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Economic Outlook – Planning in 2017 by Richard Bowman

Economic Outlook – Planning in 2017 by Richard Bowman

Council’s planning powers were in their infancy in late 2015, and a year later, not an awful lot has changed in terms of efficiency of decision making. Confidence in development has returned and it is reflected in the variety of projects we are managing.

One interesting development during 2016 has been the increase in the number of officer recommendations on planning applications being overturned by Committee, such as the approval of permanent homes within the tourist project outside Hillsborough and the decision by Derry City Council to permit a social housing scheme outside City limits. As Councillors gain confidence in the planning process, this is something that we are going to see a lot more of in 2017 and it really brings to the fore the absolute necessity to include political lobbying in your planning strategy for a project of significance.

Many Councils have made significant headway on their Local Development Plans. Strategic Planning is currently advising a number of landowners/ developers across Northern Ireland and we would strongly advise more interested parties to get involved in this process in the coming year.

The outcome of the DUP challenge against the BMAP adoption finally arrived on 18th November. As predicted the judgment resulted in the saving of BMAP and the quashing of the part of the plan relating to bulky goods at Sprucefield. The debate will continue however as Belfast City Council are set to appeal this judgment, so this is likely to rumble on through 2017.

The ARC 21 energy from waste proposal at Hightown had been refused in 2015. The public inquiry was held in October 2016 and the recommendation from the PAC is expected early in 2017.

7500 student beds have been proposed over the past 2 years for Belfast, around 4000 of which have been approved. Demand is still high and we are continuing to get queries from investors about developing more beds despite the perception that there is now a glut in the city. 2017 is likely to see more proposals for student accommodation in central Belfast as the city still lags well behind other major UK cities in terms of provision per capita.

Demand for Grade A office developments continues to outstrip supply. Although the pipeline of projects looks good with McAleer and Rushe delivering 127,000 sqft on Adelaide St for Belfast City Council and a further 570,000sqft being approved over the past year between the Kilmona Developments projects at East Bridge St, Londonderry House and Centre House and the McAleer and Rushe Bedford Square project. Meanwhile, Stargime’s scheme at Queens Square will hopefully progress through planning in early 2017 for around 65,000sqft and their 80,000sqft proposal for Graham House will be submitted for planning in January. We are also managing a 60,000sqft application for Inislyn in the Gasworks.

All this city centre commercial investment must lead to more people living in the city centre, a sector which is still seriously under-represented in the central Belfast and one which the Council is keen to support. Elsewhere, the residential market appears steady and we are progressing a healthy number of residential proposals for realistic and deliverable projects.

It is now looking more likely that each Council will formulate its own policy on residential developer contributions (relating to social housing). An increasing number of Councils, have been exercising their powers under Section 76 of the Planning Act to secure developer contributions towards public realm works, on the back of approvals for the likes of student accommodation and office developments in the city centre. This is the start of a new regime that developers are going to have to get used to.

The spread of new retailers increased during 2016, with Greggs opening 7 new shops and a further 10 planned for 2017. We recently secured approval for an Evans Cycles store on Boucher Road and EZ Living in Shane Retail Park. Sports Direct still have big plans for Northern Ireland and will hopefully make their mark during 2017.

Major deals this year which will play out over the coming year include:

  • Sirocco - new plans are predicted to be much more commercial led than the previous residential one;
  • Neptune’s purchase of the majority of the Blaris lands at Lisburn should lead to an application for phase 1 in autumn 2017;
  • Ellandi buying Bloomfield, Erneside and Showgrounds;
  • Lotus Group buying Junction 1 and The Outlet;
  • Royal Exchange site was sold to Castlebrook Developments;
  • Belfast Telegraph building being sold to McAleer and Rushe who hope to do a JV with the Council using its City Centre Investment Fund.

One of the most significant applications that we hope to submit in 2017 will be the Evermore Energy’s proposal for a 480MW gas fired power station to be located off Airport Rd West. We submitted an application for a 100acre cemetery outside Dundrod in June 2016, which we hope to bring to conclusion in the coming months.

Finally; Brexit! The apparent downturn in investment post the vote in June has not materialised. I think that it is testimony to the strength of the economy that, within 3 months of the vote, investors were back in action again, not least in Northern Ireland where in the past 2 months alone we have been advising four G.B. based developers/ investors on a range of major projects in NI. There is no doubt that as the Brexit discussion develops over the coming months/ years, certain decisions could again have impacts on the economy, but provided the Government has a solid plan of action and provides certainty to investors then any such impacts should be minor.

This article first appeared in the January-February 2017 edition of Business First magazine.

Follow Richard on Twitter @rjbowman71

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