CBI report proposes fresh overhaul of Northern Ireland's planning system

Gary McDonald Business Editor

NORTHERN Ireland can literally "build" itself back to economic recovery after Covid - but only if there is a major streamlining of the region's antiquated planning system.

And a new report carried out for business body the CBI by Scotland's former chief planner Jim MacKinnon has set out a number of proposals to overhaul the current arrangements.

They include strengthening pre-application discussions, requiring a timetable for handling major applications (with fines for failure to adhere to the timetable) and transferring responsibility for managing the handling (including decisions) of regionally significant applications from the Department of Infrastructure to the Planning Appeals Commission.

Also among the recommendations is widening the definition of regionally significant applications to include major proposals for business and housing development.

“I have been aware there were long standing concerns about the quality and efficiency of the delivery of planning in Northern Ireland, and the anecdotes were borne out by the evidence,” Mr MacKinnon said

“Investment in new and improved infrastructure is widely regarded as vital, and this has gained even greater importance as part of the measures to stimulate economic and employment growth in Northern Ireland.”

Evidence shows that when 1 per cent of GDP is invested in infrastructure, economic output increases by approximately 0.4 per cent in the same year, followed by a 1.5 per cent increase four years later, and for every £1 spent on construction activity, nearly £3 is created in wider value to the economy.

The report says that Northern Ireland - which is currently the only administration in the UK and Ireland not to have a long-term infrastructure strategy or framework - needs an independent body that can develop an expert-led, 30-year infrastructure strategy and oversee the streamlining of planning processes to fast-track delivery.

CBI regional director Angela McGowan said: “There's growing recognition around the world that investment in strategic infrastructure can play a significant role in turbo-charging post-Covid recovery.

“Not only can it create jobs and lay the foundations for our net-zero future, but it can also help us bridge to the fairer, more regionally balanced and inclusive economy the people of Northern Ireland want.”

She added: “While the benefits of investment are clear, the ability to deliver remains a challenge, yet one of the biggest stumbling blocks remains Northern Ireland's complex and burdensome planning process.

“But with a statutory review of the Planning Act 2011 now under way and the Ministerial Panel on Infrastructure set to deliver its findings, we have a golden opportunity to level-up the planning process.

“As we head into a prolonged period of economic uncertainty, we must seize this opportunity to build back better from the Covid crisis - that means implementing necessary reforms immediately to unlock growth.

“Firm and committed leadership from policy-makers across our political spectrum will be needed to turn opportunity into sustained delivery.”

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