ARDS and North Down planners have the worst record for tackling massive schemes in Northern Ireland – again.
For the second year in a row, the local council has come bottom of provincewide performance tables on dealing with major planning applications.
The council dealt with just four major applications, which was the lowest amount in Northern Ireland.
But it took the longest time in the province to finish them – around three-and-a-half times more than government targets say planners should have taken.
The council also underperformed on smaller everyday applications, though they’re more or less in the middle of league tables on that score.
Planners have refused full responsibility for their performance, however, blaming hold-ups with Stormont departments for major application woes and local people filing large numbers of objections for their everyday issues.
“This is why I personally object to league tables,” the council’s director of prosperity, Ann McCullough, commented at a meeting of the local authority’s Planning Committee last week. “They don’t go into detail.”
Government targets say that major planning applications should be dealt with inside 30 weeks.
During the last financial year, however, it took Ards and North Down planners a median of 104.5 weeks to sort out the four on their files.
No other councils had a median time of close to two years, let alone over it – yet all of them had dealt with a larger number of major projects, in some cases several times as many.
The four major applications were the £50m revamp of Queen’s Parade in Bangor, a housing development in Holywood, a new building for Crawfordsburn Primary School and the council’s own North Down Coastal Path greenway project that was ditched in the face of massive public objections.
Only Crawfordsburn Primary School’s application came close to being dealt with inside the government’s 30-week target, coming in at 31.4 weeks.
Both Queen’s Parade and the failed greenway took more than two years to process, while the Holywood housing development took a little over one year.
Infamously, the Queen’s Parade hold-up was mostly to do with the Department for Infrastructure’s Rivers authority, which put it on ice for 13 months after computer modelling caused civil servants to fear that part of it could be hit if a reservoir three miles away catastrophically burst its banks and flooded the centre of Bangor.
DfI Rivers never actually came to a conclusion on those fears, with the DfI as a whole eventually deciding it didn’t need to make a decision on Queen’s Parade at all.
But the delay had dragged on so long that the council was forced to run the project through planning approval for a second time, setting it back several more months.
At last week’s meeting, Ms McCullough said that DfI Rivers had also delayed the Crawfordsburn Primary application, while an issue around protected trees had set back the Holywood housing development.
She went on to reinforce that the council had abandoned the greenway application; if it was taken out of performance calculations, she said, the median processing time would be 81.6 weeks – though that’s still more than two-and-a-half times government targets.