Belfast Telegraph

Report calls for tougher anti-fraud measures in planning

By Adrian Rutherford

Not enough is being done to tackle the inherent risks of corruption and fraud in Northern Ireland's planning system, a damning report warns today.

The Audit Office concluded that stronger anti-fraud procedures are needed and must be put in place before responsibility for planning is transferred from the Department of Environment (DoE) to councils in 2015.

Today's report brands a DoE assessment that there is a low risk of fraud as too optimistic, pointing out that no other part of the public sector is more exposed to potential conflicts of interest, bribery or corruption.

Auditor General Kieran Donnelly said: "Planning is one area within the public sector where there is a particularly high risk of fraud and corruption.

"The department must build a strong anti-fraud culture to ensure that these controls are implemented consistently."

A 2012 DoE fraud risk assessment identified three areas of concern – planning decisions, cash handling and procurement – but said overall risk of fraud was low. However, today's report says additional work is required to complement internal controls and justify the low risk assessment.

"These controls undoubtedly help to manage the risk of fraud but given that no other part of the public sector is more open to the risk of conflicts of interest, bribery or corruption, in our view a low risk assessment is optimistic at best," the Audit Office report states.

Around 100 planning files are inspected each year, less than 1% of all applications.

The Audit Office said it was not effective and has called for a more targeted approach and for stronger, more targeted anti-fraud measures to be put in place before planning functions transfer to the 11 super-councils in April 2015.

The report warns the potential financial gains from fraudulent activity are substantial, with applications for large-scale projects costing £250,000.

Environment Minister Mark Durkan said recommendations in the report will be implemented.

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