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17/06/2020

It's time for technology in the NI planning system

Covid-19 has exposed the cumbersome nature of development management processes in Northern Ireland, says Chris Bryson. A fully digital system is urgently needed 

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the fragility and cumbersome nature of the planning system in Northern Ireland – most greatly felt in the development management process. Within a matter of days from the lockdown coming into force, the processing and determination of planning applications across the region slowed dramatically, with some council planning departments grinding to a halt.

But no one could have expected the scale of this disruption to the development management process in NI. The reason for this capitulation? The lack of agile technology to respond quickly to the sudden change in circumstances.

In NI planning applications can’t be submitted online. All applications must be made in hard copy. Despite this, the actual processing of plans is undertaken online via the Planning Portal used by all local councils. This means we have the bizarre situation where digital plans need to be printed and formally submitted, only for them to be scanned and uploaded to the Planning Portal – returning them to their original digital state (albeit reduced in quality due to the need for printing, scanning and uploading). Surely something that starts off in digital form and ends up in digital form should always remain in digital form?

This is a significant time burden on council staff. The scanning and validation process can take weeks, especially for big development proposals that may be accompanied by bulky reports. Herein lies the problem when a lockdown comes into force; no one in the office or a greatly reduced on-site staff to keep the wheels turning.

“Surely something that starts off in digital form and ends up in digital form should always remain in digital form?”

At the time of writing this piece, we’re on the downwards slope of ‘the curve’ and many councils are doing the best they can to keep the show on the road, including flexible (offline) consultations and a greater number of decisions being made through delegated powers. Belfast City Council was the first to publish guidance on online planning application submissions, albeit by email rather than an interactive online process.

A priority once we’re over the Covid-19 crisis must be the implementation of a fit-for-purpose and technological agile development management system. This was acknowledged by the chief planner for NI in the May update to councils, with the aim of having a new IT system in place by early 2022 that allows online planning application submissions. But what will we do in the meantime? 

Chris Bryson MRTPI is director of planning with Gravis Planning

Image credit | iStock

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