Very good progress has been made in reducing the number of live planning applications. Although the number of applications received this year has decreased by 27% compared to the same time last year, almost 18,000 applications have been processed to decision or withdrawal over the same period. As a result, the number of live applications at various stages of processing has been reduced to approximately 14,500.
Not only is the number of applications live in the system decreasing; the processing times, which relate to targets set in the Programme for Government, continue to show a month-by-month improvement. public service agreement targets for processing 70% of intermediate applications were met in November.
I thank the Minister for his response. He and other Members know that we are currently going through a difficult economic period. Some businesses, albeit a small number, want nevertheless to expand. Can the Minister assure us that, if businesses approach his planning officials, some form of fast-tracking can be offered so that they can create more employment?
There have been massive improvements in the time that it takes for planning applications to be dealt with. All Members of the Assembly who sit on councils know that, by the end of February, a streamlining process should be in place in all council areas.
In the pilot area in Londonderry, the results have been quite startling. The processing times for minor applications have been reduced from 89 working days to 28 working days. We are now focusing on improving times for intermediate applications. Of course, we have already seen some of the benefits of fast-tracking applications. Although there is an onus on the Planning Service to deal with applications quickly, there is also an onus on applicants not to submit rubbish planning applications that require much work from planning officials to bring them up to the required standard.
As a result of pre-application discussions, proper applications are submitted with all of the relevant information. We are meeting our target of dealing with major applications in six months. That has been the case for those applications that I already mentioned — the Enniskillen project, the Titanic signature project, the IKEA project — and a number of other applications. Meeting that target has been a big improvement, and it means that builders can get on the ground and start to employ people much more quickly.
It takes up to two years for wind-farm applications to go through the planning process. Given the renewable obligations for that important source of energy and the massive amounts of money that companies pay for their applications, will the Minister tell the House whether those applicants will see the time spent considering their applications reduced?
I am amazed at that question. The one thing that Members ought to do before asking a question is to carry out a bit of research to ensure that they do not leave themselves open to an easy put-down. If the Member had done his research, he would have found that the Planning Service has been so effective that it has already approved a sufficient number of wind-farm applications to meet the target that the Assembly and the Executive have set for renewable-energy production for 2012. Indeed, once those other applications have been processed — even if it takes two years — they should enable us to meet the target that has been set for 2020.
Perhaps the Member should have examined the facts, before he spoke about how inadequate the Planning Service has been in dealing with those applications. If he had done so, he would have known that we are ahead of the game. We are dealing with those applications seriously and processing them quickly. Whether applicants then build those wind farms is another matter. At least, the Planning Service and planning officers are doing the job with which they have been tasked.
A Cheann Comhairle, I hope that my question does not amaze the Minister too much. Does the Minister see any merit in asking divisional planning managers to institute annual meetings and seminars with local planning agents, architects and advisers? That would ensure better communication and more efficient use of Planning Service resources.
To a certain extent, divisional planning officers already do much of that work. For example, the Planning Service is currently touring Northern Ireland explaining to agents and architects the background to planning policy statement (PPS) 21 and how applications will be dealt with, so that they are clear about which applications are likely to be successful and which are not. I mentioned earlier the issue of streamlining. Before streamlining is introduced in any area, divisional planning managers will explain the process to architects and agents.
When the process was introduced in Londonderry, some of the agents and architects were so surprised that they got responses back within four weeks that they thought that the wrong planning applications had been returned. Therefore, there has been an attempt to try to explain that process.
With regard to applications, especially the major applications — as mentioned by the Member for Upper Bann — agents and architects are encouraged to come in and talk about their application before they submit it so that they are aware of the information that is required. Therefore, a lot of consultation happens already. On the matter of individual planning applications, I am encouraging planning officers to talk to agents and applicants rather than allowing things to drift and applications to rest for a long time.
The Planning Service recently received £2 million in additional funds during the monitoring rounds, as a result of the reduced fees that it has received. Will the Minister state the number of applications that had been expected but not received, and how that lesser number of applications has contributed to the reduction in the backlog? Given the increased cost burden of the Planning Service, largely as a result of the lack of work that is going through because of the reduction in the number of applications, does the Minister have any proposals to reduce costs in his Department?
The number of applications received by the Planning Service has fallen quite dramatically. In the last briefing that I received, I was given figures for November 2008 that showed that applications were down by approximately 40%, which is a sizeable reduction in the Planning Service’s income.
The staffing of the Planning Service depends upon its income from fees, thereby resulting in some relation between its staffing level and its workload, which I believe is the right way of doing things. However, that very quick reduction in the number of applications means that it is difficult to respond by reducing the number of officers employed. Furthermore, we hoped that the reduction in the number of applications would allow us to reduce the number of live applications in the system and to clear that backlog.
A number of things can be done to try to find ways of funding the services. Although my Department received £2 million from the Department of Finance and Personnel, it did not simply go to the Finance Minister with a begging bowl — it found approximately £3 million in its own budget to help with the shortfall.
Other things can be done also, and I have spoken to officials about measures that might be taken. I do not want to outline those at present because, until we have looked at what savings they might produce — it would be wrong of me to do so. However, I assure the Member that I am aware of the drop in income from fees, which amounts to approximately £6·5 million, the impact that that is likely to have on the resources available to the Planning Service, and the need — emphasised by the many questions about it that have been asked today — to make sure that we keep the staffing complement in the Planning Service to deal with applications as they come in.