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Belfast’s planning reforms to focus on customer service

Words: Laura Edgar
Belfast's planning reforms to focus on customer service / iStock-639621702

Belfast City Council has announced that it will focus on how it communicates with its customer groups as it looks to reform its planning service.

In October 2017, The Planner reported that the council had commissioned Scotland’s former chief planner Jim Mackinnon to carry out a high-level review of how the capital’s planning service has managed the transition from the central to local government.

Following recommendations by Mackinnon in December 2017, and the news that the council’s planning director Phil Williams had left the authority, the focus on customer service was approved at a full council meeting on 3 January after consultation with a number of stakeholder groups.

The chair of the council’s planning committee said a customer charter is going to be introduced.

“As Belfast continues to experience an unprecedented level of growth; the new measures have been designed to improve both the quality and speed of the application process in a way which balances the benefits to householders, private industry and wider community,” said Donal Lyons.

“New recommendations will be introduced as well as a Customer Charter with 10 operating principles to reduce backlogs in the planning application system, speed up transactions and ensure the service is faster, better and more engaging. It will also help support the delivery of council’s 20-year strategy, the Belfast Agenda.”

The 10 principles of the charter aim to ensure that:

  • Customers have the right information in support of an application before submitting it;
  • Consultations with the right people take place at the beginning of the process and follow correct consultation procedures;
  • Site visits happen no later than 21 days after an application is valid;
  • Customers know the council’s views on their application; and opportunity should be given to address problems as soon as possible, where there is a solution; and
  • A pre-application discussion service is provided to identify issues at the beginning of the process and before the application is made.

The council said the principles would be supported by a “series of internal measures to implement a more focused service improvement plan”. This includes, among other initiatives, the introduction of staff training and development programmes increasing the number of officers authorised to sign reports.

The work will be taken forward by the planning committee and a new senior management team, including a new director of planning and building control. Mackinnon will continue to act in an expert advisory capacity to help move the service forward.

He said: “I am confident the adoption of these recommendations and principles will see a step change in the quality of the development management service in Belfast City. For households, we would expect to see a significant improvement in the efficiency with which planning applications are dealt with while the development industry will have greater certainty on outcomes. The council is also looking to improve the quality of its engagement with communities affected by planning proposals.”

Image credit | iStock