Joint Ministerial Statement
8. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) formulated Shaping Our Future: the Regional Development Strategy for Northern Ireland 2025” (RDS) in September 2001. The Strategy had cross-party support within, and was agreed by, the then Northern Ireland Assembly. The Strategic Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 requires that all government departments have regard to the RDS in exercising any function in relation to development in Northern Ireland.
9. The RDS sets out a dynamic strategic spatial planning framework for Northern Ireland which will guide physical development within the region up to 2025. It seeks to promote a balanced distribution of development which will facilitate economic growth and competitiveness, distributing the benefits of economic opportunity throughout the Region. The principles of accommodating development in a sustainable manner are embedded in the guiding principles of the RDS which in turn shaped the Spatial Development Strategy and the Strategic Planning Guidelines.
10. The Spatial Development Strategy and related Strategic Planning Guidelines provide the planning context for:
- strengthening the competitiveness of the regional economy and tackling social and economic disadvantage;
- protecting and enhancing the physical, natural and man-made assets of the Region;
- housing, transport, air and water quality, energy and waste strategies, and infrastructure providers and public service providers; and
- development plans and guiding public and private investment decisions relating to land use.
11. The success of the RDS will be determined by the extent to which its policies and actions are fully implemented. While implementation involves a wide range of public and private organisations, development plans produced by the Department of the Environment have a key role to play in ensuring the success of the Spatial Development Strategy set out in the RDS. They are for example the key mechanism in distributing and managing future housing growth to achieve more sustainable patterns of development - in particular the accommodation of an increased share of future residential development within existing urban areas in order to reduce greenfield housing.
12. Many of the existing development plans however were prepared prior to the formulation of the RDS in a very different policy context. They may contain, for example, significant reserves of land for housing which if developed would compromise the principle of accommodating development in a sustainable manner which is embedded in the guiding principles of the Strategy.
13. In order to help implement the new policy directions set out in the RDS the Department of the Environment has an ambitious programme for the preparation of updated development plans across the region and is making considerable progress.
14. Development plans are required by the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 (as amended) to be in general conformity with the RDS. A certificate as to their general conformity is issued by the Department for Regional Development at both draft plan stage and at adoption.
15. Policy on the weight to be attached to an emerging development plan in making planning decisions is currently set out in Planning Policy Statement 1 – General Principles. It indicates that in reaching a decision on a particular planning application account will be taken of policies in emerging development plans that are going through the statutory procedures towards adoption. It further indicates that the weight to be attached to such policies depends on the stage of plan preparation or review, increasing as successive stages are reached. This policy however, which itself was published pre-RDS, has been the subject of varying interpretation, particularly at appeals, and has resulted in situations where more weight in the decision making process has been attached to the policies and proposals contained in the extant and pre-RDS development plan than to the provisions of the emerging plan which reflects the new policy context set out in the RDS
16. Such decisions, however, are not only compromising the ability of the Department of the Environment to promote sustainable forms of development, they also threaten the successful implementation of the RDS. In addition they raise significant questions as to the ability of the Department of the Environment to ensure that emerging development plans are and will remain in general conformity with the RDS.
17. Furthermore there are concerns relating to those areas where emerging plans are bringing forward proposals which seek to protect environmental assets. In such circumstances, decisions based on policies and proposals contained in extant development plans can prejudge the issue and prejudice the Department of the Environment’s ability to ensure the asset is not adversely impacted or destroyed. Similar problems arise in circumstances where an emerging plan seeks to apply a Green Belt or Countryside Policy Area designation to an area for the first time. In such cases decisions based on pre-RDS Development Plans are leading to increased development pressures and subsequent impact on the countryside.
18. The Department for Regional Development has undertaken a review of the Housing Growth Indicators contained within the RDS and recently published a public consultation document setting out revised Indicators. The Department of the Environment will give consideration to the revised Indicators during the preparation of development plans and, as necessary, in development control work.