“Northern Ireland’s planning system is not working efficiently and, in many aspects, is failing to deliver for the economy, communities or the environment.” That is the conclusion of a joint report published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) on 1 February 2022. NIAO have published a helpful summary of the report on their Youtube channel, for those interested in hearing more.

So, what do members tell us?

The findings of this report are disappointing but sadly not surprising. The FMB has for many years voiced members’ concerns that the current system is choking growth and has had a major impact on their ability to plan work.

We need to build confidence in a planning system which is fit for purpose and that is going to help us build the schools, the hospitals, the infrastructure and the housing that our society deserves.

Many Master Builder companies proudly deliver these projects. Since the current system was first conceived, we have voiced FMB members’ concerns to senior officials, elected representatives and ministers in office, indicating that planning issues have a continuous knock-on effect for the entire construction industry. Authorities have long acknowledged that the system has been under-resourced and required time to bed down and develop. Now six years on from it’s inception, it is surely time to recognise the need for radical change.

The report on Planning in Northern Ireland considers how the system has operated since April 2015, when planning responsibility fundamentally changed for delivering most operational planning functions passed from central government to local councils. However, the Department for Infrastructure retains a central role, with responsibility for preparing planning policy and legislation, as well as monitoring and reporting on the performance of councils in delivering planning functions.

The planning system should positively and proactively facilitate development that contributes to a more socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable Northern Ireland.     

Key findings of the report include:

  • The planning system has not met many of its main performance targets.
  • Despite the importance of planning, the system is increasingly financially unsustainable.
  • There is an urgent need for improved joined-up working between organisations delivering the planning system.
  • Many statutory consultees are struggling to provide information in a timely manner.
  • The system isn’t meeting its plan-making objectives.
  • The planning system faces challenges in effectively managing applications which have the potential to have a significant impact on the environment.
  • There are a large number of public bodies involved in delivering the planning system in Northern Ireland.
  • Each council is responsible for the creation of a Local Development Plan - six years into the process, no council has an approved plan / strategy.
  • The lack of LDPs means planning decisions are not guided by up-to-date plans.
  • Despite the lack of progress, councils report having invested significant time and resources on developing plans.
  • Almost one-fifth of the most important planning applications are not processed within three years.
  • Whilst comparisons between planning systems’ performances across the UK is challenging, it appears that the planning system in Northern Ireland is slower than in other jurisdictions.
  • There is substantial variation in timeliness performance within Northern Ireland ‘s local councils.

What is the FMB calling for?

  • An urgent Ministerial review of the current system.
  • Clear short and long-term objectives to deliver real change.
  • Adoption of an up-to-date online system which is consistent across all local councils.
  • Investment in training, communication and in some cases direction for industry operatives to improve poor quality applications.
  • Embracing good practices from other UK regions which have delivered more efficient processes.
  • Clear and fully accountable processes which strive for excellence.

Do you have questions?

If you have questions or concerns you would like to discuss in relation to this matter, please contact FMB Northern Ireland Director, Gavin McGuire at [email protected].

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Gavin McGuire

Gavin McGuire

Director, FMB Northern Ireland, Federation of Master Builders