By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
The current make-up of the board of An Bord Pleanála will stay in place despite an ‘action plan’ being put in place aimed at restoring public confidence in the beleaguered planning authority.
Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said the restoration of confidence in ABP is “crucially important” and that the structural changes he is to implement, such as the removal of two-person boards for planning decisions, will be key in achieving that goal.
As the Irish Examiner reports, the Minister has said that recommendations made by the Office of the Planning Regulator regarding the reform of An Bord Pleanala are “eminently sensible” and he expects to include them in the implementation of that action plan.
It comes as a report by the planning regulator who recommended an ethics unit and legal unit should be set up within Ireland’s planning appeals body.
The report of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) into An Bord Pleanala has recommended that an ethics officer and unit should be set up and a renewed Code of Conduct is “urgently required”.
“Formal procedures are required to identify and monitor conflicts of interest matters in relation to decision-making,” it said.
“The overall process for case management and decision-making in An Bord Pleanala needs to be formalised in a coherently documented procedure.”
The report said the mechanism allowing board meetings with a quorum of two persons “must be permanently removed”, and that quorums of five “should be made essential” for certain planning decisions.
As board member appointments have been frozen while the process is being overhauled, the report said temporary board members should be directly appointed by the Minister for Housing to ensure the board can function in the meantime.
It also said that the practice of individual board members presenting planning cases at board meetings “must cease”, and instead the inspector that prepared the planning report should present the report, or another “appropriately delegated person”.
These are among the 11 recommendations the report makes, which is the first phase of the OPR’s review.
The report was provided to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien and the chairman of An Bord Pleanala Dave Walsh on September 19 for their consideration.
The report was finalised on Monday and published on Tuesday.
In August, Mr O’Brien referred an independent report by barrister Remy Farrell into decisions at An Bord Pleanala to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Gardai and the Standards in Public Office.
Conflicts of interest
This report is one of several probes into allegations of conflicts of interest in relation to An Bord Pleanala’s former deputy chairman Paul Hyde.
He had denied improper conduct but had stood aside from his role “without prejudice” in May pending the outcome of the investigation commissioned by the Housing Minister.
In July, Mr Hyde quit his role as deputy chairman.
External experts Conleth Bradley SC, Paul Cackette and John McNairney made contributions to the report alongside the OPR team led by the director of planning reviews Gary Ryan.
Paul Cackette, a former chief planning reporter to the Scottish Government, said An Bord Pleanala “faces multiple and complex challenges to restore public confidence”.
“In our work on phase one of this review, we conclude that without major reform, An Bord Pleanala will find it increasingly difficult to function effectively,” he said.
“We recognise the many strengths of An Bord Pleanala’s expertise as demonstrated in the past. However, in our work and in our recommendations, we have focused on urgently identifying systems and procedures which are not, at present, adequate.”
John McNairney, a former chief planner at the Scottish Government, said he was confident the appeals body “can be recovered”.
“We believe that the implementation of the recommendations, in addition to recommendations that will arise from the second review phase, will help to ensure that that An Bord Pleanala’s decision-making is underpinned by robust and effective systems and procedures.”
The second report of the OPR review will be delivered by the end of November, the appeals body said.