Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Public Accounts Committee, meeting on Thursday, 17 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
Mr David Hilditch
Ms Cara Hunter
Mr William Irwin
Mr Maolíosa McHugh
Mr Andrew Muir


Mr Stuart Stevenson, Department of Finance
Mr Kieran Donnelly, Northern Ireland Audit Office
Ms Kate Bentley, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Northern Ireland
Ms Alison McCullagh, Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Northern Ireland

Inquiry into Planning in Northern Ireland: Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Northern Ireland

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I welcome from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) Ms Alison McCullagh, the chief executive of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, and Ms Kate Bentley, the director of planning and building control with Belfast City Council. Mr Kieran Donnelly CB, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) for Northern Ireland, is in attendance as well. I also welcome, via StarLeaf, Mr Stuart Stevenson, the Treasury Officer of Accounts (TOA) in the Department of Finance.

Good afternoon, ladies. Can I ask one or both of you to make an opening statement, after which we will ask some questions?

Ms Alison McCullagh (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Northern Ireland): Thanks very much, Chair, for your kind invitation to attend today and to give witness evidence to the Public Accounts Committee hearing on the Northern Ireland Audit Office report, 'Planning in Northern Ireland'. I am pleased to represent the views of SOLACE, the group of council chief executives and directors in Northern Ireland. The chair of SOLACE, Stephen Reid, had intended to be present today, but, unfortunately, he is unwell and sends his apologies to you. As you said, Chair, I am the chief executive of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council — we were mentioned in dispatches last week — and I am joined by Kate Bentley, who is the director of planning and building control in Belfast City Council.

Chair, you and Committee members will appreciate that SOLACE is an officer body made up of the chief executives and directors of the 11 councils. Each council, however, is an independent, sovereign organisation. As planning authorities, councils will make their own local decisions on the basis of their priorities, policies and viewpoints. We hope today to provide the Committee with evidence in general terms and from a SOLACE perspective, although we recognise that some of your questions may relate to the performance or policies of specific councils. It is unlikely that we can answer questions on behalf of councils other than our own, but we will be able to discuss the more general issues pertaining to planning in local government.

Councils will individually, of course, be considering the Audit Office report and will reach their own stated conclusions, which they will convey directly to the Department for Infrastructure and the Audit Office in due course. We appreciate the opportunity to present evidence this afternoon and recognise the time pressures under which the Committee is working. It would, however, be remiss of us not to suggest that it may also have been beneficial for the Committee to seek the views of elected council members on the Audit Office report. We believe that their perspective as decision makers would have added a further dimension to the Committee's assessment of the report.

SOLACE welcomes the Audit Office report and accepts its findings. Seven years on from the culmination of the review of public administration in 2015, when the two-tier planning system was introduced into the new 11-council model and certain powers were granted to local authorities, it is important and timely to reflect. The primary purpose was to bring decision-making closer to communities. It is unfortunate that not all the associated powers that were anticipated to transfer to councils at the same time from central government did so, and that remains the case. Those powers, including those relating to regeneration, minor roads, greater economic development and conservation, should have complemented planning in order to create a more joined-up and connected system to deliver better and quicker decisions for applicants and investors. That did not happen in 2015 and has, we believe, had a negative impact on the effectiveness of creating great places in our cities, towns and villages.

There was undoubtedly a range of other issues in 2015 that have contributed to the new planning system not being as effective as it should have been. The first of those was the way in which workforce planning was rolled out. That was where the Department allocated staff to transfer to councils on the basis of a model of individuals being allowed to choose which council they would work for. That did not support an even distribution of staff, nor did it ensure that those with the best skills would be matched with the right employer or planning team.

Planning did not transfer as a cost-neutral service in 2015. Local government realised quickly that the transferred functions grant, which was the funding package calculated by the Department to ensure that services transferred over at cost-neutral, was insufficient to meet the costs of running the planning service.

In addition to a mismatch in skills, there was therefore a shortfall in funding, which was shown when councils quickly had to employ additional staff to deliver the service in an 11-council model and a two-tier planning system. That has continued year-on-year, with additional costs having been borne by councils as opposed to increased subvention by central government or any meaningful uplift in planning fees. In our opinion, that is the core reason for what the Audit Office report highlights as the lack of sustainability in the present system.

There is a significant gap between the cost of running the planning service and the income derived from it. It has risen from £4·1 million in 2015-16 to £8·2 million in 2019-20. That must be addressed as a matter of urgency, particularly when we consider that the true extent of the costs associated with the local development plan (LDP) preparation has not yet been fully realised. While SOLACE would welcome an uplift in planning fees, that would have a meaningful financial impact only if there were an urgent review of the transferred functions grant to reflect the reality of the cost of managing effective planning services.

Other challenges have slowed progress and hampered performance, including the suspension of the Executive between 2017 and 2019 and, in that period, the Buick judgement. Then, for the past two years, we have had the COVID pandemic. Recognition of those challenges is important, as they have contributed to some of the ineffectiveness of the system and the drop in performance in certain areas. It is reassuring, however, that the more recent performance metrics across councils are positive and are starting to show an improvement from the worst of the COVID impacts.

We acknowledge that the Department has recently published its report 'Review of the Implementation of the Planning Act (NI) 2011', and we have had the opportunity to review the parallel recommendations in it. We also acknowledge, with some disappointment, that the Department has considered a number of the responses to its call for evidence but, on balance, has not been convinced that action is currently required. We take some comfort in the term "currently" and in remarks made at last week's Committee hearing by departmental officials about keeping matters under review and potentially taking action at an appropriate time. In that respect, we wish to continue to work collaboratively on those elements of both primary and subordinate legislation to ensure that the planning system is effective for Northern Ireland.

Regarding the performance of statutory consultees, there is a reasonable focus on the poor performance by some of them in their response times. It was also welcome that departmental officials have recognised that and committed to providing additional resources to turn it around. It was suggested that local government should adopt a harsher stance on applications by refusing to accept poor ones that often lack key information at the outset. The key to improving performance is quality submissions. We agree that there is a need to extract poor or incomplete applications earlier in the process, but that requires assistance from the Department through legislative change on validation, the inability for serial amendments to be made and a requirement to accept and review serial objections, the purpose of which can often be to derail a decision from being taken. Local government has highlighted that issue consistently since 2015, and it is regrettable that no legislative provision has been enacted to resolve the situation.

The report also contains significant commentary on the delays associated with local development plans and makes recommendations in that regard. Councils continue to progress their local development plans, and, in considering any amendments to the currently agreed process, it is important for them not to compromise the work already undertaken or in any way leave it open to legal challenge. Of particular relevance to my council and Belfast City Council is a recent emerging note from the Department that is known as the 'Receipt of Independent Examination Report and Adoption of a Development Plan Document', which is Draft Development Plan Practice Note 11 (DPPN 11). It contains no expected timelines for the independent examination report and the Department's consideration of it. That should certainly be addressed.

We recognise that there has been a greater impact on enforcement performance as a result of COVID. It is, however, a discretionary function, and, to meet service demands, councils are fully entitled to allocate their resources as they deem most appropriate. The Committee may be aware that councils are also responsible for enforcing, with no additional income, any breaches of planning control arising from applications that the Department has determined. It is worth noting that, traditionally, including when the planning function resided with central government, enforcement was a reactive process. Most recently, the Department has indicated its desire for a proactive approach, which will inevitably result in further increased cost to councils.

The replacement planning portal offers a great opportunity to embrace digitalisation and have a more tailored, fit-for-purpose system that is relevant to the two-tier system. It will also offer the ability for online submissions. We consider that that package will make key differences to the ability of citizens to interact with the planning system and allow for applicants to be updated on progress throughout. That is a good example of positive collaboration between councils and the Department on a particularly challenging and complex IT procurement.

The report is critical of an apparent system of silo working, but, as I mentioned, we lack all the tools to avoid that. Meaningful collaboration has been constrained as a result of the lack of transfer of powers for other areas, such as regeneration and minor roads. Councils in other jurisdictions have access to statutory consultees as part of their authority, and that has obvious benefits for efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.

At yesterday's partnership panel meeting, there was recognition of the success of the strong collaboration between central and local government during the pandemic, and reference was made to the need for a commitment to genuine partnership and co-design principles going forward. A two-tier planning system such as ours, where so much control is retained centrally, is relatively unusual and will have inbuilt inefficiencies, but it is the system that we have, and central and local government should do all that they can to make it work more effectively. The two tiers do not, however, have to be hierarchical. Local government is strong and committed and should be considered an equal partner. We are willing to play our part to ensure that the planning system meets the needs of our communities.

I hope that you have gauged from my comments that SOLACE has welcomed the opportunity to reflect on the report. We will continue to consider all its recommendations and how those can be implemented to bring about the improvements that we all desire. We trust that the Committee recognises that that will take greater collaborative thinking, a willingness to accept further change, new legislation and additional resources. In that way, the service can become more effective and sustainable, and we look forward to discussing that with you further this afternoon. Thanks, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Thank you.

Ms Bentley, is there anything that you want to add?

Ms Kate Bentley (Society of Local Authority Chief Executives Northern Ireland): No. There is nothing.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Ms McCullagh, in your evidence, you said early on that the Committee should seek elected council members' views. Is it your view that we should talk to the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) about some of the issues?

Ms McCullagh: Yes, Chair. NILGA is the representative body, and there are planning committee chairs on that group. It is important that the views of decision makers be taken into account.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Will you expand on why you think that would be a good idea?

Ms McCullagh: Certainly. The report was considered, for example, at our planning committee meeting yesterday. There are nuances in the report, particularly around decision-making and perceptions of overturns. Elected members would take the strong view that that decision-making power has now transferred. It is entirely the prerogative of elected members, as decision makers, to place weight on the material considerations before them. I know that audit reports are a snapshot in time, and I know that they look at process. Planning is qualitative as well as quantitative. I think that it would be NILGA's view, from its planning committee work, that it is bringing the best decisions to its local communities.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. You made the point that the devolution of powers from regional government to local government through the RPA was about bringing decision-making closer to communities, and you talked about a joined-up and connected system that would enable quicker decisions. Do you think that that has happened?

Ms McCullagh: It depends on the decisions, Chair. If you look at anything in the abstract, you will see that there are decisions that have been slow. I do not think that those decisions have been slowed down by the transfer of the function. We are in the probably fairly unusual position, as planning authorities, of the vast majority of our statutory consultees being outside our control. I do not know what thought was given to that at the time of transfer, nor do I know what thought was given to the significant retention of control, for example, of call-in of decisions and of policymaking being developed while local development plans are under way. Those things perhaps could not have been foreseen until we had worked through them.

For most councils, the period from 2015 to 2017 was largely spent clearing the backlog of applications that had transferred to them from the Department. From 2017 to 2019, you were getting a better sense of councils' overall performance. In the past couple of years, we have had the COVID implications. In the main, however, we have certainly not been as fast as our targets would want us to be, but it has not been all bad.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You have not been as fast as your targets, but have you been fast enough?

Ms McCullagh: There can be a focus on speed. My view would be whether we have taken quality decisions and the right decisions, and I would say that, yes, we have.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): There is a focus on speed because, reputationally, locally and internationally, if you are going out to sell Northern Ireland plc and are wanting people to invest here, there is a perception or a reality, depending on how you look at it, that there is a problem with planning. Last week, I spoke about a local building firm that, for that very reason, decided that it was going to leave Northern Ireland lock, stock, and barrel and relocate elsewhere in the UK. Whenever you hear of that sort of thing happening, it is clear that the system is not as fast as it should or could be.

Given that we moved from 26 councils to 11, have economies of scale and monetary savings followed?

Ms McCullagh: Monetary savings? The answer is no, quite simply. I was interested in the Department's evidence last week. I think that a figure of 80 staff was referenced as having been retained centrally. What transferred to Fermanagh and Omagh District Council in 2015 was 36 staff. We now have 40, so, no, there have not been monetary savings. The budget that transferred was inadequate, the staffing model was inappropriate and the future funding model needs to change.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Would it be fair to say that the devolution of planning to local government has not delivered economies of scale and savings of a financial nature to the Northern Ireland public purse?

Ms McCullagh: My recollection from the time in 2015 was that the business case looked at a variety of savings measures. I think that councils were due to break even roughly 25 years post transfer. That would take us up to about 2040, so it is probably premature.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): I have one final question, before I hand over to members. We heard consistently last week about a skill set shortage. Belfast City Council is the one that I know best, and I would like a contribution, if you would not mind, Ms Bentley. Belfast is the council that was least affected by RPA. In other areas, two or three councils or whatever were merging. Belfast City Council was broadened into parts of Newtownabbey, Castlereagh and Lisburn. What would your response be to the suggestion of a skills shortage?

Ms Bentley: A significant lack of skills was transferred at the time. There has been a need to build up the specialisms and expertise that are needed, particularly in our local development plan team in order to progress that plan. There was a definite lack of skills transferred across.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Have you just arrived in Belfast?

Ms Bentley: I have. I am six or seven months into the role now.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Are you the director responsible for planning?

Ms Bentley: Yes, and building control.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. From my constituency work and from speaking to many of my colleagues who are members of your council, I know that planning is a hugely frustrating area. Is Belfast getting better at processing planning?

Ms Bentley: The timescales that we are delivering for decisions are as good as we can do in the current system. That is not good enough. Having come in from elsewhere and having worked in authorities in Scotland and England, I find even the target timescales eye-watering. We need to aim for better than the target timescales.

There are a number of checks and balances and processes that we have to go through in the system that are unnecessary and delay the decision-making timescales.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): That is the kernel of the thing. Which ones are unnecessary?

Ms Bentley: A number of checks and balances are retained in our two-tier system, including the process that we have to go through with the local development plan. In any other administration, we would submit a plan straight to the independent authority that was going to examine it and work directly with that body. Here, however, the plan goes through the Department, so there is a delay. In Belfast, there was a delay of around four or five months before the report was passed from the Department to the Planning Appeals Commission for it to examine the plan. On receipt of the Planning Appeals Commission's report by the Department, there was a delay of another four or five months before it was passed to the council.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): That, when you add it up, is another year.

Ms Bentley: That is another year in the process, which would not be the case in any other administration.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): If that takes a year in Belfast, how long would it take in some of the many councils on the mainland that you are listed as having worked in, such as Newcastle City Council?

Ms Bentley: It takes a matter of weeks, after submitting a plan and making sure that they have all the information, to be in receipt of the report. You get the report back directly from the independent examiner.

Ms Bentley: There are similar circumstances in relation to decision-making for development management. The notification system that we have under current legislation brings in statutory consultees as well. We have to notify the Department in cases where we are looking to approve an application about which there is still an objection from a statutory consultee. For example, as a council, we approved a regeneration scheme for a disused warehouse in October of last year. That scheme involves a significant listed building and a significant amount of social and affordable housing. DFI Roads had concerns about the scheme — it did not raise an objection, but it had concerns — and we had an issue with NI Water, which suggested that the development should not be occupied until July 2023. Having talked to the applicants, I think that it would not have been physically possible to get the scheme developed by 2023 in any case. Our council was minded to approve that, but, because of the notification system, it was referred to the Department.

We are now four months on, having had a holding direction put on the application. That is a significant scheme, the investors are starting to worry about confidence in the decision, and, as we are all aware, the costs of materials are rising by the day. So that delay of call-in has had implications. I am willing to be corrected, because I have not been there that long, but I am not aware of any notification that we have made to the Department in such circumstances being called in for a decision. Even if the Department returns that application to us for a decision, we then have to have a predetermination hearing and a further committee meeting to determine our decision. Even if the Department returns it to us next week, we are talking about another month or two before the decision can be made. Six months after the council's original decision to approve a really positive regeneration scheme, we are still without a decision.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Last week, we heard from the permanent secretary and her team that there are 80 staff in the Department. It is fair to say that the Committee had no sympathy for the argument that that in any way represented a lack of resource.

Ms Bentley: There was the famous Christie commission in Scotland that looked at failure demand in systems and thought that 40% of the work that was being undertaken in public bodies over there was connected to failure demand. I suggest that that would be the minimum amount here. Due to the checks and balances that we have in the system, officers are chasing responses and dealing with enquiries about those responses. Those things have to be done because in they were not done right in the first place or the system was not performing.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You call that "failure demand"?

Ms Bentley: Yes, failure demand.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): That represents 40% of the work on the mainland?

Ms Bentley: In Scotland —

Ms Bentley: — the Christie commission found that 40% of the expenditure was on failure demand.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What do you think it is in Northern Ireland?

Ms Bentley: From what I have seen of my officers' work, 40% is a gross underestimation. They are firefighting.

Mr Muir: Thanks for coming along. Hopefully, Stephen will be better soon.

There are a couple of things that I want to tease out. The first one is the two-tier planning system. I fully understand the relationship that you have with the Department and the need to have good working relations with it. We received evidence last week from the permanent secretary, the deputy permanent secretary and the chief planner. There is a two-tier system, and I have a couple of questions about that.

We have seen the response to the issues raised in the review of the Planning Act 2011. There are significant areas where the Department has said that it is not persuaded to take action despite a lot of respondents urging action in those areas. On many occasions, the report references "perceived obstacles". It does not accept that they are obstacles; instead, they are "perceived obstacles".

The response from Belfast City Council noted the use of checklists, which is the simplest thing. In 2014, the Minister at the time, Mark Durkan, said that he was announcing great plans that would mean substandard planning applications being promptly refused, thereby reducing the time spent trying to upgrade them. Clearly, there is a problem there. As is clear from your response and the response from Belfast City Council, you raised the issue of legislative change in 2016, yet, in 2022, we are still getting poor applications. I know what you have done and what other councils have done on the issue, but there needs to be legislation to underpin that work. Is there a cultural issue in the Department in understanding the need for change? Do you feel like equals in that relationship?

Ms McCullagh: I think that there is an understanding in the Department of a need for change. We have evidence of good collaborative work, and, from a council perspective, we welcome the work of the planning forum.

Local government is not viewed as an equal partner. That is, perhaps, about maturing relationships as well, but we have been doing this for almost seven years, so we are serious and credible players. An example is the recent instance of the planning advice note (PAN) being issued and subsequently withdrawn. Had there been consultation with councils prior to that being issued, there would have been a different response or approach from the Department and the publicity around that message would have been much easier. I certainly detect a willingness in the Department to change, but I recognise that councils also have to step up. There are hard messages in the report: we have to be prepared to take those on the chin and do what we can too.

Kate may wish to add to that.

Ms Bentley: The point about the application checklist is a valid one. Given that it was raised as an issue in 2016, there should have been quicker movement on making that a statutory requirement. We have introduced the checklist in Belfast, and, as the review report sets out, that has made a difference to the quality of the applications that we get, but we are still challenged on their use, and completing them is still advisory. We cannot use it as a statutory way of not accepting applications. That runs to the point as to why checklists have not been introduced elsewhere. Other councils will be aware that their use is on an advisory rather than statutory basis and may be waiting for the legislation to come forward before they put in the work in and produce their own.

Mr Muir: On the basis of last week's responses, I wonder whether there is a thirst and willingness for change in the Department. We are told regularly that the planning system in Northern Ireland is complex. Northern Ireland is different in many ways, but the planning system here is not massively different from that in other parts of the UK and Ireland, so that argument does not hold water with me in some ways.

We know that the target for the processing of major applications is 30 weeks, yet the performance against that is about 56 weeks. We know the situation in England: the target is 13 weeks, which is met 88% of the time. That is hard to justify. It is important to get the correct outcomes, but, when people look to Northern Ireland to invest, they walk away.

Ms McCullagh: I agree. I am not trying to diminish the fact that speed is important. While we are not that different, I am not aware of any other planning system in which such control is retained centrally. Kate gave an example from Belfast, and we had a similar scenario in Enniskillen last June, involving significant investment.

Our planning committee granted approval for a scheme, and we were issued with a holding direction on 27 June. We still await the Department's view on what it will do about that proposal.

Mr Muir: No problem.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What is the hold-up there, if you do not mind me asking?

Ms McCullagh: It is with the Department. So, the planning —

Ms McCullagh: I do not know. It is considering the council's decision.

Mr Muir: You are OK.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): — I will come back to you.

I am mindful that, in the past week, the Economy Minister has been in Dubai selling Northern Ireland plc to, I presume, attract foreign direct investment. In addition, Ministers go to America and/or wherever to do just that, but then people hear that it takes a year to process an application here, compared with weeks on the mainland. You do not have to be a genius to work out that that places Northern Ireland at a huge disadvantage against other regions that are competing with us for that foreign direct investment.

Mr Muir: What you just said is useful, and it is relevant to the issue of the equal relationship that I want to tease out. You have given details about an application on which you have a given notification and still await a response. I am aware of an application in my constituency — I will not go into it, because this is not the forum for that — that has taken 13 months. In that case, there is some sort of research being done. In the case of another application, it was eight months before the decision was made to call it in. I looked through the practice note in relation to that, because I was trying to find out what was going on. It says:

"The Department will normally allow 28 days from the date of receipt of requested information under the direction for making its decision as to whether or not to call in the application."

It says there that it has 28 days. The note continues:

"The Department will not seek to delay the consideration of any application longer than necessary and will reply as soon as possible."

It is a systemic problem.

Ms McCullagh: I know that it is not about individual applications, but in our case we have not even got to the point at which the Department decides whether it will call it in. All that we have received is notice that the council cannot proceed to issue its determination while the Department decides what it wants to do.

Mr Muir: Stuck in limbo.

Ms McCullagh: Yes.

Mr Muir: The situation in North Down lasted 13 months.

My other question is about local development plans. It was forecast that they would be done within 40 months. How did the Department get that so horribly wrong? Is there not a concern that the situation at the moment will simply eat resource and that, by the time that there is an outcome, we will probably all be retired?

Ms Bentley: Having experienced the introduction of new planning systems in other places, I think that the timescales included in those plans are always aspirational. There is that element of having to be ambitious with the timescales, which was talked about last week. What we need to do is reflect on the time that has passed since the plan were introduced and relook at them to see how realistic they are, not only in relation to the timescales but to the structure of the LDPs that need to come forward. We all know and agree that they need to have a plan strategy and a local policies plan that has allocations. Do those need to be separate documents, or can they be brought forward simultaneously?

We could look at ways of speeding up the second bit of the system. Everyone is talking about Belfast going through the examination process, but that is just the plan strategy that we are bringing forward. We then have to start work on the local policies plan, which is about the allocations and the detail. The timescales for that are eye-watering. If we are to be a truly plan-led system, we need to look at speeding that up as soon as possible.

Ms McCullagh: As we move to the local policies plan and the site-specific considerations, the issue other than time will be money. When the Department was the plan maker, it had all the expertise in-house, be that in the historic environment division or elsewhere. Councils — Belfast is obviously in the lead in terms of progress — will now have to procure all of that additional assistance to allow for PAN. The costs of that have not been fully tested or realised. It is about time and money.

Where the 40 months is concerned, the Department recognised the issue in one of its early reports. There was a communication, maybe three years ago, from the chief planner about that. The timetable was devised without considering the tension — small "t" — between central and local government and the significant consultative requirements involved.

Mr Muir: Has the idea of doing a twin-track process been aired with the Department?

Ms Bentley: It was raised in a submission during the call for evidence. It was raised as a question on whether there have to be two separate documents or they can run simultaneously. Two authorities could produce one development plan. There are core strategies and supplementary documents in England, but there are different ways of doing it.

Ms McCullagh: There is another piece on the LDPs, and, again, the timescale is relevant to that. I think that the strategic planning policy statement (SPPS) was introduced in September 2015 and made amendments to maybe 23 policies. Teams that were already working on LDPs had to redirect their resources to look at the impact of the SPPS on the proposals as well.

Ms Bentley: I will stress another thing about the idea of saying, "Let us let a few get through the system before we review it", which is where the Department was coming from last week. That is where collaboration and engagement with local authorities will be key, because the implications of changing things now could be significant, and it is only by talking to the local authorities that are going through the system that we can make sure that we do not undermine all of the work that has happened to date.

Mr Muir: I have one final question about statutory consultees. Those are one of the main contributors to the delays, and I know who the offenders are. As part of the consultation in the review of the 2011 Act, there was a suggestion that deemed consent be applied if consultees do not respond within a certain time. The introduction of processing agreements was also suggested, whereby an element of the planning fee would go to the statutory consultees. That would be saying to them, "There is your money to do your responses", which would enable them to agree to process applications.

I understand your call for unity among local authorities, but I do not see that happening in the short term. We know the issue about regeneration powers and my party's position on that. Are those the types of recommendations that, you feel, need to be taken forward to allow you to move on those applications? Last week, we were told that there were many or, to be fair, some examples of over-consulting. Is that the problem, or is it the statutory consultees?

Ms Bentley: Some of the consultation requirements are set out in legislation, and we have to revisit those. For example, we consult the historic environment division on every listed building application, whereas, in other jurisdictions, you simply consult a similar body on only the most protected buildings, which would be the equivalent of the grade A applications here. There is an issue with what we are consulting them on. Those are things that are being considered through the planning forum. That is a useful way to do it, but it needs to focus on the changes that need to happen rather than just discussing and researching them.

Ms McCullagh: A brief point to add is that applications that are of good quality at the time of submission also help statutory consultees.

Mr Muir: I am pushing my luck here —

Mr Muir: I know. Why is Mid Ulster District Council going alone with its planning portal?

Ms McCullagh: From the perspective of the other 10 councils, it was disappointing, but it is Mid Ulster District Council's full right and entitlement to do it. From speaking with councillors from Mid Ulster District Council, I know that they are satisfied with the decision that they have taken, and we wish them well with it.

Mr Hilditch: Ladies, you are welcome this afternoon. At the outset, you mentioned the financial sustainability of the planning activities. I think that you said that the last official report showed a gap of £8·2 million. What major costs do councils incur in respect of planning, and how do they fill out?

Ms McCullagh: Certainly, from our perspective, the main cost is predominantly from staffing. Some additional expertise is required for consultancy and other supports for the development plan process, but it is predominantly a staffing cost. There is almost a continuous requirement for legal support for planning matters, because, as you will be aware, there is the tendency to turn quickly towards judicial reviews (JRs), which is the other aspect that slows decisions in Northern Ireland Certainly, the vast majority goes on staffing costs.

Mr Hilditch: That culture of JRs seems to be creeping in all over the place.

Ms McCullagh: Yes.

Mr Hilditch: You are probably aware that the Infrastructure Minister has announced that an infrastructure commission will be established to look at long-term planning. Will that be of any assistance to you guys? Will it be helpful to you?

Ms Bentley: With regard to long-term planning for infrastructure, it will be a significant help. We are looking at issues around capacity in Belfast, particularly around waste water and sewerage infrastructure, that are holding up some of the applications with objections from NI Water. Any long-term plan for investment in that infrastructure will be welcome.

Mr Hilditch: OK. Thank you.

Ms McCullagh: Similarly, in the context of city and growth deals across Northern Ireland, which are about significant capital investment, the infrastructure commission will be helpful.

Mr Hilditch: OK. That is positive.

I will move on to member training at councils. I know this is probably more NILGA's end of things, but do you see any potential improvement for training? Planning is a big issue through constituency offices; there is no doubt about that. I know that there are a lot of inconsistencies in my area. Is there enough training — if it even exists — centrally for the 11 councils and their planning committees to try and get a more level playing field rather than the inconsistencies that I see on applications, without getting into any specific ones?

Ms McCullagh: I have a couple of comments. First of all, there is training. Each council responsible for planning is responsible for delivering its own training for its elected members. In advance of 2015, there was a significant suite of training programmes that the Department supported the delivery of. It was targeted at all elected members, but particularly those with an interest in the planning committees. It has been individual councils' responsibility to top that up. NILGA has a specific planning network where it does planning-specific training. Most of the chairs of the planning committees have participated in that. It brings in experts, peer review and mentoring support.

I am not sure of the full methodology of the Audit Office report, but the other thing that I will say about training is that, if you have an opportunity to view it, as we have for the last couple of years, everything is now online. Planning committee members spend a significant amount of time preparing for committee meetings. They know their policies, they articulate them well and they interrogate officers on a policy-based approach. That is evidence that the training has been working, and they are —.

Mr Hilditch: That is for members?

Ms McCullagh: Yes.

Mr Hilditch: And then there is the officer side of things. They are really making the recommendations. The inconsistency stems from that role as well.

Ms McCullagh: I will comment, and then Kate can comment, because we are at opposite ends on the scale of "overturns", as they have been described in the report. The section that is dealt with in the report is specifically about rural policy matters. The council that I come from and, indeed, the majority of councils in Northern Ireland do not consider the current planning policy for rural Northern Ireland appropriate. Planning officers deal with planning applications in the context of prevailing planning policy. It is not, therefore, surprising that, when officers make a recommendation, maybe, of refusal for a house in the countryside, planning committee members, who know their areas and can articulate the needs, assess special circumstances and view other material considerations, may take a different view. They are finely based judgements. Planning committees have shown that they are able to take those decisions. Each area is different. There is certainly consistency in our council on how planning decisions are taken, but our make-up is different from Belfast or maybe other councils in the east of Northern Ireland.

Mr Hilditch: I am in Mid and East Antrim. We had to use examples from the Causeway coast area to show the planners what was happening in another area. "Why were you turning this one down?": that is how simplistic it gets sometimes.

I had other questions that have already been asked. Finally, what about the pool of talent in Northern Ireland to address the demands and skills at planning level? Are we lagging behind? Do we need new people? Did we lose a lot of people with early retirements and so on?

Ms McCullagh: Kate will have some comments on the current skill set.

Mr Hilditch: She has come in to help us out here [Laughter.]

Ms McCullagh: Local government lost a lot of people who should and could have come to us in 2015 but did not because of other schemes. We lost a lot of people in about the first eight to 12 months post RPA. We are fortunate in having talented officers. Planning is a genuinely exciting area of work. We are now place-shaping authorities, and a lot of the councils link regeneration — I know that that is a subject for another day, Chair — and community planning. The local development plan should be the spatial configuration of that. It is about breaking down silos within councils as well. We have good professional planners. Of course, we continue to need more people, but the good thing is that more people are coming into the system.

Mr Hilditch: Thank you.

Ms Bentley: With any voluntary redundancy scheme in any profession, you lose a significant amount of expertise. As someone coming into Northern Ireland, I think that there is huge talent here. Perhaps the comment is that they are possibly working on processes and on getting through those processes rather than, necessarily, the added value that professional planners can bring to decision-making and plan-making. It is almost as though we are sometimes focused on plan-making rather than place-making and on getting through the statutory processes rather than doing the value-adding work that we can do through engagement with our local communities.

Mr Hilditch: That is a fair point. Thank you.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): On that point, you have obviously come with a wealth of experience from working in England and Scotland. I have been out of the council for some time. Am I right in saying that your predecessor was from —.

Ms Bentley: Yes, Aidan came, I think, from down south in England, and he has gone over to Manchester now.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): That is an example: in Belfast, which is the premier council in Northern Ireland —

Mr Beggs: Tut, tut.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): — or the principal council in Northern Ireland, the current head and previous head of planning came from outside Northern Ireland. That, in itself, makes a point.

Ms McCullagh: Chair, in the interests of balance, I have to say the heads of planning in the other 10 authorities, to the best of my knowledge, were born and bred in Northern Ireland and are doing very well [Laughter.]

Mr Muir: Very good.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Excellent. I am glad to hear it. It is good to see that we have a collection of talents from across the kingdom.

Mr McHugh: Tá fáilte romhaibh uilig. You are both welcome here this afternoon.

I have a question that sounds a wee bit lazy in one respect, in that I was raising similar issues this time last week. Alison, on a number of occasions, you have mentioned the funding gap. To what extent has that impacted on bringing the development plans themselves to the fore?

Ms McCullagh: Thank you, Maolíosa. It has had an impact in that the skill set that came in needed to be supplemented. In Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, a small team was transferred to us with local development plan expertise, and we needed to supplement that not only with additional officers but, because we were unable to draw on the Department's expertise, for example, on natural or built heritage, by procuring expertise separately. There is a cost for that.

The point that perhaps has not yet been fully assessed is that, as Belfast moves into its local policies plan and as we, hopefully, will soon be behind it, all those new costs will start to come into play again. In the financial settlement, certainly in my recollection of the transferring functions grant, almost a nominal amount was put beside local development plan preparation, and that was divided over the 40 months that developing the plan was expected to take. It was not realistic in either the time, as we have discussed, or the money that is needed.

Mr McHugh: You have just not had the necessary resources to bring those plans to the fore.

Ms McCullagh: Yes, that is correct.

Mr McHugh: Is there someone else? Sorry, I can hear an echo when I talk. I will just carry on.

Without doubt, in all the council areas, accepting that each one is like its own fiefdom in a sense, there is an immediate discrepancy in the number of planning recommendations that have been overturned; in fact, I think that, in your area, Alison, 31% have been overturned. To what extent are you aware of or prepared for or how do you address undue influence? What I mean in that respect is people with a political objective or any other objective that might be described as corruption in planning and influencing planning decisions. Do you have anything in place to address that?

Ms McCullagh: The first thing to say is that I have no evidence of any corruption or malpractice in relation to planning or related matters. There is an elected member code of conduct for all councillors, and there is a specific subset that deals with members of planning committees, who have to be particularly assiduous. Even pre the transfer of functions, if they had a role in lobbying or advocating either for or against an application, that would have been declared. Obviously, if there are any land, pecuniary or non-pecuniary interests in an application, there is a declaration of interest. Declarations of interest are a standing item for all of our committees, including our planning committee. I know that members refresh their register of interests on an ongoing basis.

It has certainly been my experience that — you will know that councils receive presentations on all manner of things — planning committee members are particularly careful to absent themselves from any discussion on matters that may form a planning application at some time in the future. Certainly, I think that there has been discipline. Members are particularly sensitive to it, and it has been well managed thus far. The other thing to say is that councils are heavily scrutinised. Aside from the rare exception when we have to go into committee, everything is done in a public setting. There are certainly channels through which anyone can raise concerns, and we deal with those in the appropriate way. I certainly do not have a concern about it in our chamber.

Mr McHugh: So you feel that the systems are robust enough to tackle that kind of malpractice in any council?

Ms McCullagh: Yes, I think so. I appreciate that systems are only as good as their implementation, but I think that our systems are appropriate and are being implemented correctly.

Mr McHugh: I am sure that, as chief executive officers and so on, you have discussed in SOLACE the discrepancies that can exist between one area and another.

Ms McCullagh: No. From a SOLACE perspective, we look at the broad principles, the areas of agreement and the areas of policy consistency. It is recognised that each council has its own mandate, identity and, in our case, 40 elected members to take those decisions.

Mr McHugh: OK. That is grand. Thanks ever so much, Alison. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Mr Beggs: Alison and Kate, thank you very much for your evidence. It is useful to tap into your practical experience of dealing with applications on the ground.

One of the key reasons for the delay in planning decisions has been the poor quality of some of the applications. Belfast City Council has led with what seems to be good practice. Why has it taken so long for that to be adopted by every other council? Who is responsible for spreading good practice?

Ms McCullagh: I will start by noting that it is only in Belfast. In our case — Fermanagh and Omagh — we sought to implement that about three years ago and received significant challenge from agents, because it was not in statute and therefore could not be imposed. That is our rationale. Kate may wish to comment further.

Ms Bentley: It comes back to the point that I made. We have the checklist in Belfast. It has improved the standard of applications, but it is still subject to challenge insofar as people do not have to conform to the checklist. It is guidance only. It is only by introducing it as a legislative requirement that we can then rely on it to improve applications.

Mr Beggs: You have spoken about some other legislative changes that you would like. Do you have a full list of the changes that you want to make, just to make sure that all of the issues that you have are put on the record? What changes are you advocating in order to improve planning decision-making in councils?

Ms Bentley: There are a number of them, and they are contained in all the evidence that we have submitted to the Audit Office and to the Department's review of the implementation of the 2011 Act. The first is to do with the statutory basis for the checklist. The second is around applicants being able to significantly change their applications once they are submitted. That causes another round of consultation with statutory consultees and another round of assessment from the planning officers. A change is also needed where applications go to appeal. An applicant can significantly change an application once it goes to appeal, which is unheard of in any other jurisdiction but seems to be available to applicants here. That means that they can submit something significantly different at appeal than was submitted to the planning authority for determination.

Those are just a few of the key headlines, but there are also the checks and balances that we referred to in relation to referrals and notifications to the Department in terms of decision-making and the checks and balances that it is retaining in that two-tier system, which makes it, effectively, a false two-tier system to some extent.

Mr Beggs: The planning forum started operating relatively recently in order to enable improved communications. Do you feel that you are equal partners there?

Ms McCullagh: It is welcome that local government has been asked to participate. We have three representatives on the forum. Off the top of my head, there are probably 15 or 16 members, so the vast majority are drawn from central government. I hope that there is a recognition that we bring an equal role to the forum, but, even in the context of co-design and, perhaps, co-chairing, other efforts could be made that would show that local government is not a bit player in this. We are content, however, that we have representation, and I know that our representatives on the forum work diligently to articulate the views of local government on it.

Ms Bentley: I suggest also that there is possibly a need for other third parties to be represented on the forum. I know that you cannot have a forum as big as that might get, but developers, applicants and agents — the people who are responsible for the quality of applications — should be engaged in the conversations around improving quality in the system.

Mr Beggs: That is a useful thought. Are the Government's statutory bodies responsible for some of the delays that are occurring in the area planning process? I do not know whether the transport side of things is still a relevant factor. Is some of the fault with central government or the Planning Service, as opposed to saying that it is local government's fault all the time?

Ms McCullagh: The original intent had been that the transport plans for a district or a city would be developed in tandem with the development plan proposals. There were resourcing issues in the Department that did not enable that to happen as originally planned, but certain areas were able to be progressed. I know that Belfast did some work and we have had some work done to it, but, in the round, it has not happened as intended. Where there is an issue with central government in relation to the development plans is that there can be a changing policy environment that can, at times, make it difficult for central government to reflect what the current policy position is in order to influence a development plan.

Mr Beggs: OK, that is useful. One other area that certainly focuses minds in GB is the deadline for statutory bodies to make decisions. Do you think that we should have deadlines here?

Ms McCullagh: We sort of do, in that there is the potential for an applicant to go through a non-determination appeal. That has happened in some cases, although I know that the methodology that is used is slightly different. I am not averse to deadlines, but we need to get the machinery right to ensure that we get to a decision point. There is a risk that, if you run everything to a deadline or timescale, you potentially end up with a poor decision. That would be regretted, and we want to avoid that. Getting the system right is what is important.

Ms Bentley: I absolutely agree with that. Recently, in November, we saw a statutory consultee that was concentrating very much on its own performance statistics send out a letter to local authorities suggesting that it would not deal with any requests for timescales for a response and would not deal with any prioritisation requests from local authorities. By introducing timescales, you see one of those organisational silo cultures develop, whereby you protect your own performance, possibly to the detriment of the wider system, because it leaves local authorities and local authority planners fielding a lot of calls from applicants and agents who are chasing up their consultation responses, and we are in a black hole.

Mr Beggs: What about inconsistency between planning recommendations and council decisions? In some areas, it is up to 31%, according to the Audit Office figures; in other areas it is 2%. It strikes me that, if there is large variation, either the planners or the councillors are not getting it right. Which is it?

Ms McCullagh: It is in between. Planners or planning officers work to implement the current planning policy. They will view an application against current planning policy. The application will come before planning committees for consideration. There is an opportunity, in that context, for representations to be made by applicants, agents and others. They are finely weighted, and planning committees will take decisions on the evidence before them. The number of overturns can reflect a healthy system. I do not know how the Assembly works, but certainly not everything that we present at an officer level outside of planning goes through with a green light. It shows that officers advise, and politicians decide. That is what happens in planning matters too.

As our work on development plans progresses and we start to adopt draft plan strategies and local policy plans, which, in themselves become material considerations, you will see a decline in overturns, because the local planning policy will reflect the local circumstance.

Mr Beggs: Climate change legislation is at a very advanced stage. Will it have a major bearing on the proportion of overturns?

Ms McCullagh: In our council area, the majority of overturns relate to rural housing in the countryside. Those are matters relating to infill, succession planning and active farming status. None of those three will be adversely impacted by climate change.

Mr Irwin: Thank you for your presentation. This subject has been touched on a couple of times: underfunding is still somewhere around £8·1 million. Do you think there is a willingness in the Department to address that? It cannot continue. There has to be a willingness to address the underfunding issue.

Ms McCullagh: Thanks, Mr Irwin. Comment was made last week that the funding allocation was agreed, but that is certainly not the local government recollection. It was a fait accompli, presented and final. The Public Accounts Committee has the benefit of hindsight. With that benefit of hindsight, you can see that the funding model was wrong, and there should be a willingness to revisit that. I accept that that would require engagement with the Department for Communities, which is our sponsor Department and the conduit through which money would come.

Mr Irwin: Does that mean that some councils are reluctant to recruit new staff, given that they are underfunded? I deal with a couple of councils in my constituency, and I know that planning staff are under a lot of pressure. They work tirelessly, but they seem to be bogged down in red tape and other problems, and it is difficult to get a reasonable turnaround. Many applicants whom I deal with would be happy to get a 30-, 40- or 50-week turnaround, in some instances. Some applications rumble on for years.

Ms McCullagh: We need to ensure that there are properly resourced teams. It is back to the burden on the ratepayer, in the absence of government subvention and in the absence of planning fees. We would never assume that, even if there were an uplift in planning fees, it would be sufficient to meet the deficit. It is almost a two-pronged approach that will be needed, and that will allow the service to become sustainable. We argue that it would also assist the resourcing model to be reflective of need, and that, in turn, would, together with, hopefully, quality applications and some legislative changes, start to turn things around.

Mr Irwin: OK. Thank you.

Mr Boylan: Thanks very much for the presentation. I have a couple of points. Let us start with the voluntary exit scheme. The voluntary exit scheme allowed so many people to leave the system, and a workforce model was then brought in and transferred to local authorities. Clearly, that workforce model was under-resourced in the first place. Is it fair to say that, yes?

Ms McCullagh: Yes, I certainly agree with that.

Mr Boylan: Obviously, it was a difficult one. During my time on a local authority, there was a difficult issue in terms of people choosing where they wanted to work. The starting point was wrong. What discussions have there been about that? Under the review of the Planning Act here, I take it that that issue — resourcing and all that — has been discussed with the Department, yes?

Ms McCullagh: No, it has not. My interpretation is that it may be considered as part of the ongoing wider work on the cost-effectiveness of the RPA. It has been outside the scope of the review of the Planning Act, and, for the reasons we mentioned, there have not been any recent discussions. Once planning staff colleagues transferred to us on 1 April 2015, it was over to the councils. There was no ongoing dialogue. It was then up to councils to resource and equip their teams as needed and to pay for the gap in funding that we encountered.

Mr Boylan: I appreciate that. We are now in the situation where the resource for it will be down to the ratepayer. That is a fair assessment, yes?

Ms McCullagh: Yes, indeed. That is entirely correct.

Mr Boylan: Kate, you mentioned something that I want to pick up on. I thought that we had dealt with this. We lost all that experience, and it will now be down to the ratepayer and new resource. We have had a few conversations with the Department over the last number of weeks. It will be difficult to go back. Do we resolve the resource issue through planning fees?

Ms Bentley: Any increase in planning fees would be welcome. Any move towards cost recovery is welcome. I do not think that full cost recovery is realistic. In Scotland, they have looked at that, and, with the application fee, it can make a significant amount of development unviable, even if the application fee is a small part of the cost of the whole development. Raising the fees would be a good idea. As I said, there is an issue with firefighting. I have 34 individuals in my development management team, and, if we manage to concentrate on processing planning applications rather than all the other failure demand work that I talked about, such as chasing things up and having to reassess revised applications, that is a significant resource of people. For me, the resource question comes after looking at the processes and the steps, checks and balances that we can take out of the system to make it better. The resource conversation should ensue.

Mr Boylan: Kate, to be fair, I know that you are relatively new to this, but we have been firefighting from the start. We are reacting to things as opposed to being proactive. I will leave that point.

I want some clarification. You mentioned something about the appeal process and matters being overturned. I thought that, under the Planning Act, the matter of what new information you can use to challenge an application had been resolved. In answer to a previous question, were you saying that that is out of its depth now, or what are you saying?

Ms Bentley: Applicants are able to change their submissions throughout the application process in a way that they are not able to do in other jurisdictions.

Ms McCullagh: I think that the Department said, in relation to that recommendation, that it will bring forward proposals to supplement the provisions. As of now, however, new information can be brought in that can significantly change the application that was before the council at the time of decision.

Mr Boylan: I thought we had dealt with that, but it is obviously something that we will have to look at.

Alison, what you said about allowing autonomy in the decision-making process was interesting, but I have found that there is a lot of inconsistency across councils, especially in rural planning.

Ms McCullagh: Every planning application is dealt with on its own merits. It has to be relevant to the site, the site-specific constraints and the policy environment. From our council's perspective, there is consistency in how our members view, for example, infill, active farmer status or succession planning. I am not suggesting that our members' view will necessarily be shared in, let us say, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, Mid Ulster or Causeway Coast and Glens councils, but there is a commonality in matters that we could broadly say were within Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 21. It is recognised that that planning policy and its various subheadings are not viewed — certainly by our councillors — as facilitating the needs of local communities that wish to build their homes in the countryside.

Mr Boylan: I appreciate that. I have been on council, and I know the Armagh side of things. Similar decisions were made.

It now looks as though, by the time you get the area plans finished, they will be outside the time frame that was originally envisaged. What exactly is the Department's role, or what do you see as the Department's role in the area plans?

Ms Bentley: At the moment, the Department has a significant role in the creation of local plans. That is not devolution of decision-making to a local level. Significant engagement happens with the statutory consultees and the Department in the creation of those local plans. Significant representations were made by the Department on our local plan, and that was taken through examination.

As we talked about, the intermediary role of the Department between a council and the Planning Appeals Commission is unnecessary if we are putting decision-making down to the local level, and it brings delays into that process.

Mr Boylan: I could ask more questions, Chair, but I will leave it there. Thank you very much for your responses.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): If I picked this up correctly, Alison — if you did not use this term, you were hinting it — local government is, perhaps, the poor relation in this scenario. I would like to ask a few questions about the planning forum. Given the view that you have expressed, and given the people who are, potentially, involved, that could be where a resolution to so much of this could be found. So, could I just ask, and obviously both of you will be completely candid: does the planning forum work?

Ms McCullagh: It is in its infancy, so we need to recognise that. The signs are good, and it has been a positive development. I would like to see time-bound decision-making and maybe a bit of momentum injected into the early months this year/next year. It has the potential but it is early. It has only started.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): What does "in its infancy" mean? How many years has it been there?

Ms McCullagh: It has been there for only a number of months; about six to nine months.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Did you say that it comprises 15 or 16 people?

Ms McCullagh: Yes. That is my recollection.

Ms McCullagh: It is chaired by the deputy secretary of the Department.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Who appoints those 15 or 16 people?

Ms McCullagh: I imagine that the Department invited what I would describe broadly as the statutory representatives. The local government heads of planning group nominated our three representatives.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Clerk, could we ask who those people are, and how they are appointed?

Who are the three local government reps?

Ms McCullagh: We have the heads of planning from Derry City and Strabane District Council, Belfast City Council, and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Do you have no NILGA members, no councillors, as such?

Ms McCullagh: No. It is an officer body. There are no elected members.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): So, there is no provision for a councillor.

Ms McCullagh: I do not think so. The terms of reference are with the Department, but I suspect not.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): If you are going to get a holistic approach and a resolution to the issue, I would have thought that having the president, vice president or someone from NILGA would be, at least, a consideration.

Kate, you mentioned agents. The Committee made a recommendation in its 'Report on Major Capital Projects'. The Construction Employers Federation told us that it would like someone from its sector to be involved. We made that recommendation, and, to be fair, it was taken on board. Perhaps we could look at that. Let us be clear, the current situation is not fit for purpose. It cannot continue for Northern Ireland plc. It is incumbent on all of us to try to get some improvement.

The Department, which, as you know, we heard from last week, is responsible for planning. It is also responsible for roads, which is a major issue when it comes to planning. I have made the point previously that it is not the easiest Department to work with around those issues. It is also responsible for water and sewerage. Those are key elements — roads, water and sewerage — in planning. Does the fact that they are all housed in the same Department create inertia?

Ms McCullagh: When the Department was configured in that way, it was something that we welcomed. There can be silos in any organisation, including councils. I do not underestimate the challenges. Some of the Department's arm's-length bodies have a consultation response. It may contribute to inertia; I do not know. However, it is in the fortunate position of having all of the required bodies responsible to the one accounting officer.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You touched on my penultimate question. Is there a silo mentality, or a culture, that is preventing us from getting the results in a timely way that we need for good planning decisions to be made in Northern Ireland?

Ms McCullagh: I think that there is evidence of barriers, real and perceived. I think that significant progress has been made. The pandemic has almost been the basis for — it does not relate particularly to planning — central and local government working effectively and differently.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): It is funny that you mention that. I heard, either this morning or yesterday morning, the spokesperson for Hospitality Ulster saying that, in terms of the cafe roadside culture, COVID meant that decisions that probably would otherwise have taken an unearthly time to be made were reached very quickly because they were necessitated by the pressures that cafes, bars and restaurants faced to get people outside. Those decisions were taken much quicker. That shows that it can be done. That makes me wonder whether there is a culture. It was done during a pandemic, when government gave all sorts of reasons why things could not be done. Let us be honest: some reasons were just were excuses; I think that we all found that from our constituency work. Things happened much quicker. The pandemic forced that to happen. There could be learning from that.

Ms Bentley: I will come in on that. It is important to note that the planning forum is fairly operationally focused at the moment. We are talking about some fairly significant and fundamental issues that need to be addressed. There is possibly a need to refocus the planning forum on those more fundamental issues, rather than reverting to the kind of argument that you alluded to earlier of, "This is how it is here and this is the governance here, so that is how it works". We need to look at short-term fixes, because that is the system that we have, but we also need to look at the more-strategic, long-term solutions that we want to introduce in order to improve the system in the longer term.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Finally, Ms McCullagh, you are right that local government comes under the Minister for Communities. The Committee mentioned that to the permanent secretary last week. We asked the permanent secretary whether the Minister for Communities and the Minister for Infrastructure meet, and we were assured that they meet quite often. Is there not a way of getting resolution to these things through that forum, as well as through the planning forum?

In relation to RPA, you talked about joined-up government, the connectivity with local communities and quicker decisions, and yet, here we are, investigating a report showing that that is not the case. We have a planning forum, which, I accept, is in its infancy, and we have Ministers, who sit round the table and who, one would like to think, want the same things for Northern Ireland plc, albeit they are from different parties, and yet this is just not working. Does SOLACE lobby its Minister to ask them to make those points to the Infrastructure Minister?

Ms McCullagh: To clarify, Chair, SOLACE lobbies its permanent secretary. We do not do political lobbying; we engage official to official. We regularly engage with the DFI permanent secretary, who met us recently, in a positive way on planning matters.

I will say, specifically —.

Ms McCullagh: NILGA does. However, there was a convention, and I hope that I am giving you the right term, which I think was the ministerial —. The DFI Minister had a grouping of the chairs of planning committees that met almost alongside the Northern Ireland Partnership Panel. That was an opportunity for political reps to engage in a meaningful way around what may have been issues of concern. The DFI Minister chaired that, but he or she brought that —.

Ms McCullagh: If —.

Ms McCullagh: I was going to say was that, officer-wise, we use those channels, and I think that NILGA and others use their mechanisms, but I am not aware of formal engagement.

Ms McCullagh: I will give one very particular example, Chair, because it is relevant to this Committee as well and is something that both NILGA and SOLACE have been working on. You may be aware of the implications of the recent judicial review on the Hartlands decision, which essentially allows planning committee decisions to be called in. That is significant. It has the potential to cause further delay to and to slow decisions. We referred that to DFI, which is taking advice from the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO), and to DFC, which is also taking advice from DSO. It is unclear who will take the lead in the matter, but it will probably be DFC. That is important in the context of the timeliness of decisions, because everything can now be called in, even semi-judicial decisions.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): You would wonder what the great industrialists and leaders of commerce who helped to build this city would be thinking now if it came to making a quick decision with their money, which is what made Belfast one of the leading lights of the commercial life of the Empire. You would wonder whether they would have been able to do that had they been dealing with the current planning system.

Finally, your answer triggered another question. Has there been a positive outcome from SOLACE's lobbying of the permanent secretary for the Department for Infrastructure?

Ms McCullagh: Yes. We received a response. The response from the DFI permanent secretary was that they are sensitive to the issue, have sought legal advice and have referred that legal advice to DFC because it may relate to Standing Orders, and primary legislation may be required to resolve that.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): So, it is positive in that you got a response, although the response was not necessarily positive.

Ms McCullagh: No, the response is positive. The difficulty is that nothing has changed.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): Yes. That reinforces the point that I made. You are much more diplomatic than I need to be.

Thank you both very much. That concludes questions from members. Do Mr Donnelly or Mr Stevenson want to make any points?

Mr Kieran Donnelly (Northern Ireland Audit Office): That was a very informative session. I am interested in teasing out one of the points that Alison about how professional planners have to make decisions based on policies that are not fit for purpose, yet they are obliged to do their decision-making based on those outdated policies. She stated that that was the reason for a lot of the overturns. Is that a fair reading of the situation? Am I quoting you right?

Ms McCullagh: Yes, that is correct.

Mr Donnelly: I thought that that was an interesting point.

The Chairperson (Mr Humphrey): OK. Mr Stevenson, do you have any questions that you want to ask?


He may have dropped out.

Thank you very much, Ms McCullagh and Ms Bentley, for your time with us this afternoon, we really appreciate your time. Your point about NILGA and the need, perhaps, for the Committee to listen to it is well made and has been heard. Again, we will consider the issue about agents and the planning forum. Thank you both very much, and safe journey home.

Ms McCullagh: Thank you.

Ms Bentley: Thank you.

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