Environment body doing its best to tackle planning backlog, say officials

By Iain Gray

 

ENVIRONMENT authorities are doing all they can to clear a backlog of planning applications, officials have said.

Their words came after Ards and North Down planners last week criticised the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) for refusing to prioritise major planning applications.

The NIEA is legally required to give an opinion on the possible environmental impacts of planning applications across the province.

According to local planners, the NIEA’s refusal to prioritise the largest and most important projects on their books is adding to massive delays in the planning system; delays that resulted in large regeneration schemes and housing estates in this area sailing well past their deadlines for approval.

Offered the chance to comment on the allegation, a spokesman for NIEA’s parent body – the Department for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs – stated that officials are aware of frustrations caused by slow responses to planning applications.

Said the spokesman: “Although initiatives taken to date have improved [the department’s] performance levels in 2023/24 in comparison to the previous year, we acknowledge that more must be done.

“We are aware that there is currently a backlog of agricultural cases and have implemented a number of measures to reduce this, including reviewing processes and redeploying staff to help undertake required assessments.

“Officials will continue to seek initiatives to further improve performance in 2024/25.”

Major planning applications are supposed to be processed within 30 weeks, but last week it was revealed that, on average, Ards and North Down planners are taking almost three times that long.

As the Spectator revealed last week, a loosening of the order in which Bangor’s Queen’s Parade revamp can be built took 10 months to approve, while the relocation of Bangor Central Integrated Primary School took a year and a half to sort out.

Most egregiously, it took planners just shy of three years to sign off on a large housing estate in Ballyhalbert.

Planners blamed the hold-ups on Stormont departments they have to consult with, claiming that those bodies aren’t getting their reports in on time.

They held particular ire for the NIEA, which local planners accused of ignoring pleas to treat major developments as a priority – requests that, said planners, the NIEA used to honour, but no longer will.

That particular allegation was not specifically addressed in the department’s statement this week.