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Super-councils 'sold a pup' over transfer of planning powers

By Noel McAdam

Published 09/09/2016

Green Party leader Steven Agnew
Green Party leader Steven Agnew

Northern Ireland's new councils were "sold a pup" when planning powers were transferred from Stormont, it has been claimed.

Former Sinn Fein MLA Willie Clarke said massive backlogs of planning applications were handed over - without the staff needed to process them.

Mr Clarke now chairs the planning committee of Newry, Mourne and Down council which faced the largest load of 'legacy' applications after the new councils took over.

He said: "The former Department of Environment (DoE) sold the councils a pup when it came to planning.

"Powers were given over to the new councils but without the back-up staff to deal with them."

Now a meeting of the chief executives and senior planning officials of all 11 councils with senior Stormont officials is being organised.

From April of last year, local authorities took on responsibility for local development planning, development control and enforcement - functions which were formerly discharged by the planning arm of the DoE.

The DoE has since been subsumed within the new Department of Infrastructure, whose minister Chris Hazzard has warned some of the councils are falling foul of their new responsibilities.

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.

Mr Clarke said: "We had a massive backlog of planning applications and the DoE did not transfer sufficient numbers of staff for us to be able to deal with them. At one stage we had around 1.600 applications waiting to be dealt with and we have now managed to get that down to under 1,000 which I think is a massive improvement."

Newry, Mourne and Down Council commissioned a report on how it could streamline procedures by the former chief planning officer of Scotland Jim MacKinnon. His report concluded that Down had the largest number of "live" applications of all the councils and the number of staff transferred had been "inequitable".

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