Agenda item


            The Committee considered the undernoted report:


“1.0      Purpose of Report or Summary of Main Issues


            To report on the Planning Service’s updated Improvement Plan. The report includes current challenges for the Planning Service and how these are being addressed. The report also includes an update on the ‘lean redesign experimentation’, previously reported to the Committee in April 2023.


2.0       Recommendation


2.1       The report is for notation.


3.0       Main Report




3.1       The Planning Service first published its Improvement Plan in 2018, following an independent review in 2017. Central to the recommendations of the independent review was the implementation of ‘10 Operating Principles’, aimed at front-loading the planning application process and providing a more efficient, effective and customer-focused service. This also included the publication of an Application Checklist, which sets out the minimum information requirements for applications when they are submitted. Belfast remains the only Planning Authority in NI which publishes such comprehensive guidance, and the Department for Infrastructure (‘Department’) has recognised the important role it has played in improving the application process, committing to introduce legislation to make such checklists mandatory as they are in GB.


3.2       Since 2018, the Planning Service has regularly updated its Improvement Plan and periodically reported it to the Committee. Following a recent period of significant strategic change, including the implementation of the new Planning Portal in December 2022 and adoption of the Belfast Local Development Plan: Plan Strategy, the Improvement Plan has been reviewed and further updated. For the next period, its key priorities are to reduce the number of live planning applications in the system and further improve the operational effectiveness of the Development Management (‘DM’) service.


            Current challenges


3.3       The Planning Service has experienced significant challenge over the past 12 months or so, including:


·        Implementation of the new Planning Portal in December 2022;

·        Adoption of the Belfast Local Development Plan: Plan Strategy in May 2023;

·        Staff turnover and long-term absence;

·        Ongoing difficulties with the statutory consultation process and limitations of the NI planning system generally; and

·        Continued high number of live applications, originating from the COVID-19 pandemic and contributed by the above factors.


            Implementation of the new Planning Portal


3.4       The new regional Planning Portal went live in December 2022. It took around 3 months for the new system to become stable, impacting on the throughput of applications and performance.


3.5       Belfast City Council has responsibility for the contract management of the new Planning Portal (‘Intelligent Client Function’) and is taking a lead role in continuous improvement of the system. The new team has settled in well and has received positive feedback from the partner Planning Authorities.


3.6       A key benefit of the new system is the ability to submit online applications with 83% of applications to the Council made online since go live in December 2022.


            Belfast LDP: Plan Strategy 2035


3.7       The Plan Strategy was adopted in May of this year. It will continue to take time for the new Plan Strategy to completely bed in as officers, agents, applicants and developers build confidence in understanding and applying its new polices. There continues to be focus on staff training and development, particularly around new policy areas such as affordable housing, housing mix, mitigation and management of climate change, and SuDS.


            Statutory consultation process and issues with the NI planning system


3.8       Applications of any tangible scale and significance require input from central government departments through the statutory consultation process. Statutory consultee performance remains patchy, with some consultees taking many weeks if not several months to provide a substantive response. There are particular issues with response times and support from DfI Roads, DfI Rivers and DAERA. This often results in delays and uncertainty to the application process.


3.9       The Planning Service continues to play a prominent role in pushing for significant reform of the regional NI planning system and advancing the regional improvement programme.


            Backlog of live applications


3.10      Prior to COVID-19, the Planning Service had around 850 live applications. This grew to around 1,250 applications during the pandemic, increasing individual caseloads to unsustainable levels. Whilst the number of live cases was reduced to below 1,000 by November 2022, the issues around implementation of the new Planning Portal, adoption of the Plan Strategy and staff turnover have contributed to an increase to the current 1,100 live cases. There is currently a significant drive to reduce the number of live applications to more sustainable levels.




3.11      The Planning Service is subject to three statutory indicators. These are set out in the table below along with last year’s performance, current performance and peak performance since transfer of planning powers to the Council in 2015.







Major applications

30 weeks (average processing time)

31.0 weeks


57.2 weeks

66.0 weeks

Local applications

15 weeks (average processing time)

14.0 weeks (2019/20)

19.8 weeks

19.6 weeks

Enforcement cases

70% cases concluded within 39 weeks






3.12        Under performance of these statutory indicators is a result of a range of contributing factors, including those set out previously, some of which are outside the control of the Council. Work is ongoing at a regional level to improve the NI planning system as a whole and to develop a new Regional Performance Framework. This framework will support the council reporting on quantitative and qualitative performance in a more detailed way, helping to identify areas for improvement at regional level. The Planning Service is also developing a new local performance framework to support further improvement.


3.13      In relation to Major application performance, the Section 76 planning agreement process remains a key issue. Planning and Legal Services continue to work closely together to improve the process, including the implementation of model planning agreements and customer guidance. Planned improvements in this area could have a significant positive impact on Major application performance.


3.14      The enforcement service continues to exceed its statutory targets.




3.15      Following this period of significant strategic change, the specific focus now is on reducing the number of live applications and improving the operational effectiveness of the DM service. This will be built around a focus on ‘People’, ‘Policy’ and ‘Process’ as set out in the updated Planning Service Improvement Plan.


3.16      Central to this improvement will be the empowerment of staff, building individual and team confidence. The objective is to support corporately aligned and autonomous decision-making by individuals at all levels within the Planning Service. This is vital to the delivery of the service as it not sustainable for decision-making to be funnelled through a small number of more senior officers.


3.17      In these regards, the Improvement Plan aligns with the Council’s new People Strategy, providing an environment in which staff can demonstrate the organisational values of ‘integrity’, ‘responsibility’, ‘creativity’ and ‘problem solving’.


3.18      Key actions in the updated Improvement Plan include the following:


·        Streamlining operational processes including the wider roll out of the new lean experimentation approach to applications;

·        Simplifying the PAD process to make it quicker and more responsive;

·        Staff training and development;

·        Reviewing the current 10 Operating Principles;

·        Making more effective use of the new Planning Portal;

·        Improving the Section 76 planning agreement process; and

·        Continuing to influence positive change and improvement to the NI planning system


3.19      It is expected that there will be tangible improvement to performance over the coming months with performance continuing to be monitored monthly.


            Reorganisation of the DM team


3.20      In June 2023, the DM teams were reorganised to provide a more suitable staffing structure to support these changes. Since transfer of planning to the Council in 2015, the Planning Service had operated two DM teams – a small ‘Majors’ team that processed Major applications (about 1% of all applications) and a much larger ‘Locals’ team that processed the remainder (99%). This model was no longer considered fit for purpose and so the DM service has been reorganised into two geographical area teams covering North and East; and South and West respectively.


3.21      There are several benefits of this new structure, notably:


·        More equitable roles, particularly at Senior Planning Officer level, with responsibility for sign off of decisions spread across a greater number of Senior Officers to avoid blockages;

·        Greater flexibility in moving work between the two teams to respond to spikes in applications, PADs and other work; and

·        Crucially, providing better support for cases officers and widening their experience and development. The new structure means that work on Major and strategic applications can be supported by more junior officers within the sub-teams so as to widen experience and provide a broader ‘team approach’ to project work.


3.22      Each area team is managed by a Principal Planning Officer under the overall management of the Planning Manager (Development Management).


            Lean redesign experimentation


3.23      In December 2022, the Planning Service first reported to the Committee on the innovative experimentation that it has been undertaking following lean systems redesign principles. Since August 2022, a small project team within the Planning Service has experimented with 291 applications, determining 173 of these with an approval rate of 98% (94% normal approval rate).


3.24      Table 1 below shows previous and current lean performance with a comparison against current Planning Service performance as a whole.


Performance measure


November 2022

November 2023

All Local applications

Valid to decision

5 weeks

11 weeks

19.6 weeks

Receipt to decision

7 weeks

11 weeks

(Not measured)

            Table 1: Previous and current lean experimentation performance


3.24      The lean experimentation has been impacted by the same challenges affecting the wider DM service as set out earlier in this report, including issues around implementation of the new Planning Portal. Therefore, application decisions have been removed from Table 1 for the period from 18 November 2022 to 31 March 2023 during which the Planning Portal was bedding in. These challenges have also prevented the project team expanding beyond two case officers. Nevertheless, the project team has experimented with around 300 applications, amassing significant learning.


3.25      The key learning points from the experimentation to date have been:


·        Assessment of applications on ‘Day 1’ allows the project team to make decisions much more quickly;

·        Prompt, direct customer contact builds relationships and saves time;

·        Significant scope to reduce hand-overs and inefficiencies;

·        Experimental methodology best relates to relatively straightforward applications, although since the summer the project team has been experimenting with large scale Local and Major applications;

·        As a by-product, the project team has identified areas where amendments to legislation could make huge differences overall. The Department has accepted that this lean methodology should be applied to the NI planning system overall; and

·        Case officers have more variety in their work, making it more enjoyable and supporting their development.


3.26      Some areas of learning have already been applied to the rest of the DM service to improve overall efficiency and effectiveness of the wider team. Moving forward, it is planned to roll out the new lean way of working to the whole DM service, initially at Assistant Planning Officer level, which undertakes over half of the overall casework, as proportionately this will have the greater benefit on delivery of the Planning Service in the shortest space of time.


4.0       Financial and Resource Implications


4.1       There are no financial or resource implications associated with this report.


5.0       Equality or Good Relations Implications /

            Rural Needs Assessment


5.1       There are no equality or good relations / rural needs implications associated with this report.”




Supporting documents: