NI planning services could be outsourced to private firm
A private company could take over Northern Ireland's planning services, it has been revealed.
Outsourcing giant Capita has set up a new planning shared service centre in Belfast.
The company said the unit was focused on "delivering development management and planning resilience services into local authorities across the UK".
It will initially provide services to councils in England "with a view to expanding services to Northern Ireland councils to support the needs of their communities".
Mark Dally, a regional director with Capita's local government arm, admitted that the new division had its sights set on expansion.
"Our new planning shared service centre in Belfast not only ensures that our expert planning support is being delivered into our partnerships across the UK when they need it the most, but also enables us to increase our presence in Northern Ireland," he added.
"We are already working with local councils across Northern Ireland and are looking forward to the possibility of working closer with them as our planning service grows.
"This is a very exciting venture for the company and for its employees."
A team of half a dozen staff has been appointed to run the Belfast operation.
It is understood that any outsourcing will have no effect on the current planning process, nor will it have an impact on an ongoing effort to revamp the online planning portal or how new applications are submitted.
The main features of the revamped planning system will include the ability to accept online applications - as part of a move towards a paperless process - and the ability to accept online payments.
It will also allow for better management and monitoring of applications.
Planning was devolved to the 11 super-councils in April 2015, so any decision to avail of Capita's services would likely have to be made at a local level.
An initial discovery exercise over changes to the process was carried out by consultancy firm Deloitte this summer.
It involved engagement with a wide range of stakeholders and more than 30 workshops.
This newspaper revealed earlier this week that Belfast City Council had drafted in Scotland's former chief planner, Jim Mackinnon, to produce a report on the planning system following a number of complaints from developers.
Mr Mackinnon was previously brought in to examine planning at Newry, Mourne and Down Council after the devolution of planning powers.