The biggest planning applications in Northern Ireland are taking more than three years to process, figures show.
The average processing time for applications deemed ‘regionally significant’ is just over 172 weeks — almost six times the 30 week target.
The statistics were released by Infrastructure Minister John O’Dowd after an Assembly question from DUP MLA Phillip Brett.
The North Belfast MLA said the situation is “unacceptable”.
Regionally significant applications are defined by the Department for Infrastructure as those “significant to all or most of Northern Ireland”. One example is the revamped Casement Park project in west Belfast.
Earlier this year a report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office said the planning system here is not fit for purpose and risks causing economic damage.
It warned a poorly performing system would lead to delays, costs and uncertainty which could undermine proposed investment.
The report found that processing times for all applications take a lot longer compared to England, but are particularly slow for the most significant cases.
Responding to Mr Brett’s question, Mr O’Dowd said: “Data extracted from my Department’s Planning Portal, taken from the latest published information, indicates that the average processing time for the eight regionally significant planning applications (RSD) processed from date the application is deemed valid to decision or withdrawal from April 1, 2016 to December 31, 2021 was 172.5 weeks.
“Two of the RSD applications were measured against the previous Departmental target, one was not subject to a Pre-Application Discussion and therefore did not fall under the remit of that target and the second met the target having been progressed to Ministerial recommendation in 19 weeks.
“A revised target was introduced for the processing of RSD applications from date valid to a ministerial recommendation or withdrawal date within an average of 30 weeks in April 2019.
“This 30 week period for recommendation/withdrawal was exceeded for the remaining six applications.”
Mr Brett said unnecessary delays are putting investment at risk.
“These statistics from the Infrastructure Minister are yet another indicator of an inefficient planning system which, on occasions, is stunting economic growth and discouraging investors from Northern Ireland,” he said.
“For regionally significant planning applications to be breaching department processing targets by many months and even years in certain cases is unacceptable.
“A damning Audit Office report, released in February of this year, stated that the overall planning system ‘doesn’t deliver for customers, communities or the environment.’ The same report highlighted that the system is not currently operating in a joined-up way and is not providing an effective service for all involved.
“We cannot afford to have unnecessary delays which could be continually putting proposed investment at risk.
“The Minister for Infrastructure needs to ensure the entire planning system delivers fairly and that the waiting times for applications of all levels are dealt with in a more efficient manner.
“The Audit Office report and subsequent Public Accounts Committee report should act as a warning and wake up call. The Minister must take action to restore confidence in our planning system.”