The Impact of COVID-19 on the Planning System in Northern Ireland

03 April 2020

Author: Faye Phillips
Practice Area: COVID-19 , Planning Law

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Like many other aspects of life in Northern Ireland at the present time, there is uncertainty surrounding the implications of COVID-19 on the Northern Ireland planning system. The pandemic has already had significant effects on the ability of local Councils to validate, progress and determine planning applications, as well as impacting the progression of appeals and inquiries through the Planning Appeals Commission.

The Chief Planner of the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) has recently published advice on the current situation. This article seeks to address some key questions clients may currently have in respect of their planning applications and/or permissions and how these have been addressed by the Chief Planner’s Update.

1. Is my planning application being progressed?

A number of local Councils have issued statements confirming that they will be continuing to progress applications. The Chief Planner’s advice highlights that councils should “maintain decision making” and advises councils to “take an innovative approach, using all options available, to continue the planning service”. Carson McDowell’s Planning and Environmental Law Team has been continuing to liaise with case officers in both local Councils and the DFI and have been assured that applications continue to be progressed.

The DfI has also confirmed that it will continue to process regionally significant and called-in planning applications, however, this will likely be at a slower pace than usual.

2. Can I lodge a planning application?

This depends on the Council area. Planning applications cannot currently be submitted online in Northern Ireland and some Councils have indicated that they will not accept new applications (e.g. Ards and North Down Borough Council, Belfast City Council, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council), however, others have confirmed they will receive applications as normal or via post (e.g. Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, Mid Ulster District Council, Derry City and Strabane District Council and Fermanagh & Omagh District Council).

3. How can I comply with the legislative requirements for community consultation?

One of the key legislative requirements for pre-application community consultation for major and regionally significant applications is that a public event must be held in the locality in which the proposed development is situated. The Chief Planner has recognised the inevitable difficulty now faced by developers and proposes to amend the legislation to temporarily remove the requirement for a public event. However, Councils have also been advised to “exercise their existing powers to specify additional steps for developers to consult the public as part of PACC” and the Chief Planner has suggested that methods such as advertising online and requesting written feedback should be employed. How this pans out in practice in a context where some newspapers have stopped circulation in Council areas remains to be seen and it may be that the consultation process will have to be suspended in these unprecedented times to allow major applications to progress to validation stage.

4. My planning permission is due to expire soon – what action should I take to save it?

A planning permission must be lawfully implemented in order for it to remain live – this is usually within five years from the date of the grant of permission. The current situation obviously causes very substantial potential difficulties for developers who are unlikely to be able to have construction workers on site to enact works to save a permission during the pandemic. The DfI has asked that local authorities use their “best efforts” to process applications for the renewal of planning permission and is continuing to look at other options to address this issue. Carson McDowell’s Planning and Environmental Law Team will be addressing this particular issue in a separate article in the coming days.

5. I have lodged an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission – is it being progressed?

No – the Planning Appeals Commission closed its office on 24th March 2020 and has suspended all arrangements for both the submission of evidence and hearings.

6. Do the normal time limits for lodging an appeal still apply during the pandemic?

Yes – applicants, agents and developers should be mindful that the legislative requirements set out in section 58 of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 which require an appeal to be lodged within four months of a decision remain unaltered.

Other points of note from the Chief Planner’s Update:

  • Councils are encouraged to progress work on Local Development Plans but the DFI realises that adjustments to timetables may need to be made;
  • Councils should consider amending their Schemes of Delegation to ensure they are fit for purpose in order to maintain service delivery. This potentially could be a vehicle to enable decisions to continue to be made at Planning Committee level;
  • Councils should use their discretion in relation to enforcement action which “could hinder the effective response to COVID-19”; and
  • Statutory requirements relating to neighbour notification and advertising remain in force.

If you have any queries regarding the planning process, whether COVID-19 related or not, the Planning Team will be happy to help. Further updates on this topic will follow in due course as the response of local Councils to the processing and determination of applications during the pandemic emerges.

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