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Watchdog hits out at planners over ‘avoidable’ errors

By David Gordon

Northern Ireland's Ombudsman has rapped the Government's Planning Service for repeatedly making “avoidable” administrative errors.

Revealing a 13.7% surge in planning-related complaints to his office, Ombudsman Tom Frawley also warned that financial pressures should not lead to poorer public services for individual citizens.

Mr Frawley made the comments in his annual report for 2009/10, published today.

The Ombudsman investigates complaints from members of the public against Government departments, their agencies and a string of other public bodies.

His annual report voiced particular concern about the Planning Service, part of the Department of the Environment.

It was the subject of 58 of the 159 written complaints received against different Government agencies.

“Disappointingly, I see no improvement in general administrative practice despite reassurances from the Planning Service that lessons learned from individual complaints have been fed back to front-line staff,” Mr Frawley said.

“Each new case I investigate is as likely to contain as much of this avoidable maladministration as those cases I have investigated in past years.

“Many responses to my enquiries of the Planning Service will acknowledge some error — a letter was not replied to, a neighbour was not notified of the proposed development, the information provided to those likely to be affected by a planning decision was incorrect, and so on.”

The Ombudsman continued: “The Planning Service, like other public bodies, faces increasing pressures in a difficult economic climate.

“However, I do find it unacceptable that citizens should experience poorer service because of these financial pressures.

“Organisations, and I would include my own office in this, must learn to 'achieve more with less'.

“I will continue to find maladministration where there is clear evidence that the basic public service is inadequate.

A spokesman for the Department of the Environment said: “We note the Ombudsman's comments and will continue to work hard to improve our customer service.

“We will shortly be carrying out a customer satisfaction survey and a review of our complaints procedure, and will make every effort to embed good practice through further staff training and written guidance.”

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