MLA calls for reform as report takes aim at red tape and poor cooperation
The planning system is a “bottleneck for our entire economy” and needs a complete overhaul, it has been warned.
A report by Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly and Local Government Auditor Colette Kane found the system was failing to deliver for the economy, communities and the environment.
It is not working efficiently because different organisations are failing to interact properly, leading to the majority of significant developments not meeting the 30-week target for decisions, they concluded.
Jonathan Buckley, the chair of Stormont’s Infrastructure Committee, said he believed the planning system needed a complete overhaul. He also blamed the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) for delays in progressing major developments.
The Upper Bann MLA said: “The planning system is a bottleneck for our entire economy.
“Problems within it are holding back inward investment and attempts to boost indigenous businesses.”
A spokesperson for the DfI said the report would be considered by the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee.
They added it would therefore “not be appropriate for the department to comment”.
Following the publication last week of a review of the 2011 Planning Act, Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon is looking at changes to the consultation process, improving the quality of planning applications and increasing the use of digital technology.
The department’s rivers division responded in time to a request for consultation on just 44% of major developments and 40% of local developments, the report revealed.
The paper also concluded that the most important planning applications were still taking too long to process.
Almost three-quarters of regionally significant and major planning applications processed between 2017/18 and 2019/20 were not completed within the statutory target of 30 weeks.
More than half (56%) took more than one year to process, and 19% took more than three years.
The time taken to process major applications varies between councils, ranging from Newry, Mourne and Down with a median of 18 months, to Fermanagh and Omagh at fewer than 30 weeks.
“The planning system in Northern Ireland is not currently operating as one system,” said the report
“Rather, there is a series of organisations that are not interacting well and not delivering an effective service.”
The paper also noted no council had completed a local development plan since 2015.
Alison Allen, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, said the system was flawed.
“The current system… builds in more bureaucracy than similar systems in other jurisdictions,” she added.
“It is also more complex, involving more organisations [because of the] fragmentation of public sector delivery in Northern Ireland.
David Fry, of the Construction Employers Federation, said: “There is now clear evidence of a system which has been unable to act as the economic driver many had hoped it would be.”