No fracking becomes official NI planning policy

An anti-fracking protester chats with  Environment Minister Mark H Durkan at Stormont
An anti-fracking protester chats with Environment Minister Mark H Durkan at Stormont

A no fracking policy has been officially incorporated into planning guidelines in Northern Ireland.

Stormont minister Mark H Durkan said the policy could change in the future, but only if robust evidence emerged proving the controversial shale gas extraction method was safe and did not damage the environment.

An application by a fracking company to undertake exploratory drills for shale gas in Belcoo, Co Fermanagh, was prevented by decisions by two Stormont departments last year - decisions that are currently subject to legal challenge.

The approach to fracking is contained is a new blueprint for all planning permission decisions in the region. The document will provide guidance for Northern Ireland’s eleven councils, which now have responsibility for planning.

The Strategic Planning Policy Statement (SPPS) incorporates around 20 separate policy areas into one document for the first time. It covers key issues such as town centres and retail development, building in the countryside, creating and enhancing shared space between divided communities, tourism, telecommunications and housing.

The document sets down a “town centre first” approach when it comes to retail development.

Environment minister Mr Durkan, who presented the SPPS to the Assembly, said it would be the “the go-to guide” for everyone involved in the local planning system.

“Publishing the SPPS unlocks development potential, supports job creation and will aid economic recovery but not at the expense of our planet, environment and people,” he said.

“It consolidates over 800 pages of existing policy into a single document and brings clarity and certainty to important planning matters throughout the North.

“Significantly for the first time, no to fracking is actually enshrined in policy unless there is sufficient and robust evidence of its safety on all environmental impacts. I believe this is a sensible and reasonable approach.

“The SPPS introduces a revised strategic direction for Town Centre and Retailing Policy. It advocates a ‘town centres first’ approach to the location of future retailing and town centre uses which will support and sustain vibrant town centres across the North.

“The SPPS will enable councils to be flexible in bringing forward planning policy tailored to local circumstances through their new Local Development Plans.

“The overall objective of the planning system is to further sustainable development and improve well-being for the people of the North. I believe that planning is fundamentally about creating and enhancing shared space, places where communities flourish and enjoy a sense of belonging, both now and into the future. I am confident that the SPPS and the return of planning functions to councils will help achieve that.”

Roisin Willmott, the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Director for Northern Ireland, said: “This is good news for our members and for Northern Ireland. The much anticipated SPPS will be a catalyst for positive change on the ground. It will greatly aid the preparation of Councils’ new local development plans, providing a clear, practical and integrated policy framework for good decisions in the long term public interest.”

The Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) welcomed the “town centre first” policy statement.

NIIRTA Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said: “Since our establishment as a business organisation fifteen years ago, NIIRTA has been lobbying for the publication of a Town Centre First planning policy.

“We are delighted that at long last this policy is published and that it will be the guide for the Eleven Councils.”

“Out of town retail development has been a key contributing factor in the decline of our town centres, drawing away trade, resulting in thousands of independent retailers closing and a significant loss of net employment.”