Parts of report into An Bord Pleanála may have to be redacted, O’Brien says

Public perception of planning authority in danger of being damaged — former IPI president

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has said parts of a report he commissioned into An Bord Pleanála may have to be redacted before publication because of the possibility of legal action.

Mr O’Brien told Newstalk’s Pat Kenny show he did not want to prejudice any future investigation, but that he wanted the report to be published.

The Minister has referred to prosecutors the report by senior counsel Remy Farrell investigating conflict of interest claims against the former deputy chairman of the planning body Paul Hyde. Mr O’Brien said a separate planning board review will examine “further allegations” of wrongdoing.

In a statement on Tuesday An Bord Pleanála said its chairman, Dave Walsh, had noted the Minister’s decision to refer the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Garda Commissioner and the Standards in Public Office Commission.

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It said that Mr Walsh and the board “are committed to fully co-operating with these public bodies in determining whether further action is required arising from the report’s findings”.

It said that: “The Chairperson confirmed that the Board is in the process of finalising its own internal review into certain issues and allegations raised with it and he will be providing a report to the Minister shortly on the analysis and findings of this review, as well as information on any proposed actions to be taken, including in particular measures to strengthen the effectiveness of the Board’s existing controls, protocols, procedures and systems to manage potential conflicts of interest.

“Mr Walsh also acknowledged the interim steps that have already been taken by the Board, inter alia, to strengthen and more transparently document the procedures already in place in respect of identifying potential conflicts of interest,” it said.

“Any matters or recommendations arising from the Office of the Planning Regulator’s recently announced focussed review of An Bord Pleanála’s systems and processes, which is expected to be completed before the end of the year, will be fully considered and addressed in the context of further strengthening our systems, procedures and controls,” the statement continued.

The planning authority said its chairman “welcomed the Minister’s commitment to addressing the acute resource challenges facing the Board” and “endorsed the development of legislative proposals to reform and update the appointment process for Board members”.

The statement came as Mr O’Brien said he wants to publish the Farrell report, but said he must get advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Catherine Pierse.

The Minister also spoke on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Claire Byrne show where he said he believed the report was very important, but that there would be two further investigations into the planning body – one internal and the other external.

The internal report will be completed by a senior management team while the external report will involve the Planning Regulator and two experts from outside the jurisdiction.

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Mr O’Brien said he expected that expert report within six weeks on the decision-making and record-keeping processes at An Bord Pleanála.

The current appointment process needed to change, he said, and he plans to bring a memo to Government on the issue in September.

In the meantime there would be a new function in relation to offshore renewables and marine planning and he wished to proceed with an advertisement for the position.

Mr O’Brien said there was a need to ensure that there was public confidence in the planning body and that any damage caused was reversed. “The process going into the future needs to be more robust and more transparent.” Where changes need to be made, they will be made, he added.

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Earlier, the former president of the Irish Planning Institute (IPI), Dr Conor Norton said that change at An Bord Pleanála is required and warned that the public perception of the planning authority is in danger of being damaged.

Dr Norton told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland that there was a perception that the planning system “may not be as robust” as people imagined and that that confidence was “ebbing” in An Bord Pleanála. “The system needs to be reviewed.”

Such a recommendation had been made in 2016, he said, including a further recommendation that legal advice be included on governance issues on a regular basis.

“These things will help. Now there is an opportunity to go a bit further — to look at the vision and the mission of the Board.”

Dr Norton added that it was “timely” to look at the roles that An Bord Pleanála had been required to undertake in recent years. When the Board was founded in 1977 it was to play the part of an independent review service for planning decisions made by other bodies — local authorities.

It was a vital role for transparency, but since then An Bord Pleanála had taken on decisions for Strategic Housing Developments, which will now revert to local authorities, which Dr Norton said was a good thing.

It was critical that the various reviews being undertaken about An Bord Pleanála and its role be compatible so that decisions reached could lead to greater rationalisation, he urged.

Vivienne Clarke

Vivienne Clarke is a media monitor and reporter