MLA plea on planning cases backlog
The Government has been urged to step up efforts to tackle potential breaches of planning laws after a major backlog of cases was uncovered.
DUP Lagan Valley Assembly member Jonathan Craig hit out after discovering that officials tackling the issue are facing a backlog of 1,350 cases in one area of Northern Ireland alone.
Mr Craig said he was concerned after discovering that the backlog at the Downpatrick Area Planning Office was being dealt with by a team led by only five experts.
The Downpatrick office's workload of enforcement cases covers the Ards, Down, Lisburn and North Down areas, but Mr Craig called for information on whether similar backlogs exist across Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist, who secured the figures in response to an Assembly question, said he feared potential planning breaches could escape sanction by exceeding the time limit for enforcement action.
He said: "Is it any wonder no-one is being prosecuted or being brought to book with regard to enforcement cases in some areas? This office has over 1,300 cases backlogged, some of which are three years old, and I have discovered there were only five members of staff working on this enormous number of enforcement cases."
Mr Craig recognised the pledge by Environment Minister Alex Attwood to reform the process, but added: "I think he needs to treat this issue with much more urgency. Otherwise what point is there in having any enforcement at all?"
Mr Craig went on: "Given the extent of what has been uncovered in the Downpatrick office, one must ask the question 'Is this similar to other planning offices in Northern Ireland?' What is the overall scale of this issue? Does it constitute a complete failure of the system?"
In answer to Mr Craig's question, the minister said: "I believe that enforcement - particularly for serious environmental and planning issues including crimes - needs to be escalated. I am assessing how to do this and have sent out a strong message to my staff that more robust enforcement is an essential element of a balanced planning system."
New time limits were introduced last December, while the minister said he had also asked to be regularly updated on enforcement performance. The department told Mr Craig that enforcement procedures had been under review since 2009 in Downpatrick, with improved IT systems and the prioritising of cases.