The Irish Times view on An Bord Pleanála: a moment of truth

Two forthcoming reports will demand a response from Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien

After months of controversy over the work of former An Bord Pleanála deputy chairman Paul Hyde, the planning appeals body faces a moment of truth. Barrister Remy Farrell’s report on his inquiry into the Hyde affair and an internal ABP review into hundreds of his decisions is nearing completion. The conclusions, whatever they are, will demand a response from Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, who has political responsibility for planning.

Hyde denied any impropriety but faces searching questions over his personal declarations of interests, his debts and alleged conflicts of interests in his consideration of certain files. Ultimate judgment on his performance in ABP’s second-highest post must await the findings made by Farrell and the board itself. But already it seems likely that steps will be required to restore public confidence in ABP, an independent quasi-judicial body which must be seen to be even-handed and transparent in its application of planning laws.

That most basic requirement is the corollary of the immense power it wields to make or break building projects, often with huge financial implications. Hyde had led the ABP unit in charge of fast-track applications for big housing schemes that bypass local authority procedures, many of which have faced court challenge. The cascade of actions led the professional body for planners to conclude that the fast-track legislation “compromised” ABP. More litigation may flow from the inquiries into Hyde himself, no matter that ABP insists it is powerless to reopen settled cases.

For O’Brien, the imperatives are clear. The Minister has reserved the right to publish or not publish the Farrell report or release it with redactions. Yet the grave issues at stake for ABP – and, inevitably, the integrity of the State’s planning process – are such that he must aim for maximum transparency. Only then can the magnitude of the challenge facing the Minister, ABP and its leaders be assessed. Planning regulator Niall Cussen has signalled he will bring forward a review of ABP after Farrell reports. More than that may be needed to undo the damage done.