Ma­jor shake-up to City Coun­cil de­part­ment in bid to sort out plan­ning de­lay

De­ci­sions for big­gest Belfast schemes ‘can take 125 weeks’

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - BY JOHN MULGREW

BELFAST City Coun­cil is shak­ing up its plan­ning de­part­ment in a bid to tackle long-run­ning de­lays for ma­jor de­vel­op­ments across the city.

The coun­cil is fail­ing to meet “statu­tory tar­gets” for plan­ning ap­pli­ca­tion de­ci­sions, with ma­jor ap­pli­ca­tions tak­ing an av­er­age of 125 weeks to de­cide on — more than four times the 30-week tar­get.

The de­tails of the re­vamp were in­cluded in a closed brief­ing to mem­bers of the coun­cil’s plan­ning com­mit­tee meet­ing.

It comes after this pa­per re­vealed Belfast City Coun­cil has parachuted in a top ex­pert, Scot­land’s ex-chief plan­ner Jim Mackin­non, to in­ves­ti­gate and carry out a high-level re­view of the en­tire plan­ning sys­tem fol­low­ing com­plaints to coun­cil bosses.

Mr Mackin­non has met with Belfast of­fi­cials and with de­vel­op­ers, agents and plan­ners to gauge what the main is­sues are with the coun­cil’s pro­cesses.

Now, a sep­a­rate pa­per has said that “mea­sures have been put in place to both sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the num­ber of long-stand­ing ap­pli­ca­tions in the sys­tem, and to em­bed pro­cesses which will en­sure that statu­tory pro­cess­ing times for all ap­pli­ca­tions are achieved”.

That will in­clude a shake-up of the plan­ning team in Belfast, which will in­volve a “re­vised team struc­ture with a more fo­cused man­age­ment ap­proach”.

It will also mean ex­tra re- sources be­ing put in place for teams work­ing on lo­cal ap­pli­ca­tions and ad­dress­ing the “short­fall in de­liv­ery” of a Sec­tion 76 frame­work (to ac­com­mo­date the plan­ning process be­tween coun­cil and a de­vel­oper). That in­cludes con­tri­bu­tions from ma­jor de­vel­op­ers to the coun­cil, par­tic­u­larly for larger schemes.

The coun­cil be­lieves it will take around six months to re­duce the num­ber of long-stand­ing ap­pli­ca­tions.

But it has warned that over­all plan­ning tar­gets could be “neg­a­tively im­pacted in the short term” as a re­sult.

In a bid to tackle plan­ning prob­lems and de­lays, it’s un­der­stood Belfast City Coun­cil will take on agency work­ers, hire two new tem­po­rary plan­ning of­fi­cers, as well as of­fer ex­ist­ing staff over­time.

Speak­ing about the av­er­age 125-week de­ci­sion-mak­ing time for ma­jor ap­pli­ca­tions, the doc­u­ment says that “per­for­mance has been skewed by small num­bers, legacy ap­pli­ca­tions and those ma­jor ap­pli­ca­tions which have been de­layed whilst a Sec­tion 76 agree­ment has been put in place”.

Over­all, around 240 de­ci­sions were is­sued in Septem­ber 2017, com­pared to 182 in Au­gust 2017. Belfast City Coun­cil’s plan­ning de­part­ment has dealt with and ap­proved a se­ries of ma­jor ap­pli­ca­tions over the last 12 months, in­clud­ing multi-mil­lion pound of­fice de­vel­op­ments and stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion schemes.

Mean­while, speak­ing last month about Mr Mackin­non’s role, a City Hall spokes­woman told the Belfast Tele­graph: “Mr Mackin­non has been asked to carry out a high-level re­view of how well the plan­ning ser­vice has made the tran­si­tion from the DOE (for­mer De­part­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment) to Belfast City Coun­cil, two and half years on from the trans­fer date (of de­vo­lu­tion of plan­ning power to coun­cils).

“This is not about com­plaints; it is about en­sur­ing that we pro­vide the high­est qual­ity ser­vice to cus­tomers and sup­port the growth of the city.”

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