Four senior civil servants at the Northern Ireland Planning Service were handed bonuses of £60,000 despite failing to meet long-term targets.
The bonuses are among a series of criticisms which are contained in a hard-hitting report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which branded the Planning Service “not fit for purpose”.
The committee also found that a flagship IT project overseen by the same four civil servants is lagging four years behind schedule and is £7m over budget.
The report’s findings echo comments from Environment Minister Edwin Poots, who expressed deep dissatisfaction in a letter to the Planning Service late last year.
Mr Poots is understood to have described the processing of planning applications as “lethargic” in his letter, the details of which were revealed by the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week.
Commenting on the PAC report, its chairman Paul Maskey said the failings needed to be urgently addressed.
“In our review of the Planning Service, we found that it has consistently failed to meets its Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets for processing applications in a timely manner,” he said. “Although there has been a recent improvement, it is still not as good as customers have a right to expect. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
In its report, the PAC said the duration and extent of poor performance suggested the lack of “a strong culture of accountability” within the Planning Service.
“In the public sector, it is important that staff at all levels are held to account for poor performance. It is not at all clear that this has been the case in the Planning Service.”
The committee said it was “amazed” to find that bonuses of £60,000 had been paid to four senior civil servants since 2003/04, despite failing to meet targets over a long period of time.
Among their responsibilities was the flagship IT project, e-PIC, which was designed to allow planning processes to be delivered electronically. Originally due to be delivered by 2006, the system is not expected to be fully functional until later this year — four years behind schedule and more than £7m (130%) over budget.
The PAC concluded the Planning Service and consultants “massively under-estimated” the extent and costs of making the e-PIC system fit for use in Northern Ireland, and said there were “major lessons to be learnt”.
It added that it was “particularly disconcerting” that the four officials receiving bonuses were tasked with overseeing the e-PIC project.
The PAC states that e-PIC “represents a catalogue of project management failures” and calls for “robust action” to ensure its completion this year.
Mr Maskey added: “Failures in project management which result in capital costs that are more than double the original budget cannot be countenanced at any time. But in a climate of budget constraints this is particularly unsatisfactory.”
The report also noted a “significant decline” in levels of customer satisfaction, which stood at 32%.
It noted a marked variation in performance levels at different Planning Service divisions, adding the “postcode lottery” was “unacceptable.”
Environment Minister Edwin Poots said the report’s recommendations would be considered.
“I note and welcome the publication of the PAC's report,” he said. “I am committed to reforming and improving the planning system and welcome all recommendations and feedback that will help.
“I have recognised for some time the problems identified by the report and have been seeking to address these since I came into office.
“My officials will be considering all of the recommendations carefully over the next few weeks and thereafter a formal Memorandum of Reply will be laid before the Assembly.”