The creation of An Bord Pleanála was a positive step for the nation’s still-fledgling planning system in the 1970s.
n independent appeals process would provide expertise and transparency to safeguard against parochialism in planning matters and ensure decisions were based on good planning principles, not local politics or powerful connections.
How ironic then that it is the oversight body that is now under scrutiny for allegations of lack of adherence to principles and procedures.
If it was irony alone, that would be one thing, but the revelations and the upheaval they have caused, and will continue to cause for the foreseeable future, are potentially very damaging.
The planning authority is already swamped with run-of-the-mill cases – which are never run-of-the-mill to the parties involved – and the board is a member short since the resignation of deputy chairperson Paul Hyde, who will not be replaced until new appointment procedures are finalised.
There’s also the hangover from the Strategic Housing Development scheme to work through, as well as the inevitable appeals that will arise when its replacement, the Large Scale Residential Development scheme, returns initial decision-making to local authorities.
Then there are all the strategic infrastructure cases already on file in an area which is about to explode.
Applications for the various phases of Bus Connects, the enormous MetroLink project and a raft of extremely complex off-shore wind developments are all coming An Bord Pleanála’s way.
Not enough expert staff are in place yet – the 24 new hires that Minister Darragh O’Brien referred to in his announcements on Monday night were actually approved almost a year ago and recruitment is still ongoing.
Many more are needed and while the minister’s commitment to additional staffing is welcome, competing with the lucrative private sector for employees is always challenging.
Attracting staff when there’s a garda investigation beginning, an internal review ongoing, a major independent probe led by the Office of Planning Regulator (OPR) due, and potentially a long line of legal challenges to now questionable decisions makes for a difficult recruitment campaign.
Or maybe exactly the opposite will be the case. The tweaks to the structures and operations of An Bord Pleanála announced by the minister on Monday are important. He is to propose new procedures for appointing board members within weeks. Less of who you know and more of what you know is promised.
A legal officer is also to be added to the board to check that declarations of interest and potential conflicts of interest are properly flagged and registered, that files are properly allocated and decisions properly recorded.
The wider review to be headed up by the OPR could help shake up the organisation in a good way.
Currently it is difficult for members of the public to access planning documents, track the progress of cases, get explanations as to why oral hearings are refused and receive the reasoning behind decisions. And, from what we know so far of the goings-on at board level, it was also difficult for ordinary staff members to raise the alarm.
That all must change if the public is to have confidence in the organisation’s work and if talented people are to be enthusiastic about working there.
But confidence in politics is also lacking. Many of the issues now being addressed were raised in a 2016 review of An Bord Pleanála, the recommendations from which sat largely unimplemented until now.
The Bord Pleanála of the 1970s needed government support to evolve effectively into an organisation with the much greater responsibilities and powers it holds today.
Darragh O’Brien is now promising those supports in the form of resources, external guidance and legislative reform but his own performance in delivering the necessary changes will also require scrutiny.