Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council is to write to the supplier of Northern Ireland’s new £14 million planning portal, stressing the “need for urgency” in resolving the issues currently plaguing the system.
A proposal to write a letter to TerraQuest was put forward as a suggestion by Council’s head of planning Damien Mulligan at a meeting of the committee on Wednesday, March 1.
Addressing the committee, Mr Mulligan explained the planning department has issued 92 decisions on planning applications since the new portal went live on December 5 and has received 274 applications in the same period.
This, Mr Mulligan notes, means the current live case load for Council’s planners stands at 1,052.
In May 2022 the case load reached 1,095 a figure Mr Mulligan claimed was “a legacy of the pandemic”.
“By November the case load had been reduced to 870. However, unfortunately ongoing technical issues with the new IT system has impacted the ability to issue decisions,” he told the chamber.
“Officers are engaging closely with the supplier of the IT system and other key stakeholders, including DfI, to ensure the ongoing issues are addressed as soon as possible.
“To that end, I can report technical solutions are being applied on a regular basis and members will be kept updated on the matter.”
The committee’s Chair, Alderman Gareth Wilson noted he had flagged complaints he had received about the new system with planning officers and asked Mr Mulligan if he could give assurances there is “light at the end of the tunnel?”
“In terms of the difficulties with the system, I brought a few forward including one where an application just seemed to be completely lost in the system,” he said.
“Despite screen grabs of its existence it could not be found. I found that quite strange. We have been seeing a lot of issues but are those issues now being ironed out? Are people who have struggled now seeing light at the end of the tunnel?”
Mr Mulligan confirmed technical solutions are being applied on a fortnightly basis but told the chamber he is still waiting for a report from TerraQuest detailing which issues have been tackled each fortnight.
“I was at a meeting yesterday [Tuesday, February 28] of the governance board which oversees the main implementation of [the system],” he said.
“There were quite a few issues raised around on going technical issues. The assurance we have been given is the technical solutions will be supplied but our message to them was the urgency involved in addressing these issues.”
Having previously defended the new planning system, Councillor Sam Nicholson told the chamber “the problems are going on too long”.
“I just hope we do get a handle on this. I think the IT people have questions to answer, it is not like they didn’t know what they were doing from the start,” he said.
“We are where we are and you are dealing with this as best you can but we do need to get on top of this. As much as I have been defending you this past while, I am now getting more and more complaints about it.”
“I appreciate when you change something there will always be gremlins but if we don’t get on top of this, as you can see from those numbers, we are going to creep up to COVID-19 levels again. We don’t want that.”
The Armagh councillor also drew unflattering comparisons with Mid Ulster District Council which decided to go on its own and implement its own planning system.
“The worst thing for us, as the 10 councils who have paid for and are using this system is I am not hearing the same complaints in Mid Ulster,” said Cllr Nicholson.
“They went on their own and got their own system implemented and there is that sort of ‘we told you so’ thing going on.
“You have to come down hard on these IT guys and tell them to get their act together. I am sure they are being well paid for this so hopefully we will start to see the numbers drop again soon.”
Mr Mulligan told the chamber he agreed with Cllr Nicholson and explained a similar message was conveyed at the governance board meeting.
Through the senior responsible officer for the project we highlighted our concerns and conveyed them to the supplier who was on the call,” he said.
“We stressed the impact this was having on business in terms of live case loads, the ability to issue decisions, the risk of litigation and the impact on investment.
“One of the things we requested is that they ensure that from here on their is a very comprehensive action plan that identifies all the priority issues and that we are kept updated on the progress and as to whether those issues are being resolved.
“If members are content I would propose that a letter is sent on behalf of the Council to highlight the concerns we have and the need for urgency to resolve the issues.”
Alderman Gareth Wilson then proposed a letter be written to the supplier and Councillor Sam Nicholson seconded the proposal before the committee voiced its approval for the letter to be sent.