that Northern Ireland can reignite our ability to prosper and grow to potential?  Only time will tell.

The author would like to thank Dr Gavan Rafferty and Emma Walker for their contributions to this blog.

 

Claire Williamson

Claire Williamson

Claire Williamson MRTPI is Northern Ireland Policy Officer at the RTPI.