An Bord Pleanála reports sharp rise in legal fees with €10m paid out during ‘particularly challenging’ year

Planning appeals board also paid out €1.34m in penalties to developers for failing to process ‘fast-track’ applications

An Bord Pleanála has reported a sharp escalation in legal fees, paying €10 million to solicitors and barristers last year in the face of multiple court actions over planning decisions and a governance scandal.

In addition, An Bord Pleanála has revealed it paid out €1.34 million in penalties last year to property developers because it failed to process more than 100 “fast-track” planning applications for housing on time.

The expenditure on lawyers and penalties was disclosed in the authority’s annual report for 2022, a year of turmoil in which it was mired in controversy over the work of former deputy chairman Paul Hyde.

Hyde resigned in July 2022 and was convicted last June of failing to declare certain property interests. He pleaded guilty to two charges and received a two-month prison sentence but has appealed the sentence.

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Four months after Hyde left An Bord Pleanála, the then chairman Dave Walsh took early retirement from the planning appeals body for “personal and family reasons”.

Mr Walsh was succeeded on an interim basis by Oonagh Buckley, a senior civil servant whose annual report statement said 2022 was “a particularly challenging year” for the planning authority.

Although there have been several internal and external reports on governance issues, a scoping investigation for An Bord Pleanála by Lorna Lynch SC into “matters of concern” is still under way.

“The organisation attracted much regulatory and public attention in relation to its operations and procedures, especially in relation to conflicts of interest that may arise during the course of the decision-making process,” Ms Buckley said in the annual report.

The document was signed off in July and laid before the Oireachtas this week.

Peter Mullan, a solicitor, succeeded Ms Buckley as interim chairman after she left An Bord Pleanála to take command of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communication.

The annual report cited an “increasing load” of judicial review actions in the High Court in relation to its planning decisions.

Expenditure on legal costs for representation before the courts was €9.6 million in 2022, up from €7.6 million in 2021. “These legal costs are split between the Board’s costs for solicitor and barrister representation and payment for other party costs in cases where the case is lost or conceded.”

An Bord Pleanála’s 2022 consultancy costs included a further €346,411 in legal fees, up from €91,463 a year earlier.

On penalties for delayed “fast-track” planning, the annual report said An Bord Pleanála was obliged to pay €10,000 to applicants if it failed to make a decision within a statutory 16-week time frame.

“Only one such payment of the €10,000 penalty was made in 2021 but 134 such payments totalling €1.34 million were made in 2022,” it said.

A further eight payments totalling €80,000 were made since the start of 2023 under Strategic Housing Developments (SHD) legislation, for which applications are now closed.

“This was due to the significant number of SHD cases received at the same time during 2022, in part due to the ending of the relevant legislation at the end of 2021,” the report said.

“There were not sufficient resources in place to determine the large volume of cases received within the statutory time limit.”

Although no further SHD penalties are payable, the report said the situation “raises concerns from both a reputational and a case processing perspective” with an impact on finances.

The report said “a similar penalty fine regime exists” in new large-scale residential development legislation.

“Management arrangements will be put in place which will aim to decide these appeals within the statutory objective time period in order to minimise payment of such fines in these cases.”

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