Planning Service Assessment

Oral Answers to Questions — Environment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 10th June 2002.

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Photo of Robert Coulter Robert Coulter UUP 3:30 pm, 10th June 2002

1. asked the Minister of the Environment whether any assessment or monitoring of the operation and functions of the Planning Service has taken place within the past three years.

(AQO 1532/01)

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

In December 1999, my predecessor, Sam Foster, inherited a Planning Service that was underfunded and under increased work pressures. It needed more resources and an overhaul of its policies and processes. We have secured additional resources that have enabled 103 staff to be recruited since devolution, with a further planned increase of 50 more staff during 2002-03. We have put in place programmes to deliver comprehensive and up-to-date suites of area plans and are working on 11 plans.

We have also put in place an ambitious programme to update and revise our planning policy statements completely. Each year, we process 7% more planning applications than we did in 1995-96. In addition, the consultation paper ‘Modernising Planning Processes’, which is the most comprehensive review of planning processes in Northern Ireland since 1973, was published in February 2002.

I am also streamlining and strengthening the enforcement powers available to the Planning Service and have today introduced a Planning (Amendment) Bill to the Assembly. That is a substantial programme of work to improve the operation and functions of the Planning Service. I shall, however, keep the performance of the Planning Service under review.

Photo of Robert Coulter Robert Coulter UUP

What impact does the Minister expect the consultation paper ‘Modernising Planning Processes’ to have?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

We aim to have a simpler, faster and more accessible planning process. There are many tensions in the Administration and in the Planning Service. People want speed but they also want public participation. They want better-quality decisions, yet the quantity of planning applications increases. Above all, we are subject to sustainable development, and that means that we must consider the economic well-being of Northern Ireland as well as the protection of the environment.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

What is the backlog? What was the backlog three years ago? Has there been an improvement in reducing the backlog?

Photo of Dermot Nesbitt Dermot Nesbitt UUP

I do not have those statistics available. However, I draw Mr Poots’s attention to the increase in planning applications. There are 24,000 planning applications with the Planning Service, and we do not have resources to match them. The number of planning officials has increased by 25% since devolution; that is a measure of our determination to ensure that we have a Planning Service worthy of Northern Ireland and its people.