Planning regulator signals review over ‘wider concerns’ at An Bord Pleanála

Move seen as a sign of deepening anxiety in political and official circles

Planning regulator Niall Cussen said his office has been monitoring concerns raised in relation to certain processes at An Bord Pleanála. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The planning regulator is set to bring forward a “focused” review of An Bord Pleanála, noting “wider concerns” about the planning authority beyond the work of its deputy chairman Paul Hyde.

Stressing that his primary focus was to “uphold public confidence” in the planning system, the regulator Niall Cussen said his office has been monitoring concerns raised in relation to certain processes at An Bord Pleanála.

The move to press ahead with a formal review is seen as a sign of deepening anxiety in political and official circles about the controversy surrounding planning decisions made by An Bord Pleanála, the quasi-judicial body which rules on planning appeals and decides on fast-track applications for large housing schemes.

Mr Hyde denied allegations of impropriety in his personal declarations to the authority before stepping aside temporarily last month “without prejudice” to an internal review of his work and a senior counsel’s inquiry for the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien.

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The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) said in a statement that it looked forward to the publication of Mr Farrell’s report, adding that it would establish a formal process to ensure “any remaining matters of public confidence” in the role of the ABP board will be addressed. The Minister has reserved the right to publish Mr Farrell’s report, not publish it or release it with redactions.

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Referring to the barrister’s inquiry, Mr Cussen said: “Subsequent to the appointment above, a range of wider concerns have been raised including patterns of decision-making and amendments to inspector’s reports submitted to the board in its decision-making process.”

An Bord Pleanála’s internal review was set up around the time of Mr Farrell’s appointment. to examine hundreds of decisions involving Mr Hyde. However, the planning body has indicated the review may be widened. Responding to a specific question, a spokesman told The Irish Times this week that “any significant matters that come into the public domain over the next few weeks will be looked at/examined, etc”.

Established as a result of recommendations made by the planning tribunal, Mr Cussen’s office oversees planning in all local authorities and An Bord Pleanála.

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When Mr Hyde first became embroiled in controversy in April, Mr Cussen signalled that his office would examine An Bord Pleanála next year as part of a regular programme of procedural and process reviews.

But on Friday he said such work at An Bord Pleanála would go ahead “in the near future”, an indication that the review will begin after Mr Farrell reports to the Minister.

The regulator added: “Given the role the OPR plays in in ensuring confidence in the planning system, and in the context of the current public concern regarding the application of fair and sound administrative practice in relation to decision-making processes, the OPR will continue to monitor matters arising while awaiting the senior counsel’s report.”

His office had already sought details from ABP in relation to procedures for ensuring board members made appropriate declarations. The OPR was now making “initial preparatory arrangements” to bring forward a new and focused element of its review work in relation to the ABP board to address the matters raised, the regulator said. “Details of this approach will be published following the finalisation of the report to the Minister.”

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times