Belfast Telegraph

Super-council trips cost £20,000 we can't afford to waste

Editor's Viewpoint

As far as public expenditure goes £20,000 is not a large sum. But when it is spent on trips for councillors which most ratepayers would feel are unnecessary, then the sum assumes an importance far beyond its actual value.

As our report today reveals, a number of councillors and officials from some of the 11 new shadow super-councils went on fact-finding trips to various other parts of the UK. Their common aim was to find out more about how planning laws work in those areas.

Planning is probably the most important power which will be devolved from Stormont to the new super-councils. This may make planning decisions more responsive to local needs and may even streamline the process.

Lengthy delays in planning under the present system have been strongly criticised by a number of potential investors who feel that the process is a disincentive in some instances to setting up in business here.

It might seem like a good idea for councillors to seek out examples of best practice in local authority planning except for one very important fact. Planning legislation in Northern Ireland is much different to that which exists in other regions of the UK. In those circumstances it is difficult to know what information of practical value the councillors took back from their trips.

Indeed it could be argued they would have been much better served in taking a collective and much shorter trip - to meet our own Department of the Environment planning experts. They are the people who have run planning here since the early 1970s.

Since then, councillors have only had a consultative role in planning but no executive functions.

Surely discussions between the existing experts and those who will assume planning responsibility makes sense. The planners can pass on their expertise and the councillors can explore how the system could be changed to make it more locally responsive and also more streamlined.

Northern Ireland's politicians are particularly thin-skinned and are keen to blame the media for any public disfavour. What they have to realise is that they are often authors of their own poor image.

If councillors want the public to think more highly of them, they will take greater care on how they spend their ratepayers' money and avoid pointless fact-finding trips.

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