Northern Ireland’s big redesign moment

By Angus Kerr and Ed Baker | 17 November 2021

Central and local government have come together in Northern Ireland to transform the planning system through a user-friendly digital first approach. Angus Kerr and Ed Baker explain

As digital transformation has accelerated within the public sector in recent years, our planning authorities are looking for solutions that provide efficiencies, improved performance and above all, a better customer experience.

Northern Ireland has long considered the importance of technology in planning and it has taken this view by putting it front and centre of service improvements, with central and local government coming together for the first time, with a new shared regional IT solution.

This innovative project will modernise and improve the digital infrastructure at a time when the response to the pandemic has accelerated the use of digital submissions across many of the councils.

It was also important to procure a new shared IT system, not least because of the financial and resource benefits, but also for the majority of users who will have just one system to familiarise themselves with.

In June 2020, we announced that Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure (Dfl) and ten councils in the region, including Belfast, had awarded a £14m contract to a consortium of planning services. This combined the expertise of TerraQuest’s knowledge of planning service delivery, DEF Software’s user-friendly planning software solution and Planning Portal’s online planning application submission service.

There are many important reasons that led to this decision. The existing system in place was coming towards the end of its life, which served the former Department of Environment well when it was centrally responsible for all planning powers.

However, with each council wanting to focus on the customer journey and maximise the opportunities from a digital-first approach, it was time to come together and secure a new system that is modern, effective and better at meeting customer needs.

Northern Ireland handles over 12,500 planning applications and administers over 32,000 regional property certificates annually, with a demanding set of service users and our new system needs to meet all these expectations.

The new system will put online and paperless submissions at the heart of the business model, and will represent a more efficient and user-friendly system that is better for the environment as well as making it easier for customers to submit planning applications. It will also help with improvements in capturing data and sharing with other service areas across the councils for forecasting and other planning decisions.

The new planning IT system will also help to support flexible working as it is accessible from a range of devices in multiple locations. The need for this has been highlighted as a challenge during COVID-19, but it is also an ongoing requirement that reflects the requirements of the modern workforce.

The new approach will also enable each authority to tailor their templates and reporting to their own style. This allows them the freedom and latitude to communicate with their own customers in their own particular way.

There are further benefits outside council use. The new common front-end is designed with the customer in mind and will also improve the user experience. They can now expect a consistent, quality approach when using the system.

Now is an ideal time to improve Northern Ireland’s planning system and help its planning applications process run more efficiently, especially at a time of recovery after the lockdown periods during the pandemic.

The new system is expected to go live next summer. This will create a positive step-change on how planning applications are submitted and processed across Northern Ireland. It will provide all interested parties within the planning process with a much easier way to interact with the system and improve access to documents at a time and place convenient to the user.

It will also allow Northern Ireland to realise the benefits of a modern back office planning system – benefitting both users and planning staff. This unique opportunity to deliver a new planning service will deliver huge efficiencies to Northern Ireland, modernising operations and improving performance across the region.

Angus Kerr is chief planner and director of regional planning, Department for Infrastructure for Northern Ireland and Ed Baker is planning manager (development management) at Belfast City Council

@deptinfra @belfastcc

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