The Performance of the Planning Service

25 November 2009

The Performance of the Planning Service

A report published today by Mr Kieran Donnelly, the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, examines the performance of the Northern Ireland Planning Service, an Agency within the Department of the Environment. In 2008-09, the Agency’s gross expenditure was £42 million, with income of £17.7 million, mostly from planning fees.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s main findings were:

On the performance of the Planning Service

  • In seeking to plan and manage development, the Agency has established a number of targets for its main business areas over recent years. It has consistently failed to meet a number of these targets.
  • A full framework of Policy Planning Statements (PPS) was due to be in place by the end of 2005 but is still incomplete. It was anticipated each PPS would take an average of 18 months to complete but the actual time has been significantly longer, with some taking 3 to 5 years.
  • Targets for providing up-to-date Development Plan coverage for the whole of Northern Ireland have not been achieved. The Programme for Government 2002-2005 set a target for complete coverage by March 2005. This was not achieved and only 47 per cent of Northern Ireland was covered by up-to -date draft or adopted Plans by this date. The target is now to ensure complete Development Plan coverage by March 2011.
  • 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. However, its performance has improved over the last year.
  • There has been a significant downward trend in customer satisfaction over the last decade. The level of customer satisfaction has fallen from approximately 76 percent in 1998 to 32 per cent by 2008.

On the factors influencing the Planning Service’s performance

  • The Agency’s performance has been strongly influenced, until recently, by a sustained period of economic growth and a buoyant property market. Processing times were adversely affected by a significant increase in the number of planning applications. Between 1996 and 2006, numbers of applications increased from under 20,000 to a peak of over 36,000. The Agency indicated that a significant component of the increase up to 2005-06 was applications for single rural dwellings.
  • In reaching a decision on planning applications, the Agency relies on advice and information from a number of other public bodies which can impact on the speed of decision making. Planning Service’s figures indicate that the average time taken for consultation with third parties was approximately 25 weeks.
  • As far back as 1996, the Agency’s caseload per planner was considerably above the average of other UK planning authorities1. Caseloads still appear high for certain staff and there are significant differences across Divisional Planning Offices. The absence of a staffing and caseload model leaves the Agency poorly placed to manage its resources and inhibits its ability to meet its targets.
  • Although the Agency has an efficiency plan in place aiming to reduce costs and generate extra revenue, it no longer measures unit costs. In the absence of this information, the Audit Office estimated that the cost per planning application has increased by 59 per cent from 2004-05 to 2008-09. The Audit Office also estimated that the number of decisions per planner has fallen by 19 per cent in the last two years.

On initiatives to improve performance

  • The Agency has introduced a number of initiatives to improve its service delivery. For example, a new procedure for returning incomplete planning applications seeks to improve the quality and completeness of information received and has reduced the number of invalid applications in the system from 8,000 to 500.
  • The Agency has established a new Strategic Projects and Design Division (SPD) to handle major planning applications including those with significant economic and social benefits. However at 31 March 2008, 56 per cent of SPD applications had been in the system for more than 12 months.
  • It is a statutory requirement for the Agency to consult with the relevant local council on planning proposals. A successful pilot for streamlined consultation introduced in December 2007 in Derry City Council has reduced the average processing time for minor planning applications from several months to less than six weeks. This has now been extended to all Councils.
  • In November 2004, the Agency signed a contract to procure the electronic Planning Information for Citizens (ePIC) system, intended to allow for delivery of planning processes electronically. This project is significantly behind schedule and has not yet been fully delivered. It is now expected the ePIC system will become fully operational in 2010, four years later than estimated and with a total capital cost of £12.8 million (over 130 per cent greater than the original business case estimate of £5.5 million).