The more than doubling of legal fees incurred by An Bord Pleanála in 2020 to €8.2m on foot of a string of court challenges taken against Strategic Housing Developments has been described as “scandalous”.
Such applications are generally for large-scale housing builds, which are ‘fast-tracked’ to An Bord Pleanála in order to skip the local authority planning stage so a decision can be arrived at inside 16 weeks.
The State’s planning body paid out €8.2m in legal fees last year, up from €3.5m in 2019, according to its chair Dave Walsh. The €8.2m figure is just under half of the €18.6m in exchequer funding the planning body received in 2019.
At the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Walsh said while the number of applications it dealt with in 2020 had fallen due to Covid-19, the number of legal cases had increased from 55 to 83 from 2019, a jump of 51%.
He said when you look at the “bulk of the increases, a lot of them are related to Strategic Housing Developments".
Independent Wexford TD Verona Murphy said the 19% of funding spent on settlements in 2019 was “an extraordinary figure” and that the large increase in fees in 2020 was “nothing short of scandalous”.
She noted that of 24 High Court cases taken on foot of board decisions in 2019, the body had lost 70% of them.
“Why is the case rate so high? Do you accept that something must be wrong?” she asked.
Mr Walsh replied that the trends "reflect the openness of the system that we have".
The planning body has been in the political firing line in recent days, most particularly for its legal issues concerning strategic development approvals.
The large proportion of court challenges being lost after decisions made is something which the board “needs to reflect upon”, the Taoiseach told the Dáil on Tuesday.
An Bord Pleanála approved 80% of Strategic Housing Development applications made last year, 98 decisions, the highest since the strategic planning legislation took effect in July 2017.
Regarding the lost court cases, €1.8m of which in 2019 resulted from third-party settlements, Mr Walsh said the body is “constantly evolving our procedures and documentation”.
He added he “takes responsibility” for both the body’s successes and its failures.
Thus far in 2021, about 27 new judicial review cases have been taken against An Bord Pleanála decisions, he said.
More than a sixth of the 280 Strategic Housing Development applications approved since 2017 have been appealed to the courts.
Mr Walsh wouldn’t be drawn on whether the format, due to expire early next year and not expected to be renewed, amounts to “poor policy”.
He said a “huge amount of resources” had had to be diverted within the board to deal with strategic development decisions.
As regards the reasons for losing court cases, Mr Walsh said “it would often come down to environmental issues, or concern the level of detail provided in the inspector’s analysis, as in how did the board come to its decision”.
He said the board had looked “at expanding upon, on articulating more clearly the reasons” for its decisions.
He conceded An Bord Pleanála does not monitor whether permissions approved are actually built, given that is outside the planning body’s remit.