Policy Forum for Northern Ireland

Since lockdown, we have been organising our full programme of conferences online. We will continue online until further notice, to ensure we play our part in helping our employees and delegates to remain safe during this time. We are pleased that so many key stakeholders, policymakers and other interested parties - both old friends and new delegates - are taking up the opportunity to discuss public policy issues and network at our impartial seminars. New events are coming on to our conference programme all the time. So there are plenty of opportunities for you to join us if you haven’t already, from wherever you are. For booking-related queries, or information on speaking, please email us at info@forumsupport.co.uk or contact us using one of the following numbers: +44 (0)7538736244 / +44 (0)7503591880 / +44 (0)7951044809.
For delegates already booked on, we will send you the online joining instructions (including links, event numbers and passwords) five working days before your conference. If you cannot find these in your inbox please email delegate.relations@forumsupport.co.uk

Next steps for planning policy in Northern Ireland

Morning, Wednesday, 16th June 2021

***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***

This conference focuses on priorities and next steps for planning policy in Northern Ireland - as well as the effectiveness of the planning system’s operation, and the role of planning and infrastructure in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The discussion comes at an important time for policy in this area, with the Department for Infrastructure currently undertaking the first review of the 2011 Northern Ireland Planning Act, looking at:

  • the implementation of the Act so far
  • whether the current two tier system is effective
  • whether further improvements should be made, with the Department currently considering its response following a Call for Evidence

The conference also takes place following the launch of a review of Northern Ireland’s strategic planning policy on renewable and low carbon energy - aimed at facilitating development that is acceptable to local communities, and also allows Northern Ireland’s climate change targets to be achieved.

It is also expected to follow the publication of the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s review of the planning system’s effectiveness since the transfer of powers in April 2015.

Delegates will consider the findings of both reviews, and we are pleased to be able to include keynote sessions with: Alistair Beggs, Director of Strategic Planning, Department for Infrastructure; Kieran Donnelly, Comptroller and Auditor General, Northern Ireland Audit Office; and Steven Agnew, Head, RenewableNI.

Sessions in the agenda look at:

  • progress and next steps - examining the delivery of Local Development Plans by councils:
    • how they are carrying out their decision-making and enforcement powers
    • challenges faced, remaining issues, and how they can be resolved
    • options and opportunities going forward
  • support - assessing guidance and action that the Department for Infrastructure has provided to support the operation of the planning system
  • improving delivery - options for streamlining planning processes, and enabling the more effective delivery of strategic infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland in the longer term
  • economic potential - the role of the planning system in supporting economic recovery and development in the wake of COVID-19 and meeting Northern Ireland’s future energy needs

The discussion is bringing together stakeholders with key policy officials who are due to attend from the Department for Infrastructure; the Department for the Economy; the Department for Communities; CAFRE; DAERA; the Department of Rural and Community Development; the Northern Ireland Audit Office; and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

The agenda:

  • Assessing the current effectiveness of the planning system in Northern Ireland
  • The transfer of planning powers to local authorities and Local Development Plans - challenges faced by local authorities and next steps for improving the operation of the planning system
  • Planning policy and renewable energy - how the planning system can support meeting NI’s future energy needs and climate change targets
  • Charting the future role of the planning system - regeneration, economic recovery and development in the wake of COVID-19
  • The planning system in Northern Ireland - next steps

Key areas for discussion:
The transfer of planning powers to local authorities:

  • how effectively the planning system is operating:
    • recent stakeholder feedback - the potential impact of:
      • recent calls in submissions to the Review of the Planning Act for:
        • a complete, digitally focused overhaul of Northern Ireland’s planning system
        • a significant increase in resources
      • some local authorities’ concerns that the system is not fit for purpose, and that an independent review of the planning system is required
    • the experience of transfer of powers - lessons that can be learnt from the way local authorities have addressed the challenges they have faced since 2015
    • expertise within local authorities - how it can be improved, including how to provide increased training provision to better support councillors to make effective decisions
    • improving outcomes and service delivery - assessing what improvements could be made to:
      • the planning application process, including how to develop a streamlined, fully electronic application process
      • ensuring that stakeholder voices are considered fully when assessing planning applications, and implementing wider planning policies
      • wider engagement with communities and other stakeholders from local authorities and the Department of Infrastructure
    • Local Development Plans:
      • how effectively councils are delivering them so far
      • whether they present a sufficiently clear vision for how local authorities will shape development in each area
    • the future role of the Department for Infrastructure in the planning process:
      • which checks and balances should be retained by the DfI
      • latest thinking on how delays and bureaucracy could be overcome
  • economic development and regeneration - the role and impact of local planning powers:
    • tackling obstacles:
      • what can be done to tackle issues that some businesses and other stakeholders have faced in relation to planning powers, such as the consistency in planning processes for applicants across different councils
      • what has been learned so far that can be applied going forward
    • SMEs - whether more support is needed for small and medium sized business to navigate the planning process, and what form it should take

Planning policy and renewable energy:

  • competing priorities - how Northern Ireland’s energy needs can be balanced with the demands of local communities, and public opposition to certain major projects
  • the future of policy  - key issues following the recent launch of a review into planning and renewable energy projects

Addressing barriers to housing supply:

  • planning and finance - finding suitable sites, access to finance, expediting applications, and addressing concerns over a shortage of skilled staff in planning departments
  • skills development - looking at priorities for support and investment, and the future of initiatives such as housebuilding apprenticeships 
  • infrastructure - with discussion expected on roads and public transport links, broadband, and provision for water and wastewater 
  • provision in areas of great need - ensuring housing development in localities such as North and West Belfast and Derry/Londonderry

Major planning applications and the recovery from COVID-19:

  • the role infrastructure development in Northern Ireland can play in economic and societal recovery after COVID-19, and the way in which the planning system needs to change to facilitate this
    • overcoming barriers to infrastructure development - how the planning process can be streamlined for projects of regional significance, for example through introducing statutory timeframes for regionally significant and major applications
    • creating a long-term infrastructure strategy - what should the make-up of a future Northern Ireland Infrastructure Commission be, the creation of which was recently recommended by an independent panel, and identifying its key infrastructure investment priorities

A scan of relevant developments:

  • Review of the implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011 - currently being carried out by the Department for Infrastructure following a Call for Evidence, which is looking at:
    • implementation of the Act so far, and whether it is meeting its original objective of creating an effective two-tier planning system in Northern Ireland
    • further improvements that can be made to the system for all stakeholders, including councils, developers and the public - including issues around:
      • information that developers provide when submitting applications
      • response times, and the handling of major planning decisions
      • enforcement
  • Planning in Northern Ireland - the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s ongoing review of the effectiveness of the planning system since the transfer of powers, due to report shortly, focusing on:
    • how effectively local authorities are delivering Local Development Plans alongside their decision-making and enforcement responsibilities
    • key issues and constraints affecting local authorities’ performance
    • the effectiveness of guidance provided by the Department for Infrastructure
  • Seizing the opportunity to level-up the NI planning system - CBI Northern Ireland’s report on major planning processes, setting out a number of recommendations to streamline the planning process, and establish a new framework which allows the more effective delivery of major infrastructure projects in the long term, with recommendations including:
    • measures such as:
      • strengthening the pre-application discussion process
      • reducing the pre-application consultation process to eight weeks
      • the establishment of processing agreements, and the introduction of statutory timeframes
      • all regionally significant and called-in applications to be sent directly to the Planning Appeals Commission
    • the establishment of an independent body in Northern Ireland, such as an Infrastructure Commission for Northern Ireland, to develop a long-term infrastructure strategy for Northern Ireland, as well as oversee the streamlining of the planning process
  • Ministerial Advisory Panel on Infrastructure (MAPI) - Report - the publication of the panel’s final report, which recommends the establishment of an Infrastructure Commission as soon as is practical, which should set out an overall vision for infrastructure in Northern Ireland for the next 30 years, and report to the Executive Office
  • Review of Northern Ireland’s strategic planning policy on renewable and low carbon energy - announced recently by the Infrastructure Minister, with the aim of:
    • prioritising a green economic recovery as NI emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic
    • evaluating how the planning system can help NI reach and exceed its renewable energy targets

Policy officials attending:

Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders. Places have been reserved by parliamentarians from the House of Commons and officials from CAFRE; the Department for Communities; the Department for Infrastructure; the Department for the Economy; DAERA; the Department of Rural and Community Development; the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

This is a full-scale conference taking place online***

  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording and transcript to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • networking too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference

Keynote Speaker

Alistair Beggs

Director of Strategic Planning, Department for Infrastructure

Keynote Speakers

Steven Agnew

Head, RenewableNI

Kieran Donnelly

Comptroller and Auditor General, Northern Ireland Audit Office

Alistair Beggs

Director of Strategic Planning, Department for Infrastructure


Dolores Kelly MLA

Member, Committee for Infrastructure

Andrew Muir MLA

Member, Committee for Infrastructure


Cllr Alistair Cathcart

Planning Committee, Ards and North Down Borough Council

Professor Geraint Ellis

School of Natural and Built Environment, Queens University Belfast

Christopher McCracken

Managing Director, Linen Quarter BID

Maria O’Loan

Consultant, Environment and Planning Team, Tughans

Lynda Addison

Chair, Sustainable Transport Panel, Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation

Justin Cartwright

National Director, Northern Ireland, Chartered Institute of Housing

Paul Duffy

Head of Planning, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council

Glyn Roberts

Chief Executive, Retail NI

Dr Roisin Willmott

Director, Wales and Northern Ireland and Planning Aid England, Royal Town Planning Institute