Northern Ireland news

Virtual planning meetings `by end of month' amid claims Northern Ireland `lagging behind'

The group claims the Northern Ireland economy `can only suffer even more from that state of affairs than it has already suffered, with jobs and businesses in increasing jeopardy'

NORTHERN Ireland's first virtual planning meeting will be held before the end of the month, the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) has confirmed as fears grow the system is "lagging behind" the rest of the UK.

A coalition from the construction, building, civil and specialist engineering, architect and chartered surveyor industries have all penned a joint letter to the PAC highlighting "grave concern" at the failure to hold virtual hearings despite more than two months since the last in-person hearings due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter points out the Planning Inspectorate in England and Wales "fully embraced virtual hearings" and Scotland is at an advanced stage of their introduction.

The group claims the Northern Ireland economy "can only suffer even more from that state of affairs than it has already suffered, with jobs and businesses in increasing jeopardy".

The Association for Consultancy and Engineering, the Construction Employers Federation, Construction Industry Council NI, the Federation of Master Builders, the Institute of Civil Engineers, the Mineral Products Association NI, the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors and the Specialist Engineering Contractors' Group call for them to be introduced "without further delay, and certainly this side of the summer".

It concludes it would be "simply unacceptable for the Commission not to respond to the current crisis as the Inspectorate has. Northern Ireland deserves better".

A PAC spokesman said it will hold a meeting within that timeframe, insisting "since our forced lockdown in late March 2020 work on remote hearings is progressing in line with the level of resources the Commission has available to us".

He added that the Inspectorate already had plans for remote hearings in advance of lockdown so were further along in the process.

"Whilst finding a solution to remote hearings is important we must ensure that we take a holistic approach to our work and in doing so we reopened our office on 11 May as a step forward in terms of recovery," he said.

"In reopening our office, over the last few weeks our primary focus has been the health and safety of our workforce."

The first requests for evidence were sent out yesterday to those involved in appeals which "will enable casework to progress", the same day an engagement group had its initial meeting.

"We are aiming to commence the first pilot virtual hearing by the end of June 2020," the spokesman said.

"We are working through a number of technical difficulties and want to be assured that when we move to remote hearings, that we give all parties to the appeal process the standard of service that the Commission is committed to delivering."

During lockdown the PAC has issued 42 appeal decisions.

There have been concerns in some English councils that holding meetings remotely are "undemocratic".

Shropshire Council's first planning meeting has drawn criticism for no longer allowing applicants, their agents, town and parish council representatives and members of the public to address the committee.

Instead, written submissions must be submitted five days in advance to be read out at the meeting, a move which campaigners argue gives applicants "an unfair advantage".

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