Northern Ireland – a bright future when quick-response planning reflects local needs

18 January 2024 By 0

‘Local Plans’ designed to improve economic and community life … while reducing climate change impacts … are transforming the UK planning system. Northern Ireland is both a regional leader and important new home for Enzygo’s expanding chain of offices providing expert environmental planning skills nationwide.

It is not by chance that Belfast is the location of choice for one of our new service hubs which together deliver local solutions for challenging planning, permitting and environmental problems by pooling the extensive experience of Enzygo’s multidisciplinary teams of specialists across the UK.

As I would like to show, Northern Ireland (NI) has one of the UK’s most impressive regional growth records in recent times – but also its fair share of environmental challenges.

However, following the precedent of the rest of the UK, the province is trying to get to grips with a fundamental change in the way the planning process works at a local authority level, and equally importantly the speed at which this deep-rooted transition is being rolled out.

Building success on success

One thing we want to bring to the table in NI is Enzygo’s growing record and reputation for gaining successful planning application consents with reasonable conditions attached (www.enzygo.com).

This goes back to the ability of our professional teams – many members of which have worked in local government, private industry, and/or both – to understand two key sets of issues.

The first is the statutory obligations local planning officers and elected members (councillors) must legally adhere to. The second, which follows on, is balancing these against our clients’ commercial and technical priorities. Fortunately, I can point to a number of successful recent examples.

Transferable expertise

Enzygo provided detailed planning support for the pioneering Velocys waste-to-jet-fuel energy project in Lincolnshire (‘Enzygo secures planning permission for the UK’s first waste-to-jet-fuel facility’ – https://www.enzygo.com/news/enzygo-secures-planning-permission-waste-to-jet-fuel/).

We also led successful discussions between residents, local planners, and the site developer which resulted in planning consent being granted for the Tar Farm solar farm proposal in West Oxfordshire (https://www.enzygo.com/news/capturing-oxfordshire-sunshine-with-extra-community-benefits/).

Similarly, our teams have been instrumental in major flood mitigation and alleviation schemes, net-zero projects, and affordable housing schemes (https://www.enzygo.com/news/planning-consent-simple-and-successful-with-well-presented-data/).

Enzygo is also actively involved in securing planning consents for new EV charging infrastructure across Great Britain. NI lags the rest of the UK here, with just 23 chargers and three rapid chargers available per 100,000 people (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-66912887).

With net-zero emission targets very much in mind, we understand what is needed and are ready to help support NI’s transition away from conventional fossil-fuel cars to electric vehicles.

Another service we provide regularly is that of expert witness when contentious issues go to public inquiry or court.

Belfast perspective on new planning changes

I thought it would be helpful to provide a profile as we see it of NI’s challenges and opportunities, plus an overview of the ‘local plans’ revolution, its progress, and why it is important.

In 2015, NI moved to the new plan-led system which is now at the stage where Local Development Plans (LDPs) are gradually taking shape.

Currently, however, only Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Belfast City Council out of NI’s 11 municipal areas have adopted their own development plan strategies. The remainder need to move forward at a faster rate, and this is a recurring theme across the whole UK.

What Local Plans do

LDPs sets out a local authority’s land use policies and proposals. They are prepared by one or more district planning authorities, and provide a 15-year development framework for the area concerned.

Their aim is to ensure growth happens in the right places, and takes into account local community needs. As such, they are prepared in consultation with the area in question’s community.

This raises some big questions. An important one is how decisions will be made, and the quality, reliability and availability of data? Another is how will local communities be engaged? There will also be implications under the new Climate Act – and worries too about skills and resource shortages.

More haste, more speed?

UK Government’s vision laid out in July 2023 as part of consultations for the Levelling up and Regeneration Bill is that Local Plans will be made more swiftly and updated more frequently to give authorities the up-to-date information they need, reflecting local priorities.

As already mentioned, the major challenges local authority and consultancy planning staff face include climate change, affordable housing, active travel, economic development, and infrastructure provision.

However, the perception is that while the need for changes is urgent, the actual pace of change is patchy at best, with substantial ups and downs.

Braving the waves to a better future

This point was made clearly by Deputy Secretary for Climate and Planning, Julie Thompson, at the recent NI Planning Conference (2023) when she commented that: “We may feel like we’re on a roller coaster. Sometimes you’re going to feel the highs, and sometimes you’re going to feel the lows” (https://www.rtpi.org.uk/events/2023/september/ni-planning-conference-2023-embracing-the-plan-led-system-in-northern-ireland/).

Her overall conclusion was that: “With every negative, there is a positive and we need to stand back and remember that.”

Chair Chris Bryson added: “… whilst there is uncertainty going forward, we’re all in the same boat, going in the same direction”.

Planners are, therefore, the people who must steer the boat through choppy waters to improve the environment in which we work, live, and play. Enzygo aims to make a positive contribution here.

An exciting place to be

NI is in a unique position due to the agreement between the UK and EU formally adopted in March 2023 under the Windsor Framework of having access to both UK and EU markets. This, according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, makes it the “most exciting world economic zone”.

We agree, and believe NI is now an exciting location of choice for many geographic, economic and environmental reasons to open Enzygo’s sixth office. The statistics support this.

Leading regional economy

Official figures suggest that NI’s economy may have grown significantly faster than the UK average in the first quarter of 2023. The NI Composite Economic Index (NICEI – https://www.nisra.gov.uk/statistics/economic-output-statistics/ni-composite-economic-index) expanded by 1.2% in the first three months, and is growing by 1.7% on an annual basis.

UK gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 0.1% during the first quarter, and 0.2% through the year – however the data used is not directly comparable. Most NICEI growth came from the services sector which dominates the NI economy; manufacturing and construction were mainly flat.

However, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra – https://www.nisra.gov.uk/) has noted signs of greater optimism in 2023, although economic conditions remain challenging.

Meanwhile, PWC reported in May that NI saw an estimated economic growth of 0.6% from December 2022 to February 2023 – the largest for the UK regions outside London (https://www.pwc.co.uk/press-room/press-releases/regions/northern-ireland/ni-leads-uk-regions-economic-growth-as-uk-set-to-avoid-recession.html).

NI’s GDP previously grew by 9% in 2021, compared to 2020 when the economy shrank by circa 11.2% (https://www.statista.com/statistics/384125/gdp-growth-northern-ireland/).

Environmental challenges

While the province clearly has substantial opportunities, it also has its fair share of environmental problems.

Lough Neagh some 30 km west of Belfast and larger than the island of Malta is the UK and Ireland’s biggest freshwater lake. Protected as an area of special scientific interest, this provides 40% of NI’s drinking water.

However, it is now blighted by a toxic blue-green algae. Many factors are blamed. They include rising water temperatures linked to global warming, but also historic sand dredging, agricultural runoff, sewage treatment, and septic tanks.

The lough’s temperature is 1C higher than in 1995, according to a ‘Climate Change Impact and Carbon Storage Study’ from the Lough Neagh Partnership (https://loughneaghpartnership.org/) which has a lease on land on the south-west shoreline that it wants to restore.

Core samples from around the whole lake to a depth of 9m show that the ground stores more than 14 million tonnes of carbon, rather than the 6.6 million first thought, according to report author Jim McAdam.

This is potentially good news. The significance, he adds, is that the ground’s all-important carbon storage capacity is higher than expected. Finding out why is the follow-up goal.

Nature at risk too

A recent National Trust report found in addition that 12% of NI’s wild species now face extinction (‘State of Nature’https://stateofnature.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/TP25999-State-of-Nature-main-report_2023_FULL-DOC-v12.pdf).

The degradation is said to be due to the extraction of natural resources, plus the dumping of chemical by-products from intensive agricultural, food, and manufacturing activities.

I mention this because two key Enzygo services are ecology (https://www.enzygo.com/ecology/) and landscape (https://www.enzygo.com/landscape/). These are closely interlinked and integral to many of our project solutions for a wide range of clients.

Offshore wind farm boost

Another report – ‘The Clean Revolution’ from RenewableNI (https://renewableni.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/The-Clean-Revolution-%E2%80%93-Building-Northern-Irelands-Offshore-Wind-Industry.pdf) – has looked at how 1.5GW of power from NI offshore wind projects installed by 2032 could power 1.6 million homes while also offsetting nearly 50 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. This is the equivalent of taking 1.2 million fossil fuel-powered cars off the road.

NI was excluded from previous offshore leasing rounds after an earlier report said “visual impact” would be a “significant issue”, but added that this could change if the technology changed – which it has.

Wind supply chain and leasing arrangements

In 2022 Cork-based floating offshore wind developer Simply Blue Group announced construction of the Nomadic Offshore Wind and Olympic Offshore Wind projects off the NI coast.

These will provide a basis for developing a local supply chain to service commercial-scale offshore opportunities. RenewableNI says investments and developments of this size will help NI to create an effective zero-carbon electricity system by the mid-century point.

In January 2023, Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy (DfE) and The Crown Estate also agreed a Statement of Intent to establish offshore wind leasing arrangements for the province.

Environment Strategy

It is important to emphasise that the Climate Change Act (NI) 2022 sets a greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions net-zero reduction target of at least 100% by 2050, with the potential to go further in removing GHGs from the atmosphere.

Against this backdrop, in 2022, Northern Ireland’s first overarching Environment Strategy was signed off (https://www.northernireland.gov.uk/news/poots-approves-finalised-environment-strategy).

This lays out the province’s environmental priorities for the decades ahead and is part of the Executive’s Green Growth agenda.

As such it brings together existing and new environmental targets and objectives for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), plus all NI Departments responsible for improving the environment.

However, with continuing political uncertainties about the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, the caveat is that the strategy will need to be formally approved by an incoming Executive before it can be published and implemented.

Nevertheless, the strategy is a comprehensive response to the challenges of habitat and species loss, agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, waste management, the circular economy, soil and air quality, and waste crime.

Contact

If you would like to discuss any the general points above, or specific Northern Ireland environmental or planning issues, please feel free to contact me directly.

James Whatton, Senior Planning Consultant, Enzygo Limited, Belfast.