Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Appointments to State Boards
2. To ask the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government his views on the appointment to the State planning board of individuals who had previously been involved in framing controversial proposals such as the Poolbeg incinerator. [34566/14]
This question concerns An Bord Pleanála and the appointment of people who had previously had a deep involvement with the Poolbeg incinerator project. I congratulate the new Minister and Minister for State on their appointment and wish them well.
I submitted a question that was similar to the previous question and I wish to put on record that I am very disappointed that the question was not allowed. The question was almost identical to the previous question but was ruled out of order. The explanation I received was not satisfactory.
I thank the Deputy for his good wishes. I am sure they will always be extended.
It is unclear as to which member or members of An Bord Pleanála the Deputy is referring. The process for making appointments to the board is governed by the Planning and Development Act 2000. The board operates under a code of conduct as required by section 150 of the Act. One of the purposes of the code is to ensure potential conflicts of interest relating to the statutory function of An Bord Pleanála are dealt with in an appropriate manner. The code is available for viewing on the board’s website at www.pleanala.ie.
Section 13 of the code contains procedures for dealing with conflicts of interest in the context of meetings of the board where appeals and other planning cases are determined. Section 15.2 of the code also requires a board member not to deal with any case in any capacity on behalf of the board where the member had any involvement at any time in the matter, either on a personal basis or on behalf of a previous employer or as a member of any other organisation or voluntary body. Furthermore, section 15.4 of the code requires a board member not to knowingly deal with a file relating to a planning authority or a private practice where he or she was previously employed during the previous two year period or any voluntary or professional organisation of which he or she is or was a member during the previous two year period.
If the Deputy has information that he needs to make me aware of, he can always write to me and I will address it accordingly.
The history relates to the Poolbeg incinerator which has again been a live issue in the past few weeks, despite the clear opposition of the elected members of Dublin City Council and the introduction of local government reform, which has not shown them to be in a strong position. The county manager ignored their wishes and those of the people of Dublin and is pushing ahead with the project. As the Minister will be aware, RPS Group was the company contracted by DCC at a cost of more than €20 million and it recommended that the council ignore all other options relating to waste reduction, recycling and disposal and build the incinerator. One of the main engineers employed by RPS consultants was subsequently appointed to An Bord Pleanála by the former Minister, Mr. Dick Roche, in 2006. My information is that the individual in question voted to approve the incinerator proposal in 2007. The Minister mentioned a two-year gap. A former senior employee of the consultants who had promoted the project subsequently voted to approve it. Does the Minister not see a conflict of interest in this regard?
Section 150 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 requires An Bord Pleanála to adopt a code of conduct for members and its employees. The code is a comprehensive document and it is intended that the board will adhere to it. Specific requirements under the code prohibit membership of political parties or organisations involved in planning, provide for a declaration of interests to be completed annually, place a prohibition on engaging in any conduct that would bring the board into disrepute, provide for the reporting of improper communications, disclosure by board members of conflicts of interests at board meetings, etc. The full list is available on the board's website.
The manner in which this issue was dealt with was appropriate. However, on a more general basis, I am actively examining An Bord Pleanála. It was established in 1976 and has never been reviewed or looked at in an holistic way. I will address this in the future. However, in regard to the specific case, if the Deputy has additional specific information he would like to make me aware of in a personal capacity, he can write to me. I do not have a concern.
This would be an historical matter but for the fact that the person concerned was reappointed by the previous Minister and is now deputy chairperson of An Bord Pleanála. In that capacity, he further approved a series of controversial projects promoted by RPS consultants. One involves a large wind farm between Cullenagh and Timahoe, County Laois.
Despite the fact that no cost benefit analysis was conducted and the new, long-awaited planning guidelines were not in place, despite the scale of the project in a scenic location and despite the report and advice of An Bord Pleanála's inspector that the project be rejected, the board went ahead and saw fit to approve it. While I welcome the Minister's commitment to examine An Bord Pleanála, because it has supreme power in planning and appeals, does he agree that there is a conflict of interest in these cases and that it is important that An Bord Pleanála be above vested interests and be seen to be so?
It is important that An Bord Pleanála be above vested interests and I have no reason to believe it is not. The Deputy's allegations are serious and I have no reason to believe them. While he has not named the individual concerned, it is clear that the person can be identified. If the Deputy has other information which he believes is necessary to be made available to prove the allegations, I suggest he write to me to do so. Otherwise, I have been examining the operation of An Bord Pleanála and my Department will review the matter. We consider it is necessary to do so, given the length of time since it was established. As part of the process we will examine everything regarding how it operates to ensure it works as effectively as it can. While independent analysis of how the planning system and An Bord Pleanála work in terms of international practice has been very favourable, we must examine it again, particularly all of the practices related to it, to ensure it is transparent.