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Massive cuts to Planning Service will damage Northern Ireland's economic recovery

26 April 2010

The Royal Town Planning Institute has strongly criticised the news, first released to the media, that the Northern Ireland Planning Service is to redeploy as many as one in three of its employees - 269 staff. It says this will have a very significant effect on the capacity of Northern Ireland to move towards economic recovery, by severely impacting upon the capacity of the service to process planning applications from businesses and developers.

No distinction has been drawn between professional qualified planners and other staff – and the controversial proposals follow a NI Audit Office report showing that staff already have individual caseloads far higher than any other UK nation.

  • RTPI members joined a NIPSA protest outside all Divisional Planning Offices and Planning Headquarters on Thursday 29 April. This was covered by UTV and the BBC, amongst others.

Ann Skippers, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute said:

\"News that a third of the staff of the Northern Ireland Planning Service will be shed is a massive blow to the hardworking staff of the agency, and it is doubly disappointing that many Planning Service employees, and the RTPI, were only made aware of the plans from reports in the media.

This comes just weeks after Minister Poots highlighted the key role that the Service plays in managing and facilitating development and economic growth in Northern Ireland.

As the NI Audit Office has shown, planning officers in the Service already face higher levels of workload than in other areas of the UK. Cuts to the service will further impact the capacity of the service to process planning applications submitted by businesses and developers across Northern Ireland.

At a time of economic and political uncertainty, the advisability of proceeding with this scale of redeployment is highly questionable as it appears a knee-jerk response that fails to take account of the inevitable rise in numbers of applications as the economy begins to grow. Indeed it may well put at risk the implementation of the very programme of reform that the Minister has been so vocal about.

I am urgently seeking a meeting with Minister Poots to discuss this critical issue.

In particular I will stress the need to ensure that if staff are to be redeployed they are able to maintain their planning skills, knowledge and membership so as to facilitate their return to the planning service when applications again begin to rise, as they certainly will.\"

This page will be updated as we develop our response.

Update - Monday 17th May

  • Sara Drake, Managing Director of the RTPI, and Brian Sore, NI Policy Officer, will be meeting Cynthia Smith, Chief Executive of the Planning Service to discuss our strong concerns over the proposed changes. 
  • The President of the RTPI, who recently visited members in Northern Ireland, will be writing to Minister for the Environment Edwin Poots to request an urgent meeting 

We are very aware that there is as yet no distinction drawn between those Planning Service staff members who are RTPI qualified members and those who are not. This of course raises significant concern as to how possible redeployment could affect our members in the service. Our Planners in the Workplace Manager Chris Sheridan has created an information resource for members worried about the situation - this is available here.

  • Cathal Boynan MLA, Chairperson of the Assembly Committee for the Environment has stated that the news had come as a 'complete surprise to the Committee' - more details here.  On Thursday 29th April Environment Minister Edwin Poots appeared in front of the committee to discuss the proposals - we understand that minutes of this and a recording will be available shortly here. We have written to each Assembly Member on the committee to express our deep concern about the proposals.
  • The RTPI has contacted members of the Assembly to express our deep concern about the proposed cuts. Various Assembly Members have responded positively and a number of questions on the issue have been asked or tabled by MLA's. Please see here for a transcript of the debate on the cuts and written answers to tabled questions. 

Update - 21st June 2010

The RTPI's Managing Director, Sara Drake travelled to Northern Ireland following an urgent meeting request with the Chief Exectuive of the Planning Service.

Unfortunately on the day Cynthia Smith, Chief Executive, was unable to attend the meeting as planned - but the RTPI representatives, including Brian Sore, Northern Ireland Policy Officer at the RTPI did meet with Marianne Fleming Director of Corporate Services, and Tom Clark, Director of Development Plans at the Planning Service.

The key representations made during the course of the meeting were:

  • RTPI expressed concern at the level of the proposed redeployment and potential cuts from the Planning Service and the way in which Members and the Institute learned about the proposals.
  • Concern was also expressed about the number of professional planners that the Planning Service has indicated are to be moved to non-professional roles.
  • RTPI was concerned to learn of the process and funding arrangement of the Planning Service that has led to the drastic cuts. It was also stated that the relationship of an outdated fee structure to planning posts was not an acceptable position.
  • RTPI expressed concern about the ability of the Planning Service to provide a 'fit for purpose' planning system and to maintain a professional service at a sensitive time leading up to reform of planning in Northern Ireland.
  • Reference was also made to the considerable support from other professional bodies and the construction industry. These bodies are also seeking assurances from the Planning Service, and the Minister, that the Planning Service will be 'fit for purpose' in the recovery of the economy.
  • RTPI asked for assurances that all alternatives to redeployment have been considered, including 4 day working options adopted by other planning authorities.
  • RTPI asked for assurances that posts will be available for those wanting to be redeployed. RTPI also raised the need to maintain a professional workforce without increasing the workload of those that remained in the Service. RTPI reminded the Management team that Northern Ireland planners, working within Development Management, already carried the highest level of applications per planner in the UK..
  • It was stated that, while the RTPI was a professional body and not a union, there was still a concern about the contractual context of the move of staff to roles in other non-planning functions. RTPI was concerned about the ability of the Planning Service to be re-engage planners from their deployed employment. The Institute sought assurances that those members who were redeployed would be first in line for any planning vacancies.
  • Discussion took place on the mechanisms for redeployment of planners and administrative staff. The RTPI was not content with the arrangement that members had to declare their willingness to be redeployed without knowing the outcome. It was made clear that any declaration which was subsequently withdrawn must not be considered a refusal of a 'reasonable offer'.
    RTPI expressed that compulsory redundancy was not an option. Many of the planners in Northern Ireland were 'home-grown' and it is essential to retain this professional body of expertise. Any loss of planners from this highly qualified and experienced workforce will be a loss to Northern Ireland and a resource that the province is unlikely to win back.
  • The Institute reminded the Management Team that the impact of the proposed redeployment of planners is having an adverse effect on the Universities and planning students who are qualifying. There are therefore longer term implications in the proposal that will result in a potential reduction in new applicants for planning jobs. The demographic of planners in the Planning Service is something that the Management Team and the Minister must have in mind.
  • The Minister has placed an emphasis on the level of planning applications reducing, but the Institute emphasised that considerable work needs to be done on Development Plans (e.g. West of the Bann) and the preparation for RPA and devolved planning powers. This may require a reprofiling of staff rather than redeployment outside of planning. The Institute asked to be kept informed of any future criteria that will be introduced to accommodate critical business needs.
  • This led onto to the need for more flexibility in the planning system and less of the current 'silo' way of operating. The move to devolved planning functions would give considerable scope for this, allowing better career paths for planners.
  • While RTPI fees are not part of the terms and conditions of employment, the RTPI has asked the Management Team to consider the continuation of fee payments to ensure the continuation of professional input, skills and CPD. This will be a visible action arising from the statement of the Minister to ensure that skills are not lost in the process of redeployment.
  • Finally, RTPI has asked the Planning Service to utilise the services of the Institute to help in communications with members and to utilise the RTPI in support of the function of planning in Northern Ireland. The Institute has reminded that there is a considerable audience of professional planners who are watching what happens in Northern Ireland over the next year and it is important that the RTPI communicates with the profession over this critical period.

The Planning Service Management Team acknowledged the points made by RTPI and the role of the Institute. They have agreed to keep the Institute informed of progress on staffing issues and noted the concerns expressed about the capacity of the Planning Service to deliver a 'fit for purpose' planning system.

The Management Team stressed that the current proposals were described as a 'worst case scenario' which could be improved by a change in the financial position. This might arise from greater fee income or additional funding in the June funding round and that the timescale for the redeployment may be reviewed. It was also stressed that the Department of Finance and Personnel is 'moderately confident that the redeployment of 270 staff can be achieved' and that the Planning service will be reviewing its capacity for development plans and enforcement work in the light of future resourcing and the priorities identified by the Minister.

The Management Team referred to three reviews that are underway; the review of fee structure by March 2011; a strategic review of planning in Northern Ireland; and a manpower review. The timescales for these reviews are unclear at this stage. RTPI expressed concerns about the likely mismatch between resources post restructuring and the outcomes of the wider reviews which had been announced. The Institute has asked to be kept informed of progress.

Update 22nd June

  • Mary McIntyre, Chair of the Northern Ireland branch of the RTPI has formally written to Edwin Poots to outline the Branch's concerns. She will be meeting the Minister on Monday 28th June to discuss the issue and an update will be posted here following this meeting.