The latest high profile attack on Northern Ireland’s planning system came from Ryanair as it pulled out of Belfast City Airport. The airline wants an extension to the runway, enabling it to launch longer flights to European destinations and heavier passenger loads to British airports.
Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary used uncharacteristically restrained language to express his frustrations. “It is very disappointing that the promised runway extension at Belfast City Airport has still not materialised more than three years after we opened the base at Belfast City,” he said. “While we recognise the right of the Government and people of Northern Ireland to subject this small runway extension to an extended planning process, these repeated delays, the reference to a public inquiry and now the further delay to the public inquiry for spurious noise reasons, shows a lack of willingness on the part of the local authorities to grow and develop traffic, routes, tourism and jobs in Northern Ireland.”
According to Ryanair, the cost to Northern Ireland will be severe. The airline claims that one million passengers a year will be lost – though surely many these will fly with other airlines – 50 Ryanair staff will lose their jobs or be relocated and “up to 1,000 support jobs” will go.
Grievances against our planning system are nothing new. Anyone who follows the saga of the proposed new John Lewis store at Sprucefield will recognize that the planning approval process can be tortuous and slow. Meet any group of business people and the complaints about the planning system come quick and fast.
Yet anyone visiting the Department of the Environment website will have difficulty in understanding what the fuss is about. We are promised, on the website, that “the Planning Service should determine your application within eight weeks”. Though it adds the warning: “Large or complex applications may take longer.”
Even with this caveat, the optimistic tone jars with the complaints from business leaders of long delays. It also conflicts with the findings of that most respected and authoritative of institutions, the Northern Ireland Audit Office. Last November the NIAO complained that while the Planning Service had established performance targets to improve its service, it “has consistently failed to meet a number of these targets”.
The most worrying comment in the report was the reflection that: “The speed with which the Agency processes individual planning applications is its key indicator of performance. To date, the Agency has not met any of its Public Service Agreement targets for processing planning applications.” There is some comfort that “performance has improved” in the year prior to November’s report. But, not surprisingly, in the decade from 1998 to 2008 customer satisfaction plummeted, from 76% to 32%.
To be fair to a service that is widely condemned, much of the performance weakness was the result of the property boom that affected Belfast in particular. Staff were simply unable to cope with the vast increase in application numbers. Now the tide has turned, applications halved – with revenue collapsing as well. As a result, 269 Planning Service are being redeployed to other activities – without the service getting on top of its backlog.
That loss of experienced staff led to a strong warning this summer from the Royal Town Planning Institute. It was concerned at the impact of this, together with revised planning guidance – PPS21 – for the building of new homes in rural areas that will mean 2,500 previously refused applications will need to be reviewed at a time when there was not the staff to deal with them. It added that “morale in the Planning Service is already at rock bottom”.
Yet the Department of the Environment vigorously rejects the suggestions that the Planning Service underperforms, or that slow decision-making is holding back investment. A spokeswoman for the department says: “Planning Service Strategic Project teams processed 82 major strategic applications between April 2008 and August 2010. The resulting approvals represent well in excess of £1.5 billion, plus the associated construction jobs and post development job creation.” In addition, she says, another 32 “economically significant applications” were processed, delivering hundreds of millions of pounds of investment.
Instead the department points to the Planning Service’s introduction of fast track systems. “The department has made clear for some time that it wishes to improve the planning system and in this respect continues to proactively seek ways to further improve performance in Planning Service with the key goal of supporting the Northern Ireland economy,” says the spokeswoman.
“Strategic Projects teams at Planning Service headquarters were created in 2007 to specifically handle all large scale investment planning proposals and to facilitate pre-application discussions. The Strategic Projects Division also works closely with the Strategic Investment Board, responsible for the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland, to ensure that significant government projects are not delayed.“ Further, she says, a ‘Streamlined Council Consultation Scheme’ has been adopted to speed-up smaller schemes.
There are other positive signs. The Construction Employers Federation has been a strong critic of the Planning Service, but its complaints are becoming less vocal. Three years ago the CEF warned it was “not uncommon for a straightforward planning application to take up to two years from submission of the application to…. planning permission.”
John Armstrong, managing director of the CEF, reports progress since then. “We have been working very closely with senior officials in the Planning Service,” he says. But he adds: “We haven’t changed our attitude that what Northern Ireland needs is a modern, efficient and accountable planning process.
“The development control process in particular needs to be speeded-up. What we can’t have is a situation where investors who want to invest in Northern Ireland are subject to 18 months or two years delays in getting planning approval. And that is what we have had with Belfast City Airport and Sprucefield. While we give credit for improvements, there must not be any complacency.”
Jim Sammon, who speaks for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Northern Ireland, is even more critical. He has no doubt that planning delays are causing lost investment – especially as the biggest and potentially most rewarding schemes seem most prone to delay. “I have had developer after developer complaining about the system,” he says. Often, he reports, this has led to investment taking place in England or Scotland that would otherwise have happened in Northern Ireland, because the British planning system is both quicker and more certain.
“If you remove uncertainty you will get more development,” Sammon continues. “Uncertainty is the enemy of development.” He pleads with the politicians to get on with improving the system. “Ministers should be doing what they always should have been doing, which is reforming the process,” he insists. “The development plans are much too detailed. Planners’ hands are tied. This leads to all sorts of disputes on wording. It is this ‘playing with words’ that slows applications down.”
The tone in Sammon’s voice is almost desperate. It is another case where the Northern Ireland Executive must prove its ability to be decisive. If we really are losing vast amounts of investment, there is no excuse for slow reform, any more than there is for slow planning decisions.