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NI Planning System

1. Who runs planning in Northern Ireland?

The planning system exists to control development in the public interest.  It is responsible for the kinds of development that is allowed, where it takes place, and what it looks like. 

In the next few years, the planning system in Northern Ireland will be decentralised and planning control will become more of the responsibility of the local council.  This guide outlines the planning system until this change. 

The Planning Service, an agency within the Department of the Environment, is responsible for planning in Northern Ireland.  It decides whether to allow proposals to build on land or change the use of buildings or land.

The Planning Service has a network of divisional planning offices where decisions on individual planning applications are taken.  Details of all these offices are available from the Planning Service website - http://www.planningni.gov.uk/

2. How does the Planning Service make its decisions?

The Planning Service makes its decisions based on the following planning policy documents:  

The Regional Development Strategy 2025

The Regional Development Strategy (RDS) is the framework for planning across Northern Ireland until 2025.  The development plans in each local government district must conform to this strategy.  As well as land planning, it takes account of economic, social and environmental issues.


Planning Policy Statements

Planning Policy Statements are guidelines covering particular planning issues such as waste management, telecommunications, nature conservation, parking and access. Each of these guidelines applies to the whole of Northern Ireland. 

Planning Policy Statement 1 is a statement of the general principles of planning in Northern Ireland.  Although parts of the document are out of date, it is a useful overview of the system.  It includes information about how the Planning Service defines terms such as ‘sustainable planning', ‘good design' and ‘mixed uses' development.

You can find a list of all existing Planning Policy Statements on the Planning Service's website – via the link below



Development Plans

The Planning Service prepares development plans for each local government district.  This is done in consultation with the local council and the local community.  A development plan sets out what sort of development will be allowed and where.

All development plans are required to be in line with the Regional Development Strategy and Planning Policy Statements.  Development Plans may be in the form of area plans, local plans or subject plans:

  • Area plan: covers a large area such as a whole district council, or group of councils
  • Local plan: covers an area within a district council, such as a town centre
  • Subject plan: covers a particular issue rather than geographical area, such as houses of multiple occupancy

Development plans will include a written statement as well as maps, diagrams and illustrations. It will also include an environmental appraisal which assesses the environmental impact of the plan. 

You can find details of the development plans for each local government district in Northern Ireland on the Planning Service's website, or by following the link below:



Planning guidance

The Planning Service also produces other documents and guides that show how its policies work in practice.

One group of these is called development control advice notes.  These notes give more detail about the criteria and technical standards that may be relevant for certain types of development.

For example, there are development control advice notes concerning taxi offices, residential and nursing homes, conservation area design, public houses, etc. 

Other considerations

Depending on the type of proposed development, the Planning Service may look for wider guidance on its decision. For example, it could refer to documents such as the River Conservation Strategy for Northern Ireland, or the Northern Ireland Waste Management Strategy. 


3. Overview of the Planning Process

If a development requires planning permission, the process begins when an individual, business or organisation submits a planning application to the Planning Service.  

Public inspection

Once the application is received, it is placed on a register which is available for public inspection.  You can find a list of all planning applications on the Planning Service's website or by visiting your Divisional Planning Office –



The Planning Service advertises all applications in the relevant local paper. 


The Planning Service inspects the site, consults with organisations that may have an interest - for example, Environmental Health, Water Service - and also considers all the comments and objections received from neighbours, local people and others.

Development Control Group Meeting

The Planning Service considers its decision. 

Local council involvement.

The Planning Service then meets with the local district council to discuss their decision.  At this stage the council can postpone a decision so that more time is given to discuss or investigate the proposal. The final decision rests with the Planning Service. But if members of the council feel strongly about a planning decision they can refer the decision to the Planning Service Management Board.


A decision should be made within eight weeks, although large and complex applications may take longer.  If it is approved, the work can begin.  See appealing against a decision for more information about appeals.

You can find out if a proposed development needs planning permission by contacting your divisional planning office.


4. Change of use

Commercial buildings are classified according to what they will be used for. The Planning Service will have a record of what particular class a commercial building belongs to. The classifications are listed below. 






Financial and professional services




Light Industrial


General Industrial


Storage and distribution


Dwelling houses


Guest houses


Residential institutions


Community and cultural use


Assembly and leisure









If a building requires a ‘change of use', the developer normally has to apply for planning permission.  Buildings used for other purposes not listed here automatically require planning permission to change from or to such a use.  For example, this includes the sale of hot food to eat in or take away, for public worship or religious instruction, or for a house in multiple occupation.


5. Getting involved in the planning process

Getting involved in local development strategy

Development plans usually have a lifetime of around 10-15 years.  They should be reviewed every five years. When a development plan is first being drawn up, it goes through the following stages:

The Planning Service releases an issues paper which contains facts about the area, the existing development and amenities. At this stage the service encourages the public to share their views on what is needed. 

On the basis of the views given in the first stage, the Planning Service publishes a draft plan.

An independent inquiry is held by the Planning Appeals Commission.  They will collate the views of the public and other groups and organisations before making their recommendations to the Planning Service. The Planning Service is not obliged to take these recommendations into consideration, but in practice they usually do.

The Planning Service will then publish its final plan.

The Planning Service will advertise when a consultation on a development plan is taking place by advertising in local newspapers.  You can also find details of upcoming development plans by visiting your divisional planning office.

Finding out about and affecting a proposed development

If you are affected by a proposed development, you have a right to make your views known to the Planning Service.

The Planning Service will advertise planning applications in the following ways.  It will:

  • Advertise most applications in at least one local newspaper (some applications, such as house extensions, are not advertised).
  • Tell the people who live in buildings on land next to the application site boundary, and which are within 90 metres of it.
  • Make the application available for people to see. This can include the actual plans, and where appropriate, an environmental statement sent in to support the application.
  • Hold planning clinics in certain towns where you can inspect plans and talk to a planning officer.  

You can find a list of all current applications on the Planning Service's website, via the link below:


You can also find there a list of decisions on previous applications going back a couple of months.  If you want details of earlier applications you should contact the divisional planning office. 

Finding out more about a proposed development

Your first step, if possible, should be an informal chat with the person making the application.  You could also visit the divisional planning office or ‘clinic' and inspect the plans.  It is best to make an appointment if you wish to do this.

If you are concerned about a development

Any views you have on a development should be made in writing to the relevant divisional planning office.  This address will be on any of the advertisements or communications about the application, or can be found on the Planning Service's website. There will also be a reference number for each application and you should quote this on all correspondence.

In your letter, outline your opposition to the proposal clearly and succinctly.  You should ensure your comments relate to planning matters.  These could include:

  • The impact on traffic, parking and road safety
  • Noise and nuisance
  • Employment, business and commercial considerations
  • Pollution and environmental impact
  • Opportunities for leisure and recreation
  • Visual appearance

Matters which are not about planning, and which the planning office will therefore not consider, include:

  • Issues covered by other regulations - for example, licensing and building control
  • Private property rights, for example disputes about boundaries or access.
  • The effect the development may have on the value of your property
  • The reasons why the developer is making the application or their activities elsewhere
  • Moral issues related to the proposal (for example, opposition to a public house, a bookmakers house or an amusement arcade).
  • Competition between businesses
  • Loss of a private view (nobody has an automatic right to a view over someone else's land)

The divisional planning office will send you a letter to acknowledge they have received your comments.  They should do this within five working days.  If you have asked them to provide answers to certain questions about the application they will normally respond within 15 working days.

While the planning office is obliged to take your views into consideration, local opposition to a plan is not in itself enough to stop an application.

The divisional planning office will make its decision by taking account of the local development plan and any other relevant planning matters, as well as comments from neighbours, local people, the council, and other interested parties. 

For your views to be taken into account you have to provide your name.  Under the Planning Service's open file policy and the Freedom of Information Act, anyone can request to see details of the application and the comments and objections to it. 

If this happens, the Planning Service will contact you and ask permission for your name to be released.  If you refuse, your name will be blanked out of the copy of the document, but your comments will remain.  

However, if the application goes to appeal, your name and comments will be made available.


6. Appealing against a decision

If the application is rejected, or is given permission with ‘conditions' which the applicant feels are unreasonable, they can appeal.  Appeals can only be made by the applicant.  Planning appeals have to be made within six months of the decision.  

Appeals are heard by the Planning Appeals Commission, which is an independent body.  There is no right to appeal following the Commission's decision.  However, the Department and the Commission can be challenged in the High Court. 

You can get more information about appeals from: 

The Secretary, Planning Appeals Commission, Park House

87 -91 Great Victoria Street, Belfast BT2 7AG

Phone: (028) 9024 4710

Fax: (028) 9031 2536

Website: http://www.pacni.gov.uk/


7. Planning and the Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act may be applicable in making decisions about planning.  You may want to refer to it if you are opposing an application.  The most relevant sections of the Act are:

  • Article 6: Right to a fair and public trial within a reasonable time
  • Article 8: Right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence
  • Article 14: Prohibition of discrimination
  • Article 1 of Protocol 1: Right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions and protection of property 

8. Major developments 

Major developments are called Article 31 cases.  These are developments that would do one of the following:

  • Be a significant departure from the local development plan
  • Be of significance to the whole or large part of Northern Ireland
  • Affect the whole of a neighbourhood
  • Involve the development of land close to a trunk road or special road

Proposals for developments such as large supermarkets could fall under Article 31 cases.  The Planning Service will consider the application's strategic significance, environmental impact, and its scale and nature in making a decision.

In the case of Article 31 cases, the Planning Service can request permission from the Planning Appeals Commission to hold a public inquiry. The Commission will consider the comments that arise from the inquiry and write a report on the proposal before the Planning Service makes their decision.

There is no appeal process on Article 31 decisions, but again, both the Department and the Commission can be challenged in the High Court. 

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