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Why we must find ways to do planning better

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14th February 2022

Why we must find ways to do planning better

MCE managing director, Paul McErlean, writes in his monthly Irish News column...

"Since late last year, I’ve had the pleasure of co-managing the Antrim minor (u17) Gaelic footballers. These days, even at minor level, strength and conditioning programmes, video analysis, nutritional advice and specialist coaching are all the norm. All the counties are doing it and the young athletes who have come through the trials process and made the squads are really benefitting from the experience. And, in our case, they are really enjoying it too.

For the privilege of being involved though, there are a range of accountability challenges for the boys, some of which come in the form of performance analysis. And one of the key phrases that players and coaches alike use regularly in that analysis is ‘conversion rate’. There are a number of ways to measure conversion rate, but the simplest statistic is a shots to scores ratio. In the old days, we used to just talk about wides; the pain of the twenty-four wides we kicked in my first 0-8 to 0-5 Ulster Senior Championship loss to an ageing Monaghan team in 1989 still hurts (as you can see). Now days, the statistic is expressed as a percentage, and it’s measured for the team and individual players. It can be tough on the lads if they realise that, for instance, their score conversion rate is less than 50%. If it gets down to 25%, say one score from four shots, then we as a management team would be asking ourselves some serious questions about that player and it would certainly have us talking to him and get us thinking about remedial action like a change in position or a potential replacement. Either way, there is accountability, even at minor level.

I say all this because I looked at a graph on twitter from the NI Audit Office last week after the publication of its ‘Planning in Northern Ireland’ report. The graph was pretty simple but it made for painful reading for anybody involved in planning here. It showed that for the years 2017/18 and 2019/2020, only 26% of major and regionally significant planning applications were completed within the statutory target of thirty weeks. And in my view, it got worse when I looked at the second part of the graph which showed that only 48% of the applications were completed within one year. The last part of the graph showed that 20% of those major and regionally significant applications still hadn’t been completed in three years. Yes, three years; the Casement Park application (Ulster's 34,500 seater GAA stadium, now passed) was one of those. Arc 21 and Dalradian Gold are two more, though their timescales are significantly worse than the Casement one.

This report echoes many of the findings of an internal Civil Service report from John Irvine in 2019. He identified four key issues: the need for strong leadership; the value of designating a lead senior official or champion to oversee progress on the most economically sensitive applications; accessing better resources for planning consultations and improving the quality of planning applications. Much of this is acknowledged in the Audit Office report which also states clearly that the planning system is not currently operating as a single, joined-up system with the Department and statutory consultees prioritising their own role, budgets or resources, rather than the successful delivery of the planning system. This ‘silo’ culture is a serious impediment to good planning here.

In the end though, the question must be where does the accountability lie? Ultimately, all roads lead to the Department for Infrastructure, it retains the central role, with responsibility for preparing planning policy and legislation, as well as monitoring and reporting on the performance of councils in delivering planning functions (there is a serious mix of performance amongst the councils – some performing three times faster than others). With the Audit Office report to hand, the Public Accounts Committee had its first go with the officials on this issue last week. Roy Beggs and Andrew Muir in particular had some choice words to say and some tough questions to answer at committee. The real question though is, can things improve? I know from direct experience that the uncertainty of the timescales and the process is killing investment here. We have a bad reputation nationally and internationally for our planning system – to the point where investment funds and actual investors and developers rule us out because they have no certainty about how long it will take to get a return on their money. That is the stark reality of it and we’re certainly talking hundreds of millions, if not billions of pounds which might have been invested here but has been sent elsewhere.

As with any underage coach, your view must be on the longer-term development of the player and not always the short-term gain of the team. Our approach must always be to help show the player where he is going wrong and give him the tools to improve. While you might argue that senior civil servants should know better, the system is complex and it’s not completely in their control, still, we must find ways to do planning better with accountability being crucial. The CBI here had a good, potential solution for that in its 2020 report by the former Scottish Chief Planner, Jim McKimmon, he suggested we fine those organisations who don’t hit their consultation response deadlines, a big part of the delays in the system. That would certainly waken up a few people inside the planning system and help to stop the bleed of investment that is currently occurring, though it's fair to say that those who have been willing to take the risk and have got through the system are making fantastic returns in this region and the city of Belfast, well worth the punt."

Photo by Evgeniy Surzhan on Unsplash