Mick Clifford: Lid lifts on An Bord Pleanála's cavalier culture

Why did it take a complete depletion of confidence in what is a vital organ of State before urgency and political will focused on the maintenance of standards?
Mick Clifford: Lid lifts on An Bord Pleanála's cavalier culture

This newspaper and other media have reported on how a trend had set in among some board members of having scant regard for inspectors’ reports, sometimes ignoring their recommendations without offering reasons and driving on to give the nod to the project in question. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

This is a great little country for implementing change in the aftermath of disaster. If only our political, civil and public service cultures managed to act before being forced to, plenty of pain might be avoided. 

Such thoughts leap out from a perusal of the first report from the Office of the Planning Regulator into the disastrous recent fortunes of An Bord Pleanála.

The report is a fine document, completed in jig time. It makes some major recommendations to reform the operation and structures in the beleaguered planning board. 

But why did it take a complete depletion of confidence in what is a vital organ of State before urgency and political will focused on the maintenance of standards?

Report recommendations

Much of the bad stuff that has emerged from the board in the last six months is addressed through recommendations in the OPR report. Take the following examples:

“The mechanism allowing board meetings with a quorum of two persons must be permanently removed,” the report states. 

This is in reaction to the media reports — predominantly by Cianan Brennan in this newspaper — about the highly controversial decisions that were made by two-person boards. 

This practice was introduced in legislation in 2009. At the time, it was criticised by a former board member as being unworkable, particularly in the event of disagreement where one member might hold sway over the other. Suffice to say the recent revelations confirmed the validity of such fears.

“A renewed Code of Conduct is urgently required and it must be informed by a range of guiding principles that are set out in the OPR’s report.” 

The Ditch website reported on senior figures in ABP conveying to developers at conferences that people who objected to developments were a bit of a pain in the neck. 

There was, prior to the media revelations, precious little attention paid to the code of conduct. For the greater part, it was assumed that board members were self-policing to the degree required.

“Formal procedures are required to identify and monitor conflicts of interest matters in relation to decision-making.” 

This would be taking cognisance of the revelations about the former deputy chair Paul Hyde and the way he forgot about his own interests, not to mind other board members who made rulings on projects in the vicinity where they lived. 

Again, this was left to the conscience or judgement of board members, with few external checks.

“The previous practice of relying on individual board members to present planning cases at board meetings must cease in favour of these presentations being made by the inspector that prepared the planning report.” 

This newspaper and other media have reported on how a trend had set in among some board members of having scant regard for inspectors’ reports, sometimes ignoring their recommendations without offering reasons and driving on to give the nod to the project in question.

“A number of recommendations are made in respect of legal matters, including the establishment of a new in-house legal unit to support the decision-making of An Bord Pleanála”. 

Legal costs

The report itself deals directly with this, pointing out how in 2021, roughly €8m was paid out in legal costs as a result of successful actions against board decisions, accounting for 45% of the organisation's total budget. 

The inability to defend rulings in legal challenges has been a theme recurring with greater frequency in recent years. Previously, ABP examined the possibility of setting up a legal unit but a problem arose in attracting lawyers of sufficient experience and training to work within public sector salary constraints. Any plans to do so now will have to address that conundrum.

The process of board appointments is also dealt with in the OPR report through a recommendation of abandoning the nomination process and availing of the system used for public appointments. That was recommended in a review in 2016 but never implemented. 

And it also gives rise to the issue over who exactly should be on the board. Currently, it is top heavy with planning and associated professionals, but the original design left room for representatives from wider society. Whether that would be possible through a public appointments process remains to be seen.

Beyond that, the OPR report is an indictment of the short-term planning in Government that habitually fails to provide resources to an arm of Government unless there is a public or political imperative crying out for action. 

The board of ABP has nominally had nine members for well over a decade despite the accelerated level of planning applications which has seen, according to the report “approximately 2,800 cases annually in recent years” presenting for decisions. 

Current vacancies and a change to the appointment process means that this complement could be down to five active members by February next year, the report points out.

This is before factoring in what we are told will be an explosion of applications for off-shore wind energy projects, a key component of the country’s energy and  climate change plans in the coming years. Two major wind energy operators have pulled out of this country in the last year, largely because of the sluggish pace of the planning and associated processes in getting projects started. 

Yet it has taken completely unrelated controversies to bring home to Government that a major boost in resources within the board are required if the much-stated potential in wind energy is to have any hope of being realised.

A cavalier management culture, a lack of political interest or oversight and a complete failure to plan for the future have all been writ large in what is a damning report from the regulator.

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