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Target times missed on major NI planning application decisions

Karen Smyth

The processing time for major planning applications in Northern Ireland is almost double the target, a report has shown.

The average time for major applications brought to a decision or withdrawal during 2019/20 was 52.8 weeks across all councils - more than a year.

That is an improvement on 6.2 weeks from the previous year, but still higher than the 30-week target.

Just two out of 11 councils managed to meet the target for major applications during 2019/20.

The Department for Infrastructure's annual bulletin on planning statistics said 12,707 applications had been received over the year, down nearly 3% on the year before. Just under 150 of them were major applications.

Out of the 11 councils, Belfast accounted for the highest percentage of applications, at 12.9% - however, the report said there had been a 10% fall year-on-year in the number of applications in the city.

The volume of applications did increase in four council areas, with the biggest jump in Mid-Ulster, where there had been growth of 6.5%.

There were 11,747 planning applications decided upon, down over 3% - including 129 decisions on major cases.

It was taking on average 14 weeks to deal with local applications - which was within target. In fact, seven of the 11 councils met the 15-week target for local applications.

And 94% of planning decisions, local and major, were approvals.

Karen Smyth, head of policy at the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, said the statistics were showing improvement, with more councils either meeting the target for processing major applications or improving processing times.

"It is clear that the vast majority of applications are being processed in a timely fashion, with major applications forming a vital but limited part of the overall picture, and councils on average taking 14 weeks to process local applications, within the 15 week target," she said

She added that Covid-19 had presented challenges in how councils operate, but that they had adapted well to ensure the planning process continues.

Among the 149 major applications received, the spread across councils ranged from 34 in Belfast to six in Mid and East Antrim.

At 129, the number of major applications decided was the lowest on record - and the first time the number of decisions had fallen below the number of applications received.

There were 2,118 applications for new single dwellings in rural areas - which, along with alterations or extensions in urban areas, accounted for half of all residential applications. That was up 2.6% from 2,065 the year before.

Ms Smyth said that was an unwelcome trend. "We are deeply concerned by the ongoing and increasing number of applications for single dwellings in the countryside and would urge Minister (Nichola) Mallon and her department, in partnership with councils, to revisit the review of policy on sustainable development in the countryside as a societal, environmental and economic priority for Northern Ireland."

At 11,747, the number of decisions issued was down 3.4% on the year before and is down three-fifths from the peak of 30,161 decisions in 2005/06.

Three quarters of decisions were for full planning permission.

Belfast Telegraph