Belfast Telegraph

Councils should have 'more devolved powers to improve planning process'

By John Mulgrew

Northern Ireland's councils should have increased devolved powers over areas such as roads to ensure the planning process is improved, an expert has said.

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Jim Mackinnon, former chief planner for the Scottish Government, has been brought in by City Hall chief executive Suzanne Wylie as a "strategic adviser" to help significantly speed up the time taken to process applications in Belfast, with the majority of the smaller ones dealt with in eight weeks.

The overhaul was sparked by growing complaints from developers.

Mr Mackinnon said: "Suzanne asked can you take a look at how things have been.

"She was getting some pressure from developers that the service was not performing as well, I think, as we had all hoped.

"She asked me to come and review that."

He has met with councillors and developers.

As a result he has prepared a report that aims to tackle delays and concerns.

"We are now really going to kick forward and implement it," he added.

"First of all, around performance. There are very high aspirations for the City Council to be the pre-eminent planning authority in Northern Ireland.

"The performance hasn't really moved very much.

"There was a legacy of historical applications, and there was quite a backlog.

"Developers thought that they were not sufficiently engaged in that.

"Suzanne is going about selling the city, open for business, and you might meet the planning department, and it doesn't quite feel that way."

Some developer concerns included delays in processing applications, as well as issues with the paid-for so-called pre-application discussion (PAD), in which they can liaise with planners before submitting an application.

He said part of the issue included a failure to get a "clear steer" through the PAD, or that it "wasn't adding value".

He is keen for councils here to have "more powers" to allow them to speed up the planning process.

He added: "The first thing is the focus on performance."

He said that while to "clear the backlog, it will get worse before it gets better", he hoped 90% of small applications will be dealt with in two months.

Belfast City Council planning committee chair Donal Lyons said he believed there was a "good balance" with the number of applications brought before the committee.

Asked whether he felt it was right that the planning committee had the final say on schemes in Belfast, Mr Lyons said: "I do. I don't see any reason why we can't do it properly and appropriately.

"When there is an application as complex as some of those we have mentioned, we take time, and we take the briefing and we have due diligence and do our research."

Mr Mackinnon added: "One of the recommendations is meet the consultants, and say: how was it for you?

"Things they want changed, and we can agree.

"We want to move with that. The other thing is a customer service charter.

"We want to do that."

Belfast Telegraph