In 2003 the National Trust in Northern Ireland established a year-long high-level independent Commission of Inquiry into the operation of the planning system in Northern Ireland. Richard Bate of Green Balance was asked to provide the Secretariat, which included drafting the papers for the Commission’s meetings, suggesting questions for contributors to the oral hearings, and collating the draft final report for consideration.
Northern Ireland has the weakest of the planning systems in the four countries of the United Kingdom. The National Trust identified in 2003 that it was deficient in many key qualities, including sufficient staff to operate it effectively, public involvement, public trust, transparency in decisions, positive forward planning and enforcement of its rules. At the same time, growing development pressures were causing incremental losses to Northern Ireland’s environmental resources. What structures, processes and policies could the Commission devise to tackle these wide-ranging problems?
Richard Bate briefed the Commissioners on all relevant issues and presented options and suggestions to them – who included the former City Planner and Chief Executive of Belfast City Council. The aim was to propose solutions that were right for Northern Ireland, rather than simply import practices from elsewhere. Helping people to ‘own’ the planning system would depend both on generating outcomes in the best interest of the community as a whole and on establishing procedures that would be seen to be fair, applied and effective.
The Commission wanted the planning system in Northern Ireland to say more precisely what it means and mean what it says. Clear planning policy and the will to apply it would be critical, with planning powers to draw up plans and determine planning applications returned from regional government to local authorities. Developers and residents alike would become more engaged from a more positive experience, producing better results.
Environmentally the requirements were clear. Urban areas, towns and villages needed to raise their sights for higher standards of design. The built heritage with its selection of fine buildings and attractive traditional structures needed to be cherished. There should be a moratorium on single dwellings in the countryside (in 2003 comprising half of all houses built) and on apartment blocks (mostly in the coastal zone, such as at Cushendun) which are out of scale with their surroundings. Tighter control was needed over demolition, including through more Conservation Areas, and especially to rectify unauthorised development.
Richard Bate provided the detailed analysis and technical planning advice behind the Commission’s 29 recommendations.