Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Chaos looming in the Planning Service

As Chair of the Council’s Planning Committee I have expressed serious concerns about moves to drastically cut the number of professionals in the planning service. This proposal appears to be emerging because of a shortfall between the cost of the service and the income from planning fees.

As someone who has frequent disagreements with the planning service some may find it strange that I now find myself supporting the planners. But there appears to be little logic in the proposals, which are emerging from the Department of the Environment for very drastic staffing reductions in the service. The argument for cuts appears to be that there is now a funding shortfall between the cost of the service and the income from planning fees. That simply does not make sense. While there is logic in reducing the cost to the public purse by taking account of fee income it should not be the absolute factor in determining numbers. The planners perform a vital service to our society in that they take a balanced view on new developments. I may not always agree with their decisions but at least it gives us a process to ensure that there is an opportunity to take account of the views of the local community. Without their involvement we would be entirely at the mercy of the developers.

Ironically the cuts are being imposed by the current Finance Minister Sammy Wilson despite his caution last year when he was the Planning Minister and had stated, “in the face of a global economic downturn, it is widely acknowledged Planning Service has a key role to play in supporting the economy of Northern Ireland. There fore it is essential that we retain the appropriate level of experienced staff to both facilitate economic recovery and support it as it occurs.”
In my opinion these are false and hollow words in fact meaningless.

I would be quite happy to see a proper review of the size and functions of the planning service and indeed would welcome this. However these proposals make no attempt whatsoever to do this. There is no assessment of current workloads and how these compare with other areas. My understanding is that the Northern Ireland case load as well above the recommended level of 150 cases for the rest of the UK. Neither is there any analysis of the consequences of the staffing reductions - in particular what will be the impact on the time scale for considering planning applications and the implications of this for the hard pressed building industry. Also what are he longer term implications when hopefully the economy starts to pick up again and the number of planning applications increase?

These reductions are proposed by the Department of the Environment just one year before the Department hands over planning to local Councils. I am also very suspicious about the timing of all of this. The Department of the Environment is drastically cutting staff just before they hand over the service to local Councils. The Department will doubtless then wash its hands of the serious practical implications and leave it to Councils to pick up the pieces. That is entirely unacceptable. As a Councillor very closely involved with planning I certainly want to see the transfer of planning powers to District Councils. But if we are to do the job then we must have a fit for purpose planning service to support us. Disaster looms if we inherit an emasculated and disillusioned workforce and I for one will simply not accept this.

I would be more than happy to see a comprehensive review of the size and function of the planning service as part of the transfer to District Councils with Councils being fully involved ion that process. But the present proposals of the Department of Environment to quite arbitrarily reduce staffing numbers without consultation and without any analysis of the consequences were utterly unacceptable and indeed given the impending transfer of responsibility to Councils verged on sharp practice.