An Bord Pleanála has engaged a senior barrister to investigate “matters of concern” in the planning authority after it ruled out publishing an internal report on the same issues for legal reasons.
The appointment of Lorna Lynch SC comes after months of controversy in the quasi-judicial body, which has led to serious delays processing planning files and prompted Government moves to overhaul and rename the organisation.
The authority issued a public apology on its website in the days before Christmas for “not meeting” statutory timeframes for rulings on “a large number” of planning files. Such delays were attributed to a lack of capacity at board level, which at the time had only five functioning members instead of the standard complement of 10.
Three new members have since been appointed but two others are scheduled to leave the board in February. As the Government struggles to overcome the housing crisis, the backlog has delayed decisions on projects with potential to deliver thousands of homes.
Ms Lynch’s investigation comes two months after Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien appointed former Department of Justice official Oonagh Buckley as the board’s interim chairwoman. Staff and board members have been told the barrister’s work is required as part of the effort to regain public confidence in the authority.
“While this does mean that An Bord Pleanála cannot, yet, leave these matters behind us, it is necessary that we deal with those issues effectively so that we can restore An Bord Pleanála’s reputation over time,” Ms Buckley said in an internal note.
The barrister will review issues examined last year by three senior An Bord Pleanála managers, who spent several months examining hundreds of planning cases involving former deputy chairman Paul Hyde and other issues including questions over certain planning inspectors’ reports.
Mr Hyde, who resigned last summer, faces criminal prosecution over allegations he gave false particulars to the authority. He has always denied any wrongdoing.
The internal review findings were submitted in October, one of several reports commissioned separately for An Bord Pleanála itself as well as for Mr O’Brien and planning regulator Niall Cussen.
After the November departure of then chairman Dave Walsh, the body’s new leadership resolved that it cannot release the internal report because of concerns about exposing it to legal action or potentially compromising any disciplinary process.
In a note for staff, Ms Buckley said the barrister will carry out a “scoping investigation” into the matters of concern.
“Ms Lynch will be provided with the material which was gathered and collated by members of the senior management team who were involved in the preparation of an internal report,” the note said. “Once completed, Ms Lynch has been asked to report to me as to whether there is any basis for any further action by the board.”
The note went on to say Ms Lynch’s engagement was agreed with the Department of Housing “who would of course need to be involved if issues have to be referred to the Minister”.
Ms Buckley indicated the barrister may ask to interview or seek submissions from some staff or board members, saying “I would ask you to co-operate fully with Ms Lynch’s investigation in the coming weeks”.