An Bord Pleanála has warned of a worsening shortage of board members as it grapples with a year-long backlog of planning files and court cases that have “overwhelmed” the body.
At a hearing of the Oireachtas housing committee, the authority’s interim chairwoman Oonagh Buckley said the scheduled departure this week of two board members has cut its decision-making body to less than half-strength as it struggles to work through hundreds of delayed files.
“As of tomorrow I will have six operational members of An Bord Pleanála to take decisions, all decisions, out of 15. So that’s fewer than the eight I have today,” she said.
“We have approximately between 700 and 800 planning files on which inspectors have signed off reports, they’re sitting with the board and I just don’t have enough board members to take decisions.”
In the middle of a housing crisis, the turmoil in the planning authority has delayed the delivery of thousands of new homes.
Ms Buckley was appointed in November after months of controversy in An Bord Pleanála prompted the Government to overhaul and rename the quasi-judicial body. She was previously a deputy secretary general in the Department of Justice.
[ An Bord Pleanála internal report finds concerns raised over handling of cases have ‘factual substance’ ]
Citing the lack of resources, she said that already-delayed applications under strategic housing development (SHD) laws will go to the back of the queue while An Bord Pleanála strives to meet legal deadlines on more recent applications submitted under new large-scale housing laws.
“We have already paid the fines on the SHDs so we will do the SHDs as our resources allow,” she said, citing once-off penalties the body has paid to developers for breaching deadlines. “That’s the logical priority.”
Ms Buckley was discussing draft legislation that will restrict how judicial review actions can be taken in planning cases, a Government proposal prompted by a sharp escalation in cases against An Bord Pleanála.
“The board has been quite overwhelmed with the level of decisions and concessions and judicial reviews that have been taken in recent times,” she said.
Ms Buckley said the board was conceding such cases on “very basic” grounds “in part because the High Court, in particular the judges who currently sit on the planning list, are getting ever more detailed in the requirements that they’re making of the board”.
She added: “In fact, the requirements that are being sought today, if we are to win a case, were not in place even two years ago, if you know what I mean. So there’s a certain element of the moving goalposts in this as well, perhaps correctly.”
The “mismatch” between more recent rulings and older requirements was a challenge for the board. “To that extent – and I don’t in any way want to criticise the judiciary – but [the] impression internally is that the goalposts are constantly moving because we’re constantly having to reach a greater level of detail.”
[ Senior barrister to investigate ‘matters of concern’ at An Bord Pleanála ]
Planning regulator Niall Cussen told the same hearing that the €65 fee for making a local authority planning application for a domestic dwelling had not increased since 2001.
“Your drawings for your architect will cost many many multiples of that, into the thousands, and yet the local authority is expected to intake the file, handle it within its own systems, undertake inspections, send people out, check public notices, do the whole process for €65,” he said.
“It means in effect [the local authority] is constantly trying to balance its books and effectively subsidising the delivery of planning services from ratepayers and other sources of income ... We need honestly [to] have a conversation around how the planning process is resourced.”