Mick Clifford: An Bord Pleanála should revert to original plan

An Bord Pleanála was originally designed to reflect society at large — it doesn't
Mick Clifford: An Bord Pleanála should revert to original plan

As a planning appeals organisation, An Bord Pleanála is supposed to reflect society at large. That is how it was designed when it came into being in 1977.

PLANNING is central to how we live and how we plan is a central tenet of democracy. Planning was the source of huge corruption up until journalism and tribunals exposed the worst of it.

Some of the corruption was venial in terms of the money that exchanged hands but often transformative in how it impacted on communities.

Today, use of the brown envelope is not what it was. Whether it has been replaced by the numbered bank account in Switzerland is a moot point, at least until any evidence is produced.

Corruption in planning is not confined to bribes or favours. Systems can be corrupted. This isn’t corruption that delivers dishonest gain for individuals but simply the erosion of the design function of a democratic institution. One such institution that has arguably been corrupted in this manner is An Bord Pleanála.

The board is currently mired in a number of controversies around practices and conflicts of interest; these concern individuals either on the board or working within the organisation.

Beyond all of that, questions must now arise about whether the board has lost its way, and nowhere is that more evident than in its composition.

As a planning appeals organisation, An Bord Pleanála is supposed to reflect society at large. That is how it was designed when it came into being in 1977. Prior to that, society’s interests in this respect were in the gift of the minister of the day.

Mad as it may seem now, the serving minister for local government oversaw planning appeals. So the new board that was set up was supposed to better reflect society at large and remove direct political interference in evaluating what represented the common good.

Background of the board

The first board was chaired by a High Court judge, John Pringle. Among its initial five members was a man who delivered bread for a living. This individual was a close political confidant of the minister of the day, Jim Tully, but his occupation properly reflected the design of the board. He was drawn from the heart of the community, there to voice the concerns and wishes of the woman or man in the street. His political allegiance was a point of controversy but his occupation should not have been.

As the board evolved over the following two decades, the system of appointments was refined and is currently legislated for under the Planning Act 2000. This involves nominations being forwarded by a whole range of professional and civil society organisations. 

These include representative bodies for architects and engineers, but also the Irish Country Women’s Association, the trade union umbrella group ICTU, the National Youth Federation, and so on. In all, there are over 35 nominating bodies that put forward names on a rotating basis. From these, the minister selects his or her choice to fill vacant positions on the board.

Today, however, the board does not reflect society at large and is instead exclusively peopled by members who have a planning or architectural background. Apart from defying the original design, such a scenario also leaves open the possibility of group think. If, for instance, a particular orthodoxy dominates thinking in the planning sector, yet would be regarded with scepticism in large sections of society, how representative then is the appeals board?

Compare that, for instance, with the make-up of elected members to local authorities. Like An Bord Pleanála board members, they also wield huge power in planning, particularly in ratifying county development plans. Unlike those on the planning board, members of county councils are drawn from across society. 

What if all the councillors were planners, builders, or professional environmentalists? It can well be argued that politicians reflect the electorate rather than society at large, but at least there is some relationship between the two.

Career move

Instead of fulfilling the design criteria, selection to the board now appears to be a career move within the planning or architectural areas. The nominating organisations are canvassed by those seeking appointments and there is nothing wrong with that. But the organisations themselves quite obviously also view the process as one geared exclusively towards these professional groups.

There is no reason why a board member needs to be professionally qualified in planning. Expertise should be made available to board members in this respect and they then make up their minds by feeding the technical evidence into their own judgement and life experience.

This is not an abstract issue. 

Take for instance the approach of the board towards the debacle that was Strategic Housing Developments. This involved a fast-track planning approach for developments of more than one hundred housing units, with applications going directly to ABP rather than through local planning authorities. A huge number of applications have ended up in the High Court and the vast majority of those resulted in planning decisions from ABP being overturned.

What if some board members had been drawn from society at large as opposed to exclusively from within the professional disciplines? Could they have provided a wider lens through which to view what was a completely new departure in planning?

Reform will not be easy

Reforming the process will not be easy. An independent review of ABP published in 2016 made some recommendations that could confuse rather than clarify. The report noted that the list of bodies that nominate candidates is outdated and “should be reviewed to include representation of society’s wider interests”.

It also recommended that board members need not “be possessed of particular technical expertise as a pre-requisite to appointment” and that the system of nominations should continue, but “all nominated persons should be subject to a selection process by the Public Appointments Service”.

How exactly the service would evaluate competency for a job like this is not set out. Another recommendation by the review was that two places on the board be subject to open competition through the Public Appointment Service, presumably with a view to recruiting directly from the planning or architectural sectors.

Six years after the review was published practically no changes to the appointment process have been made. Last year, the Department of Housing initiated interviews for candidates who had been nominated. To the greatest extent, this is window dressing, an exercise to check that the candidate is compos mentis and little more.

That is the background against which the walls have come tumbling in on An Bord Pleanála. The system of appointments was not directly responsible, but the drift towards a technocratic board and a failure to bother with reform have certainly fed into the general malaise. 

As with other institutions of democracy, the health of this one was ignored until such time as it was landed into a crisis. The very least that can be expected now is that genuine reform is undertaken to fashion a board that reflects the original design.

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