Planning department issues laid bare with 1,200 live applications

Planning department issues laid bare with 1,200 live applications

10 July 2019

THE scale of problems within the district’s planning department have been laid bare in a Newry, Mourne and Down Council report which has been made public.

The local authority — which is responsible for district planners — has revealed in its annual audit committee report that the current number of live planning applications in the system is just over 1,220.

The confirmation comes after local politicians recently pointed to what they described as “serious problems” at council management level for not taking the planning backlog seriously enough.

Politicians have expressed concern that planners are not responding to their telephone calls and emails, with people who lodge applications also concerned that they are not getting any information from officials.

Elected representatives say while all the fault does not rest with planners, they are firmly of the view that there are simply not enough staff to deal with the huge volume of work.

Concern has also been expressed that the planning department is having problems retaining staff to work in a department that receives the second highest number of applications across the Province’s 11 councils.

Politicians say there is a need to ensure the planning department is running properly which the council explains in the new report is exactly what it aims to do.

A major review of planning has already been undertaken and amendments made to the so-called scheme of delegation which is a set of rules which determines whether a planning application will be decided by the local authority’s Planning Committee or planning officers.

A critical look has also been taken at staffing structures in tandem with the area’s chief planner, with council officials conceding that while there are issues with staff turnover, positions are filled as quickly as possible. 

In addition, the council has admitted there is a communication issue within the planning department with the change that needs to happen something that cannot be achieved overnight.

Significantly, the new council report warns that failure to deliver timely planning decisions is a “risk” within the corporate risk register, with the number of live planning applications increasing, not decreasing, with the figure standing at 1,223 at the end of May.

The report says an internal audit of the planning function revealed that there are a number of key controls absent from the local authority’s planning system, in particular, its performance against legislative targets, the completeness and validation of documentation supporting applications and enforcement actions.

The audit also points to a lack of clarity in respect of key performance indicators within the planning department and the lack of non-compliance by the local authority with its own planning and enforcement procedures.

The report says senior council management is considering ways forward to ensure compliance with policy and legislative targets, while maintaining the number of live cases to an acceptable level.

Council officials say that over the coming months they intend to take steps to address the various issues within the planning department to further enhance governance arrangements and are satisfied that these steps will address the need for improvements.