11/05/2009

Planners To Weigh-Up Economic Factors

Greater weight will be given in the future to what is described as "the economic consideration of NI planning proposals".

NI Environment Minister Sammy Wilson (pictured) told the Assembly he had decided to clarify the situation to ensure planners could play a full and positive role in assisting economic recovery.

"I want to give decision-makers the confidence and support to make judgements which will give greater weight to economic considerations wherever it is appropriate to do so.

"I want to give clarity and leave nobody in any doubt about how to deal with economic considerations.

"Full account shall be taken of the economic aspects of a planning proposal, including the wider benefits to the regional or local economy, alongside social and environmental aspects," he said.

"Where the economic benefits of a proposal are significant then substantial weight should be afforded to them," he insisted.

The Minister said planners often faced competing interests when assessing development proposals and had to balance important social, economic and environmental considerations.

He told MLA's the weight given to these aspects was a matter of judgement for the decision maker and would vary with each planning application.

He said the statement aimed at providing "certainty and give guidance so that the planning system can play a positive role in encouraging investment and kickstarting regeneration".

The Minister said in order to do this, it was essential planners had all the relevant information about development proposals at their disposal.

Mr Wilson said the Planning Service had already introduced a number of measures to facilitate economic growth.
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The creation of two strategic project teams within Planning Service headquarters to handle large scale investment proposals is one of the existing developments.

The rollout of a streamlined consultation scheme to speed up the processing of non-contentious planning applications across all council areas is another.

He said this had resulted in approvals now taking 24 working days on average to issue.

In addition, the Minister said he was urging developers to engage with local communities before submitting an application: "Too often it is only after an application is submitted that people hear what is proposed.

"Often they object to issues that could have been resolved if the proposal had been discussed beforehand," he said.

The Minister added a number of planning policy statements would also facilitate economic development including the revised and updated policies for economic development in the countryside including farm diversification and the policy for tourism facilities and accommodation.

One long-running commercial planning issue that has proved contentious is the Inquiry ordered into the proposed John Lewis store at Sprucefield.

While the retailer has welcomed the Environment Minister's previous approval of a public inquiry into the chain's plans for a £150m Ulster site, plans for the development have actually been in hand for the last four years.

It has faced continued wrangling, both political and commercial ever since, and still remains unresolved.

See: Public Inquiry Into John Lewis Proposals

See: 'Scaled Down' John Lewis Sprucefield Plans To Be Sumitted

(BMcC/JM)

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