Town centres to be given priority on planning decisions
A NEW blueprint to inform future planning decisions will put "town centres first".
The strategy was included in a new Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS), by environment minister Mark H Durkan.
The new statement reduced 20 separate statements to one - and also puts a ban on fracking into black and white for the first time.
Mr Durkan said the SPPS "advocates a 'town centres first' approach to the location of future retailing and town centre uses which will support and sustain vibrant town centres across the north."
The policy will give hope to campaigners against out-of-town retail centres.
There was controversy last year when Mr Durkan gave the go ahead for a massive retail and business park outside Newry city centre.
Following a judicial review, the scheme on Carbane Way by Warrenpoint-based Hills Partnership, was allowed to proceed despite concerns from the local chamber of commerce over loss of trade.
The new document will help inform the 11 new councils on planning over the next number of years.
"Publishing the SPPS unlocks development potential, supports job creation and will aid economic recovery but not at the expense of our planet, environment and people. It consolidates over 800 pages of existing policy in to a single document and brings clarity and certainty to important planning matters throughout the north," said Mr Durkan.
"The SPPS will enable councils to be flexible in bringing forward planning policy tailored to local circumstances through their new local development plans.
"The overall objective of the planning system is to further sustainable development and improve well-being for the people of the North. I believe that planning is fundamentally about creating and enhancing shared space, places where communities flourish and enjoy a sense of belonging, both now and into the future. I am confident that the SPPS and the return of planning functions to councils will help achieve that."
Glyn Roberts, head of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) said the new policy on retail was to be welcomed.
“Since our establishment as a business organisation 15 years ago, NIIRTA has been lobbying for the publication of a town centre first planning policy. We are delighted that at long last this policy is published and that it will be the guide for the 11 councils," he said.
“Out of town retail development has been a key contributing factor in the decline of our town centres, drawing away trade, resulting in thousands of independent retailers closing and a significant loss of net employment.
Roisin Willmott, the Royal Town Planning Institute's director for the north said it was "good news for our members and for Northern Ireland".
"The much anticipated SPPS will be a catalyst for positive change on the ground. It will greatly aid the preparation of councils' new local development plans, providing a clear, practical and integrated policy framework for good decisions in the long term public interest," she added.
The SPPS also reiterates the ban on fracking - the controversial method of extracting gas from rock - in Northern Ireland.
"Significantly for the first time, no to fracking is actually enshrined in policy unless there is sufficient and robust evidence of its safety on all environmental impacts. I believe this is a sensible and reasonable approach," added Mr Durkan.