Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
2. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government the status of the An Bord Pleanála’s review report published in 2016; his views on each recommendation; the recommendations that have been implemented to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32980/22]
I wish to ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of An Bord Pleanála's review report published in 2016, his views on each recommendation, the recommendations that have been implemented to date and if he will make a statement on the matter. I am conscious that this is particularly timely, given that this is a week in which we were to see the presentation to the Minister of the report from Remy Farrell SC, which I and other Opposition speakers spoke about in the Dáil in the past few days. Subsequent to our exchange in the Dáil yesterday, there was a request for an extension from Remy Farrell SC of a further five weeks. It is that context that this question becomes particularly pressing.
I thank the Deputy for her question. I wish to confirm in the first instance to the House that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, received a request from Remy Farrell SC at 3 p.m. yesterday for an extension to 29 July for a report into the management of conflicts of interest and relevant disclosures at An Bord Pleanála, and the Minister acceded to that request.
An organisational review of An Bord Pleanála was undertaken by an independent expert panel and the report published in March 2016. An implementation group comprising representation from my Department and An Bord Pleanála was established to oversee the implementation of the review recommendations. The review contains 101 recommendations relating to simplification of the planning legislation, more open arrangements for the appointment of board members, improvements to the process systems and practices of An Bord Pleanála and organisational structure and staffing, changes to the statutory objective timeframes and aspects of the strategic infrastructure development process.
The implementation group published its terms of reference and plans for implementation in 2016. The board, supported by my Department, as required, took the lead in the implementation of a large number of key recommendations, with my Department dealing with the recommendations requiring legislative underpinning. An update in tabular format on the recommendation status of each of the 101 recommendations is contained in the official reply to this question. As of 20 June 2022, 36 of the recommendations have been completed and no further action is deemed necessary. Some 43 of the recommendations are ongoing and 22 are to be determined in the current review of the Planning and Development Act, being led by the Attorney General.
Housing for All sets out a number of objectives, with the aim of improving the functioning of the planning system, including a comprehensive review and consolidation of the planning legislation. Recommendations of the organisational review of An Bord Pleanála requiring legislative underpinning are being considered in the context of the current review of the planning legislation, which is being led by the Attorney General.
I thank the Minister of State for the update. It is, however, of some concern that of the 101 recommendations made by the independent review group in 2016, only 36, or just over one third, have been completed. The others appear to be ongoing or are still to be determined.
In the context of such serious allegations about impropriety and a conflict of interest in the operation of An Bord Pleanála over recent months, it is of real concern that recommendations to address systemic failures and issues made years ago have still not been implemented. That emphasises the need for us to have a debate in the House before the summer recess on the operation of An Bord Pleanála.
We are all very conscious of huge delays in the past in the publication of reports into planning - I am thinking of the Donegal report. I accept the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, did not know yesterday, during what was a good exchange on this issue, that Remy Farrell SC would seek an extension. We now have clarification of the timing of that request subsequent to that exchange. However, the problem is that the report will not now be provided to the Minister until 29 July and we have no commitment from the Minister as to whether it will be published by him, even in redacted form. We do not know when we will have a Dáil debate on it. Let us have such a debate before the summer recess on the broader issues around the systemic operation of An Bord Pleanála.
Obviously, the Minister needs to see the report and consider it, but it will be dealt with in a very transparent manner, like all the other actions of the Government.
We are prepared to ensure that board appointments will go through the Public Appointments Service, PAS, system, as detailed in the previous review. The Office of the Planning Regulator announced on 27 April that it is conducting a review into the procedures and structures of An Bord Pleanála. It is no secret that we need to ensure the board is functioning correctly in terms of delivering, within an adequate timeframe, on very key decisions. The Government has about €160 billion in public infrastructure to deliver over the next decade and it is important that the board is getting it right. We have sanctioned a 30% increase in staffing levels for 24 approved posts to ensure it has the resource base to deal with its large volume of work.
I thank the Minister of State for the update. I appreciate that the Minister has not seen the report from Remy Farrell SC. I am glad to hear a commitment to transparency when the report is produced and provided to the Minister. However, this is not just about transparency, but also the ability of all on the Opposition and Government sides to be able to scrutinise the findings in any report in a timely manner.
In recent months we have seen a drip feed of very serious allegations. The terms of reference provided to Remy Farrell SC on 12 May set out a series of very serious allegations, including one concerning a property in my constituency. In that context, when we are in the midst of a housing disaster, and have been told by our President that there have been failures over successive years to deliver on housing, we do not want there to be any undermining of public confidence in such a key entity in our planning and construction system. That is the real concern, namely, that we let things slide and do not have an opportunity to debate issues in An Bord Pleanála over the coming weeks.
I thank the Deputy for her question. As stated in my opening remarks, the report is due by 29 July. The Minister has no issue with having a debate on the report in the Oireachtas. To be fair, the report has not yet been completed and the Minister has to consider the contents of the report when he receives it by 29 July. We are open to ensuring that An Bord Pleanála is fit-for-purpose and is delivering large-scale investments and decisions fairly by taking in submissions from the public, hearing their side of the story and adjudicating on applicants. It is very important that the board is resourced now, which it is in terms of the review being conducted. We need to give Remy Farrell SC the time to conduct this review. It is exceptionally important for the State that we get this right and the Government consider the recommendations subsequent to the completion of the report.