Whilst the realisation of the full implications of COVID-19 on delivering a planning service were emerging, my first thought was how I was going to be able to change a paper-based planning system (as it is in Northern Ireland) into an electronic one?
This was on the ‘to do’ list for Northern Ireland long before I arrived in June 2018, yet had not progressed to a point where electronic applications were a reality. This was largely due to a regional back office system being out of date. The good news is work to replace this and modernise the system is now in place, and despite the current situation is still progressing well.
However, in the interim, my team and I had the challenge of how to process applications with no initial office access, a growing pile of paper submissions in the office and staff working remotely, often using their own IT equipment.
There was the obvious pressure felt by all those working in the industry, alongside a desperate need to keep the wheels turning to ensure our towns and cities remained well-positioned to support the economic recovery. Critical for us was to realise Belfast’s full development potential as the economic powerhouse of Northern Ireland which we have been planning for through our Local Development Plan since we became the Planning Authority in 2015.
The immediate priority was to ensure consistency across all our staff working remotely, so communication was key. We upped the frequency of the Departmental Management Team meetings, and respective team meetings, increased email communication from me to all staff and the use of the intranet for corporate updates ensured that staff knew what was going on and when. We have also kept our website up to date to ensure that services users know what they can expect from us.
It was clear from the outset that we needed to change our processes and procedures to enable remote working, thus a ‘nuts and bolts’ review was undertaken adapting to the required new priorities.
We trialled an electronic planning application submission, which meant workarounds of the outdated back office system. This was for a small scale commercial scheme, but it was successful, in large part, due to the proactive approach adopted by my team.
This led to us receiving the electronic submission of a full planning application for over 650 residential units, care homes, commercial, retail, open space and associated infrastructure across a 30ha site, with a development cost of £95m to the western edge of Belfast, known as ‘Glenmona’. This had been in extensive pre-application discussions, and is one of the largest applications ever received by Belfast City Council.
This was received and validated within two weeks – all remotely and using the new procedures – which is no mean feat. Consultations have been issued and the application is progressing well.
This demonstrates the willingness of all involved, including the consultant team submitting the application, to adapt and progress in order to keep important applications like this moving through the system. Such a significant scheme is critical not just for the long term growth of the city, but also in securing jobs in construction through the development phase, and longer term economic opportunities arising from the commercial uses within the proposal.
Receiving such a significant application clearly helped the council’s financial position, with the associated application fee helping to offset the impact of the reduction in applications elsewhere in the service.
We are also at a critical stage in our Local Development Plan, having submitted it to the Planning Appeals Commission in January 2020. We have been waiting for them to provide the timetable to outline their progress and move on to the Independent Examination. This is the first LDP in Northern Ireland submitted by a Local Council for them to consider, so the development industry here is keen to understand the next steps, as are we! While we wait for them to confirm this timetable, we are utilising the opportunity to progress to Supplementary Planning Guidance which will support the LDP once it has been adopted.
In short, the challenge of moving a paper-based system to electronic, while simultaneously setting up home-working has been a big one, but we have risen to that and are now running full end-to-end processes. We will also be retaining a lot of what we have put into place post-COVID-19 (whenever that may be) as we have found that it creates great efficiencies for us and represents a higher level of customer service.