Planning service 'an obstacle to Northern Ireland's economic progress'
Business leaders today branded Northern Ireland's Planning Service as unfit and the biggest obstacle to economic progress in the region.
The Institute of Directors urged Environment Minister Sammy Wilson to act immediately to address the blockage the service was having on economic development.
IoD Northern Ireland chairman Joanne Stuart said firms were going out of business because planners simply would not make decisions.
The call for action came 24 hours after the minister himself launched a stinging attack on officials in part of his own department for refusing permission for what would have been the region's tallest building.
The minister said the decision to reject an application to build the £90 million, 37-storey Aurora building in Belfast city centre was totally nonsensical.
"Planning officers have a role to play in kick-starting the economy and in this case they have failed and failed abysmally," said Mr Wilson.
The IoD said they were of similar mind. In spite of engaging with the Planning Service over the past six years, they said they were disappointed with the inadequate progress in improving the organisation from within.
It was, they said, "bureaucratic, unprofessional and the single biggest obstacle to economic progress".
The institute said the Planning Service had not woken up to the fact that the power-sharing Stormont Executive had placed the economy as its number one priority in the Programme for Government, and that the planners had failed to recognise the role they needed to play in support of the programme's objectives.
"In short there is no confidence in the planning system," said the IoD.
The business body has already met with Mr Wilson to discuss problems with the Planning Service and, at his request, provided him with a lengthy list of inappropriate treatment by the service of planning applications and summarised their experiences of "major flaws" in the service.
It said the service was bogged down with bureaucracy, with simple decisions taking far too long to make and with a lack of consistency in decisions.
"The process is proving very costly for local developers and makes it impossible for them to make a return on valuable assets while waiting for the service to make a decision," it said.
Ms Stuart added: "Even before the recession hit, companies were going out of business because planners would not make decisions.
"They do not seem to care about the economic impact and loss of benefit of these investments to the wider community."
She added: "Last week's news about the Aurora development in Belfast's Great Victoria Street appears to be another example of how the Planning Service disregards the economic priority.
"They continually attach a much higher premium to the environmental lobby."