Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Public Accounts Committee, meeting on Thursday, 24 February 2022
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr William Humphrey (Chairperson)
Mr Roy Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Cathal Boylan
Miss Órlaithí Flynn
Ms Cara Hunter
Mr William Irwin
Mr Maolíosa McHugh
Mr Andrew Muir
Witnesses:Mr Stuart Stevenson, Department of Finance
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office
Councillor Steven Corr, Northern Ireland Local Government Association
Councillor Robert Irvine, Northern Ireland Local Government Association
Ms Karen Smyth, Northern Ireland Local Government Association
Inquiry into Planning in Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Local Government Association
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): We are joined by representatives from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA): Councillor Steven Corr, Councillor Robert Irvine and Ms Karen Smyth. Mr Donnelly is also attending the meeting, and, remotely, Mr Stuart Stevenson, Treasury Officer of Accounts (TOA), should be joining us. Mr Stevenson, are you there?
Mr Stuart Stevenson (Department of Finance): Good afternoon, Chair. Yes, I can hear you.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Good afternoon. You are very welcome.
I welcome Councillor Steven Corr, Councillor Robert Irvine and Ms Karen Smyth to the meeting. I ask whomever will be the initial spokesperson from NILGA to make opening comments, and then members will ask questions.
Councillor Steven Corr (Northern Ireland Local Government Association): Thank you, Chairman. I thank the Committee for inviting NILGA to give evidence this afternoon on what is a vital matter for local government. NILGA welcomes the Audit Office report on planning. It has shone a light on the planning system as it currently operates.
As chair of the NILGA planning infrastructure network, which brings together members and officers from 11 council areas on a cross-party basis, I reassure the Committee that councillors across those 11 districts are working hard to ensure that planning is a successful local government-led service that is experienced positively across the region by all partners in the system. I understand that you have had detailed conversations with our officer colleagues on how improvements could be made and on the areas of work in which we experience barriers. I look forward to our discussion today, and I hope that we can add value from an elected member perspective.
From your conversation with the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) last week, we have teased out a few issues that you may want to discuss with us. Hopefully, they tally with the Committee's intent for today. First, I highlight that NILGA was not approached by the Audit Office to participate in the whole-system audit of planning. While it may largely make sense to focus on the operational delivery of the service, it is unclear from the report whether any elected members were approached to participate or give views. NILGA believes that that potential omission of having system decision makers contribute to the Audit Office research and report is a gap that we can perhaps assist in addressing today.
Secondly, I want to put to bed any concerns about perceived undue influence on councillors or potential corruption. All councillors are required to adhere to the code of conduct for councillors, which, although we are keen to see it revised and updated, provides an extremely thorough foundation for members on ethics, planning and conduct. We have had a look at the information provided on the Local Government Commissioner for Standards website. Since 2016, there have been only 23 adjudications on complaints against councillors, only two of which related to planning. Those two people are no longer councillors. The commissioner's office receives around 50 to 60 complaints a year against councillors. The majority of complaints are closed at assessment or investigation stage, with no evidence of breach of the code. In 2018-19, 62 complaints were received, and there were only 32 ongoing investigations from the previous year. Only three of those complaints were in relation to planning issues, with an additional complaint in relation to lobbying and access. NILGA is confident that concerns about planning misconduct are largely perception rather than reality, but, in each local government mandate, we ensure that all 462 councillors are provided with relevant information on ethics and conduct and that training is made available to ensure continuity on good practice. My colleague Councillor Irvine will expand on that shortly.
NILGA is of the view that there was a widespread lack of confidence in councils and elected members in the time preceding the transfer of planning to councils. That issue has diminished, but the ongoing impact can be seen in the overweening control exerted by the Department for Infrastructure in council planning activities. We understand that the Department was responding to unfounded fears at the time of the transfer, but the unnecessary checks and balances that were put in place in 2015 are outdated and negatively impact on economic development across the North. The old hierarchy of a Department dictating to local government is an unnecessary barrier to the development of a modern, effective and efficient planning system.
It is clear that a key requirement moving forward is for central and local government to be equal partners. We in local government look forward to the co-design of the changes that we need. Revised legislation is urgently required and must be a key priority in the incoming Assembly's mandate if the forthcoming Programme for Government and government strategies are to deliver for our citizens.
With your indulgence, I will bring in my colleague Councillor Robert Irvine to touch on a number of other issues.
Councillor Robert Irvine (Northern Ireland Local Government Association): Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to meet you. I am a member and former chair of the Fermanagh and Omagh District Council planning committee, and I have been materially involved for some time in working with NILGA to develop its member training offer to elected members. I have acted as an elected member mentor on the accredited Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) planning programme for elected members that it has developed. That substantive programme has been well received across local government. It has been common practice for the planning committee chairs to participate, resulting in them receiving an ILM qualification. The participating members engage with academics and planning professionals and visit a council in GB to garner experience from a similar planning system elsewhere. Assessment is by coursework rather than exam. NILGA also provides focused training on ethics and the code of conduct. That was particularly popular with incoming members at the start of the 2019 mandate. It complements the councillors' guide that is provided to all elected members at the start of each mandate.
NILGA strongly believes that any council that is serious about involving the social, economic and environmental well-being of its communities must be committed to developing its councillors. That is borne out across local government in other jurisdictions. In an effort to develop a consistent approach across councils, NILGA has taken responsibility in Northern Ireland for assessing and awarding the councillor development charter, which provides a robust, structured framework that is designed to help councils to enhance and to embed councillor development. To date, nine councils have achieved the charter, of which four have successfully achieved the advanced charter-plus standard. The remaining two councils are working towards the award.
NILGA works closely with sister local government associations (LGAs) in other jurisdictions to ensure that the high quality of the charter awards is maintained and is consistent across the UK. Once awarded, the charter has a lifespan of three years, after which a council will be required to submit details of how it has sustained the standard, and the council is reassessed against the charter. An informal review is also carried out after 18 months to check progress and to identify any needs. Each council assesses its own training needs, so there will be variations between councils. However, we have confidence that the framework provided by the charter assists our councils to improve planning practice locally on a regionally consistent basis.
The variation between councils is also evident in the different approaches to schemes of delegation and decision-making. I am aware that particular note has been taken of the variation between councils in relation to a number of overturns of officer recommendations. However, I counter concerns about that by suggesting that it is a sign of a healthy, functioning planning system, where those overturns are in line with the rules. As local development plans (LDPs) reach fruition, that issue will lessen in frequency, as the planning policy that members will deal with will have developed and will be more appropriate to local needs.
NILGA fully supports the ability of each council to develop a local approach to planning within the bounds set by legislation, policy, guidance and the code of conduct. Each council planning committee will have agreed a local scheme of delegation with its planning officer, and those are kept under review, as is the planning committee protocol for each council, which is based on a model protocol provided by the Department.
Finally, I note with interest the discussion that the Committee had with SOLACE last week about the planning forum and a former ministerial planning forum. NILGA and elected council members do not have a place on the current planning forum, which is an operational officer forum that includes officials from across central government and three planning officers from councils. We support the idea that membership of the planning forum should be extended to include representatives from the development industry. Applicants and agents must have a voice on such a forum, as we are all in the system together. The only way that we will resolve the issue is by working together.
A suggestion has been made in local government that it might be helpful to rebadge the forum as a regional planning commission or something similar, with the aim of creating something new rather than revamping the existing planning forum. We would also welcome a revisiting of the former ministerial planning forum, which brought together the Minister and the chairs of the 11 planning committees and enabled a central local political discussion focused on planning. We believe that such a forum could complement and add value to the work of the political partnership panel and allow more space at the partnership panel for consideration of a central local approach to other vital cross-cutting issues.
We wish the Committee well in its deliberations and trust that members will agree with us when we express our strongly held view that the redesign of the system must be about outcomes and delivery and removing any tendency that results in failure demand, navel-gazing or being fastidious about process. We welcome the opportunity to discuss the report with the Committee and are happy to answer as many of your questions as we can today.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Thank you. We will raise the issue of the Audit Office not speaking to NILGA later.
The report shows an incredibly high level of overturns in some councils. How can that be justified?
Councillor Irvine: I will take that first, and Councillor Corr can come in after me. When the process was delivered back to councils, we had the overarching strategic planning policy statement (SPPS), all the planning policy statements (PPSs) and the regional planning strategy, but the sentiment coming out of that devolution of power back to local government was that people in the locality should have the ability to tailor the policies to need in the local area. In Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, as with several other councils — I see Maolíosa from Derry City and Strabane District Council and Roy from Mid and East Antrim Borough Council — a large portion of our area has a rural connection. People who work in the area want to live and work in the area, and, because of that, we have a high proportion of applications for dwellings in the countryside.
The aspiration was that the SPPS would be the document and the framework that we would work to, not that it would tell us what to do in each of the 11 areas. We were given the ability to interpret, and that is what we do in our area. I am proud of that and will be an advocate of calling in officer recommendations for committees to discuss so that they can bring in items of material interest that the officers possibly have not given enough weight to. That is what the committee forum is all about. It is about scrutinising, interrogating and arriving at a decision that is locally based, not in a strict framework.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What would you say, Councillor Irvine, to someone who says that what you describe as "interpret" is helping to create the logjam?
Councillor Irvine: I would disagree with that. Are we trying to process for the sake of processing, or are we trying to arrive at decisions that are tailored to the needs of the people in our community? What is driving the situation? I see Kieran Donnelly, the head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). It is all right dealing with and working with the process, but, if you do not reach an outcome that is beneficial to the people in your jurisdiction, the process is wrong. We are trying to use a process that is rigid, and we are trying to go towards outcomes that are more based — not necessarily skewed towards — on the needs of the people in our district.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You said that nine councils are signed up to or compliant with the charter but two are not. What is the status of those two councils?
Ms Karen Smyth (Northern Ireland Local Government Association): Nine councils have achieved the charter, four of which have gone a stage further and achieved charter-plus, and they are now in a cycle of maintaining those awards. It is a bit like Investors in People but for councillors. Two councils are a wee bit further behind in the process, but they are both actively working towards the charter, and we anticipate that they will receive assessments.
Ms Smyth: It provides an intentional approach to elected member training and development. It is very much elected member-led, and the elected members will be materially involved in assessing their training needs. It helps them to develop as they go along. If a member has identified planning training as a particular need, that will be a feature. They will have individual training plans as well as the more consistent approach across the councils. We maybe need to take a more focused look at how councillors are trained in relation to the planning committees, because the report has picked out that there is variation between councils, and NILGA could do a bit of work to build more consistency into that.
Ms Smyth: NILGA is providing what it can with the resources that it has. We have provided the Institute of Leadership and Management accredited qualification on planning in particular, as Councillor Irvine articulated. We also provide focused training on ethics and the code of conduct for elected members, and we provide a substantive councillors' guide to each elected member that gives detail on what is required in the planning process and what is required around ethics and conduct.
Some councils have been incredibly proactive in making training mandatory for councillors through a council decision. I would like to take a look at what training is provided in each council for the planning committee and whether a common syllabus has been developed by planning officers, because I am not across the detail of that at the moment.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I will point out that most members of the Committee have served in local government and have sympathy, though I never actually served on the planning committee. Which two councils are not yet at charter level?
Ms Smyth: To the best of my knowledge, it is Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What role has NILGA played in making the concerns that you have articulated today known to the Department and to government?
Ms Smyth: NILGA works closely with the Department, and Councillor Corr, in his role as chair of the place-shaping and infrastructure network, will regularly meet the chief planner. The chief planner also comes to NILGA executive committee meetings to address issues with the planning system and to work in close collaboration with local government as far as we can effect that.
NILGA was materially involved in working with the Department and council officials in the design of the system, which, we acknowledge, is not effective. It is dysfunctional and needs to be improved. We have also provided responses to the Department on its consultations on planning policy and the review of the implementation of the Planning Act and have articulated many of the concerns that were articulated by the Audit Office in its report, which effectively states what the problems are.
We are concerned now with working with the Department and councils to develop a plan to take things forward, to make a change to get the legislation that we need to get the change to the system that is required.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Councillor Corr, in your opening remarks, you talked about NILGA not being represented on the planning forum. I am hugely sympathetic to that point, as are other members. When the overall report from the Committee is finalised, we will know whether the Committee collectively takes that view. The joined-upness that the Committee has asked for across all its reports makes good sense.
Councillor Irvine, you referred twice to the former ministerial planning forum. Was that the term that you used?
Councillor Irvine: Yes, that is correct.
Councillor Irvine: It is really officer-to-officer, whereas you have indirectly questioned me with regard to what the committee does. The decision-makers now at local government level are councillors. We decide. What we delegate for the officers to decide is under delegated power, so, essentially, we are still the decision-makers.
At the moment, we do not have a voice to express our concerns around the current legislation and the problems that it presents. I go back to the previous question, in which you highlighted the logjam in the system. I would probably get you to look at the statistics. A lot of committees call in decisions, but, under the scheme of delegation, the majority of the applications are dealt with by officers under that delegated scheme with regard to responsibility and turnout. Where it differs in each of the councils is the ability to call in.
We are at the cliff face and the quarry face, yet we do not have a voice at ministerial level to express our concerns and to express, basically, our experience after six and a half years. Whilst our officers do as good a job as they can, because they are not the decision makers in the system, we feel that we have been left out in the cold. We feel that we need a voice, so that you, as the decision makers at a higher level, can talk and interact with us and decide. I am not disparaging the work of officers at any level, but you understand what we do, and we want you then to understand the frustrations that we have, so that you can carry that back. You refer to your experience in local government, but, obviously, that was prior to the devolution of those powers. We just want to talk on a level with you.
Ms Smyth: Chair, I will come in on that. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for NILGA to have a place on the planning forum. From discussions with our planning officers, I am not sure that there is overall local government satisfaction with the input to the planning forum, even at officer level. The planning forum was set up as a result of the Irvine report on the performance of statutory consultees. It was set up mainly to deal with that issue. From talking to our officers about what can happen at the planning forum, I know that it is largely a conversation between civil servants about how Departments relate to each other, and it is more operational. Our officers, particularly, would like to take the idea of a forum, not necessarily the planning forum as it stands, and to develop that, maybe as a commission or under another title, to really bring all the players in the system together to improve the system and to work out how to take it forward. The ministerial forum was more of the political discussion and the political bolt-on to that.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): So that I am absolutely clear, NILGA's position is that the planning forum should be scrapped and a regional planning commission that would include representatives from NILGA should be set up.
Ms Smyth: It certainly would include local government officers.
Ms Smyth: I understand that.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Last week, Alison McCullagh made a point to us. As politicians, many of us being former councillors, we are sympathetic to your issue. Why do you not want representatives on the planning commission?
Ms Smyth: I suppose that there is a kind of split between the operational and the political. The way that it was initially set up was that there was that political meeting group, and that was effective in having that discussion with the Minister and the planning committee chairs. Certainly, there would be room for an elected member to go on to whatever the replacement for the planning forum would be, but, that said, it would depend on that group's terms of reference and the outcomes that it hoped to achieve. It is a question of whether an elected member would materially be able to add value to that conversation or whether it would be better to have the elected members' conversations following on from and building on the officers' conversations. Similarly, for example, the political partnership panel is a meeting between local government members — one from each council — and the Executive Ministers, and that is a political discussion. That is supported by a meeting between the permanent secretaries and the chief executives of the councils. We see that mechanism where operational discussions and political discussions are had in two separate arenas.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): We are not the Infrastructure Committee, and I do not want to stray into its remit. Apart from anything else, most of this Committee is on the Infrastructure Committee [Laughter.]
Ms Smyth: I have noticed a few familiar faces.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Given the reputational or perceptional problem with planning in Northern Ireland — whatever way you want to call it — and the fact that, as I identified with the permanent secretary at a previous meeting a fortnight ago today, companies in Northern Ireland have decided to locate elsewhere in the UK because of planning, such are their frustrations, we need to be imaginative here to get the problems addressed. Clearly, there was a problem before RPA, and that problem is now bigger.
We need to be imaginative in how we address those issues.
This is my final question, and then I will hold my whisht. Am I right in saying that councillors have to declare interests in relation to planning committees?
Councillor Irvine: They do, yes. Just the same — [Inaudible.]
Councillor Irvine: Sorry, I spoke over Steven. He can come back in.
Just as we have to declare interests if it is a relative or there is a financial interest, an officer has to declare an interest if it is an application that pertains to him or to a close relative. Under our scheme of delegation, if that declaration is made as the application is being processed, that application comes before the committee for a decision, rather than being streamed under the scheme of delegation. We have that sort of fallback option in place.
Councillor Irvine: I am happy enough with it at the moment, yes. I am not sure what Councillor Corr will say.
Councillor Corr: I concur with that, but I am not too sure that it is as robust, because I am just not aware of how robust it is. From being an elected member, I know how we work, but I do not know —
Councillor Corr: Yes, our elected members.
Councillor Corr: I imagine that the declarations of interests are the same across all 11 council areas. Unless I am contradicting something, I imagine that they are all the same.
Ms Smyth: If it would be helpful for the Committee, I can do a bit of research and come back to you with the answer to that question.
Councillor Corr: Yes, for the sake of uniformity.
Ms Smyth: It is just not something to which we have access.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): From your previous answer about the charter, I am not sure that they will be the same. Clarity around that would be useful.
Mr Muir: Thanks for coming along. It is appreciated and adds to the evidence that we received from the Department and from SOLACE to help us to understand the context.
On the issue of overturns and stuff like that, my understanding is that a significant number of those overturns relate to developments in the countryside. There is an argument that those overturns are contrary to planning policy. I understand the points that you outlined about that system being inherited, but the officer recommendations are in line with policy, and the overturns are contrary to it. Is that policy being set aside in those cases?
Councillor Irvine: That question falls to me, because I do not think that Steven has many single dwellings in the countryside. [Laughter.]
The SPPS is in place. PPS 21 is probably the most pertinent policy in the countryside. It used to be PPS 14. Cathal and, probably, Maolíosa and Roy will nod their heads at that, because a lot of people would knock on their doors about that.
We do not set policy aside. My first point is that, if you want to see a planning committee in operation, you should go on to YouTube. We have all been working virtually because of COVID-19, so all the councils have gone on to live streaming, and you can log in, sit down and watch them.
I will talk from my experience with Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. In the High Court ruling regarding the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council decision about two years ago, a judge ruled that any deviation from an officer recommendation needed to be substantively backed up by both written and oral evidence; in other words, you need to see evidence of how, why and under what regime the committee members are overturning a recommendation from an officer. That is basically for the purpose of providing substantive evidence. Even before that ruling, we in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council had taken the view that, when an officer makes a recommendation for refusal, that recommendation should come forward with a list of points for refusal that the committee will talk through during its deliberations and its interrogation — I use that word, but it is done on a friendly basis — of the officers about the reasons that they have arrived at that decision and about what they have or have not counted as material. As a committee, we will then come towards an agreed position individually and collectively about the reasons for overturn. The member proposing and the member seconding in the committee have to, at the chair's direction, come up with substantive planning reasons for overturning refusal items.
A lot of the recommendations for refusal under certain policies, particularly those under PPS 21, such as, say, CTY 4, CTY 7 or CTY 8, are interlinked. You could have five items for refusal, but, if you overturn, say, refusal item 1, items 2 and 3 could fall because they are interlinked and interdependent. If you overturn refusal item 1, you will drop off 2 and 3, so you then have to go to 4 and 5 to say why you are doing it. That focuses the mind of the committee members on what they consider and what the body collectively considers to be material; the weight that they will give it in regard to what the officer is recommending; and what they consider to be weight. They will then decide what is going on.
Some of the issues are to do with gap sites. I see that Cathal is smiling; you know the phrase. It is about the interpretation, under the policy, of what constitutes a building and what constitutes a gap that two additional dwellings can be put into, without creating a ribbon of development. I am sorry for going down to that level of technicality, but that is what we, as members, have to deal with and interpret. Our officers will come with their deliberation and interpretation of the outcome of their determination. I emphasise the word "interpretation". The policy and the guidance notes that lie underneath it that the officers use as their daily framework to carry out the work does not say, "You have to have a gap site of 110 metres in width that will allow you to put two dwellings in that have the same frontage as the other two dwellings or properties either side of it". The size could be 80 metres or 70 metres. It all depends on the circumstances surrounding each application, and the circumstances pertaining to that application. When I was chair, I received call-in applications from members who wanted to decide on applications that were on the delegated list, but we had to decide them as a committee. When I saw the number of applications, I said, "Right, call-in items. I'm going to allow 30 minutes to 40 minutes for each application". That was to give enough time for members to hear the presentation from the officers; to hear any representations from the agent or applicant; to hear any representations from objectors; to hear the officers' rebuttal of the evidence or speech that was provided by the applicant or agents; and then for our own deliberation, as a committee, to say, "Why are you doing this?", "Why are you doing that?", "I believe that that is OK" or "We could get one or two dwellings in"; and to come to a decision. Eventually, materiality comes down to the proper interpretation and application of the policy, aligned with the guidelines.
Councillor Irvine: I am sorry that I took so long, but it is technical.
Mr Muir: I will come to the local development planning process, because that is one of the issues about the policies. Some planning committees meet for, potentially, days to consider decisions, but some meet for hours, so there is a clear disparity in how planning committees operate. Is there an understanding of why that is the case?
Councillor Corr: Across 11 council areas?
Mr Muir: Yes. Some meet for days on end, but some get their business done in an evening.
Councillor Corr: Again, I do not know. I do not want to speak on behalf of the other 10 councils, but —
Ms Smyth: I will come in on that. Robert was trying to get across the subjectivity of planning applications and situations. The variety of planning applications that councils receive is considerable. Even major applications can range from a couple of playing fields with Portakabins to 49 houses. That is a huge disparity. Different applications will take different lengths of time. The kind of applications that are received will depend on the council area. That will vary over the meetings. It may be that some councils tend to take longer for meetings, but it will depend on what kind of applications they receive.
Mr Muir: Steven, how long do your council meetings usually go on for?
Councillor Corr: They do not go on for days. They go on for an hour or a few hours at most. There is always an opportunity for site visits for anything that is a bit more controversial. However, they are a lot quicker. The delegated authority from officers, which Robert outlined, tends to keep the planning applications that come before the committee to a minimum.
Mr Muir: That is an issue for me. Belfast is the largest local authority. Others have more significant member involvement and intervention in relation to applications.
One of my questions is about the call-in of applications from the delegated authority, so that elected representatives on the planning committee can call in the application for consideration. Is any understanding given to the committee why that councillor decided to call in that application? There must be reasons for a councillor deciding to call in an application. Is that detailed to the committee? Is the committee told and is it recorded whether that member was contacted by objectors or applicants and what conversations were had to ensure that the application was called in? What is done in a spirit of transparency about how that has managed to come about?
Councillor Corr: Again, to speak only from a Belfast point of view, I know that declarations of interest at the outset of any meeting or even in advance of it would clear that to an extent. Any lobbying would be declared. That is clear. Again, I cannot speak for all 11 council areas.
Ms Smyth: Councillor Irvine might be able to answer that a bit more effectively.
Councillor Irvine: We are not told, as a committee, the reason that another member has called in an application. I dispute the fact that we are lobbied to call in anything on the list: we are not. If anybody approaches me or my fellow committee members in that regard, we say, "I am sorry; I cannot talk to you".
Councillor Irvine: It happens, but it should not, Chair.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): One of the reasons that the Committee wants the information is that we are aware of the issues. We are all constituency representatives, so we know that it happens. That is the issue that the member raises.
Mr Muir: The application has been called in, and there must be some motivation for that to occur, unless the member did personal investigations in relation to that application without contacting —
Councillor Irvine: We are each given a list. We have two options for call-in. One is when an original application is made. We are notified on a weekly basis. We can choose to call it in at that stage, and that is before anything is done. The second trigger point for us in Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is where an application under the delegated list is either for refusal or has a number of objections to it. Those are the trigger points, and we get that on a weekly basis. We then, as individual committee members, have up to seven days to issue a call-in notice to our officials. That is us, without anybody coming to lobby us. We have developed that trait that we scan the list. If we see an anomaly in it, it is up to us personally to interact. We do not take any lobbying from others. I could say that only personally, but I know that it is the experience of the majority of my committee.
Mr Muir: I have one last question. Other people will probably cover the local development plan process. I will ask about the Hartlands decision, whereby the decision of the planning committee can then be called in by members of the wider council beyond the planning committee. Obviously, that judgement has been made, and the legislation needs to be updated. Do members have an understanding of how that stands? I know that that has implications for planning committees.
Ms Smyth: I will come in on that. NILGA has been speaking to DFI and to DFC on the issue. Obviously, an aspect of that judgement has a bearing on standing orders regulations, which we are still waiting for. Unfortunately, because of the stage that we are at in the Assembly mandate, we cannot progress any new legislation. It will have to wait until the next mandate, but it brings to bear the urgency that we face now around planning legislation. We need that Hartlands case legislation sorted out. We talked last week about validation checklists and things like that. Discrete legislation could be brought in quickly in the next mandate with the political will, to start improving that process. There are short-term fixes.
Mr Muir: I understand that you have been waiting a while for that legislation to update standing orders. It would be useful if you could write to the Committee to give a bit more detail around that because it adds to other issues that you have been waiting for. It is important for that to be noted.
Mr Beggs: Thanks for your evidence so far. There appears to be a major problem with the planning system. It is almost a perfect storm of inefficiencies and a lack of resources. With regard to methods for improving it, we have learned that one of the difficulties has been the absence of key supporting documents, which then elongates the process. I assume that officers have to reread material once it comes in and refresh and chase documents, which adds to their administrative burden. We have been advised that Belfast City Council has been deemed to have adopted good practice. Why has that not been adopted elsewhere?
Ms Smyth: It was articulated well last week by Alison McCullagh, the chief executive of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, which had attempted to bring in a similar validation checklist to Belfast City Council, but local applicants and agents stood against that. It is a voluntary system in Belfast, so they needed to get buy-in from the whole system in the Belfast City Council area to do that. It is not mandatory. Our planning officers strongly seek legislation urgently so that it can be spread out through the 11 council areas. There are issues around the quality of applications across the councils, and it would be helpful to address the demand that Kate Bentley talked about last week and get rid of a whole pile of the process that takes away from planning activity.
Mr Beggs: I can see why councils would want it to be mandatory, but it is working in Belfast until that legislation comes. What has been the experience of operating the voluntary system?
Councillor Irvine: I will answer that one. It has been mixed. Again, as Karen said, a lot of the agents have taken it on board and are front-loading their applications; in other words, giving enough documentation so that the officers can adequately scrutinise and determine the application. Some agents are still putting in skeleton material with an application on a wing and a prayer and hoping that it will go through. I do not know why. It is possibly because they do not want to spend the money or they do not want the applicant to incur additional costs for further reports and things like that. We are doing what we can, but, because it is not mandatory, it is a case of trying to encourage people as much as possible.
Mr Beggs: My understanding of the experience in Belfast is that it has worked and most agents have followed it. Why do other councils not at least try to adopt the voluntary system? Admittedly, some people may refuse to comply with it, but the majority might. Why not adopt that good practice?
Councillor Irvine: Look, you are talking about 11 autonomous units. Two of them, so far, have tried to put in a discretionary system. It is working far better in Belfast. It is working to a reasonable extent with us, and I tie that back to the number of applications coming in that get determined for approval. We sit in the top quartile for that, but it causes referrals, referrals, referrals that eat up our time, Roy.
Mr Beggs: Ultimately, the ratepayers pay for this; it is not the applicants. Fees have increased only by 2% since they were originally set in 2015. Why has there not been a review? Have councils sought a review so that the fees would reflect better the inflationary pressures or other pressures in the planning system?
Ms Smyth: Yes. NILGA wrote to the Department and responded to consultations by the Department on planning fees, stating that we needed to have a complete review of planning fees rather than an inflationary uplift because they need to be contemporised. We responded to the review of the implementation of the Planning Act and gave them figures on planning fees elsewhere. That is one of those quick fixes that, if we got the buy-in from the Assembly to get the legislation through as an urgent economic matter for Northern Ireland, we could make improvements quickly if we had the right legislation in place.
I will come back to your previous point. There is another issue in relation to those unsatisfactory applications in that agents are acting on behalf of applicants, and there is an issue about the public understanding of how the planning system works and what you should expect. If you are paying for a service, you should expect good service, and people are clearly not getting a good service in some areas. I worked with the Department on the Minister's investigation of engagement in the planning process to improve it and increase community understanding of what is required. There is a piece there as well as the validation checklists from the perspective of councils.
Mr Beggs: The other area where the burden of cost has fallen on ratepayers is the additional unseen cost of the area planning process for local development plans, which take much longer than originally envisaged. What do NILGA and councils see as being contributory factors to that, and what can be done to improve it?
Ms Smyth: I will defer to Councillor Irvine, who has direct experience. I will come back in, Robert.
Councillor Irvine: Sorry, Chair, we do not have enough time left in the session to go through it, so I will try to be concise.
In the transfer, the Department said indirectly that it would take four years. The problem is that only two councils are at independent examination stage. Belfast went through it, and we are going through it. The process takes so much consultation, evidence gathering, collating, going out, agreeing and moving forward that the timescale has just elongated. I doubt whether any area local development plan will be in operation before a time span of nine or 10 years. The unfortunate thing is that it is the process that is slowing the whole thing down and the amount of evidence that you have to provide to substantiate the soundness of your local development plan. "Soundness" was a concept brought in under the 2014 legislation, and it is being enacted by the 11 councils.
Mr Beggs: I understand that we have adopted the Welsh model. Is Wales doing something different from what we are doing? Did Wales also take nine or 10 years?
Ms Smyth: Checks and balances have been added into the process in Northern Ireland. Part of the reason for that stems from the lack of confidence in councils taking on the function right at the start. We are still in that space, whereas we should have moved on. There has been a difficulty in moving on, first, because of the lack of an Assembly for a number of years and, secondly, COVID.
Reference to the Department as an interim body between a council and the Planning Appeals Commission was built in, and that does not happen elsewhere. The plan bounces to the Department, then to the Planning Appeals Commission, back to the Department and then back to councils. Kate was vociferous about that last week in that she said that that adds a year to the process. That does not happen elsewhere.
We have a fragmented public sector in Northern Ireland. We have statutory consultees whereas those functions are within councils elsewhere. The failure to transfer the place-shaping functions to support planning to councils in 2015 has been to the detriment of the Northern Ireland economy. That has to be looked at closely and early in the next Assembly mandate. That is wider than the Department for Infrastructure.
It will take a number of Departments to see whether we can continue to normalise local government in Northern Ireland to be the same as it is elsewhere, on the basis of the research that the RPA NI team did, way back when. That information has not changed. The reasoning behind what it recommended has not changed. Normal local government has place-shaping functions beyond planning that support the process. We do not, and that is part of the delay in the whole thing.
Mr McHugh: Tá fáilte romhaibh uilig. You are all welcome. It is nice to meet some of you again. I have not seen you for a number of years.
Robert, I hope that you do not mind my coming back to you on overturned planning applications. The Fermanagh and Omagh District Council area, in particular, has a high rate of overturn of planners' recommendations. I accept your interpretation inasmuch as you say that you arrive at decisions on the basis of local conditions.
You said earlier that, when a councillor identifies a planning matter that is relevant to an application, it is for that councillor to weight that in whatever way he wishes and that in itself can have a major influence on arriving at a decision. Is that the reason why Fermanagh and Omagh District Council has a much higher rate of overturn than other areas?
Councillor Irvine: Maolíosa, I could probably give in to your sentiment, but — obviously, I am biased — Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is more concerned about the countryside. We feel that it is our duty, we have the ability, and it is within our remit to call in, question and debate proposed recommendations from officers. If you look, on the one side, at call-in and, on the other side, at the processing of applications under the delegated list, you will see that we are number one or two at turning round and approving the majority of applications coming through. Although it is one aspect of what we do — an important aspect that I would not take away from us — as I have said before and will say again, it shows the interest, determination and experience of committee members, as councillors, that they consider that they have the relevant knowledge and ability to interrogate and interpret the policies and to challenge, not in an adversarial way but properly, the recommendations coming before them from officers. To be fair, it also shows that we do not just rubber-stamp decisions. We are prepared to put our head above the parapet, look at recommendations and, should we consider that there are material issues that have not, in our opinion, been given enough weight or interrogated properly, make that decision, note it and then decide.
Mr McHugh: Doing that requires a certain degree of expertise on the part of councillors. Is adequate provision made to develop and train councillors to improve their efficiency in arriving at those decisions?
Councillor Irvine: Yes. As a council, we encourage members to avail themselves of NILGA's training on the ILM course, which I did, to go forward and to get mentored. We also provide in-house training. It is mandatory for anybody who is nominated to sit on a planning committee to attend in-house training and attached training before they can take part in the committee's decision-making process. We get yearly updates through refresher training. We also mentor each other. If a new member comes in from my party, I will take them aside. I will not try to influence them; rather, I will try to encourage them to listen, look, interrogate and do some background reading, and that is what they do.
Mr McHugh: Steven, in your presentation, you mentioned the revision and update of the code of conduct. Do you have any suggestions for what should be included in that revision?
Councillor Corr: The revision needs to move with the times. There was a bit of a discussion about the slow nature of the local development plans and community plans that are being developed by council areas. The update to training would have to be relevant to that. In the city of Belfast, for example, it is under review, and it will change. The local development plan has not been totally formalised yet. New ways of working across the city and in different council areas should dictate and necessitate the changes in training to suit whatever new legislation comes our way.
Mr McHugh: Do you feel that, at present, it is robust enough to ensure that there is not an abuse of practice by councillors?
Councillor Corr: Definitely.
Ms Smyth: I will come in on that. The code of conduct is extremely robust, possibly too robust in some areas. How it is written at the minute means that every councillor in Northern Ireland has broken it — every one. It is written in a way that interferes with normal council working and the inter-party relationships and party discussions that happen.
Planning is a different thing. There is a separate aspect of the code of conduct about planning, which is absolutely valid and necessary. We have been desperately seeking a review of the rest of the code of conduct since it was written and put in place. We have been waiting for that since 2016 and lobbying consistently for that review. Again, that is with a different Department: it is with DFC rather than DFI.
Mr McHugh: I am alluding to corruption. When you think of that, whether one is talking about an individual who wishes to build a house or a major planning project by developers and the like, does the facility exist for corruption? In what way are you prepared for that?
Ms Smyth: Mr McHugh, in preparation for this meeting, I went to the website of the Local Government Commissioner for Standards a couple of days ago. The perception is not the reality. If there was a problem, there would be many more complaints about planning, and there are not.
There was a suspicion of councillors being involved in the planning process from the word go. People thought, "It is councillors and politicians. Of course they are going to be corrupt". There is a perception of elected politicians across the board — MPs, MLAs and councillors — and their motivations. Those allegations of corruption are unfair on councillors when the evidence shows that they are not borne out. You are talking about three people since 2015 who have been censured. The facts are not there to support that view.
Mr McHugh: I agree with you. I wanted to ensure that we had in place all the systems that ensure that it continues at that level.
Mr Irwin: Thank you for your presentation.
Planning is bogged down in red tape. There is too much consultation. I will give you one quick instance. A planning application for a bungalow in the countryside passed in October. The young lad who got that approval then decided that the bungalow was too large and expensive, so he wanted to reduce the size. In December, he put in an application to do that. All the consultees who had been consulted two or three months previously had to be reconsulted: a house had been approved, and the applicant wanted a smaller house on the site. I was involved in that case, and all the consultees had to be reconsulted. Even the planners feel that they are bogged down.
Do you feel that any one or two things would help to get the planning system out of the crisis that it is in?
Ms Smyth: I will take that. In the short term, we will need a legislative change to change the statutory consultee input. To my mind, a lot of the statutory consultee work could be brought in-house with councils, as it is in other places. To do that in the short term will need a bit of innovative thinking, as the Chair said. There may be some means of seconding statutory consultees into councils. Obviously, there is a cost implication to all that, and we need to make sure that the costs are covered.
We have talked about the skills deficit in planning in councils, but members also need to be aware of the fact that the statutory consultees have been experiencing voluntary redundancies and skills and staff deficits. In 2015, we were ill prepared, as were the statutory consultees, to take on 12 planning authorities. We are still playing catch-up, and we still need to staff up. There is some merit in having a think about how to bring the statutory consultee function in-house, but I agree with you that there is a lot of red tape and a lot of delays.
One thing that I have asked the Chief Planner to do is to provide NILGA and the public with information on the breakdown by council area of the statutory consultee times. We know the overarching percentage of statutory consultee responses that are done within the necessary time frame, but we have no figures per council, so we cannot see where there are issues with statutory consultees in particular places. We need to take a deep dive into that information and to make sure that we know where the key problems are.
Mr Irwin: I am aware that, in some situations, consultees do not come back with responses for months on end. In one case that I dealt with, the consultee's due date to respond was 1 July, but, in November, the response had still not come back. There is work to be done to deal with that.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Just in case you think that there are ongoing fire alarms, the bells that you hear are the Division Bells. The House does not normally sit on a Thursday, but it is sitting today because of the tragic circumstances — Mr Stalford — earlier in the week.
A point was made about autonomous organisations. The Minister for Communities is the local government Minister. Has NILGA made representations to the Minister on its concerns?
Ms Smyth: Yes, since 2016, it has done so repeatedly in an effort to get the secondary legislation through that we need to finish the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) 2014. I am told that there have been two attempts to get the standing orders regulations through the Assembly, for example, but there has been a political issue with that legislation. We need the Assembly to sort that out; we cannot do it.
Ms Smyth: It is the qualified majority vote issue: the call-in. That goes back to the Hartlands case that Mr Muir talked about, and it is all tied in. We need DFC to revise the code of conduct. The work has been done, but it has not got through the Assembly. So much has happened in the mandate, because of the 'New Decade, New Approach' ('NDNA') document and then because of COVID kicking in, that the legislation that local government needs has gone on to the back-burner a wee bit. That is understandable, but we see the economic impact of it now, and we need to get it sorted out pronto.
Mr Boylan: You are welcome, and it is a breath of fresh air to hear about some of the issues again. I have dealt with a number of you for years, and I agree with you. Councillor Irvine gave a good explanation of subjectivity and interpretation in planning, and it was interesting to hear Mr Muir's question. The council is there to make decisions. You have trained it to make decisions. Any policy recommendation that comes is open to interpretation. My only issue is that, while I agree with having autonomy and making our own decisions, rural decisions across the board are not the same, even though the areas are similar. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council is one of the biggest rural councils, and good luck to those who got a rural planning decision there. However, where there should be consistency across the board, it is down to interpretation.
I appreciate that the Assembly was down for a while. However, I was here when we did the workforce model, and we were assured that it was right. I asked about that last week, and, clearly, it was not right. Is that a fair assumption? What discussions have you had on that?
Mr Beggs might have asked my next question already. It was about whether we address the cost issue through fees. That will be an issue for you and for us all collectively. It will come down to fees or go to the Department to secure funding. Would anybody like to discuss how we go forward and deliver the workforce model?
Councillor Irvine: Where the resource was transferred — human and financial — neither was totally adequate. Individual councils take on board that, as demand spikes up and down, we have to tailor our workforce resource to that. However, the problem with the finances is that we were led to believe that the collective transfer of functions in 2015 would be rates-neutral, but it is not rates-neutral at the moment. The issue with development decisions, which are really processing applications, is that they are demand-led, and, at times, the amount of work on applications, as members referred to, has meant more officer time input to the substantial number of applications coming through all councils, which has a financial impact.
The hidden cost, which Mr Beggs referred to, is under the local development plan. The processing time for the LDP has become phenomenal, yet each council has to absorb that cost. It is not only in-house staff costs — officer costs — it is the resource that we have to draw in from outside, particularly on the legal and specialist side, given the number of specialist reports that we have had to provide to substantiate the soundness of each of our draft plan strategies.
My quick answer, Mr Boylan, is that we would like more money from the centre because, indirectly in planning and in other functions that we have picked up over the last six or seven years, we do not have the necessary revenue resource. To be fair, the capital resource is there and can be drawn down, but the revenue resource to back up what we have to do, directly and indirectly, is not there. If you give us more money, we will gladly take it, and, with your help at the centre, we will try our best to ensure that the system becomes more streamlined.
Mr Boylan: Thank you. Belfast City Council uses a tick-box exercise. Is that used across the board? We talked about front-loading the system, but you talked about more material consideration being given, as was mentioned last week. That is fair enough; it is part of the process. Are you considering rolling out that tick-box exercise across all councils?
Ms Smyth: If we are talking about the validation checklist, again, there is an aspiration to roll that out across the councils, but a lot of the councils are seeking legislative backup for asking for that. The experience outside Belfast is that there is kickback from a lot of applicants and agents.
I will come back to your former point about finances and the workforce model. The funding and skills that were brought across for the workforce model were not sufficient, particularly with regard to the local development plans. We went from a system that was developing one plan a year to one that was trying to develop 11 plans at once, and we did not have the people we needed.
Another aspect is that the Committee might want to consider how statutory consultees are paid for. At the minute, as far as I am aware, there is no charge for statutory consultees, so another option may be to introduce a separate charge for statutory consultee services that the applicant would pay. That might need further legislation, but, if we have to keep the current statutory consultee system, it could be considered.
Mr Boylan: I have just two quick points because I am keen to get on to the rural stuff. How can we speed up the pre-application discussion (PAD)?
Councillor Irvine: I will beat the drum here for Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. Of the 11 councils, we use PAD most. We have found it extremely useful in that it has helped to streamline the agents applying on behalf of applicants with regard to what information they need or what steer they need to take a direction of travel that is policy-compliant. It is proving worthwhile, but, again, it takes up officer time. We have found that it is useful to do that at the start. It frees up time during the deliberation of an application, and it helps the applicant to get a desired outcome.
Councillor Irvine: It is a key element, yes.
Mr Boylan: Other members have asked most of the questions. My final point is on the SPPS and the PPS. There are those who understand that process, but, clearly, changes could be made that would help. Is that a fair assumption?
Councillor Irvine: The fair assumption is that the approach of the SPPS needs to be slightly altered after each of the councils has applied it and PPS 21 has been incorporated. The LDPs are supposed to take cognisance of the SPPS and the regional planning policies plus all the PPSs, but each individual council should tailor its LDP within the framework.
Mr Boylan: I appreciate that, but, if we wait, we will have the same problems. We can look at statutory consultees, the fees issue and all that, and that is before we get to the LDPs. We have heard it all before — the regional development plan and all those things — but this is playing a part in holding up the whole system. That is the point. However, I appreciate what you say. I would like to see more consistency across the board. What is relevant in rural Fermanagh is relevant in rural Armagh.
Councillor Irvine: Of course it is.
Mr Boylan: That is the point. We talk about sustainable rural communities. That is part and parcel of the problem, and we have seen it here in the auditing and in some of the decision-making processes. I just want to make that point.
Ms Smyth: If I may interject, I would like, because of the stages that the LDPs are at, to urge a note of caution on making any major changes to the SPPS at the moment. Any major change could have undesirable, unintended consequences. So, if there is to be any change to planning policy, that needs to be done in consultation, in partnership and co-designed with councils; it should not be done to councils.
Mr Boylan: If all the local development plans say that urban and rural housing units are their target, I will agree with that, and we will not then have to change the policy. Unfortunately, they will take their time. We have all been through the LDP process, and we know that, as long as housing units meet their targets, that is OK; if they do not, we have to look at policy. Thank you very much.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): One point that came up in previous sessions was a skills shortage in local government after RPA and because of public servants leaving under the early severance scheme. How has that affected planning?
Ms Smyth: Bearing in mind that elected members are here, I will say that the point was made last week that we have a good pool of people coming in. It is the experience that you lose, and that has happened not just in councils but, as I said earlier, in statutory consultee bodies. If some fresh face in, say, DFI Rivers is trying to look at a planning application, you have to make sure that you have the experience that you need to process it quickly. It is a key issue.
We have been working with the Department around training on major issues: for example, the environmental requirements that are in place now. That really has added a layer of complication to planning.
The Department was keen to make sure that staff were trained in those environmental issues, and NILGA made sure that elected members were offered that training as well.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): It was the Civil Service that I was talking about.
I will move on to local government. You have a holistic overview of local government here. Are you convinced that the skill set is there in our 11 councils at the moment?
Ms Smyth: We are missing certain skills in certain areas. For example, and this may be more aesthetic than practical planning, when it comes to place-making and public realm work, I think that only Belfast has an urban designer. That architectural skill of how things look, go together and fit together locally is a key skill that may be missing.
There are avenues for councils to share services. We have a shared environmental service running out of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. We have a shared notice service in relation to house sales and so forth coming out of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, which, I think, takes the lead on that. However, the ability of councils to share services, buy in skills and bring those skills in-house has a cost implication. If, at the minute, we do not have the resource to make the services cost neutral to the ratepayer, that will add in further costs.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): There are 11 autonomous councils: some urban; some rural. Some are unionist, some are nationalist, and there are some with no overall control. Is sufficient standardising of practice coming from NILGA? Does NILGA have the teeth to ensure that the worst-performing council can be brought up to the level of the best so that we get a standard practice?
The point that I made in the last couple of weeks to government and to your colleagues from SOLACE was about Ministers going out to sell Northern Ireland plc and seeking foreign direct investment. People are met with this planning problem. John Lewis is a perfect example of investment lost to Northern Ireland. I will not go into the issues around that; it is just an example. How can we get to the point at which that standardisation is there?
Ms Smyth: NILGA, as a representative body for local government, has been good at sharing good practice, providing training and trying to improve the system by working directly with the Department involved and with heads of planning.
We do not have an operational function. It is in our constitution that we do not criticise individual councils. When we deal with an issue, it is to try to raise the bar generally and work with everybody so that they all do the same thing. It is not a function of ours to stand in criticism of councils. Kieran and his colleagues have done a good job of identifying where the problems are and what the actual problems are. We knew a lot of that, but it is good to see it down on paper from an outside organisation.
Certainly, NILGA does not have a league table of councils or anything like that. That is not what we do.
Mr Muir: Mid Ulster District Council decided not to go with the portal, and that was a decision by elected representatives. I am interested to know your views or opinions on that. It is now the odd one out, and, with statutory consultation, you will have to do everything twice, potentially.
Ms Smyth: Again, we are not in the business of criticising individual councils. [Laughter.]
To be fair to Mid Ulster, that is the decision that its members have taken, and they took it for practical purposes. The proof will be in the pudding, and we will see how it works out for them.
The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK, thank you all very much for your attendance today. I apologise for the layout of the room. At times, members' heads were in the way when evidence was being given, and I am sorry about that. We have to, of course, comply with the COVID regulations.
Do Mr Donnelly or Mr Stevenson have any questions before we let our colleagues go?
Mr Kieran Donnelly (Northern Ireland Audit Office): No, I have nothing.
Mr Stevenson: Nothing from me, Chair, thanks.
Ms Smyth: I will get back to you with those pieces of information.