Renewed planning approach can unlock economic potential

Irish Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy outlined his government’s intentions to create a fast-track planning mechanism for projects the Republic is likely to require after the UK leaves the EU

‘KEEP the cranes up' was one of the most memorable quotes from former US President Bill Clinton when he visited Belfast in 2018. and perhaps by applying a renewed approach to our planning mechanisms, we can do just that.

The next 12 months will be critical in securing long-term economic prosperity for the island of Ireland. Forging new business relationships, protecting sectoral interests and adapting to change will be vital as we move into uncharted economic territories.

Political uncertainty has had a significant knock-on effect for various strands of public policy, with our health service, education system and planning sector all bearing the brunt of inactivity and upheaval caused by the suspension of our Executive and the continuing Brexit saga.

As the months roll by, we stand to lose out on the impact of, or even jeopardise the fulfilment of key infrastructural projects which will deliver jobs, connectivity and economic growth for our region.

However, these challenges are not unique to Northern Ireland, with a similarly growing realisation that swift actions are required in the Republic to curb disruption and enable its economy to thrive in the face of adversity.

At the recent Construction Industry Federation's annual conference, Ireland's Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy outlined his government's intentions to create a fast-track planning mechanism for projects the Republic is likely to require after the UK leaves the EU.

Minister Murphy stated that through the development of new legislation, the government could identify and bring to fruition projects required to ensure continued economic robustness, demonstrating a pragmatic approach based on well-founded concerns towards infrastructural challenges over the next two to three years.

This mooted fast-track approach would involve seeking permission directly from An Bord Pleanála (Ireland's national planning and appeals body) rather than local councils, creating parallels and inspiration for Northern Ireland and our immediate needs, regardless of Brexit.

It is now more than 1000 days since the Executive was in operation. This vacuum has impacted various regionally significant projects, including the North-South Interconnector, and the A5 transport corridor and whilst legislation enacting an extension of civil service powers was granted in November 2018, major planning applications are still taking almost twice as long as our statutory target. It is notable that An Bord Pleanála only met its 18-week statutory deadline 43 per cent of the time in 2018, demonstrating a need for change across the entire island of Ireland, at this critical moment.

On reflection of what is being introduced in the Republic, coming from a position of working extensively in both jurisdictions, perhaps it's time to consider a fast-track approach to the north's planning processes in order to ensure the that development of projects which are central to our economic aims remain on course while much of our political discourse is disrupted externally.

With the total volume of construction output in the second quarter of 2019 decreasing by 5.6 per cent compared with the first quarter, making it 1.5 per cent lower compared with the same quarter in 2018, we can ill afford further contractions in this sector. It is critical for the voice of business to be heard by decision makers who must support a revitalised developmental approach, and whilst there are signs of increased collaboration within City Deal projects, our cumbersome planning processes should not act as an impediment to the ‘inclusive growth' vision which is at the core of these deals.

Following last week's announcement that the Department of Finance was given £31.4m during the summer to prepare for a no deal Brexit, it is imperative that these types of financial injections are utilised strategically, to address shortcomings in our infrastructural and industrial networks and fill the void created by current and impending economic challenges.

As part of this package, £8m has been set aside for capital spending on roads and ports, £6m to Daera, and £3m earmarked for capital spending on ‘vehicle parks.'

This investment of capital is positive, and it is vitally important that this funding (and additional funding streams) can be accessed to unlock economic potential through the development of resources which can help to enhance our business operations and ensure we remain competitive when creating jobs, attracting foreign direct investment and securing a positive place to live and work for future generations.

Looking at the wider macro-economic picture, our infrastructure plans should not be shelved for further extended periods. Our all island economy relies on modern energy, electrical and communication infrastructure, and having grown at an average rate of 4 per cent a year over the past 20 years (currently standing at around £7bn), the connectivity of our cross-border trade is more important now than ever before.

The business community in the north has called on the UK government to be decisive in these challenging times, and whilst improvements in our internal infrastructure brought about by a streamlined planning process would not be a panacea, it may help to deliver key projects and help businesses to navigate through the period ahead.

With the average processing time for major applications during the first three months of 2019/20 representing an improvement from the first quarter of 2018/19, there is cause for optimism. However, we mustn't lose sight that this still amounts to a much higher processing time than our statutory targets and Programme for Government commitments including the Casement Park project which will make important sporting, cultural and considerable economic contributions when complete, yet is 32 months within a glacial planning process.

Political factors undoubtedly play a role in the expedience of our ability to make these decisions, But even a cursory glance shows how our arduous planning appeal mechanism further stifles progress in this area, and despite having the longest UK statutory deadline, local development applications can still expect the longest wait when compared to England, Scotland and Wales.

Having this month returned from a business event in Portugal and hearing from some of Europe's most influential agri-food suppliers, the consensus centred on the need to create surety for our business community.

Our highly skilled workforce, thriving tourist industry and world class educational facilities make us a highly attractive proposition for FDI, global events and entrepreneurial start-ups.

Through building on this foundation, we can continue to punch above our weight in a plethora of sectors globally.

Bill Clinton famously said that “the price of doing the same thing is far higher than the price of change,” and with this sentiment in mind, a renewed approach to planning can be the catalyst to deliver the change we need.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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