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‘Fundamental review’ of planning system needed

“Appalling” performance statistics are symptomatic of a planning system “beset by more fundamental issues”, a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has assessed.

In a heavily critical report by MLAs, the Northern Ireland Assembly’s PAC Committee, whose function it is to examine public spending with hindsight and recommend improvements to the stewardship of taxpayers’ money, voiced alarm at the volume of concerns around transparency, said it was, struck by a lack of accountability for poor performance and described a system “in chronic failure”.

Among a range of 12 recommendations made by the committee was a call for an independent and fundamental review of the system and the establishment of a commission to identify tangible improvements that can be achieved in the short term.

The PAC invited witnesses to consider the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s (NIAO) report, entitled Planning in Northern Ireland, which concluded that the planning system is failing to deliver for the economy, communities, and the environment.

In its subsequent report, published in March 2022, the PAC said that the widely known performance issues within the planning system were “a source of considerable concern” for the Committee, stating that they were “appalled” by the failure of planning authorities to deliver on many of their key targets, particularly in relation to major and significant development, since the transfer of planning functions in 2015.

That one-fifth of the most important planning applications aren’t being processed within three years is not only impacting on applicants, developers and communities but also risks investment in the region, according to the PAC, who believe a significant programme of reform is needed.

Highlighting that some elements of underperformance relate back to the transfer of powers in 2015, the PAC report describes a situation of an inadequate budget, an inappropriate staffing model and the need for change to the future funding model before acknowledging “widespread recognition” that the system is not working.

“The operation of the planning system is one of the worst examples of silo working within the public sector that this Committee has encountered.”

“The Committee is clear that change is now needed and ‘a sticking plaster’ will not suffice. Given such obvious criticism, it is hard to understand why action hasn’t been taken until now.”

While recommending a fundamental review to ascertain long-term, strategic change, the PAC committee said it was “struck” by the number of immediate changes that could be made. “There has been an inertia throughout the system and many of those involved appear reluctant to make much needed changes…The Committee has heard that there are a number of opportunities to make immediate improvements to the planning system. We recommend that a commission is established to identify tangible improvements that can be achieved in the short term.”

Local development plans (LDPs)

On LDPs, the majority of which have yet to be published seven years into the process, the PAC described a process “stymied by a complete underestimation of the complexity and volume of work required” and pointed to a lack of key skills and resources within councils, which it believes is compounded by a series of “unnecessary checks and balances” implemented by the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).

Describing performance in planning LDPs as “incredibly slow”, the report highlights that most recent projections puts 2028 as the year now expected to see an LDP in place in each council area, 13 years into a 15-year cycle. Coupled with concerns heard around effectiveness and equality of enforcement, the committee says that it was left with the impression “of a system that can’t plan for the future, isn’t doing well on deciding today’s applications; and doesn’t appear to be properly enforcing the decisions it made in the past”.

Transparency

On transparency, the Committee expressed “alarm” by the volume of concerns and said that it was seeking urgent remedial action to ensure better transparency for applications called in and those overturned by a planning committee contrary to recommendation of the planning offices. Additionally, the Committee says it is seeking more transparency as to how councils exercise enforcement powers given the considerable variation across councils. On the perceived “misunderstanding” of accountability by the Department, the Committee has placed an expectation on the Department to provide a radical action plan to address accountability issues.

Recommending that the Department and the Head of the Civil Service consider how leadership could be strengthened to provide an effective oversight role, the Committee says it is “very concerned” that the Department does not grasp the severity of issues facing the planning system, does not recognise the urgent need for change and has a poor understanding of its role in implementing change.

“The operation of the planning system is one of the worst examples of silo working within the public sector that this Committee has encountered,” the PAC states, describing a need for a radical culture change in the way in which central and local government interact. If the planning service is to improve, the Department and councils must start to collaborate as equal partners. This will require a concerted effort from all those involved to work in a more productive way.”

Concluding, the PAC report says: “The planning system in Northern Ireland is clearly not working. Given the widespread, severe, and entrenched nature of the issues outlined, the Committee is calling for a fundamental review, led by someone independent from the Department, to identify the long-term, strategic changes needed to make the planning system fit for purpose.”

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