“The entire process has been so stressful. If we knew what was involved we would never have started it.” These are the words of Julie and David McGowan. They have been fighting to obtain planning permission for an extension to their family home in North Down for almost a year.
Under the reform of public administration, the Department of Environment transferred powers to 11 new super councils in Northern Ireland on the 1st April this year. These replaced 26 existing councils in Northern Ireland and as part of their remit, the super councils inherited new planning powers, previously held by the department of environment.
But according to the McGowan family, the transition has been far from smooth.
Julie said: “When our third child came along we were faced with the decision of either upsizing or extending our family home. We have always been really happy where we are and didn’t want the hassle of moving so we settled on an extension. We had no idea what was in store and the time we have spent on the planning process would have been better spent on searching for a bigger home.
“The problem seems to be with the transfer to the new super-councils. Where before planning powers lay with the DOE now you have to apply to your local council. When we researched the planning application process we were advised to wait until the new super councils came into force as it would be “more straightforward.”
Julie added: “It has been anything but.”
According to the NI Direct, government website the reform of public administration stipulates that the changes to planning allows local councils to shape how their areas grow and develop. It also states that this is the most significant change to the planning system in more than 40 years but claims that the responsibility is shared by the department of the environment and the local councils. Herein lies the confusion seemingly.
Following the advice they had received, Julie and David approached their local planning officer for Ards and North Down as instructed after the 1st April this year. As far as they were concerned this was the first point of call in order to get their planning application underway. They were told that although the transfer of planning powers to local councils had officially taken place, it wasn’t fully implemented yet and their application should be referred to the DOE. When contacted, the DOE responded to the McGowan’s application by stating that planning powers have been devolved to local councils since the 1st of April this year and therefore their application should be submitted to their local council.
So who is responsible for local planning and where is the transparency for the public?
Under the reform of public administration in Northern Ireland, the decision to move planning powers from the DOE to local councils was “designed to make planning a speedier, simpler and more streamlined process. They will make it easier for people to access and take part in the planning process and help deliver faster and more predictable decisions.”
The McGowan family beg to differ.
Public protocol for submitting a planning application appears to be quite straightforward. According to the website, local councils are now responsible for “the vast majority of planning applications.” All applications are seemingly; “categorised as local, major and regionally significant, with councils responsible for determining all local and major applications. Each council has established a planning committee to consider and decide these applications, however not all applications will come before the planning committee for decision.
The council will publish a Scheme of Delegation that will set out which applications will be dealt with by the planning committee and which will be delegated to officers. The applications that are likely to come before the committee for decision may include large developments, contentious applications and those that receive a number of objections.”
Having read this, Julie approached her local council planning officer again, quoting the appropriate instructions: “I read all of the information carefully and it seemed clear to me that our application would be categorised as a local application and therefore it would be delegated to officers.
“But we have since been told that the scheme of delegation is yet to go ahead but our application is likely to have to go before the planning committee and this may take up to a year. As far as we can understand, only contentious, large or applications with objections need to go before the committee. All we want is an extra bedroom above our garage and a garage conversion. It’s hardly contentious.”
When contacted, the planning officer for the McGowan’s local council Ards and North Down said she: “could not comment on individual applications but the public need to be patient. The transfer of planning powers is an ongoing process but one that will ensure a simpler and speedier application process in the long run.”
A spokesperson for the DOE said: “The department of the environment can confirm that planning powers for local planning applications have now been fully transferred to local councils and the process is now complete. Anyone with planning queries should contact their council planning office.”
The McGowan family are not satisfied with these statements and say: “This is simply not good enough. We undertook the idea of extending our house on the pretence that getting planning permission would be much more straightforward with the new super councils. I know it was a long, drawn-out process in the past. The DOE and our local council are just passing the buck with this now. Change is always good in theory but in practice this is a mess. We are a family left in limbo with no idea whether our application will be approved eventually. We should’ve just moved house.”
It would seem that although the reform of public administration was designed to make public services simpler, it has only served to make things more complicated and frustrating for the public.