Projects hit by planning delays

Processing major schemes taking three times longer…

By Iain Gray

ARDS and North Down Council planners are taking almost three times as long as they should to sign off major planning schemes.

Affected projects in this area include the Queen’s Parade revamp in Bangor, a large Ballyhalbert housing development, and the relocation of a North Down primary school, all of which went far beyond deadlines in which they were supposed to be dealt with.

But the planning team have pointed the finger elsewhere, blaming the situation on Stormont departments failing to send in their verdicts on large applications quickly enough.

They held particular ire for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (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 was all stated in a meeting of the council’s Planning Committee on Tuesday night, during which planners’ most recent performance statistics were interrogated.

Between October of last year and March this year, the council hit just two of its nine performance targets.

And the two it passed both involved internal reviews – one on the number of planning staff reporting that they’d received monthly briefings, and the other undertaking surveys of existing tree protection orders.

The council is supposed to process major applications in less than 30 weeks; on average, Ards and North Down planners took 87 weeks to deal with developments in that category.

Specifically, they needed 40 weeks to change the order in which phases of the Queen’s Parade revamp can be carried out, 153 weeks to approve a housing development in Ballyhalbert, and 81 weeks to deal with the relocation of Bangor Central Integrated Primary School.

However, the council did manage to approve a redesign of the Ulster Folk Museum and a Newtownards social housing development within the 30-week time limit.

Planners are also meant to deal with smaller, everyday applications within 15 weeks; on average, it took the local team 17 weeks to tackle them.

They’re also supposed to deal with at least 70% of planning breaches within 39 weeks, but only managed to process 59% of cases within that time.

Quizzed by councillors, planning officials blamed delays tackling breaches on ‘a Covid backlog’ and pointed the finger at Stormont departments for not responding quickly enough.

The officials sought to minimise the situation by saying that the figures for all of last year were slightly better than the recent six-month statistics – though the council still didn’t hit its major, local or breach targets.

And they sought to blame Stormont departments for not sending in their legally required consultation responses on time, specifically calling out the NIEA for refusing to prioritise major projects on request.

“They have stopped doing that,” said an official. “They have actually said that they will not be prioritising any cases whatsoever.

“It is very, very frustrating; how would it look if the planners suddenly decided that we weren’t engaging?”

Officials complained that they get ‘hammered by public accounts’ for failing to prioritise the most economically significant developments to Northern Ireland, while ‘consultees are saying they are unwilling to prioritise applications, despite [planners] saying they’re of significance or subject to funding deadlines’.

They also blamed staff shortages for delays processing applications, and suggested that the 153-week time for the Ballyhalbert housing estate was down to hold-ups with NI Water.

Councillors expressed their own frustrations with the poor performance, with Alliance councillor Victoria Moore stating: “It’s difficult to watch this continually in reports, a show of red flags, and not think that something in the system needs amendment.”

The NIEA was contacted and offered the chance to respond to the comments from council planners, but did not respond by the time of going to press.