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'Super Councils' To Make Planning Decisions

News that Northern Ireland's councils will soon be taking full responsibility for drawing up their own development plans and also making the vast majority of planning decisions has been revealed.

The move is part of an overall reform of local government, which - despite obvious delays in implementation - "is moving forward apace".

That's according to Edwin Poots, the Environment Minister, who said a proposed Bill will now return control of planning to councils and eventually mean councillors making most planning decisions.

He added that NI's existing Planning Service would be abolished and the staff absorbed into his own department.

The proposal is based on Stormont's stalled plans to reduce the number of councils from 26 to 11 so-called 'super councils'.

In essence, the six existing divisional planning offices would be reduced to five area offices, which the Minister said would be designed around the 11 "council clusters".

He said that the Bill will be put before the Assembly next week but has been already agreed by the Executive.

That was part of the DUP Minister's announcement to the Assembly which are the "most sweeping reforms of the Northern Ireland planning system for over 30 years" while he also outlined proposals to modernise and strengthen democracy.

The Minister said: "These programmes will now operate hand-in-hand towards the creation of 11 new councils.

"Although the delivery timetable for local government has not yet been finalised by the Executive, I and my Department have been working diligently preparing for the next step and this is why I am now reinvigorating the local government and planning reform programmes.

"I am announcing an integrated programme that will prepare the planning system and local councils culturally and organisationally for the transfer of powers.

"The Planning Bill has been agreed and will provide for the transfer of development plan and development management powers from my Department to councils within a timetable to be agreed by the Executive."

He also explained that, by April, the Planning Service functions and staff responsible for them will have been absorbed into the core of Department of Environment and will no longer operate as an agency.

"These functions will be taken forward by two divisions," his statement explained.

"Local Planning Operations Division will be responsible for the development plan and development management functions which will in time transfer to local government.

"The Strategic Planning Operations Division will take forward the responsibilities which will remain with the Department."

The Minister added: "This significant turn around in speed, predictability, and customer experience stands testament to the dedication and professionalism of all those who work in the Planning Service, and it is their continued commitment and professionalism that will be instrumental in taking forward the changes to come."

A pilot programme will then be put in place to test the working arrangements for the delivery of planning functions by the new councils. This will take place before they are rolled out across the new council areas.

The Minister also emphasised that many major planning decisions, like the contentious John Lewis development in Lisburn, will remain within Mr Poots' department.

Meanwhile, he has announced the launch of a consultation paper on proposals to strengthen local democracy.

The proposals put in place a system of checks and balances, which will ensure openness, transparency and equality in councils. It proposes to introduce an ethical standards regime, which all councillors will be required to respect.


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