Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has published a master plan to overhaul An Bord Pleanála (ABP), saying claims against its former deputy chairman Paul Hyde had a “serious negative impact” on the organisation’s reputation.
The Cabinet-approved plan includes an expanded board and measures to strengthen ABP’s oversight of conflicts of interest, such as a system to ensure all board members are informed in advance of key case details. ABP will appoint 30 new staff next year.
Mr Hyde, who resigned in July, always denied any wrongdoing after facing claims he was conflicted in certain decisions. The Director of Public Prosecutions is examining a Garda file following an investigation into his work.
“This action plan will serve to underpin confidence in the capacity of the board to make planning decisions in a fair manner, supporting the values of independence, impartiality and integrity as articulated in its statement of strategy,” Mr O’Brien said.
The changes include the Office of the Planning Regulator, Niall Cussen, being given powers to consider customer complaints on “systemic issues” at ABP. A separate review completed for Mr Cussen found that ABP needs “urgent reform” in order to repair its public standing.
The Department of Housing said Mr O’Brien had pressed for the changes “in order to uphold trust in the planning system” and keep it functioning.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said “the most important thing” was to restore public confidence in ABP and that some “quite out of date” procedures were going to be reformed.
ABP’s code of conduct will be updated by November, ethics provisions in planning law will be strengthened and the organisation will be required to submit monthly governance reports to the Minister.
“The first responsibility in terms of conflict of interest rest with the designated officer, whether a member of the board of An Bord Pleanála or the staff of the organisation,” the department said.
“That being said, measures are required to ensure that systems and procedures for raising conflicts of interest or perceptions of conflicts of interest are robust so to avoid any objective bias, or perception of objective bias, in decision making.”
Mr Cussen’s reviewers called for increased resources for ABP, but said these alone were not the answer and that a strengthening of its day-to-day management structures was urgently needed.
“This includes building a robust structure for ethics and compliance oversight to monitor conflicts arising in the decision-making function as well as appropriate legal services supports,” they said.
“To complement bolstered resources for the making of sound decisions from a legal and ethical perspective, An Bord Pleanála urgently needs to put in place clear and effective written systems and procedures to guide all staff, including the chairperson and board members, in relation to its quasi-judicial decision-making process.”
The regulator’s report said the ABP code of conduct establishes that board members must not deal with cases in their own “immediate neighbourhood” but it said no definition was offered regarding the limits that might apply in relevant cases.
“This creates a basis for an inconsistent approach among board members in the identification of geographical areas that pose a potential conflict of interest to them,” it said. “In some instances a board member may only consider a particular street as being their immediate neighbourhood, while in contrast another board member can view an entire county in which they resided as off-limits for decision-making.”
ABP welcomed the regulator’s report and said the recommendations included “some timely and pragmatic” actions, some of which were already in train at the board’s initiation.
It said it “in particular welcomes the general outcome and finding that the report does not contain specific criticisms of the board’s practices but rather is aimed at further strengthening the robustness and documentation of its systems and procedures to restore and enhance the board’s reputation and standing within the planning system”.
Social Democrat housing spokesman Cian O’Callaghan questioned that response, saying the regulator’s report was “hardly a ringing endorsement” of ABP.
“One would have thought that the regulator bluntly stating that ABP needed urgent reform would have elicited a more reflective response from the planning authority. The upbeat tone of its appraisal of this devastating critique is bizarre and concerning,” he said.