Planning system in NI to go down for three weeks as computer crisis looms – Belfast News Letter

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The current NI Planning Portal system, described by one official as ‘outdated many years ago’ and ‘falling over on a daily basis’, is due to be dropped near the end of September.
But the replacement regional planning system, which was supposed to be up and running several months ago, won’t be operational until mid-October.
Making matters worse, planners said they wouldn’t be able to start training on the new set-up until the end of last month, which officials think means their own staff won’t have time to properly get used to the system before the switchover.
The combination of going dark for three weeks plus a new system that staff aren’t fully au fait with will almost certainly cause planning backlogs that will take some time to sort out, officials say.
It’s the result of massive delays in preparing a new IT system to be used by 10 of Northern Ireland’s 11 councils, as well as Stormont’s Department for Infrastructure (DfI).
One council, Mid Ulster, decided to go its own way and create a bespoke individual system – but every other planning authority in the Province is to use the same delay-hit set up on the cards for October.
The looming Provincewide crisis was revealed in a recent meeting of Ards and North Down Council’s planning committee, during which one DUP politician slammed the situation as ‘a cliff edge [that] almost staggers belief’ where there should have been an orderly and well-managed transition.
According to that council’s head of planning, Ann McCullough, local authorities around Northern Ireland were supposed to move to the new system in two tranches; some of them last autumn, and the rest in February of this year.
But a string of problems and last-minute issues left planners unable to do that, and now everyone will have to transfer in one go this October.
Among the issues, Ms McCullough revealed, is that the system is to use Ordnance Survey maps for online planning applications, but officials hadn’t realised that Ordnance Survey would be owed royalties on those maps.
“DfI are in the process of drawing up emergency legislation to deal with the Ordnance Survey map fee issue; that’s now been put on hold,” said the planning head.
She added that there had been “a complete underestimate by DfI of how much data was sitting in the current system”, resulting in long and expensive delays while attempts were made to transfer information from the old set up to the new.
As a result the provider behind NI Planning Portal had their contract extended to the end of September, something that Ms McCullough said came “at significant cost”.
“[In October] the contingency will be pen and paper and in-trays again,” she said. “It is astounding that it will need three weeks down, but that’s to transfer across a huge amount of data.
“We have reported our significant concerns that we don’t have anything to let staff practise on, and the fact that a number of the processes have been condensed to run in parallel where they should have been running independently.”
The leader of the DUP wing of Ards and North Down Council, Alderman Stephen McIlveen, said that it’s “extremely disappointing that we won’t have training in place in good time”.
“We’re hearing that the Planning Portal is going to be offline and the impact of that’s going to roll out,” he said.
“It just seems bizarre that there is no contingency planning or a soft launch to ease that.
“We’re just going to have a cliff edge and a gap, and that’s the starting position to work our way up. We don’t have a model to train on, it staggers belief.
“It’s a mess; let’s hope it’s worth it at the end of it.”

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