New council planning system ‘unacceptably poor’

The new Planning Portal funded by the Department for Infrastructure and 10 of Northern Ireland’s 11 local councils was launched in December 2022, but has been decried as “slow and unresponsive” and “unacceptably poor” by users.

The £14 million new planning portal became operational on 5 December 2022, with its stated aim to “provide a modern streamlined service making it easier for users to engage with the planning process” and to submit paperless applications online. Mid Ulster District Council was the only of the local councils not involved in the process, with the council opting to create its own planning portal.

The new system has however been criticised as “not for purpose” and “unacceptably poor” by the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA), who also stated that the new system was worse than its predecessor in some respects. Concerns raised included an inability to update applications once they have been submitted to the system, which is “essential when dealing with detailed drawings which often need to be amended”, read line boundaries not appearing on some maps, and that tracking applications was “very slow and unresponsive”.

RSUA Director Ciarán Fox warned: “In the short term, it affects cash flow. In the medium term, there is a real concern that it could act as a further brake on the local construction sector at a time when it is facing many other challenges.”

Concerns have also been raised at council level, with Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council taking the decision to write to the system’s developer TerraQuest to stress the “need for urgency” to resolve the issues within the system. The Council’s Head of Planning, Damien Mulligan, had received 274 applications from the opening of the new system on 5 December 2022 to 1 March 2023 and had issued just 92 decisions in that time.

In a statement to agendaNi, the Department for Infrastructure said: “Since the launch of the new portal, there has been a growing increase in the number of planning applications submitted online. On average over 66 per cent of planning applications and 99 per cent of property certificates are now submitted online. Like many large-scale system implementations, with multiple organisations and stakeholders involved, there have been some initial problems which all partners are working with the supplier to urgently resolve. A number of the issues have already been resolved with remaining issues due to be addressed as part of a phased priority roll-out of software releases in the coming weeks of March and April… We are also continuing to engage and listen to our stakeholders including the RSUA and Construction Employers Federation (CEF) to respond to concerns raised.”

The complaints come at a time when planning fees in Northern Ireland are set to increase for the first time since 2019, with 12.3 per cent price increases coming into effect from 6 April 2023. This move is said by the Department to be in line with the Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) recommendation that the planning system be made financially sustainable.

Also notable in the area of planning reform and as a result of the PAC’s recommendations is the convening of the new interim Regional Planning Commission, which met for the first time in February 2023. The commission, chaired by former Chief Planner for Wales Rosemary Thomas, will “help guide and support the positive progression of the planning improvement agenda”.

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