Mr B Wilson: No Member will disagree with the aims of the motion. The present backlog of planning applications is unacceptable. However, we must examine why it came about and how it might be resolved. Most importantly, we must ensure that any action taken will not lead to deterioration in the service provided.
There is no quick fix to the problem. Some of the measures proposed to resolve it would significantly reduce the quality of service. For example, the previous attempt to speed up planning applications resulted in the virtual abolition of site meetings and the introduction of severe restrictions on referrals to the Planning Service management board. Although that might have helped to speed up applications, it significantly reduced the level of accountability, local input and democratic control.
The backlog of applications, and the time that it takes for PAC referrals, are important issues that highlight the serious problems within the Planning Service. In particular, the service finds it difficult to retain experienced staff. In information that we received on the Planning Service, Members were told that forty-something to 26. That does not suggest the high degree of experience required to deal with more complex issues, particularly appeals to thePAC.
Recently, there has been a tendency for newly trained staff to leave the Planning Service after two or three years to take up higher-paid jobs in the private sector or in public bodies, especially councils in theIrishRepublic. As a result of that loss of experience, new entrants are required to take on more responsibility without the guidance of experienced staff.
That lack of experience will inevitably lead to delays in the processing of applications and to an increase in the number of mistakes made. For example, the north Down section should have a complement of six officers, but, at present, there are only two. Two officers have resigned in the past month. That is unacceptable, and if allowed to continue, it will, inevitably, lead to a backlog. Mr Gallagher has not suggested how the retention of staff might be addressed. At present, morale in the Planning Service is low: perhaps we should consider a review of salary levels and conditions of service.
We must also ask why the backlog has arisen. There is no substantial backlog of routine cases in north Down or in other urban council areas — although there is a backlog of more complex cases. The problem seems to lie in more rural council areas, particularly in those west of the Bann. It is clear that, prior to the introduction of PPS 14, there was a massive increase in the number of applications for single dwellings in some council areas. In the Fermanagh and Dungannon council areas, almost 1,000 applications for single dwellings were submitted in the three months before the introduction of PPS 14 in 2006. That contrasts with five such applications in north Down. Such an increase in applications made a backlog inevitable. No system could cope with an increase on that scale.
That backlog in applications is reducing, and will continue to do so. In the same three months of this year, applications in the Dungannon and Fermanagh council areas dropped to 223 and 216 respectively, a fall of 76%. Overall, the total number of applications for single dwellings has fallen from 6,400 to 2,500, a drop of 61%.
That fall in applications should help to take some pressure off the planners and enable them to reduce the backlog further. Latest figures show that that trend is now established. The backlog is very slowly being reduced.
Furthermore, the pressure on planners could be relieved by increasing the number of areas in which development is permitted and by reducing the number of applications for minor extensions. However, relaxation of the level of scrutiny of applications must be resisted, together with the temptation to “nod them through” only to improve figures, or because of political pressure. High standards of scrutiny must be retained, and that requires experienced and well-motivated staff. That experience cannot be achieved overnight.