Planning system ‘not fit for purpose’ say ‘alarmed’ MLAs on Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee

Northern Ireland’s planning system is not fit for purpose, a Stormont committee has found.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 24th March 2022, 12:00 am

William Humphrey, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said MLAs were “alarmed and appalled” at the performance of the system, describing planning decisions as “unacceptably slow”.

The committee has made 12 recommendations, including an independent review of the system as well as a commission to identify tangible improvements that can be achieved in the short term.

“Whilst cultural change will take time, this should be reflected immediately in a more inclusive planning forum which includes representation from developers and communities,” it added.

William Humprey chaired the Public Accounts Committee which filed the report. Picture: Diane Magill

Mr Humphrey stressed the importance of a properly function planning system to contribute towards a more socially and economically sustainable Northern Ireland.

“The committee is therefore very concerned at the failure of the system to deliver,” he said.

“The committee was both alarmed and appalled at the performance of the planning system.

“Planning decisions are unacceptably slow; nearly one fifth of the most important planning applications are not processed within three years. Not only does this have an impact on applicants, it also risks investment in Northern Ireland.

“We also were shocked that seven years on, no council has been able to produce a local development plan.

“The department underestimated the complexity of progressing local development plans.

“These plans should make a real difference to local communities, but have been hampered by a lack of key skills and resources, compounded by a series of unnecessary ‘checks and balances’ by the department.”

The report also highlighted concerns about transparency around planning decisions.

Mr Humphrey added: “The basis for making key decisions was often absent and this is extremely worrying. There needs to be urgent remedial action to ensure better transparency around decision making and how councils exercise enforcement powers given the considerable variation across councils.

“What is even more troubling is that there appears to be a lack of accountability for poor performance. This is a serious concern and demands immediate change. We have made it clear that the department must provide the committee with a radical action plan. We also expect the department to provide the successor committee with an update on improvements made in six months.”

The DUP MLA described the planning system as “one of the worst examples of silo-working within the public sector that we have encountered”.

“There is an urgent need for a radical cultural change in the way in which central and local government interact,” he said.

“If the planning service is to improve, the department and councils must start to collaborate as equal partners.

“This will require a concerted effort from all those involved to work in a more productive way.

“The planning system in Northern Ireland is clearly not working.

“We are calling for a fundamental review, led by someone independent from the department, to identify the long-term, strategic changes needed to make the planning system fit for purpose.”

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