Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Poots’ self-inflicted wound is a body blow to economy

Planning Service lay-offs will leave it exposed when upturn happens, says Brian Campfield

A total of 271 staff are to be cut from the Department of the Environment’s Planning Service — even though there’s plenty of work for the staff to do.

This is because of the Planning Service’s peculiar funding arrangement, where it is part-funded by the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) and by application fees received.

With the recession, the number of planning applications has fallen. The Planning Service — like most public services — isn’t self-financing, but nonetheless the Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, hasn’t apparently sought the additional finance required.

Disappointingly, this cut is a self-inflicted wound to the Northern Ireland economy. It pre-dates the Con-Lib cuts and even Planning Service management know these cuts will damage the economy.

In their review of operating costs, they note that a 50% cut in staff in the operations directorate would “seriously reduce the capacity of the Planning Service to process applications, to assist with the recovery of the economy, to reduce applications in the six-12-month category, to reconsider deferred draft PPS 21 planning applications and to process enforcement cases.

“Meeting correspondence, FOI and AQ targets and delivering an acceptable level of service to its customers in line with its PSA targets for major, intermediate and minor applications may be affected. Recent commitments given to the Public Accounts Committee in relation to ‘backlogs’ and getting ‘fit for purpose’ as we approach the date for transfer of planning functions to local government in May 2011 may have to be revisited.”

They subsequently went for a 38% cut, but haven’t indicated how this would avoid the catastrophic consequences of a 50% cut.

Current case-loads average 180 per case officer — higher than recommended for planners in the Addison Report commissioned by the Office of the deputy Prime Minister in the UK. These will rise to over more than 300 per officer.

Minister Poots, has stated — rather glibly — that the staff left behind will simply have “to work harder and smarter”.

Our union will defend the health, safety and welfare of staff and we will, among other measures, insist on a full risk-assessment, based on the HSENI managing stress standards. Put simply, our members will not cover the work of two, or even three, colleagues.

Additional damage to the economy will come from the 50% staff cuts sought in development planning. This will hinder the preparation of plans for economic recovery, identifying and zoning land for new homes, industrial development and expansion of existing settlements.

Not funding the enforcement function will, among other issues, leave the province vulnerable to infraction proceedings from the EU. This is because the Planning Service is responsible for implementing a number of key EU directives. Penalties imposed on EU member states which do not take “all measures necessary” are intended to be “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”. Any infraction fines would be substantial and would be levied against the Block Grant.

On May 15, 2009, in a letter to the Belfast Telegraph, the former Environment Minister, Sammy Wilson, stated: “Given the 11 new councils will inherit the planning system in 2011, I do not believe local government, the business sector and the wider community will thank us if we hand over an under-resourced service.”

A year later, on April 30, 2010, in an email to a constituent, he stated: “An efficient Planning Service is vital to economic recovery in Northern Ireland. One of the reasons why I wanted to keep the Planning Service as intact as possible was to ensure that we did have a planning service and system fit for purpose when the recovery started again. It would be a grave mistake to strip experienced planning officers out of the service.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

Brian Campfield is general secretary of NIPSA

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