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After years of tumult, An Bord Pleanála battles the legacy of crisis

The planning board, a State body that is critical to addressing housing shortages, faces a tough 2024 as the planning system remains beset with delays

Under growing pressure to clear a huge backlog of case files, An Bord Pleanála faces a decisive test in 2024 to end two years of upheaval.

The planning appeals body awaits the appointment of a permanent chair in January, a process that raises the prospect of a third leadership change inside 15 months.

In addition, new laws to modernise planning will rename the authority as An Coimisiún Pleanála. These embrace a radical overhaul of An Bord Pleanála, an institution whose corporate structures are largely unchanged since it was established in the 1970s.

All of that marks an effort to draw a line under a deep governance scandal that undermined confidence in Irish planning and sapped morale within the authority itself. The impact was all the worse because of the housing crisis, with the lack of affordable homes one the biggest problems confronting society and the Government.

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The planning system is still beset with delays, frustrating efforts to escalate housing delivery. But An Bord Pleanála insists it has made progress in recent months to dispose of stalled cases, saying the backlog can finally be settled by next summer.

“A continued effort will be made to increase the disposal rate with the aim of a substantive clearance of the excess caseload to be achieved by [the] end [of the second quarter of] 2024,” the body said.

The governance affair reached a critical point in November when former deputy chairman Paul Hyde received a suspended prison sentence for failing to declare certain property interests to the quasi-judicial authority. He had pleaded guilty to two charges.

But An Bord Pleanála still risks further fallout from the debacle. A report is due in January from senior counsel Lorna Lynch on “matters of concern” in the organisation.

The barrister is examining 300 case files for any “conflicts of interest and objective or actual bias” and the allocation of files to board members and inspectors. She is also scrutinising officials’ statutory declarations, amendments to inspectors’ reports and communications with external parties outside formal channels.

While that means there is still the possibility of further disruption, the Coalition is working on the basis that the worst of the turmoil is behind it.

“You would expect 2024 to bring normalisation into the planning process,” said a senior Government source of the effort to stabilise An Bord Pleanála.

Hyde resigned in July 2022 after questions about his work in reporting by the Ditch website, which ultimately led to a Garda investigation. Four months later, the then chairman Dave Walsh took early retirement for “personal and family reasons”.

Without a chair or deputy chair, An Bord Pleanála was not in a legal position to take certain decisions on fast-track housing and strategic infrastructure, some of its most important work.

But there was more. Because of the Government’s failure to make new appointments after other scheduled board departures, the authority was left with only four serving board members from November 2022 instead of the usual 15.

The resulting breakdown in board decision-making contributed to a year-long backlog, with thousands of case files delayed.

The excess caseload had reached 3,613 by May 2023. It was only then that the board was at last restored to full strength, with the number of cases decided each month “significantly increased” to exceed number of incoming new cases.

“An average of 230 new cases were received every month with an average of 340 disposed of monthly from June 2023,” An Bord Pleanála said. The excess caseload is down 30 per cent since May, with 2,527 cases on hand just before Christmas.

That has led close observers to conclude that progress is being made, while arguing that further strides are required.

“Things are going in the right direction is probably the main thing to say,” said Dr Seán O’Leary, senior planner at the Irish Planning Institute, the professional body for planners.

“Now that there is a board of 15 members things are starting to go back on track. There’s still a backlog ... In 2024 they need to clear the backlog.”

Social Democrat housing spokesman Cian O’Callaghan said the delays had been “hugely damaging” to An Bord Pleanála’s standing, adding that some of the blame rests with Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien for delays in replenishing the board.

“It’s now dealing with an unprecedented backlog in terms of making decisions. In my view, if the Minister hadn’t tied the hands of the board for so long by whittling down the numbers on the board, the reputational damage wouldn’t have been so bad,” O’Callaghan said.

The next point in the recovery effort is the appointment of a new permanent chair of the organisation. Walsh was succeeded on an interim basis by civil servant Oonagh Buckley. When she left months later to take command of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, her interim successor at An Bord Pleanála was Peter Mullan, a solicitor.

A special committee including president of the High Court, Mr Justice David Barniville – and others including Construction Industry Federation and Irish Congress of Trade Unions chiefs – will soon submit the names of up to three candidates to the Minister.

It is from that list that the new permanent chair will be appointed. That selection will be pivotal for the future of An Bord Pleanála and the renamed institution that will follow in its wake under new legislation.

Still, key reforms are already under way. After two formal reviews of its operations for the Office of the Planning Regulator, An Bord Pleanála is required to make quarterly updates to the regulator on its implementation of 34 recommendations.

These include increased board members, the cessation of the practice of convening two-person quorums of the board and a new code of conduct to tighten internal governance.

“The recommendations and their implementation are substantially complete,” said An Bord Pleanála.

For its part, the Office of the Planning Regulator said that “significant progress” had been made “in developing and implementing a suite of new and updated decision-making and file-processing procedures to guide all staff, including board members, which the OPR will continue to monitor ensuring that a full set of procedures are finalised and operationalised in early 2024″.

Then there is O’Brien’s mammoth planning legislation, which will create a new governance structure. This includes a chief executive to lead the corporate operation of An Coimisiún Pleanála, with decision-making on planning carried out by planning commissioners led by a chief planning commissioner.

Staff in An Bord Pleanála are said to be “restive” about the name change, arguing the original title still has integrity. But the Minister has ruled out reversing course.

O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats said the resourcing was far more important than a “superficial” change of name, particularly with new statutory timelines for decision-making taking force. “Realistically these will only be met if the board is given enough staff resources to carry out the job,” he said.

“It’s fine to put these timelines into legislation. But if there aren’t the necessary human resources then it won’t be realistic or workable. Planning has been undervalued. If we want well-planned, sustainable communities we have to take it seriously and we have to resource planning.”

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