Belfast Telegraph

Major shake-up to City Council department in bid to sort out planning delay


By John Mulgrew

Belfast City Council is shaking up its planning department in a bid to tackle long-running delays for major developments across the city.

The council is failing to meet "statutory targets" for planning application decisions, with major applications taking an average of 125 weeks to decide on - more than four times the 30-week target.

The details of the revamp were included in a closed briefing to members of the council's planning committee meeting.

It comes after this paper revealed Belfast City Council has parachuted in a top expert, Scotland's ex-chief planner Jim Mackinnon, to investigate and carry out a high-level review of the entire planning system following complaints to council bosses.

Mr Mackinnon has met with Belfast officials and with developers, agents and planners to gauge what the main issues are with the council's processes.

Now, a separate paper has said that "measures have been put in place to both significantly reduce the number of long-standing applications in the system, and to embed processes which will ensure that statutory processing times for all applications are achieved".

That will include a shake-up of the planning team in Belfast, which will involve a "revised team structure with a more focused management approach".

It will also mean extra resources being put in place for teams working on local applications and addressing the "shortfall in delivery" of a Section 76 framework (to accommodate the planning process between council and a developer). That includes contributions from major developers to the council, particularly for larger schemes.

The council believes it will take around six months to reduce the number of long-standing applications.

But it has warned that overall planning targets could be "negatively impacted in the short term" as a result.

In a bid to tackle planning problems and delays, it's understood Belfast City Council will take on agency workers, hire two new temporary planning officers, as well as offer existing staff overtime.

Speaking about the average 125-week decision-making time for major applications, the document says that "performance has been skewed by small numbers, legacy applications and those major applications which have been delayed whilst a Section 76 agreement has been put in place".

Overall, around 240 decisions were issued in September 2017, compared to 182 in August 2017. Belfast City Council's planning department has dealt with and approved a series of major applications over the last 12 months, including multi-million pound office developments and student accommodation schemes.

A spokeswoman for Belfast City Council said: "It is recognised that there are performance issues in the Belfast planning service which we are actively trying to deal with.

"This is set against a backdrop of significant increases in the number of applications made and the increasing complexity of some major schemes. 

"We are committed to vastly improving our performance over the next short period of time. We understand that delays can be frustrating for applicants and will do all that we can to overcome these problems. 

"The average processing time taken to determine over 950 legacy applications, inherited by Belfast City Council at April 2015, has resulted in a skewed and unrepresentative figure.

"Council has been determining a significant number of major applications within the 30 weeks target, if the agreement of an extension of time has been secured with the developers and/or they have been subject of a legal agreement."

"Belfast is going through a period of significant development and the council’s role is to support this and ensure the best possible standards are achieved."

Meanwhile, speaking last month about Mr Mackinnon's role, a City Hall spokeswoman told the Belfast Telegraph: "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."

Belfast Telegraph

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