Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Public Accounts Committee, meeting on Thursday, 10 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


Mr Angus Kerr, Department for Infrastructure
Ms Julie Thompson, Department for Infrastructure
Mrs Katrina Godfrey, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Mr Stuart Stevenson, Department of Finance
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office

Inquiry into Planning in Northern Ireland: Department for Infrastructure

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I welcome from the Department for Infrastructure Mrs Katrina Godfrey, the accounting officer and permanent secretary; Ms Julie Thompson, deputy secretary with responsibility for planning; and Mr Angus Kerr, the chief planner for Northern Ireland.

I also welcome Mr Stuart Stevenson, the Treasury Officer of Accounts (TOA) at the Department of Finance. Stuart joined us this morning at the Belfast Boys' Model for the Committee's launch of 'Report on Closing the Gap - Social Deprivation and Links to Educational Attainment'. We are also joined by Mr Kieran Donnelly, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) at the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO).

Relevant papers are in members' packs. Mrs Godfrey, I invite you to make an opening statement. You and your colleagues can then take questions from my colleagues. Thank you.

Mrs Katrina Godfrey (Department for Infrastructure): Thank you very much, Chair. I thank Committee members for the opportunity to join the Committee this afternoon. You have done my introductions for me, so I do not need to reintroduce Julie and Angus. I know that you have a busy programme, so I will keep my opening remarks as brief as possible.

I will start by saying that, in DFI, we recognise how important planning is, particularly for protecting our environment, responding to climate change, shaping local communities, and shaping and developing our economy, which is the case now more than ever, as we hopefully move into recovery. We also know, more than most, just how complex planning issues often are and how challenging they can be to overcome. 'Planning in Northern Ireland', the report from the Audit Office, reflects that. We very much welcome the opportunity that the report presents for a discussion on those challenges and opportunities, as well as on the improvements that we know that we need to make and, indeed, are already in the process of making.

As members are aware, the transfer of the vast majority of planning functions to local government in 2015 represented the biggest change to government here in over 40 years. It is fair to say that the period since transfer has been characterised by significant uncertainty. There have certainly been plenty of challenges for us: three years without Ministers; the complexities of the Buick judgment, which members will know continues to have an impact on planning decisions; and, of course, a global pandemic that, for everyone involved in delivering public services, has brought stresses and strains that have been unlike anything that I have seen in my career to date. All those events have had an impact on how the new two-tier planning system has operated. They have had a particular impact on us in central government.

I also make the point, however, that around 12,500 planning applications on average are smoothly and correctly processed through the planning system every single year and that the volume of applications received has been increasing very rapidly, particularly over the past year. Our planning system must continue to play a key role as we move from responding to the pandemic to building our economic recovery and responding to the climate emergency. Although some of the work that we had planned for 2020 and 2021 was inevitably disrupted by COVID — I am the first to admit that — we are very focused on an ambitious agenda for improvement and on playing our part in moving the planning system forward so that it delivers for our environment, our communities and our economy.

That improvement agenda is very much being shaped by the outcome of our Minister's review of the implementation of the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, which she announced a couple of weeks ago. Members may be aware that section 228 of the Act requires such a review, and the terms of reference that it must follow are prescribed in regulations. That review commits us to building on the progress that we have started to make in recent years and to taking further action to address issues that we know are of concern, many of which are also reflected in the NIAO report. We will be very happy to talk about those issues in more detail when we get to questioning from members.

I will also clarify the role of the Department as envisaged by Ministers and set out in legislation. That role reflects the very deliberate intention of the Executive. The Executive, and, if you go back far enough to the genesis of the review of public administration, direct rule Ministers before them, had a deliberate intention to transfer functions to councils and allow local communities to hold their councils accountable for how they discharge those functions, bringing with it variation to best reflect local needs.

As well as being the planning authority for any regionally significant planning applications, our responsibilities include developing planning policy, particularly regional planning policy; developing associated policy, practice and guidance; and, of course, assisting and supporting councils in developing sound local development plans, which is another feature of the Audit Office's report. We also have the power to call in any application that is being made to a council. That should be done only very exceptionally. We have a range of powers and functions, including, for example, the setting of planning fees, which is another issue mentioned in the report, and the determination of certain types of application where the council itself is the applicant.

You will be hearing from council colleagues next week. They will be able to talk about their role and give you an important perspective. Like us, they face significant planning challenges, such as resourcing in an exceptionally tight and increasingly uncertain public expenditure context — members are very well aware of that — increasingly complex environmental legislation, the impacts of climate change, and, unfortunately, the ever-present risks of legal challenge, which has the effect of making decisions take longer. Those are challenges common to planning systems across these islands.

We can talk later, if it is helpful, about the ongoing engagement that we have with councils at multiple levels, but I assure the Committee that we do not discharge our functions in a silo. We put huge store on working collaboratively with councils and, to be fair, so do they with us. We work with them at multiple levels and on multiple aspects of our planning system, while always respecting the two-tier approach set out in the legislation.

We also have in place a planning forum, which Julie chairs. It brings together all the key parts of our planning system. We will be happy to talk about the work that it is leading on at the moment. We are very fortunate in having excellent relationships, through Angus, with chief planners and their teams in England, Scotland and Wales and the South. Our work programme takes account of best practice and lessons learned not only here but in those jurisdictions.

In all this work, the reality is that COVID has slowed our pace. I would like to be much further forward with a number of things than I am. I know that my council chief executive colleagues feel the same. Nevertheless, the recently published and very welcome review of the implementation of the Planning Act has presented us with an updated work programme, and I can assure the Committee that we will pursue it with vigour and to the best of our abilities. The Minister has a very clear agenda for improvement that reflects much of what is in the report that the Committee is here to consider. I am certainly determined to deliver those improvements for her.

That concludes my opening remarks. Julie, Angus and I are happy to answer your questions.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Did I pick you up correctly? You said that the Minister announced the review a few weeks ago. Why was it announced only two weeks ago?

Mrs Godfrey: Are you referring to the review of the implementation of the Planning Act?

Mrs Godfrey: A process was kicked off, which is prescribed in legislation, and it was completed only recently. As some members know, there have been considerations for other Committees. It was completed only just after Christmas, and it was announced by the Minister as soon as she was ready to announce it.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): It has been completed. When did it commence?

Mrs Godfrey: Angus, the process was under way for some time, was it not?

Mr Angus Kerr (Department for Infrastructure): It commenced in early 2021. The regulations were made and came into play in November 2020. The review kicked off after that. We had a call for evidence from February until April 2021. We were working on the representations that came forward. The call for evidence attracted 55 responses, raising hundreds of issues, as you can imagine. We had to analyse those responses, while liaising with the Infrastructure Committee and other stakeholders, before we could come to a conclusion. We were aiming to finish it by the end of the year, but that slipped slightly.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): We will put this question to the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) representatives when they are in front of us next week. Do you think that the devolution of planning powers to councils under RPA has helped speed up the system?

Mrs Godfrey: From our perspective as officials, we must work within the policy and legislative parameters set by Ministers and approved by the Assembly. My focus, and that of the council chief executives, is on trying, to the best of our abilities, to make the current policy and legislation work.

I do not think that we get to comment on what is better or worse: that is very much a matter for Ministers. My focus is on working as collaboratively as I can with councils to make the improvements that we know need to be made to the planning system.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): My question was not about whether it was better or worse. My question was this: has RPA speeded it up?

Mrs Godfrey: My answer is this: it very much depends. If I look at the Department's performance on regionally significant applications, I see that there is no doubt that it has been slower, but that is because we were not able to take decisions for the guts of three years. We tried to take decisions, but then we had the Buick judgement, which stymied us. You will know that that judgement inevitably meant that there was a slowness of pace. There is therefore no doubt that, when I look at the performance and the small number of regionally significant applications, I can see that progress over the past number of years has been slow, but there are reasons for that.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Is there sufficient joined-upness between your Department and local government?

Mrs Godfrey: I do not think that we ever can be complacent. There is always room for us to work in a more joined-up way, but we have good links and relationships with councils at multiple levels, as I mentioned in my opening remarks. I meet the chief executives regularly. There are council representatives on the planning forum, which Julie chairs. Angus chairs a range of work streams, including liaison with all the chief planners; and there is ambitious work going on between us and local government in areas such as environmental governance, on which we are leading the way on these islands in some of the work that we do. Do we work collaboratively? Yes, I think that we do. Is there room for improvement? Yes, of course there is.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I will put my next questions to the chief planner. What is your role in the whole scenario?

Mr Kerr: I am the chief planner and the director of the regional planning policy directorate in DFI. I have a leadership role in the planning system. I am also responsible for policy, legislation and a lot of the collaboration that Katrina outlined that cuts across the whole system. It is a challenging brief — I would not argue with that — but we are working very hard to collaborate with councils. I see that as being a priority in my role.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You mentioned leadership. Do you have an oversight role as well?

Mr Kerr: Under the 2011 Act, the Department has a number of functions and roles, as Katrina touched on. They relate to legislation, policy and, on occasion, calling in planning applications. There are other roles, including parallel powers, where we can step in and take over certain things from councils, where that is required. There is nothing in legislation that states that we have an oversight role, but, when all those functions are taken together, it implies that there is that oversight.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Is it implied, or do you have the role?

Mr Kerr: It is not a legislative role, but, when you look at the range of functions that we have, you will see that it is fair to say that we have an oversight role.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You have an oversight role, so do you have an enforcement role?

Mr Kerr: We have an enforcement role, but we do not have the same enforcement powers as councils. We have a slightly reduced range of enforcement powers under the Act, and we can take enforcement action, as we have done on a number of occasions since transfer. Fundamentally, however, the role of enforcement sits primarily with the local planning authorities. That was the policy decision at the time of transfer.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): The permanent secretary and you have referred to local government, relationships and so on. It is our understanding that three councils have fallen below their targets: three councils out of 11. Is that true?

Mr Kerr: Yes. Not all councils have met their targets. That is pretty clear from the recent performance statistics, which include enforcement.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): We understand that no action was taken in 28% of enforcement cases by Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon (ABC) Borough Council, while for Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, it was 9%. How are we getting such disparities in those areas? That is bound to be hugely frustrating for people who are seeking planning permission. We are, of course, not suggesting that planning should not go through the proper processes. As I said to colleagues last week, I remember watching a programme a few years ago in which a man from Northern Ireland decided to take his business to Wales because he just got fed up waiting on planning decisions here. We have also had the situation in which Hagan Homes, a local homebuilder, decided to relocate to the mainland. How on earth can we have such a situation, in which an employer is upping sticks and leaving Northern Ireland, and what are your Department and SOLACE doing collectively to rectify it? SOLACE can answer for itself next week.

Mrs Godfrey: There are a couple of points there, Chair, and Angus will have some interesting perspectives on stories that chief planners in other jurisdictions tell. When Angus talks about enforcement, he is talking about enforcement as it relates to certain specific applications.

Mr Kerr: Yes.

Mrs Godfrey: Enforcement is a discretionary activity for local councils. Councils get to decide how they prioritise enforcement activity in their wider planning focus and strategic priorities, and they are accountable for those decisions. It is critical to recognise that, and that is the position as set out in legislation.

It is one of the tensions. We have a very clear role in setting regional planning policy, which councils are expected to work within and take account of. The overarching decision taken in the 2011 Act was to delegate as many planning powers to councils as possible. The balance of control is really interesting, however. When it has been decided to delegate something to a council on the basis that the council is locally accountable to its own community and electorate, what is the right balance to strike between the council taking decisions, which it feels are in the best interests of its area, and the role of central government? It is fair to say that we all struggle, from time to time, with what is the appropriate balance, when the primary policy objective was delegation to the lowest sensible level, which was seen to be the local council.

Ms Julie Thompson (Department for Infrastructure): Chair, you asked about how we collaborate. From the planning forum's perspective, we work with all Departments, not just DFI. All statutory consultees — the major ones, anyway — work with councils on a range of initiatives to try to move things on. For example, we have looked at best-practice principles, and at getting consultations to be proportionate so that we are clear about what is happening. We have looked at how to cleanse information on the planning portal. We have looked at guidance, online activity and such things, and we have done that with the aim of having central and local government work together to improve performance. We have more to do, some of which Katrina talked about, but it is at least a forum in which we can have those conversations and really get to grips with what needs to be done.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I will park my questioning after this. I understand what you say about the three-year suspension, and I have great sympathy. I also accept the issues that you have had as a result of the Buick judgement and so on. We are members of the Public Accounts Committee, however. It is our duty and responsibility, as elected representatives, to ask these questions. We are not being awkward. With any report that we take forward, we need to see that value for money is being delivered for the Northern Ireland public purse, whether that be ratepayers' money, which we will deal with next week, or taxpayers' money, which we are dealing with today with you guys. You have to accept that public confidence in planning in Northern Ireland is not at a very high level.

Mrs Godfrey: That is fair, Chair. It is the difference between having a reason for that that we can explain to the Committee and making sure that we are not making excuses. Scrutiny is very important in order to tease out that difference. When I look at major applications, it is really important for me to be able to understand the reason for a delay. Is it because we could not take a decision?

Is it because we struggled with a poor quality application? Is it because, sometimes, the system, as we designed it, is not very effective? I will give you a very simple example: if we receive a complex application that needs some environmental information, the process for that immediately kicks in, which, under the regulations, takes a heck of a lot longer than the target time that we have internally for processing applications. So there is a really interesting debate there on when targets are useful and when they are —

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): A stick to beat with you with.

Mrs Godfrey: Yes. Sometimes, you do not really need that because complying with the target would mean you using the wrong sorts of processes.

Mr Muir: Thank you all for coming here. I appreciate the public service that you give to this issue, because it is a difficult and very substantial one. I know the challenges that came around due to a lack of government for three years: when you did try to make decisions, you had to deal with the Buick judgement. Also, there are different levels of decision-making in this area, with some responsibility sitting with local government and some of it sitting with yourselves.

Also, apologies to Katrina: she came to Crawfordsburn Country Park parkrun last Saturday.

Mrs Godfrey: I still have not recovered. [Laughter.]

Mr Muir: You have still not recovered. I gave the impression that it was flat, which is slightly not true. Hopefully, you will recover from that.

This is an important issue, and the Chair has outlined that. There is lots of interest in it, and I have an interest in it because it affects people and communities; it is one of the key issues for residents. Before I joined this place, I was a councillor for Holywood and Clandeboye, where the top issue was planning. My area was one with a very high density, and residential planning applications attract objections and interest. We have our conservation group in Holywood, which I am a member of, and planning is a key matter.

There are frustrations around two issues. One is the turnaround time for applications. When you make an application, how long will it take to get a decision, whether that is yes or no? The frustration with that comes primarily from applicants, but it also comes from objectors because they are waiting for ages to know what the story will be. Also, because there is no third party right of appeal, they are waiting for that judgement to be made, so there is a frustration that they will get a letter that will say that there has been a determination on the application, whatever that is. There no comeback on a decision unless you are an applicant, in which case you can go to the Planning Appeals Commission.

The second issue comes from objectors regarding their ability to feed into the system and have their voices heard. When we were setting up the devolved planning function in Ards and North Down Borough Council, the planning committee that I was a part of agreed that people would be allowed to make a deputation before an application was considered. That gave people their last opportunity to have their say on an application. There is real frustration that people send in their objections and a decision comes out but they do not have any further comeback. That is where we are now.

There was change whereby officials moved from the Department of the Environment to councils. That was not easy because people were going to different councils, and it was a significant move in terms of where they were travelling from and all the rest of it. That is an important preface for our discussion.

The issue for me is the processing times. We have local applications, major applications and regionally significant applications. The applications that cause a lot of the headlines are major applications. We all know that the target for processing major applications is 30 weeks, and we usually hit over 50 weeks. The most recent figure is 56·4 weeks to determine those applications. I know that those applications are largely determined by district councils, but there is a real issue, and we all know where the blame largely lies for delay: the time it takes for statutory consultees to come back and the processing of those responses. In England, the target is 13 weeks, and that is achieved 88% of the time. My question is this: why?

Mrs Godfrey: Good question. There are a number of factors. Response times by statutory consultees is certainly one factor, and I am very conscious of that, not least because I am accountable for two of the biggest ones. I am absolutely clear on that. Interestingly, there is no great correlation between statutory consultee response times improving and the overall response times improving, which points us to a few other things.

First and foremost, the quality of the applications is a factor. The second factor is, interestingly, much more of an issue here and gets you into the discussion on the difference between outcomes and targets. Whether it is in councils or even in the Department, if we get an application that looks half decent, our tendency is to stick with it and try to work with the applicant to make it better. In many other jurisdictions, those applications would, frankly, just be sent back and the clock would stop. That is the difference. If something looks like, with a bit of effort, it could be a good application and a good development and could get a good decision, our culture is to tend to stick with it and work with the applicant to try to get it into the right shape. That approach feels right to me, compared with just throwing back an application, but maybe I am too soft. Maybe we should just send them back.

So, you have the quality of the applications, responses by statutory consultees and the time that it takes to process applications. If an application is in any way significant, you overlay the issue of environmental requirements and environmental legislation. I have no doubt that the risk of legal challenge makes us all exceptionally cautious.

You started, Andrew, with how we can engage people more. We have been looking much more carefully at engagement and the planning engagement arrangements. Under the Minister's review of the implementation of the Planning Act, we want to do much more on consultation. That does not just mean consultation with applicants; it is about finding new ways of getting people involved and, I will ask Angus to comment, resourcing them to have their say.

Mr Kerr: Absolutely, Katrina. That is a key issue. It is not straightforward, because, in some ways, the less engagement that you have, the faster the process could be, but the more engagement that you build into the planning process, the slower it could be. We are focusing on trying to get that balance right, through, as Katrina said, the review of the implementation of the Planning Act, but also through the planning engagement partnership, which is another example of where we have taken a leadership role and pulled together many stakeholders, including the councils, to look at how we can better get community engagement — the sort of things that you were talking about in relation to your council area. How can you involve them more and more meaningfully in that process? That is coming to a conclusion, and it will be very good for recommending ways of doing that.

We are also learning lessons from the pandemic and the digital engagement that has been taking place. However, we are not exclusively relying on that, because it is not for everybody and it is crucial to give folk an equal opportunity to engage in planning.

As Katrina laid out, the picture is complex. It is not as simple as saying that statutory consultees are the cause of delays in the planning system. They are a big factor in the delays, and the work that we are doing through the planning forum, which Julie chairs, focuses on that issue as firmly as possible to try to drill down and sort that out. We are trying to get the resources in place for them to be able to do that work. For example, we are putting material online to speed the process up and getting out guidance documents and the principles of consultation and so on to address that as effectively as we can.

Mr Muir: I have a number of questions, if that is OK, Chair. We still come back to the fact that the target in England is 13 weeks, which is met 88% of the time. In Northern Ireland, the target is 30 weeks, yet the most recent figures show that it takes 56·4 on average. With regionally significant applications, we all know that there is a massive problem.

On the issue of the quality of applications, last night I had three pieces of work in front of me. Two of them were quite substantial but pretty simple, so I prioritised getting them done. The other one was a bit of a dog's dinner, so I left it: I will try to do it today or tomorrow. Poor-quality planning applications come through to you, yet they are given the same level of priority as good-quality applications that can help us address the climate crisis that we are facing and deliver economic growth. There is no sense of prioritisation because there is no joined-up approach with statutory consultees to say, "See that application: can youse get it back so we can get it turned round?" The impact of the current situation is that investors are turning away from Northern Ireland. There are good-quality applications coming in, but people here are putting in poor-quality applications and clogging the system up. Surely action can be taken to stop that.

Mrs Godfrey: It might be worth bringing Julie in on that. The planning forum, which I set up not long after moving to the Department, is trying to focus on the role of statutory consultees and how you get the applications that are most able to stimulate places for good through the system.

Ms Thompson: We started by shining a light on performance. It is not long since we started publishing information on statutory consultees to give a greater understanding of what is going on. Katrina was right to draw a distinction between the overall performance and the performance by statutory consultees: in 2021, the performance of statutory consultees improved by 7%, yet the overall performance for major applications went in the other direction. Obviously, 2021 was impacted by the pandemic, and lots and lots of other factors were at play, but the performance of statutory consultees is just one element of the system.

In relation to poor-quality applications, that is where the likes of the validation checklists come in. That is an agenda that we are pushing forward with and want to take into the next mandate to get the validation checklists legislated for and make sure that they become part of the system. It will take not only working through that legislative process but working with developers and agents; you cannot just throw it into the system and let everyone suffer the consequences. We need to work with people and get engagement. However, we are confident that if we engage with people, the poor-quality application piece will be put in a slightly different place — hopefully in a significantly different place.

That is one of the main issues that we are looking at along with issues such as increasing consultation numbers. The number of applications is there or thereabouts — there has been an uptick — but the number of consultations is definitely rising, particularly in the last year, as Katrina said. How do we know whether consultations are necessary, proportionate and doing the right thing and how do we ensure that we are not over consulting? We should consult where we need to, but we should not over consult. That is another angle where we are trying to understand, at a system level, what needs to happen. We deliberately kept the planning forum at that system level to get interaction right across central and local government. That way, it is not a case of pushing the ball to somebody else and saying that it is their problem, because that is not the answer; it has to be a collective issue that we can work on together.

Mrs Godfrey: I do not know who you will have here from SOLACE next week, but Belfast City Council has made very effective use of the pre-application checklist. We have very clearly recommended the pre-application checklist to all councils. Not all of them have picked that up, but Belfast City Council has been a bit of a shining light in how it has used the checklist and the difference that that has made to how it makes sure that it has the right starting point for quality applications.

Mr Muir: That is appreciated, and I understand the points that you are making. However, the issue is not new. I have the recommendations of the 2019 Irvine report in front of me:

"I consider that strong leadership is required to bring key players together to drive continuous improvement. The headline conclusion therefore relates to the consideration of the establishment of a cross-departmental planning forum of senior leaders to take ownership of the conclusions of the areas of future work identified in this paper."

So we have that, yet, in 2022, we are sitting here with the same problems. The Audit Office report has come out, and it is not great or glowing for the Department or the district councils; it is poor. The consultation on the review of the implementation of the 2011 Planning Act (NI) closed in April of last year and it took months for the findings to come out. The report of that review is littered with the phrase "the Department is not persuaded". Stakeholders responded to the consultation, and recommendations were made to move pre-application discussions (PADS) onto a statutory footing. However, the report states that the Department is not persuaded of that. Similarly, on deemed consent in cases of delay by statutory consultees, a statutory time frame for determining applications and processing agreements, the Department is not persuaded. How can we leave the inquiry with an understanding that there is a roadmap for achieving the targets that the Department has set out if, after the publication of the Audit Office report, the report of the review of the 2011 Planning Act is littered with the phrase "the Department is not persuaded"?

Ms Thompson: I will start with the John Irvine report, and then handover to Angus. The John Irvine report was published in 2019, which was the beginning of the gestation of the planning forum that we have already talked about. Of the 30 actions in the report, 19 of them have been implemented, and we will be working through the remainder during 2022. During the currency of the pandemic, we managed about two meetings in person before we had to move to virtual meetings. We are making substantive progress, but there is, absolutely, more to be done.

We have not confined ourselves to the John Irvine report. Where we have seen issues that needed to be brought forward, we have added them. We are nearly two thirds of the way through that agenda, and we would like to continue that in 2022, as we work through it with the forum.

Angus, do you want to pick up on the review of the implementation of the Planning Act?

Mr Kerr: A heck of a lot of work was involved in that review. It took time to go through the 55 representations in detail. As you have been getting a sense of today, an awful lot of issues — hundreds — were raised. Trying to categorise and deal with them was a challenge and took us time. We also wanted to engage and we had sessions with councils to try to get consensus on where we are with the review.

There are 16 key positive recommendations on what we will do to make the changes that we need to make to address the problems that we are talking about today. Those are the things — the validation checklist and so on — that we felt were the most important to focus our energy on. Some of the things that you mentioned — for example, the process agreements and putting PADS on a statutory footing — add bureaucratic layers to the system. In many ways, that was the reason why we were saying that we are not really persuaded about them.

The other thing is that we will bring forward a new Bill in the next mandate, because some of the changes in the 16 areas that we looked at will require one. There will be change to the Planning (Fees) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015, the Planning (General Development Procedure) Order (Northern Ireland) 2015 and the Planning (Development Management) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015. There is a huge raft of changes to be made to those pieces of legislation. Through that process, there is an opportunity to look at some of the issues again. Sometimes, we say, "We are not persuaded at the moment, but we are looking at it and we are still interested in the area", but the focus is on trying to get the best value from what we can do in some of the legislative change. There has been a lot of thought and deliberation on some of those key areas that we look at in the report, which, by all means, we can go into, but we have tried to focus on addressing the problems that we face today due to the length of time that it takes to get applications out.

Mrs Godfrey: The biggest problems and those that, if addressed, would make the biggest difference are in the sorts of areas that came up in the review and are reflected in the report. It is not about closing minds to things; it is about trying to prioritise, whether it is the consultation arrangements, the quality of the planning applications, the use of technology and overhauling some aspects of the statutory consultation process and planning fees. The evidence tells us that addressing those issues would make the biggest difference in the shortest term.

Mr Muir: I am conscious that other members want to come in. The issue for me is that the planning system requires leadership to drive change. I do not see leadership, and I am being honest about that: I do not see anyone driving transformational change in our planning system. The findings from the review of the 2011 Act do not match the Audit Office report: deaf to the issues, not listening.

We have a planning forum on which those whom you would describe as the "applicants" and representatives of objectors are not represented. The Minister of Finance recently changed the Procurement Board and made it much more responsive and willing to listen. I feel and see an applications department that is not cognisant of the issues with the delays. For example, when it comes to statutory consultees, the two worst offenders are in your own Department.

Mrs Godfrey: Certainly, one of them is.

Mr Muir: They are there. The power to address that is in the Department. One of the simplest ways that the fees issue could be addressed would be to increase the fees and give some of that revenue to the statutory consultees to get a response. However, there has been no progress on that, so we will complete and publish the inquiry, yet I have not been left with any understanding of how the Department will turn the situation around.

From speaking to applicants, even trying to speak to a planning officer in the Department is extremely difficult, so the customer experience is poor; it is really, really poor. I could talk about individual applications, but I will not do that. The situation is really poor. We need to have an understanding of who will show the leadership and who will drive the change in this area.

There are so many other issues about local development plans. Obviously, that is an issue for district councils, but the Department has a role in that area too. By the time the plans are published, they will be out of date. We are six years into the process, and councils have put significant amounts of resources into the plans, but they have increasingly become irrelevant. Has consideration been given to changing the make-up of the planning forum to provide a degree of scrutiny for the Department?

Mrs Godfrey: I am very open to looking at that; it is something that I have no difficulty taking back. Given the small number of applications that come to us, I am disappointed by the suggestion that applicants cannot get to talk to people. If you want to talk to me afterwards, I will pick that up, because it is not our experience. There are times in the process of decision-making when it is not always appropriate to have conversations in case they could be misinterpreted as lobbying. In general, however, for the applications that we process, we ought to be accessible. If there are instances in which that is not the case, do let me know afterwards.

Mr Muir: I will do, and I will send another letter to the Department about a particular application that I am dealing with, on which the Department is impermeable; it is impossible to get engagement with the Department on that application. I understand the issues that you are talking about, but planning applications need to be resolved in partnership, and the responses from the statutory consultees are extremely lengthy. Based on the response in the review of the 2011 Planning Act, there is no hope in sight of that being addressed.

Mrs Godfrey: The review of the implementation of the 2011 Act has a specific focus on statutory consultees and makes a number of proposals in that area, including some that will be difficult. You are absolutely right about the resourcing issue. We started to look at things like whether there should be penalties for responding late, but that actually exacerbates my resourcing problem so you get into a vicious circle. However, we have to work our way through that; I could not agree more.

Mr Kerr: It is disappointing to hear that perspective, because we are doing a huge amount of work. As Katrina said, the review of the implementation of the Planning Act focuses on the Act and what we can do within it to change and fix some of the issues. We are also doing the work that Julie referred to in the planning forum, which involves looking at other actions that we can take to improve certain issues, particularly the way in which the statutory consultation process works. That has been identified as a key issue, although, as we said, it is not the only issue.

We are working on the planning engagement partnership, which focuses on the key aspect of community engagement. We are also working collaboratively with the councils to bring forward a new IT system to bring digital benefits to the planning system. My sense, working in the middle of this, is that we are working extremely hard. As Katrina said, we would be a bit further forward but for COVID coming when it did, but there is a huge agenda of work, both on the legislative front and on the process aspects that we are working on with the forum. There is also a new IT system, so there is a lot going on to try to show the leadership, which is so important and, at the same time, collaborate and give councils their role in the shared responsibility for the system. Councils are separate entities, and we cannot force them to do things. We must work with them to ensure that we are all working for the benefit of the system.

Mr Muir: I have a last question about the councils. Of the 11 councils, one decided to not go with the central portal. What is your view on that? Was there not a role for the Department to try to persuade the council?

Mrs Godfrey: I will bring in Julie, as the senior responsible owner (SRO) for that scheme, but we are disappointed. It would be a better system if all 12 planning authorities were involved in it, but that is the price of allowing individual councils to come to their own decisions. The Mid Ulster District Council decision was not rushed and had the full support of the council chamber.

Ms Thompson: We worked hard to try to bring Mid Ulster District Council in and keep it on board. At the time the outline business case was submitted, Mid Ulster District Council was part of the process and worked through the internal bit about the portal's specifications and set-up. The council had flagged the whole the way through that it was not fully committed. That resonated with other councils, but it meant that we were protected. From a contracting point of view, we had an option in play to go with the 11 rather than the 12. At that stage, we were keen to understand whether we could do anything that would help to keep everybody on board.

The council took that decision for its own reasons, reflecting on what that meant for it, whereas I think that everybody else took the view that it was about the region, how we would be there for users, and the user experience across the system and the region. When it made that decision, which, as Katrina said, was supported by its members, our aim was to make sure that the regional system was not damaged and that we had the ability to move forward with the remainder, which is what has happened. We were very disappointed about what happened there. It was a decision that, effectively, we just had to deal with and move on from and make absolutely sure that there was no knock-on impact on the main regional system.

Mr Muir: I have given statutory consultees a good knocking here this afternoon. They will now have to interact with two different systems.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You have had a good run.

Mr Muir: I know.

Ms Thompson: Statutory consultees have raised that issue with us, absolutely.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What was the reasoning for that decision? Did the council feel that, by joining your system, its processing of planning would be slowed down?

Mrs Godfrey: I think that it felt that it could get a system that, from its perspective, would be better value for money.

Ms Thompson: It was about the costs and benefits to the council.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Right. So it was nothing to do with —

Ms Thompson: Time frames were also part of it. The simplest way to describe it is that the council looked at it from only its perspective, as opposed to looking at the wider benefits across the region.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You talked about the planning forum. Who sits on that?

Mrs Godfrey: The planning forum includes representatives from the councils, plus all the Departments that have a role in the planning system.

Ms Thompson: We have eight statutory consultees. It is all the main statutory consultees, three councils and four from the Department. It is a mixture of all elements.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You talked about the Bill coming forward in the next mandate, the Minister's review and so on. Your Minister is responsible for planning. The Minister for Communities is responsible for local government. Do they ever meet to discuss those issues?

Mrs Godfrey: They meet in a number of forums, including, of course, the partnership panel, which has had quite a focus on planning. In fact, the meeting next week has quite a focus on planning. That allows both Ministers to meet together. More importantly, it allows the Ministers to engage with the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) so that there is discussion across elected representatives, whether you are a Minister in one of the two main Departments or a councillor through NILGA.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Do they meet as Ministers to discuss those issues outside of those forums?

Mrs Godfrey: They do. They meet on a number of issues. Sometimes it is about very local issues, and sometimes it is about big strategic issues. They, and we, are working together at the moment on the fallout from a particular legal case that has implications for councils, and that —

A Member: Hartlands.

A Member: Oh yes.

Mrs Godfrey: Yes. That requires changes to legislation in the Department for Communities. At ministerial and senior official level, we are working very well across both Departments.

Mr Irwin: Thank you for your presentation. Mr Muir covered some of my questions. In relation to funding and the fact that Planning Service has been underfunded for some time

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decision be made

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and to take that on board?

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Willie, will you ask that question again? You dropped out a few times as you were asking it.

Mr Irwin: OK. The fact is that Planning Service is underfunded. What is the Department doing to address that issue?

Mrs Godfrey: Our main focus is on planning fees. You will have seen the evidence in the Audit Office report about planning fees. As part of the Minister's review, there is a very clear signal that we intend to undertake a general review of planning fees, including to see whether we can build in an automatic annual inflationary uplift and multiple fees for retrospective applications. That work is very much in hand. However, I have to be conscious of the fact that decisions to increase fees at this time are difficult decisions. There was a period when those decisions could not be taken by anybody. After the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 (EFEF), I was able to take a decision to increase fees with an inflationary uplift. Since then, of course, we have been in a period of real difficulty for individuals, developers and others. In the Minister's judgement, it was not the right time to start to increase fees. However, the commitment to a much wider and more fundamental overview of planning fees is now something that we have put out there and are going to take forward.

Mr Irwin: Am I right in saying that fees in Northern Ireland are much lower than they are in other regions of the UK?

Mrs Godfrey: Interestingly, it is quite a mixed picture. For some types of application they are lower, and for other types they are higher.

Mr Irwin: OK. I know that they are much lower in some circumstances, especially, I am told, for major developments.

The issue of consultees has been mentioned. I am aware that it is a big issue. Certainly, I have heard of one situation where the consultee's own time for response was 1 July, and it had not responded by 1 November. That was four months late. What are you doing to address such situations? I know that you have established a planning forum. Will that address them? Can more pressure be put on these consultees to respond on time?

Mrs Godfrey: The planning forum is part of the answer, but it is only part of it. Coming back to the two consultees for whom I have direct responsibility, my main challenge there is one of resource. There are really four challenges. There is the resources challenge, but, in common with almost all parts of the Civil Service, we have really struggled with the backlog in filling vacancies. That is having a direct impact on our performance. If I look at my Rivers directorate, which, to my absolute embarrassment, is one of the lowest-performing statutory consultees, I see that it is carrying a high number of vacancies. We are now at the point where a lot of the backlog in recruitment has eased and we are about to have supply, and I am hopeful that those staff will be in post very soon. However, I have had to take the decision to increase the number of posts there significantly. Until I know the outcome of the draft Budget, that will probably create a problem for me in some other area that will leave people not very happy with me, because something else will have to suffer, but I cannot let that level of performance continue. I have to shore it up and, somehow or other, find additional resources to put in. Those are the sorts of challenges that are faced right across Departments at this time. Without addressing them with resources, we will not make the improvements that we need to make.

Mr Kerr: Can I just — [Inaudible.]

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Hold on, Mr Irwin. The chief planner wants to come in there.

Mr Kerr: I just wanted to reiterate the point that one of the key actions that flows from the review of the implementation of the Planning Act is to look at the statutory consultee process: the time periods, the penalties and all those sorts of issues. That is just another leg of what we are doing.

Mrs Godfrey: It is also to look at whether there is actually too much consultation. There are areas where, if the policy is clear enough, you ought not to need to consult. However, we tend to get an awful lot of applications through councils. Sometimes, I wonder whether it is a bit like you throw the application out to buy somebody else a bit of time and see what you make of it. Have we got that process right? It goes back to the quality of applications and back, actually, to whether there is a need to consult or whether the position is clear-cut enough that a planner could and should be able to take the decision.

Ms Thompson: One of the things that came through in the work that was done on the forum was around being clear about what you are consulting on, whether you need to consult, highlighting what you need to consult on, and being clear about what you expect a consultee to reply on, as opposed to just putting it out there and expecting them to wade through and find it with the depth of information that is there. It is absolutely a key focus, but there is more to be done there.

Mr Irwin: I think that there is nervousness among some planners that, if they did not consult, they could end up in trouble. I suspect and am of the view that they over-consult. On the Buick judgement and the fact that

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decisions were made for some time, what delayed the Department in using the time productively to progress regionally significant applications to the decision stage? There is little evidence in the report that those applications were being actively managed throughout that time.

Mrs Godfrey: Clearly, the implication of the Buick judgement was that the Department could not take any decisions for a significant period, but I can assure you that work was continuing. We were very clear that work should continue at all times so that a planning application would be at the point of decision-making as soon as a decision-maker was able to take it. Some of my evidence for that goes back to the early part of 2019. The EFEF Act allowed me to take certain decisions, and, because work had been done on so many of those planning applications, I was able to take a number of planning decisions on things such as the major office development in the Harbour estate, the cruise terminal, the power station, the transport hub — those are just off the top of my head; there are more. We had kept those applications moving forward so that, when a decision-maker was able to take a decision, it was taken. It was not always straightforward, however. What happened sometimes was that some of the environmental information had lapsed because there had been no decision-maker, and then you had to start again and complete a process. That certainly contributed to some delays. I can, however, give an assurance that we were able to progress those applications. As soon as we were able to take decisions and I was satisfied that, on balance, a particular decision was appropriate to take in the absence of Ministers, that decision was taken.

Mr Irwin: OK. I will ask one last question. In the report, there is a lot of focus on the decision-making process for single dwellings in the countryside. In the autumn of last year, the Minister withdrew the planning advice note (PAN) specific to that type of development. Does the Department accept that that undermined confidence in the planning system and that the advice was poorly conceived?

Mrs Godfrey: I am not sure that I am quite able to agree with that assessment. The report gives some important clues, however. The strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) on planning in the countryside sets out how those planning applications should be approached. It is a concern that so many of those applications are not delegated or are overturned and that different decisions are reached. In setting out the planning advice note, our intention was to provide further clarity in response to queries on what the existing policy said. We do not believe that the planning advice note added to or changed the policy, but it is very clear that it created confusion. In those circumstances, the only right thing to do was to withdraw it. Do you want to add anything, Angus?

Mr Kerr: No. I think that is a fair assessment of what happened, Katrina.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Are you satisfied with that answer, Mr Irwin? Do you have another question?

Mr Irwin: People certainly took a dim view. For a Minister to make a decision and put out an advice note that she then had to withdraw did not spell good business as far as the Minister and the Department were concerned.

Mr Boylan: I welcome Katrina, Angus and Julie. I want to go back to the start, if I may. We engaged in a process to identify a workforce model before the transfer to local authorities. Katrina, did we get that workforce model wrong for the transfer?

Mrs Godfrey: That is not an easy question to answer, and that is not me ducking it, Cathal. The workforce model was the best one assessed for that time. I do not think that, at that point, any of us would really have known how planning was going to evolve into something much more complex and legally contested in relation to having to respond to climate change and increasingly high standards, rightly so, of environmental governance. Not all of that was predicted. Whether it should have been predicted is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight. I suspect that, at the time, everybody was absolutely convinced that they had the best model available, and, from my understanding, that was the case in central and local government. Angus?

Mr Kerr: Absolutely. There was agreement on it; obviously there had to be in order to progress that. The point is that there was a finite resource in the divisional planning offices of the old Planning Service, and it was all transferred across to the 11 new councils. The workforce planning model was a way of doing that as fairly as possible. As well as that, of course, some additional resources were added, because there were 11 councils and only six divisional planning offices. More heads of planning were employed at that time, so there was greater resource added, but there was not —

Mr Boylan: I appreciate that. The issue of planning has followed me throughout my time in the Assembly, so I am well over it. What damage did the voluntary exit scheme do? Did it play a major role? Clearly, as soon as planning was transferred, we knew very quickly that the local authorities were under-resourced. In that context, surely we should have known about the voluntary exit scheme, especially. Would you like to comment on that? Has it done damage to local and regional planning authorities?

Mrs Godfrey: I do not know that you could use the word "damage". I know that the voluntary exit scheme has been independently evaluated, including through the Department of Finance, and was found to have met its objectives. Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that we all lost colleagues with significant levels of expertise and experience in that process.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Do you mind if I interrupt you? When you say that it met its objectives, was that in terms of finance and not performance?

Mrs Godfrey: Yes. It was a budget response.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Mr Boylan's point was about performance rather than finance.

Mr Boylan: Absolutely. I remember the whole process around the workforce model. My point is that we took out all those experienced people. The voluntary exit scheme allowed for that, so we ran that model down: that is the way that I look at it. I was talking about the delivery model for proper services. I was not talking about the financial side of it, to be honest.

Mrs Godfrey: I worked in a different Department at the time of the voluntary exit scheme, and I know that it was exactly the same thing. We lost people whose skills we were poorer without. It was, however, a budgetary response in order to drive down costs at a time when budgets were, yet again, under intense pressure.

You picked up on the point about the wider review of capability and capacity. Was there enough focus on skills and succession planning, or was there too much focus on driving costs down? I cannot disagree with that, Cathal: in every Department that I have worked in, we lost colleagues whose skills we were the poorer for not having.

Mr Boylan: I appreciate that. Obviously Mr Muir asked some questions, and you have already answered about how you are going to address that, and the report identified some of those things. I want to turn to the local development plans. Those plans have a 15-year framework but, at this rate, it will take 13 years to complete them. How can we move that process on?

Mrs Godfrey: With the benefit of hindsight, it is fair to say that the timetable that was envisaged was too ambitious. I sometimes wonder whether, had we set a very slow timetable, that might have been criticised too. However, you cannot deny that what we thought was possible was too ambitious. Where are we now? Seven of the 11 councils have draft plan strategies. One is completely through the independent examination process and the direction to adopt with modifications issued, one is currently at independent examination and three are waiting for Planning Appeals Commission dates. They are all on a trajectory. Some councils have, as I understand it, consciously decided that, because their most recent plans are relatively up to date, they do not feel the same pressure and they prefer to work at a slower pace. The key prize here, however, is that you have that combination of the community plan and the local development plan for your council area meeting your needs, which should make things an awful lot easier going forward. I cannot deny it, Cathal: the timescale that was envisaged at the start was a bit on the ambitious side.

Mr Boylan: Finally, what are your views on Knock Iveagh? How did we get that decision so wrong?

Mrs Godfrey: I will be slightly irritating here and say that that project is subject to a legal challenge at the moment. I really cannot say anything in this context, because of that ongoing legal challenge. I know that that is frustrating, but that is my reality.

Mr Boylan: OK. Thank you very much for your answers.

Mr McHugh: Tá fáilte romhaibh uilig. You are all very welcome. Like Cathal, I want to go back to the start, in a sense. Elected councillors are tasked with making decisions on complex planning matters that require a certain degree of understanding, knowledge and training, if anything. What level of training is provided to councillors, and is that sufficient? I am speaking on the basis of having been a councillor on Derry City and Strabane District Council and experiencing training at the stage at which this was first mooted.

Mrs Godfrey: Thanks, Maolíosa. At the point of transfer, the Department — the then DOE — carried out quite an extensive capacity building and training programme for elected representatives, looking at an overview of the new planning system, development plans, practical planning, propriety and outcomes. That kicked everything off. Since then, we have worked very closely with NILGA in developing the ongoing programme of training for elected representatives. In fact, we have been involved in helping to deliver some of those training events.

One of big pieces of work that we have done, in response to one of the most complex issues that we have dealt with, is our environmental governance work programme, which also includes accredited environmental impact assessment (EIA) training. That has been focused slightly more on staff than elected members, but we certainly have included environmental governance and elected member training as well. As recently as December, we helped NILGA to deliver a further training programme on the development plan process. We have really good relationships with NILGA and have input in the design and delivery of the training programme. We have also shared some of our experience, particularly on things like environmental governance, with Scotland, Wales, England and the South, and we have learned from some of the programmes that they have, particularly the one in Scotland. Angus?

Mr Kerr: Absolutely. In fact, dare I say it, we have set a model for the approach that we have taken that has been recognised by the other jurisdictions. Indeed, as part of that programme, we have issued guidance on retrospective enforcement for EIA development, which is a first on these islands, and the other jurisdictions have a great interest in that. In particular, as Katrina said, the training side of things for that area of challenge within planning has worked effectively. It is another area on which we are collaborating within the system.

Mr McHugh: I will come back to the comment on enforcement after I have finished my line of thought in this other area. You would think that, with training and the like, there would not be the same extent of variance that seems to exist at present. I know that there are situations that are peculiar to different council areas and so on, but do you accept that there is a large degree of variance? What can be done to encourage a more uniform approach while still preserving the autonomy of councils?

Mrs Godfrey: The Audit Office report shows the stats, and those point to a large degree of variance. You have variance in time, as well as in delegations and overturns. It is very easy to see how many applications are delegated, what percentages are delegated and what percentage of applications are overturned. In that latter category, both very small and very large percentages are worthy of questioning, because either could suggest a potential issue. Against that we have to balance the fact that — you are absolutely right — every council area is different. Council areas will prioritise and be particularly concerned about certain types of development.

One thing that always strikes me is that data never gives you any answers. Data just gives you the questions to ask about, for example, in your part of the world, in County Fermanagh and Omagh, not too far away from you, the level of decision-making on single dwellings in the countryside or the delegation rates in one council area compared with another. There are definitely variations.

The challenge for all of us is that if you believe that councils are the best-placed bodies to decide what is in their regions' best interests, which was the purpose of the legislation, when is a variation a problem and when is it simply responding to local need? That is the killer question.

Mr McHugh: Would you be concerned that there may be corruption or political interference in some of that decision-making?

Mrs Godfrey: I would probably look to Colette Kane, as the Local Government Auditor, but I do not think we have had any evidence of anything like that. If we did, I can assure you that we would be referencing it straight away. In fact, when people write to us and express concerns, we quickly send them to the appropriate authorities to raise those concerns. Angus, do you want to add to that?

Mr Kerr: That is absolutely the case. There is a clear code of conduct for councillors to follow, and they are very much aware of that. That was very much part of the capacity building programme. It is focused on by NILGA in the ongoing training for planning committee members. The Northern Ireland Local Government Commissioner for Standards is responsible for dealing with complaints or issues that are raised through that.

Mr McHugh: In the same vein, does the Department have anything in place to make sure that there is no corruption within the system?

Mrs Godfrey: Within the Department, we have well-established whistle-blowing policies. By our nature, we deal with very small numbers of planning applications. The very complex and the generally problematic are, probably, the two main categories, and we have well-defined wrongdoing and whistle-blowing processes in place. If anybody were to express any concerns about my officials and my Department, that would be immediately referred through those processes for investigation. Thank goodness, that has not been something that I have had to deal with in relation to the departmental position. It is very much a question worth posing with council colleagues next week. As Angus said, however, if anything reaches the Department — sometimes people do write in and say, "I am concerned about decision x" — we always refer them to the Local Government Commissioner for Standards and to the correct processes to raise their concerns.

Mr McHugh: It is particularly about councils that I raise that question. How do you react to the comment, which I have encountered on numerous occasions, that, when it comes to enforcement, planning is toothless?

Mrs Godfrey: When it comes to enforcement in relation to the applications that the Department gets, we use the powers that we have. We have used them; we are on record as using them. Thankfully, we do not need to use them very often, but we have used them and do use them.

When it comes to local councils, as I explained, enforcement is a discretionary power, so it is up to a council to decide how much of its resources it wants to put into enforcement versus supporting and developing planning applications. There is variance in that regard, but councils have been given licence to determine that variance themselves.

Mr McHugh: I have had experience of the issue where those in enforcement acknowledge, say, that a particular development should not have taken place. They have sent a letter confirming that to whoever made the objection and left it at that. Nothing is done about redressing the situation.

Mrs Godfrey: I can only repeat what I said about the Department and the applications that we process. We certainly have taken enforcement action where we considered it important and necessary to do so. Individual councils have to be allowed to reach their own decisions. That is the way the system is set up. It is an area that councils determine for themselves. It is difficult for me to give you a definitive answer on that because it is a decision taken by elected councillors in each council chamber.

Mr Beggs: That is a difficult area, which we all face in Northern Ireland. The Chair referred to the danger of even local investors deciding to take their money elsewhere because of delays and lack of certainty. The other side of that coin is, are we able to attract investment from elsewhere?

I spoke recently to local mobile phone providers. They indicated that they have upgraded to 5G in some 380 areas in the UK. However, in Northern Ireland, they have upgraded only in Belfast, Newtownabbey, Castlereagh and Lisburn. I asked why we were getting a lower proportion, and they indicated that there is additional bureaucracy, cost and delay here. Do you accept that our system is failing and we are not attracting inward investment that would otherwise come here?

Mrs Godfrey: That issue relates to permitted development rights, and we have very recently reformed the planning guidance that should make it a heck of a lot easier for mobile phone providers. Angus?

Mr Kerr: Absolutely. We have increased permitted development rights for that very reason, to allow telecommunication companies to roll out their —

Mr Beggs: Am I correct in saying that that gets us to where the rest of the UK was in 2016? The UK has moved again since that, and we have not. We are five or six years behind.

Mr Kerr: The technology changes rather rapidly. I would not say that we are that far behind. We could well use other measures, and it is a constantly evolving process —

Mr Beggs: Sorry, do our changes reflect the changes that happened in 2016 in GB or not?

Mr Kerr: They do, but they add some further changes as well.

Mrs Godfrey: Some of those changes were delayed for the obvious reasons that we talked about, but the changes went further than those that would have been made had we been able to make them in early 2017.

Mr Kerr: Correct. Although we can still make further changes, and I am aware that some of the other jurisdictions have gone a bit further. That is something that we are looking at.

Mr Beggs: You accept that, even outside of telecoms, there is huge frustration at the delays?

Mrs Godfrey: There are frustrations, yes.

Mr Beggs: If you are going to commit significant funding to a major planning application, it involves a big financial commitment, and, potentially, you tie up investment that could go elsewhere, so we are losing out.

Mrs Godfrey: That was one of the other areas of focus of the planning forum that Julie chairs. The forum takes a holistic approach, so that we have all the key government players in the room and can look at potential major applications with the intention of making sure that the process is applied as effectively as possible for them. Julie?

Ms Thompson: Certainly, when looking at the performance on the major applications, there is a balance to be struck. There are the major applications, and then there are the local applications. The big volume is in the locals and small volume in the majors. However, you have to think about what is to everybody's best advantage. Everybody, potentially, has a different view of that. An individual council area will have one perspective on it, statutory consultees may have a different one. They all need to work together.

One of the things that came out of the forum is that Roads colleagues meet much more regularly with councils. That is partly about understanding exactly what the priorities are in the local area, working through individual applications and getting a focus for them in the right place. They are getting on and doing the work in order to move those applications on.

Mr Beggs: Is the Planning Appeals Commission part of the forum? Usually, large, sophisticated applications end up with a public inquiry, and the process then impinges on it as well. Is the commission part of your forum?

Mrs Godfrey: It is not at the moment. We have to be careful. That is a judicial process, and we do not want to be seen to interfere with it in any way. However, we have separate lines of communication with the Planning Appeals Commission. We had quite a bit of engagement with it over the work programme associated with local development plans. It was concerned that it would have to stagger its independent examinations to make sure that that process runs smoothly. We have to be careful, Roy, with getting the balance right.

Mr Beggs: I fully appreciate that. Nevertheless, there might be some valid comments that it could make. You need to have channels to take that on board.

Ms Thompson: Absolutely.

Mr Kerr: I meet the chief commissioner quarterly to talk about a range of issues.

Mr Beggs: It has been indicated to me that, on occasion, it has taken more than four months for you to pass your files and paperwork across to the commission after it has been decided that there will be a public inquiry.

Mrs Godfrey: I am not sure that that rings any bells with me, apart from one case around which there is a wee bit of frustration. The volume of documentation in that case is such that our preference is to transfer it electronically. The concept of having to print out and bundle up hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pages, when an electronic solution might be more simple, is one that we are working through. That is on one application, and it is not something that I hear about more generally, unless you want to correct me, Angus.

Mr Kerr: You are correct.

Mr Beggs: Does the legislation in that area need to be updated?

Mrs Godfrey: That is something that we could look at. In this day and age, and with resources as they are — as you well know — the more we can make use of technology, the more effective we will be.

Mr Beggs: Six years to complete a local development plan is an incredible length of time. I understood that we were, largely, adopting the Scottish model. Was that their experience when they adopted their new system? What are we doing wrong?

Mrs Godfrey: There are a number of reasons for that. As I said at the start, with the benefit of hindsight, the indicative timescale of 40 months was too ambitious. Not every council felt the need to move quickly, and some had good, relatively recent plans to follow. Progress is being cracked through now, and, once we get the first three or four completely through the process, we will be in a much better position to evaluate. Angus, what about the learning from the South, where there are much closer similarities?

Mr Kerr: The new system was based on the Welsh model, which is a two-document approach. We engaged with all jurisdictions, but we have engaged a lot with Wales on the approach that it has taken to managing its local development plan programme. There are issues there as well. They are large processes, and it is challenging to get them out quickly. One of the key issues in the system for us is that we have just commenced the new two-tier system. Part of the process is to replace all the planning policy statements in the new plan strategies of the plans. That is taking a little bit longer than it would normally take for a plan. When it comes to reviewing the plan, it will be much quicker because that work will have been done. It is an unfortunate consequence of the transfer.

Mr Beggs: I move now to the role of the Department in monitoring decisions and what is happening with councils. You almost said that it is up to councils to make their decisions. Is that irrespective of whether they breach their current area plans?

Mrs Godfrey: That is where the like of our call-in powers come in. If we are concerned that a council is taking a decision that is in direct conflict with regional policy or without there being good, well-documented planning reasons for that decision, particularly when it is overturning the recommendation of planning officials, we can, and do, look at the case for call-in. That case has to be finely balanced. There is policy and guidance on the call-in power. I remember, from having to take these decisions in the absence of Ministers — that is why it sticks so clearly in my head — that one of the fundamental tests on call-in is that you have to be absolutely satisfied that the council is not best placed to take the decision. That is a high bar, but, where there are concerns, we call in applications if we think they are at variance with regional policy, likely to present risks to the implementation of regional policy or likely to be taken without proper planning grounds. Is that the fairest summary, Angus?

Mr Kerr: That is absolutely right. There are other checks and balances in the system besides the call-in power. We have the parallel enforcement powers, parallel powers for revocation and discontinuance, and powers to issue directions and so on, and we require councils to notify us about applications that we might be worried or concerned about. There is a range of checks and balances that the Department can use.

Mrs Godfrey: If you were sitting in a council chamber, you would not necessarily feel that the Department was the best place for the decision to be taken; you would inevitably feel that your chamber was.

Mr Beggs: I see language such as "To grow the economy", "Tourism" and "Social and economic benefits" used as justification for breaching the area plan. That type of language could justify just about every application. Are you concerned about the vagueness of some of the justifications for breaching the recommendations of the planning officer and the current area plan?

Mrs Godfrey: It is absolutely fine to overturn the decision of a planning officer. That happens; it is democracy in action. What always concerns us is a situation in which the grounds and the documented evidence are not set out sufficiently. Some of the times that we have intervened and looked at call-in have been because a council's record-keeping has not pointed clearly enough to the rationale for reaching a different decision. It is entirely appropriate to reach a different decision, but you have to be able to account for that decision and defend it. Those are the areas where we have moved to transfer the responsibility for a planning application back to the Department.

Mr Kerr: I will add to that. We have raised, time and again, the issue of the way in which councils record their decisions and the transparency around that. I have that in several of my chief planners' updates. That issue is talked about at the strategic planning group meeting at which I meet the heads of planning. The Knox judgement, which sets out the approach that councils should take to doing that job correctly, is referenced and talked about regularly. We are trying to push that area as hard as we can with councils.

Mr Beggs: You said that you remind them "time and again". Do they still not do it?

Mr Kerr: Practice has improved significantly. In 2018, we visited the planning committees around the region. We had two visits to each of them to see what their practice was, and we wrote to the councils after that to tell them the sorts of things that we observed. In that letter, we referenced the Knox judgement and the proper way of dealing with these sorts of things. Improvements are coming in that area, but there is no doubt that there is more work to be done.

Mr Beggs: How can you provide us with quantitative evidence that the councils are improving in that area? Have you carried out a survey of the proportion of cases — where they are adequately documented — in which they have overturned the recommendations?

Mrs Godfrey: We have the stats for overturns. The real question is about what lies beneath those. As I said, an overturn can be entirely legitimate, and, of course, there are some overturns that nobody will complain about. That could be because the applicant got the result that they wanted, while the planning officer's decision may not have been in that space. The Audit Office report identifies the variation. As I said before, the variation is large, but I think that you could also ask questions about very small variations and whether those would represent almost too much compliance and not enough challenge.

Looking at 2020-21, which is the last full year for which I have stats, the overturn rate for councils was about 14%, but you will have seen from the Audit Office report that there are variations within that. Derry City and Strabane District Council was much higher than that, with 36%, and Mid Ulster District Council had 2·5%. There are significant variations, but I do not doubt that every one of those decisions was taken because councils thought that they were taking the best possible decision.

Mr Beggs: Can you provide those updated figures? I am looking at the Audit Office figures. When a third of professional recommendations are overturned, I want to know what is happening and whether there is adequate justification for it. I fully agree that there are bound to be grey areas and that it is right that councils exercise their judgement. Have there been discussions about why there is so much variation between councils? Do the councils themselves not recognise that there are issues? Some may have a lack of challenges, but some are clearly ignoring the professional recommendations.

Mrs Godfrey: As Angus said, there was a recent judicial review — well, it was a couple of years ago now — that brought that very much to the fore, and we have communicated quite extensively with councils. Councils will say, "An average is only an average. What matters is what happens in our council area". For example, I saw a letter the other day from a council saying, "So many of your stats are no use to us because you keep comparing us to the average, and we are different". I suspect that we can all use that argument.

It is tricky, but we do have conversations. Angus has very extensive conversations with the chief planners around what is going on and whether there are areas where more training is needed. Although NILGA and councils will always have responsibility for their own training, if we see a gap, we will step in and encourage and work with them to develop training. Those conversations have to happen, not just with Angus and the chief planners but with senior levels across councils too.

Mr Beggs: What has been your assessment of the explanations being documented for overturning professional decisions?

Mrs Godfrey: The easiest way to answer that is that, in any instance where we see that the documentation is insufficient, that would be a fundamental factor in considering call-in. Angus?

Mr Kerr: Absolutely. There have been occasions when we have observed that. I cannot deny that.

Mr Beggs: I have given an example of a set of words that anybody could use on anything.

Mr Kerr: Absolutely. Not all practice out there is perfect. That is why we are talking about it, writing about it and trying to push the appropriate approach.

Mrs Godfrey: That is why we publish the figures as well. We publish them very openly because it about is the conversations. You might find that, if you are the chief executive or chief planner in the council, you look at the 27 out of the 75 applications that were overturned, and you might be absolutely content that there is a rational and well-documented case for each of those, or you might not be.

Mr Beggs: Turing to delays with applications, a lot of it is to do with statutory responses and a failure to meet the target response times. With regard to the major applications, DFI Rivers, which is part of your Department, is the biggest failing, with only 44% within 21 days. Why is that?

Mrs Godfrey: It is, yes. Although it improved, I am sorry to say that it has slipped back again. I alluded to some of the key reasons earlier. First, we have been carrying too many vacancies for too long. There is a vacancy backlog right across the Civil Service. We have been carrying vacancies, and that has affected performance. Thank goodness, we now have the main feeder grade recruited, finally, and things will start to change.

That is not the only reason. Complexity is a huge reason. If you think about our understanding of flood risk management, which some of you have been discussing very recently, and the way in which flood risk has changed as a result of climate change, the complexity of applications is much starker than it was six or seven years ago. We have already touched on the quality of applications. I accept that this is not much comfort, but one thing that we have not allowed to suffer is the quality of those consultation responses, because, when you are dealing with flood risk, the consequences for individuals and property are just too horrendous.

Mr Beggs: You have your flood risk maps updated because of climate change, so what more do you have to do than look at the map to see whether you are in an area relevant to flood risk?

Mrs Godfrey: You look at the map and the mitigations in place to address flood risk. You look at what is planned around flood risk management. You look at whether anything has changed in the science and whether there are any different engineering solutions or conditions that you could put on an application. You are making a judgement and giving the best information that you can to, in most cases, a council, which will then have to weigh up that information with other pieces of information. It is complex. The science and the understanding moves all the time.

I cannot say that the complexity is the only reason, because I am absolutely clear that we have suffered from carrying vacancies that we have not been able to fill.

Mr Beggs: You are also responsible for Northern Ireland Water.

Mrs Godfrey: Yes.

Mr Beggs: It has only a 51% target response rate. What is happening there?

Mrs Godfrey: Northern Ireland Water's performance has improved very significantly over the last couple of years. The last figures that I saw had it close to 97% or 98%.

It has done what I have just been talking about. It has had to re-prioritise and put more resources in, and, thankfully, it is able to recruit directly and more quickly than I am. It has put in place quite a significant improvement programme. It is represented on the planning forum.

Ms Thompson: It is indeed. The figures for that body for 2021 were 88% globally and, as Katrina said, up in the very high 90s locally. It really has undergone a bit of a step change to move it on.

Mr Beggs: With DFI Roads, only 55% of major applications are within the 21 days. Have you addressed that?

Mrs Godfrey: Yes. DFI Roads gets a staggering number of planning consultations every year. One of the issues that we are having to tackle is whether it is being over-consulted. The latest figure is that 75% are within the statutory time frames that we would very much like to see. Again, we have a number of vacancies there that are about to be filled.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Can I come in there? You say that it may be over-consulted. Has it created that culture itself?

Mrs Godfrey: I do not think so, no. William Irwin mentioned it in his question. There can also be a sense of safeguarding and, "Maybe I will just stick this out in case there is something wrong with it". We can do more to set out the factors that need to be considered to let planners take the right decision without the need for over-consultation. We struggle with resources. To put more resources into that area, I would have to take them from another area that many of you would consider equally or even more important. That will be the challenge. Again, my main priority is to fill the vacancies that we have at present.

Ms Thompson: DFI Roads is very deliberately working with councils and has put in more regular meetings than it may have had in the past just to get underneath that and to make sure that both sides can see the purpose of what it is doing and that the consultations are meaningful.

Mrs Godfrey: It is doing a bit more to fast-track the low-risk applications so that they do not take any longer than is strictly necessary. It is also trying to encourage improvements to the checklists that we are trying to encourage councils to make more use of.

Mr Beggs: You talk about these regular figures. Can we have transparency on that? How often are they published?

Mrs Godfrey: They are published every quarter. Well, once they are validated through the statistical process, they are published quarterly.

Ms Thompson: Yes, and an annual report is produced.

Mrs Godfrey: There is a bit of a lag, Roy, because they have to collate it and collect it and it has to be cleaned, statistically verified and everything else, but they are published quarterly. We made a point of doing that to, as Julie said, try to shine a spotlight, painful though it is, on performance. We also know that the more you talk about performance, the more focus there is on improving it. It is the Hawthorne effect: you shine a spotlight on something and it gets better.

Mr Beggs: I was pointing out that you and your Department were the cause of a major part of the problem.

Mrs Godfrey: It causes me great pain. I had hoped that we would have certainty over a three-year Budget period. I reassessed what it would take to improve staff performance, and we have included that as an inescapable bid in our draft Budget proposals. Unless we can resource this, we will not make the improvements that we need to make. Unfortunately, I am not in a position where I have lots and lots of resources that I can redeploy, because redeploying just creates a major problem somewhere else. Going back to basics, what would a really slick performance look like? How many staff would we need at what level and with what qualifications to deliver that performance, and what are the costs of that? That is part of our inescapable Budget bid.

Mr Beggs: Thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Permanent secretary, at the very outset of your evidence, you said that 12,000 permissions are granted smoothly per year. How many are not?

Mrs Godfrey: That is a good question, Chair. I was going on the average that around 12,500 go through the planning permission process every year.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): It means nothing unless we know what the overall figure is. Could you perhaps furnish the Committee with that?

Mrs Godfrey: I certainly could, yes.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What do you say to the suggestion that there is perception out there that there is a lack of accountability and poor performance on this issue? The chief planner mentioned the skills gap. You have commented on the voluntary exit scheme and mentioned vacancies a number of times. Has that rendered the Planning Service not fit for purpose?

Mrs Godfrey: No. There is an important distinction there. When I talk about vacancies, I am talking about the vacancies in those parts of the system, including in my Department, that are responsible for statutory consultations. That is not the same thing. We are blessed with hugely professional, hard-working and skilled planners. I can say that about the directorates in my Department and about local government. I made the point about resources and vacancies specifically in relation to those teams that respond as part of the statutory consultation process. That is a different thing.

On accountability, we are publishing more now than we ever published before. As I said, we are publishing quarterly and annual figures on performance. That is very deliberate. We will not solve all the issues that we have to solve without absolute transparency on where performance is good and where it is not good enough. More information than ever is going very openly into the public domain. The tension is in where we started from: if almost all planning decisions are taken in a context where the specific intention was that accountability should be local, how can we work even better and more collaboratively to make sure that the system as a whole delivers for the environment, for local communities and for our economy? That is the critical thing.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Mr Beggs made a point about the difficulties with processing in your Department. There are also the issues of the skills gap in local government, the fact that not all of local government is signed up to the new computerised systems that are coming in and the fact that they work at a different pace. Given the Infrastructure Department's internal issues and the issues in local government, what would you say to the assertion that the whole process is being paralysed by silo culture?

Mrs Godfrey: I do not recognise that in the way in which we work. It will be interesting to hear the local government perspective. I do not recognise that culture. We have taken steps. We have created the planning forum and brought everybody involved in the system together. We work at multiple levels — Angus described some of those for you — with local government. We work across government with the Department for Communities and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. I do not think that that is the issue. We can always be better. There is never any room for complacency in collaborative working.

The issues and the challenges that we face are rather different. Applications are complex and there is a litigious culture in which legal challenge is high. There are challenges in having the resources that we need in order to run a very effective operation. Those are the issues as I see them. Those issues are not caused by us not working collaboratively; they are the reality of the world in which we live.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Do you think that there is a lack of accountability?

Mrs Godfrey: No, I do not. As I said, the decisions that are taken in councils are automatically accountable: the very nature of local government brings in-built accountability. For us, in central government, the key tests are the applications that we process ourselves. You will know that, for some of the reasons that we have discussed, they take much longer than any of us would like. We can deal with some of those reasons through improving processes. There will be others that we will not be able to deal with in that way because they are part of a slightly different process. There is a cultural issue: are we too helpful? Should we be harder-nosed in sending applications back? I am not sure that that is the right answer from an outcomes base, but it would certainly help the stats if we did that.

In all of that, you have to keep your focus on what we are trying to do. What is the purpose of the planning system? The planning system is about creating really great and vibrant places, protecting our environment, responding to climate change, giving communities places that people can thrive in and helping to develop and enable our economy. The stats are really important, because they give me the questions, but I have to keep coming back to the fact that, if you rooted planning in an agreed Programme for Government — if we had one — that would be an absolutely fundamental enabler.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): In the overall context of planning, the Department is responsible for a very small number of applications. Responsibility lies elsewhere, much of it in local government. How many people work in your planning directorates?

Mrs Godfrey: We have about 80 staff across our two planning directorates. They fulfil a range of functions. We have regional policy and the work that Angus, as chief planner, does collaboratively across councils. We have teams that work on local development plans and the teams that undertake the casework for the small number of planning applications that come to us. Julie is responsible for looking after all of them. I hope that I have not left anything out.

Ms Thompson: No. We have about nine staff out of the 80 working on the casework for that small number of applications. It speaks to the collaboration point that a large proportion of the people who work on Angus's side engage across the system on a range of policy areas. A lot of their focus is on engaging with local government or with Departments on policy initiatives. We then have the local development plans and casework side. A raft of work needs to be done —

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You have nine out of 80 working on applications.

Ms Thompson: Yes.

Ms Thompson: It is nine professional staff. We have four or five administrators below them.

Mrs Godfrey: Yes. Is it enough? It is certainly what we have. We have looked, over time, at moving people around where we need to. It comes down to what you can do at a given point and whether we have Ministers in place and whatever. There have been the challenges of the pandemic. We have had to move people into taking through work to deal with the pandemic. There is a constant weighing up of the core staff to establish where they can best be placed. It comes back to the resourcing point generally. If there were more planners, could you do more? Of course you could, but that would require more money.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Before I bring in Mr Beggs, who will be brief, I have another question. Permanent secretary, you mentioned Buick and a number of examples of it. Is there any progress on the York Street interchange?

Mrs Godfrey: The issues with the York Street interchange are not planning issues, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): There are no planning issues.

Mrs Godfrey: They are not planning issues at this point. My Minister has put on record her position that she has undertaken a further review, that she is considering that and that she is committed to the project. I am conscious that its issues are not to do with planning; they are transport policy issues. Therefore —

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): But they are in your Department.

Mrs Godfrey: They are indeed.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): The issues are not planning, but they are in your Department. Is the money for that ring-fenced?

Mrs Godfrey: The budget for next year and for the following three years has not been confirmed.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Is the confidence-and-supply money that was secured for it ring-fenced?

Mrs Godfrey: The confidence-and-supply money that we received was for infrastructure projects generally, and that process has been followed through. I am trying to refer back to the report.

Mrs Godfrey: Sorry, Chair. I am trying to understand where it sits with the report —

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): A yes or no would do actually. Is the money ring-fenced or not?

Mrs Godfrey: We have not got a budget for next year, so I do not know.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): So, it is not ring-fenced.

Mrs Godfrey: No. Nothing is ring-fenced until we have a budget.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): No, but a specific pot of money was secured through confidence and supply for the York Street interchange —

Mrs Godfrey: That was for previous years.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Correct. Not a single thing has been done.

Mr Beggs: The large number of poor-quality applications is not good for the applicant —

Mrs Godfrey: No, it is not.

Mr Beggs: — nor planners, because they do not realise that they need to go and do something now, as opposed to waiting until several months later and then starting a process. You commend Belfast City Council on its approach, which is to identify the need at a very early stage, but that has not been rolled out across the councils. In which councils has it been rolled out so that everyone becomes aware of where quick improvement could occur?

Mrs Godfrey: Belfast City Council has certainly rolled it out. We are looking to see whether we can make it part of the legislative environment, which may or may not be popular. In which other councils has that been rolled out, Angus?

Mr Kerr: I do not think that it has been fully rolled out in other councils. I know from the last forum that two or three other councils are looking at it.

Ms Thompson: ABC was looking at it very closely. I do not know whether that council has actually started it yet, but it has certainly started the process. As I said earlier, a lot of engagement is needed. You cannot just do it and leave developers or agents to deal with the consequences. It is about an education process and ensuring that people understand what is needed. ABC was definitely looking at it, but I am not sure how far along that journey it has got. Belfast is definitely the furthest ahead on it.

Mr Beggs: I had picked up the impression that several others were picking up that good working practice, but, actually, nobody else has implemented it yet. Is that what you are telling us?

Mrs Godfrey: We have been recommending it for quite some time. We can really see the value of it when it is picked up, but we cannot enforce it.

Mr Beggs: Oh, I know.

Mr Muir: I have just one issue. There is another — the ammonia issue — which we can probably deal with in correspondence. That is an important issue that came through in the inquiry.

Mrs Godfrey: To reassure you on that, we have engaged very extensively with DAERA. We work very well with DAERA. I do not doubt that, as soon as it is in a position to give us what we need, it will do so.

Mr Muir: Yes. it is an important issue. It is important that it and other issues such as enforcement are not neglected.

When I had the opportunity to ask questions, I raised the issue of pre-application discussions. The 'Review of the Implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011' report says:

"A broad cross-section of respondents including some councils, NGOs, business and representative bodies"

— that is applicants and objectors —

"suggested that PADs should be moved to a legislative footing particularly for major and RSDs"

— that is regionally significant developments —

"proposals, with statutory consultees enabled to charge their own PAD fees with the income ring-fenced to improve capacity. Some developers suggested they would be willing to pay statutory consultees for PAD advice if it would improve the quality of their applications and significantly improve processing time. Some suggested Councils can take different approaches to pre-application discussions and this may benefit from a more standardised, formalised approach in subordinate legislation."

I raise this, Angus, because people are asking for it to be put on a statutory footing, not to delay the system but to improve it. Your response to me was that it could delay the system and add more bureaucracy to it. Clear, practical suggestions are being made about putting it on a statutory footing, but the response was:

"The Department is not persuaded of the case for, or benefits of moving PADs to a legislative footing."

Can you understand where my frustration comes from? People are making suggestions to you, as a Department, on ways of speeding it up, and they get that response.

Mr Kerr: I can understand how that comes across, but we are not persuaded to do it because of some of the things that we have been talking about today. If PADs were put on a statutory basis, that would mean that statutory consultees and planners, who are under pressure in dealing with all the planning applications, would be required to undertake that process for a wide range of applications beyond the ones that the administrative arrangements are in place for. We are concerned that, if we were to do that at this stage, it would be counterproductive and would put further pressure on statutory consultees, who are telling us that they are struggling to be able to undertake the statutory consultation requirements in the planning system and the administrative PAD processes that we are recommending for some of the major applications.

We are 100% bought in to pre-application discussions. We believe that that is the way forward. Added to validation checklists, getting the application right at the start will help. However, we are saying that we are not convinced at the moment that putting it on a legislative basis would be the right approach and that that could end up being counterproductive. We are keeping it under review. It is a stream of work in the planning forum. A workshop with councils is coming up next month to look at guidance for how we can use PADs as effectively as possible under the current arrangements, which are administrative.

Mr Muir: People are prepared to pay you money to get a quicker decision and for it to go to statutory consultees to turn it around. This is the thing. Applicants bought into the consultation process. It is clear that some of the developers are saying that they would be happier to pay more if the consultees would turn it around. Constructive suggestions are coming forward, and that is where the frustration comes from.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I think that you have made your point.

Mr Muir: Yes, thank you.

Mr Irwin: I deal with planners regularly in my local ABC Council area. I usually speak to someone on a number of days each week. I am aware that poor applications by agents are a big issue. I know for a fact that ABC Council is looking at ways to deal with that, because it has been and is an issue.

I have this one last question: are there any other ways of improving confidence in the planning system beyond those that are contained in the Audit Office report?

Mrs Godfrey: There are a number of ways. The areas that Angus spoke about feed into it. It is about getting the right decisions. In all of this, the one thing that we have not talked about is the importance of getting the right decision. That inspires confidence. There is no doubt that getting decisions in a timely manner inspires confidence. We have already talked about where that works well and where there is much improvement. It is also about the actual outcomes.

There is a very interesting line in the Audit Office report about the discipline of going back, looking at the decisions that you took and seeing whether or not what you decided to approve — that will be the decision in most cases — manifested as you envisaged. Did it create jobs, protect the environment or enhance the place in the way in which you thought it would? Reflecting on decisions and at what came from those decisions must be a key part of building confidence. It is also about telling the story about a good planning decision. A good planning decision may have been to reject an application. It is about looking at when a good planning decision enhanced the environment, the community or the economy and getting better at telling those stories.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Mr Donnelly, do you have anything that you want to add at this point?

Mr Kieran Donnelly (Northern Ireland Audit Office): No, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Mr Stevenson, do you have anything to add?

Mr Stuart Stevenson (Department of Finance): I will make a brief comment from a DOF perspective on governance and accountability. I noticed that, when Mrs Godfrey responded to a question from Mr McHugh, she set out the whistle-blowing arrangements that exist in the Department for Infrastructure. It is worth reassuring the Committee that, in September last year, the Department of Finance issued updated conflicts of interest guidance, which is important in reminding civil servants about the standards of conduct, the staff handbook, the code of ethics and the fact that a range of actions, such as abuse of position or misuse of information, are disciplinary offences. It is important to reassure the Committee that our guidance in this area is up to date, and we believe that it is fit for purpose. I hope that that is helpful.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Thank you very much for that contribution. After around two hours —

Mrs Godfrey: I knew that it would not be 45 minutes, Chair, no matter what the timetable said [Laughter.]

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I do not know who told you that [Laughter.]

I thank the permanent secretary, Katrina Godfrey; Julie Thompson; and Angus Kerr, the chief planner, for their attendance. Thank you very much indeed, and enjoy your weekend when it comes.

Mrs Godfrey: Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you, members.

Ms Thompson: Thank you.

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