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Northern Ireland councils tripping up on new planning rules

By Noel McAdam

Published 23/08/2016

Chris Hazzard: highlighted complaints
Chris Hazzard: highlighted complaints

Councils in Northern Ireland are falling foul of their own new planning rules, a Stormont Minister has admitted.

Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard said a number of complaints have been levelled against them during the first year of their increased planning powers.

The 'guilty' councils have not been identified but the Sinn Fein Minister said only a few of the 11 councils were involved.

His comment came after Green Party leader Steven Agnew warned of "repeated and persistent" failures by some councils to implement their own planning policies, practices and procedures. Now the North Down MLA plans to raise growing concerns in the Assembly and said he is seeking more details of individual complaints.

"Where appropriate, I will seek to hold to account those authorities charged with delivering planning in the public interest," Mr Agnew said.

"This will be especially where it becomes evident that proper regard for planning and environmental regulation is being undermined by poor and inappropriate practice.

"This Minister has highlighted that there have been a significant number of complaints. I will be seeking more detail on the nature and veracity of these."

The past financial year ending in March was the first year in which the new councils have undertaken their roles as planning authorities in the reformed local government system.

Under the new system councillors make the final decisions on planning applications, albeit with professional advice from planning officials.

Mr Hazzard said the small number of complaints "raised some concerns with the performance of some of the new local councils with regard to the administration and delivery of their recently inherited planning responsibilities and functions".

"I am aware that the former Department of the Environment received a small number of correspondence cases during the period 2015-16, the first year since the transfer of the newly reformed planning system," he said in a written Assembly answer.

"These cases were assessed on a case-by-case basis and often the most appropriate course of action was to refer the complainant to the council's established complaints procedures.

"While there are clear lines of separation between the roles and functions of local and central government I believe that there is a collective responsibility to ensure that the system operates effectively."

Mr Hazzard also said the current period would represent a baseline year against which to monitor future performance.

"The performance of councils is something which is actively monitored by my Department. A range of performance indicators has been established which cover the processing of local and major planning applications and enforcement cases," he added.

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