Belfast City Hall brings in Scottish expert in bid to streamline planning after complaints
Belfast City Council has parachuted in a top expert to investigate and carry out a high level review of the entire planning system following complaints to council bosses, it can be revealed.
Scotland's former chief planner, Jim Mackinnon, has been commissioned to produce a report after complaints from developers and planners from across Northern Ireland to council bosses, including chief executive Suzanne Wylie.
Mr Mackinnon was previously brought in to examine planning at Newry, Mourne and Down Council.
It's understood he has already met with Belfast officials, and separately with developers, agents and planners to gauge what the main issues are with the council's processes.
In the period between April and June this year, there were 3,297 local, 39 major and one regionally significant planning application across Northern Ireland. Of those, Belfast dealt with the highest number - 445.
In the last 12 months, Belfast City Council's planning department has dealt with and approved a series of major applications, including multi-million pound office developments and student accommodation schemes.
A City Hall spokeswoman said: "Mr Mackinnon has been asked to carry out a high level review of how well the planning service has made the transition from the DoE (former Department of the Environment) to Belfast City Council, two and half years on from the transfer date (of devolution of planning power to councils).
"This is not about complaints; it is about ensuring that we provide the highest quality service to customers and support the growth of the city.
"Mr Mackinnon is an extremely experienced planner having previously been chief planner for Scotland, and has been commissioned to do this work over a period of seven days."
Belfast City Council was also asked how much the review is costing the ratepayer, and how much Mr Mackinnon's stay will cost, including travel. However, City Hall did not comment.
The council also did not reveal how many complaints or concerns it has received from planners, agents, developers, or anyone else in the industry, over the last six months.
Some of the concerns raised by developers include the so-called 'pre-application discussion' - the so-called PAD process - which takes place with planning officials before a full application is submitted.
One industry expert said he believes there "are concerns about the performance of the Belfast office".
"Applications aren't being processed as quickly as they should, and a lot of it is to do with the new PAD process," he said.
Belfast City Council says the pre-application discussion will "improve the quality of your application and give you a better chance of getting permission before paying a planning fee".
The council charges between £500 and £2,000 for the service.
According to Belfast City Council, 191 applications were validated in July 2017.
"Overall numbers of applications validated this year had increased by 13% on the same period last year," it said.
A report to the planning committee said it was starting to charge for the PAD service as "Belfast is facing an unprecedented level of growth where the development pipeline includes very significant commercial and employment generating developments".
In the first quarter of the 2017-18 financial year, it took councils in Northern Ireland an average of just over 15 weeks to process local applications to decision or withdrawal, an improvement of nearly two weeks on the same period last year.
The shortest average processing time for local applications across councils was just below 10 weeks in Mid and East Antrim, whilst the longest was nearly 24 weeks in Lisburn and Castlereagh.