Our leader James Hagan recently spoke to Emma Deighan at The Belfast Telegraph Business and here's what was discussed.

Founder and chairman of Hagan Homes, James Hagan, says it's with great sadness that he will pull his business out of NI to work in the North of England and the Republic of Ireland.

The businessman, who has been operating Hagan Homes for more than 30 years and built over 4,000 homes here, blamed “lengthy, complicated planning processes” as well as “consultee bureaucracy” which he describes as an “absolute nightmare”.

“In general, we can’t get planning permission timely, and everyone is scared to stand up and be counted saying the same.

“As from now on we will not be buying anymore sites in Northern Ireland. We have started purchasing in the Republic of Ireland and Northern England where we can get planning permission easier,” he revealed.

Mr Hagan said he had one site awaiting approval for four years in the Coleraine area alone. He had earmarked that site for the construction of “affordable housing and social housing” but withdrew plans due to delays.

Today Hagan Homes has over eight live sites in NI, with the average house price in those locations sitting at £140,000.

Mr Hagan says demand for his properties has always been high, with sales during the pandemic no different, but for those availing of those competitively priced properties that sit in some of NI’s most established neighbourhoods, options will be much more limited with Hagan Homes’ departure he says.

Discussing the complications that led to his decision, James continued: "In general, we can't get planning in time here. Some of the councils, if we ring them up, put us through to a call centre and they have a policy of 48 hours before they must respond. In London, for example, I rang the planning service at 9.30am one morning and had the call returned by midday.

“And builders are scared to speak out. Why? Because if they do, they'll make the situation worse for themselves I believe. I don't want to pull out of Northern Ireland but I've no other choice. I can't expand my business because of processes here.”

He added that “some consultees have a minimum of a 65-day turnaround to see if a new site has available sewage for example” and compared it to Scotland where he says, “the same service will come back in five days and that’s the difference”.

“NI Water has up to 130 working days for turnaround. We can’t work with that.”

He said his 10-year plan for NI, which was drafted recently, would have seen the company produce 250 homes per year in NI but with planning delays, that number dropped to 150.

That investment would have represented a £300m spend, creating hundreds of jobs says Mr Hagan.

“From four-year waits to infrastructural issues and a lack of responsiveness from planning consultees, we’re losing a lot of work here.

“I have someone working with me full time to follow up applications and that doesn’t even make a dent in it,” he added.

Hagan Homes is one of NI’s largest homebuilders. Its properties are aimed at a mixture of customers; from first-time buyers and to downsizers.

It has also been one of the more innovative building firms here, launching one of the first virtual viewing systems during the pandemic.

It also built where others wouldn’t, James added.

"We’ve always tried to build in working class areas where others wouldn’t because we want to make a difference and we know there is demand and loyalty to those areas.

“We’ve built on the Donegall Road and the Shankill Road on the very Peace Line, and they have sold and that’s because people want to stay in their own areas.

“I think we’ve remained at the forefront of the building industry by being true to our vision of creating developments that enhance local communities. For example, The Rocks, Portrush transformed what was a dilapidated development and regenerated and reinvigorated it into contemporary homes for families.

“I’m proud of what I’ve built in Northern Ireland, and it has been good to us. It is our home and where our heart is but enough is enough. Bureaucracy has gone AWOL and in our whole 30 years, planning issues have been our biggest challenge, even worse than Covid-19.

“They’ve also gotten progressively worse over that time,” he claimed.

Mr Hagan says the pandemic didn’t dampen the appetite for his new homes, adding: “We’ve had a good year, but we don’t have enough houses to sell and that is the same all over NI. We should be building so much more than we are.”

Hagan Homes, like all construction businesses, has experienced material price rises of around 15% in recent months but despite that, “house prices in Northern Ireland are still cheap” James said.

“90% mortgages are back too, with low interest and that’s fuelling the market,” he added.

Among its live sites are detached properties in Antrim to upmarket two bed apartments in Carrickfergus.

It has also begun construction on an 18-home development, Ebrington Hall – a a range of two-bed apartments within the sought-after Ballyhackamore area, due for completion next summer.

Mr Hagan says he has taken up his issues with departmental representatives in Stormont and will monitor any progress.

He added: “I am aware that many MPs and MLAs are equally perplexed by the inability of some of these unelected planning officials to reply to or communicate on the status of planning applications.

“Would I come back to Northern Ireland if the system was fixed, yes, of course. It’s my home and always will be. I am who I am because of the NI people.”

The businessman says his charity work here, which has amounted to around £1m in donations over the past 30 years, will continue.

That figure includes a donation of £70,000 to the NI Children to Lapland Trust; £30,000 for a new Street Outreach Vehicle for the Welcome Organisation, £75,000 for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and £100,000 to the Integrated Education Fund (IEF).

James also pledged to donate £30,000 to more than 14 NI causes to mark its 30th anniversary last year. It went on to multiply that to £500,000.

“I love this place and that’s why I give, and I will continue to give,” he said.

A Department for Infrastructure spokesperson said it recognised the delays faced by developers and it was working to fix the issue.

In a statement it said: “The performance of the planning system, like many other sectors, has undoubtedly been impacted by the pandemic and the Department has been working closely with key stakeholders in a number of ways to mitigate its impacts, improve processes and ultimately increase efficiency to ensure that planning applications are processed in a timely manner.

“There are many factors which impact the overall performance of the planning system and statutory consultee response times are often cited as a reason for delays. The Department has established a cross-government Planning Forum of senior leaders and representatives from statutory consultees and local government to work together to oversee the implementation of recommendations made in an independent report on the role of statutory consultees in the planning process. This work has a particular focus on improving processes and timeframes for major and economically significant planning applications.

“A Review of the Implementation of the Planning Act is also ongoing. The focus of the review is on the implementation of the legislative provisions of the Act itself and the extent to which the original objectives of the Act have been achieved. This will then inform whether there is a need to retain, amend or repeal any provisions of the Act. The review will also provide an opportunity to consider any improvements or ‘fixes’ which may be required to the way in which the Planning Act has been commenced and implemented; and the outputs should also help to improve aspects of the planning application process.”

A spokesperson for NI Water added: “In terms of planning NI Water provides responses as a statutory consultee to the Planning Authority which makes planning decisions.

“We encourage developers to contact NI Water as early as possible and before submission of a planning application using our Pre-Development Enquiry (PDE) service. Our website contains a link detailing wastewater systems at or near capacity.

“NI Water is committed to working with developers to consider ways of accommodating development wherever possible. The phasing of development is of high importance going forwards due to the historic and prolonged underinvestment in wastewater infrastructure across Northern Ireland.

“NI Water has a six year, ca £2bn Business Plan called Price Control 21 or PC21 (2021/22 to 2026/27). Full funding for PC21 will allow us to begin to address development constraints across Northern Ireland, including many of our cities and main towns where the sewerage and wastewater infrastructure requires immediate and sustained investment.”

Read on the Belfast Telegraph.