Thursday, 15 September 2022
An Bord Pleanála: Statements
On this particular matter, we are aware that matters have been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. As a consequence of that, these matters may perhaps find their way to the courts. I trust and expect that everyone here will be sufficiently careful in terms of what he or she says so as not to create any difficulties in the event of there being court hearings.
Everyone is very welcome. I welcome the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and ask him to make his opening remarks.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to the House today regarding An Bord Pleanála. An Bord Pleanála, as I have said publicly, stands at the apex of our planning system and plays a crucial role as the final arbiter of many planning applications. In this light, I treat and have treated any allegations of inappropriate actions or behaviours by its members with the utmost seriousness. The public must have trust in the impartiality and integrity of our planning system if it is to function effectively in facilitating the sustainable development this country needs.
In the light of recent allegations I want to reassure the House of the significant and swift steps I have taken to ensure the public can have confidence in the integrity of the decision-making process while ensuring it continues to function in facilitating appropriate development. The Government has sought to act, and has acted, openly, quickly, and effectively in responding to the immediate problems, to address underlying issues and to maintain a fully functioning planning system.
The actions broadly fall into three categories, namely, dealing with specific allegations of wrongdoing, implementing internal reform of the process, procedures and workforce plans of An Bord Pleanála and a fundamental overhaul of An Bord Pleanála's nomination process and its broader legislative framework.
The planning system must be made fit for purpose while still moving forward. The series of reforms arising from this controversy will be rolled out without delaying critical housing and infrastructural development. I have asked all Opposition spokespersons for their input into the process and I assure the House that I will engage with their specific proposals.
An Bord Pleanála is the national independent statutory body with responsibility for the determination of planning appeals and direct applications for strategic infrastructure and other developments under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, and certain other Acts. An Bord Pleanála is independent in the performance of its functions under the Planning and Development Act.
Approximately 30,000 applications are considered by the planning system on an annual basis and about 10% of such applications are appealed to the board. In addition, the board considers substantial cases associated with strategic infrastructure, which will increase in the coming years through the major investment under the national development plan and together with the new functions coming to the board under the Maritime Area Planning Act 2021, as amended, the board will play a really significant consenting role for a range of critical infrastructure projects, not least those required to tackle the energy crisis and to move swiftly to renewable energy.
As Members will be aware, I have brought an end to the strategic housing development, SHD, planning arrangements following a commitment made in the programme for Government not to extend them post their legislative expiry. I firmly believe that it is more appropriate for decisions to be taken at a local authority level and our new Planning and Development (Amendment) (Large-scale Residential Development) Act 2021 restores decision-making on these schemes to our local authorities.
There are transitional arrangements in place and SHD planning applications are currently working their way through the system. I have no doubt this will have an impact on the caseload of the board. Dealing with this increasing caseload in an efficient, effective and timely manner, is absolutely critical and the cornerstone of this is ensuring that there is public confidence in the decision-making process, in its impartiality, its integrity and its transparency. I therefore treat any allegations of inappropriate actions or behaviour by the members of the board with the utmost seriousness. Today is an important chance to outline to the House the range of actions taken and planned in relation to the recent allegations while respecting, as the Ceann Comhairle mentioned, the ongoing Garda investigations.
It is important at the outset to commend the staff of the board who work extremely hard in challenging conditions to deliver on current requirements. I know they are willing to work with the changes that will be required to meet new demands and to respond to process changes recommended through various reviews. This is being supported by increased staff resourcing and acceleration of the digital agenda.
In tandem with this, the review of planning legislation, which had started in advance of any allegations being made and on which there has been significant engagement with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, will bring greater clarity to the legislative code in which the board works, aiding both practitioners and the public alike. Apart from the streamlining of the legislation, as the committee will have discussed, a particular focus of the review is on ensuring that the plan-led nature of the system is enhanced and that there is more meaningful public engagement, particularly at the earliest part of the process, which is the development plans across our country. This will set the environment context for decisions of planning authorities and the board into the future and should lead to a system where there is less contention at application stage because there has been more debate at planning stage.
Through the various measures I will outline today, I will underscore to the House the importance of maintaining trust and confidence in our planning system.
The Government is taking action on a number of fronts to ensure there is a fundamental change to equip us for the future and maintain the full ongoing operation of the system to ensure the right development takes place in the right place at the right time to meet the increasing challenges we face in housing and infrastructural provision.
Before getting into the specific matters of concern, I will outline the existing statutory and other provisions relating to the corporate governance of An Bord Pleanála. Under section 147 of the Planning and Development Act, all board members are required to make a declaration of certain interests at least once per year. The register of interests is available for public inspection. Under section 148 of that Act, "[w]here a member of the Board has a pecuniary or other beneficial interest in, or which is material to, any appeal, contribution, question, determination or dispute which falls to be decided or determined [upon] by the Board under any enactment ... he or she shall disclose to the Board the nature of his or her interest" and shall take no part in the discussion, consideration or decision-making on that matter. Failure to comply with sections 147 and 148 is an offence under sections 147(11) and 148(10).
In the same manner as other agencies, An Bord Pleanála is subject to the code of practice for governance of State bodies and is required to furnish to the Minister, in conjunction with its annual report and financial statements, a comprehensive report covering that State body, confirming its adherence to the code of practice and that it has a code of conduct in operation. All members of An Bord Pleanála serve in positions subject to the Ethics in Public Office Acts 1995 and 2001, including the making of annual declarations as appropriate. The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, processes complaints regarding compliance with those Acts.
On the allegations of wrongdoing, in April 2022, certain allegations against the then deputy chairperson of An Bord Pleanála came to my attention. I recognise that board members have critical roles in the board and in the planning system. These allegations, which were denied by the board member concerned, warranted a serious and immediate response. In light of the allegations, I appointed senior counsel Remy Farrell to provide a report to inform my consideration of the matter. The terms of reference for the report were published on my Department's website on 12 May and, in accordance with those terms, Mr. Farrell was tasked with providing a report to me within six weeks. On 22June, I received and agreed to a request from Mr. Farrell for an extension of time to 29 July to allow him sufficient time to complete his work and finalise the report. I received the report into the management of conflicts of interest and relevant disclosures by the deputy chairperson of An Bord Pleanála in relation to certain decisions of that board from Mr. Farrell on the 27 July. On 15 August, on the advice of the Attorney General, I referred the report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, An Garda Síochána and the Standards in Public Office Commission.
I recognise the vital public interest in this report and that the public must have trust in the impartiality and integrity of our planning system if it is to function effectively. With this in mind I inquired of the DPP if there was any reason that should prevent my publishing of the report in full or in part. The DPP has asked that the report not be published until such time as An Garda Síochána has completed its investigation into this matter and a decision has been made on any possible or potential prosecution. As such, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on this matter. I am sure Deputies will be conscious in their contributions that this matter is the subject of ongoing Garda investigation. That has been agreed by all and the Ceann Comhairle has already referenced that.
With regard to broader issues that have been raised relating to the board's internal processes, and taking account of the urgent need to progress measures aimed at restoring public confidence in An Bord Pleanála, the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, initiated its review of An Bord Pleanála systems and procedures as part of its review programme on 24 August 2022. This two-stage review is being carried out by independent planning experts from other jurisdictions and Conleth Bradley SC, who is heading up the first phase of the review. I have been informed that staff of An Bord Pleanála have an opportunity to engage substantially with this review. It is my intention that the outcome of the review will help inform other internal changes as required in An Bord Pleanála and will assist in identifying legislative amendments that may be required. The terms of reference for this review have been published on the OPR's website. In addition to the matters being focused on in this review and those previously announced, An BordPleanála will be included in the OPR's programme of general reviews on an ongoing basis.
I await the conclusion of a separate internal report from the senior management team within An Bord Pleanála which was requested by Mr. Dave Walsh, chairperson of An Bord Pleanála. It should be noted that the roles of this senior internal team do not involve them in any active participation in the processing of, or the making of decisions on, any planning cases that have been determined by the board and that may be the subject of this examination. I understand this internal report will consider other allegations, including a review of a number of decided cases where public commentary has raised issues and concerns around the procedures and processes applied in those cases. This process of internal investigation of certain files is under way and is expected to be completed quite shortly. The internal team is due to report back to the chairperson of An Bord Pleanála. I will engage further on this when the report to the chairperson is complete to see what further action may be required to ensure public trust in the board.
There are some immediate measures we have taken already and I will outline them. In addition to the review that is completed and the two that are under way, several additional measures are being undertaken as a matter of urgency to ensure the impartial and effective functioning of the board. These measures include a comprehensive review of the internal code of conduct of An Bord Pleanála being undertaken by the board, the complete cessation - not suspension - of the two-person decision-making panels, and the overhaul of internal compliance procedures on ethical requirements. As a matter of priority, it is intended that a senior legal adviser will be appointed to the board and that there will be a requirement for monthly reports from the board to me as Minister on corporate governance implementation under section 109 of the Planning and Development Act.
It is vital, as I think we all agree, that there is full confidence in the functioning of the board as a fair and impartial cornerstone of our planning system. To uphold trust in the board, I have announced that the current appointment process to An Bord Pleanála will be overhauled and the process for nominations in place at the moment will cease. I have instructed my Department to work on the reform of the An Bord Pleanála board member appointment process as a matter of priority and I will bring a plan to Cabinet in the coming weeks - I intend that to be in this month, September - which will outline a new appointments process for board members, underpinned by new legislation which will come to the House and the committee. It is intended this new process will reflect modern best practice for recruitment to senior executive positions within the Irish public service. This plan will also outline a range of additional measures to improve the operation of An Bord Pleanála to deliver an efficient and high-quality planning decision-making service in accordance with the highest standards of corporate governance.
As I previously stated, I do not underestimate the work undertaken by the staff of An Bord Pleanála, which is increasing as we work to meet our targets set out in Housing for All, and other major infrastructure being provided under the national development plan. I have already sanctioned a further 24 posts for An Bord Pleanála at the board's request, which are currently being recruited. I intend to approve a further substantial increase in staffing resources for An Bord Pleanála shortly to ensure it is fully equipped to meet the demands of our planning system, including the new functions it will take on as part of the new marine planning arrangements, in particular. The additional staff members will be hired in tandem with the recommended organisational reforms set out by the Office of the Planning Regulator review to create a fully fit-for-purpose body, including any legislative changes required to achieve this aim.
Under Housing for All - a New Housing Plan for Ireland, a number of objectives are set out with the aim of improving the functioning of the planning system, including the comprehensive review and consolidation of planning legislation, which is nearing completion. I have already referred to that in my remarks today. The review is being led by the Attorney General. He has established a working group of professionals with planning law expertise to assist him in this work. It is intended that the review will be completed and the Bill will be finalised in the fourth quarter of this year.
An organisational review of An Bord Pleanála was undertaken by an independent expert panel and published in March 2016. Legislative proposals contained in the 2016 organisational review of An Bord Pleanála are being considered in as a part of this broader review. As part of the review, recently, both the planning advisory forum and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage considered a paper on the corporate provisions in relation to An Bord Pleanála. They have also considered themes such as plans and guidelines, planning consents, enforcement and environmental assessment and will shortly discuss issues concerning judicial review and planning.
In conclusion, I recognise the important role An Bord Pleanála plays in our planning system and how the decisions made by the board have an impact across the breadth of planning in Ireland, from rural family homes, to strategic infrastructure programmes, to large-scale residential builds. I am confident that the actions taken to date will start the process of restoring confidence in the organisation and will assure the public of this Government's commitment to ensuring the highest levels of accountability and transparency in the work of our agencies.
An Bord Pleanála is in the midst of a deep crisis. That crisis has, in part, been created by an avalanche of concerning revelations since April of this year. The crisis has also been caused by Government policy, in particular, a number of very controversial mandatory ministerial guidelines introduced by a previous housing Minister and a failure of successive Governments to implement a number of key recommendations of the 2016 report into the operations of the board. The combination of these three factors has led to a dramatic collapse in confidence among the public in the operations of the board. It is not just a collapse of public confidence. A number of large local authorities, including Cork City Council and my own South Dublin County Council, have voted on motions of no confidence in the operations of the board in recent months. There is also a widespread view across the planning community that the board is no longer performing its functions as it once did. All of that means that there is an absolute urgency for the Minister to act, and act speedily, to restore public confidence, as well as the confidence of the elected members and planning professionals. As he endeavours to do that, if he does the right thing, he will have the active support of our party and, I believe, many in opposition.
With respect to the avalanche of revelations, I want to pay tribute, in particular, to journalists of an online publication called The Ditch. They have produced 29 separate news reports since April, outlining very concerning allegations with respect to the operations and decision-making of the board. The Minister has spoken both to the allegations and his response to that. These revelations also covered, in particular, in the Irish Examiner, not only relate to the former deputy chairman of the board, Paul Hyde. Unfortunately, they also relate to seven members of the board, including the current chair, David Walsh; the director, Rachel Kenny; and members, Michelle Fagan, Terry Prendergast, Terry O'Niadh and Chris McGarry. I am not going to go into the individual allegations and revelations in relation to individual members for the same reasons as the Minister outlined. However, it is important to give people a sense of the areas in which concerns have been raised.
There does seem to be a pattern across individuals of not declaring very significant conflicts of interest when taking decisions on both small and large planning applications and appeals. There seems to be a widespread practice of decisions being made by board members where those board members live in what is called the immediate neighbourhood - something which is not permitted under the board's own procedures. There seems to be a pattern of interference with, and the amending of, inspectors' reports to suit decisions that are then subsequently being made, and as the Minister himself alluded to, decisions being made by panels of two, which is explicitly prohibited under the legislation and the procedures. As the Minister said, this avalanche of revelations has led to three separate inquiries, one resignation, possible criminal charges and to the board's reputation being in tatters.
One of the questions that has to be asked, alongside those around the allegations against individual members, is what the chair and the director were doing while these alleged breaches were happening over and over again. How many decisions have potentially been compromised by decisions that are in breach of protocols, procedures or indeed, the underpinning legislation of the board? What has been done to ensure that these kinds of breaches of procedures are brought to an end?
As I said, it is not just the individual actions of individual board members and the failure of the corporate governance of the board that has caused the crisis in An Bord Pleanála. When former Eoghan Murphy, as Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, introduced, in particular, two sets of mandatory ministerial guidelines, namely, those on the design standards for apartments and the removal of the caps on building heights, it created a perpetual conflict in planning law between central government policy and city and county development plans across a range of local authorities. When you get that kind of conflict between two sets of planning lawmakers, things end up going to the courts. In fact, as a direct result of that conflict, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of judicial reviews being taken against strategic housing developments, some very significantly taken by Dublin City Council in defence - rightly, in my view - of the democratic decision-making of its councillors in terms of strategic development zones and the city development plan. Worse still, the board, time and again, lost those judicial reviews in the courts at enormous cost to the taxpayer, and yet individual board members were allowed to continue to make subsequent decisions on the same flawed legal basis. The figures are startling. In 2019, before this avalanche of judicial reviews of legally suspect decisions by the board arrived, the legal costs of the board were around €3.6 million. From 2020 they shot up to €8.4 million, and in 2021 they were €7.7 million. The outworking of subsequent judicial reviews as a result of the conflict between decisions made by the previous Government, upheld by this Government, and the city and county development plans is that the legal costs will continue at those exceptionally high rates in the time ahead. The big question is this: why were legally questionable decisions allowed to be made over and over again? What mechanisms were put in place to try to address this? What has been done since to ensure the number of legally questionable decisions by the board is dramatically reduced, to in turn reduce its exposure to judicial review?
Finally, with respect to the 2016 report, I do not agree with all of the recommendations of the report, and the Government is completely entitled to agree, disagree or want to amend those. However, there has been a slowness, particularly in the previous two Governments to either implement or explain the failure to implement those aspects of that review that are the responsibility of the Government and the Department. I look forward to the Minister's legislation because clearly it is going to deal with some of those outstanding matters. As I said at the start, the most important question is what the Minister is going to do. In fairness to the Minister, he has outlined a series of actions as he moves forward. In response, I would say that first of all, we need to have the prompt publication of each of the individual review reports as soon as they are available.
I appreciate the advice of the Attorney General with respect to the Garda investigation, but as soon as that report can be published, it should be. So too should the internal review of the board and the report of the Office of the Planning Regulator. I welcome that the Minister has just said he is now going to get monthly reports on the improvement of the governance operations of the board. They should be shared at a minimum with the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and, if possible, published so we can keep track of that as well.
More important than anything else, what is clear is we need a fresh start at An Bord Pleanála. This can only be achieved with a significant change of board membership. Ultimately, responsibility starts at the top. The Minister must be bold and act in the interests of the planning system overall. I note the inclusion of the An Bord Pleanála appointments Bill in the legislative programme that was published yesterday and look forward to sight of a general scheme. What I would say to the Minister at this stage, and I made the same point to the committee, is that we need a hybrid system. There is merit in having nominated bodies so long as those nominated bodies actually exist and are functioning and represent important interests. That list needs to be updated and expanded. There is an argument to say the environmental sector needs to be involved, possibly organisations like the Irish Environmental Network, given the increasing importance of EU environmental law in our planning system. Also, in recognition of the fact the board was originally meant to be a jury of our peers rather than a body of professional planners, there is an argument for expanding nominating bodies to ensure the public, the community and the citizen's voice are also represented. Organisations like the Dublin Democratic Planning Alliance, for example, would be a case in point. What we need is a public competition. I am calling it a kind of public appointments commission plus, where we use the Public Appointments Commission for open competition, interview and recommendation but we might add to that to ensure the necessary level of skills is ultimately on the board. It has to combine expertise in planning, place-making and environmental law with that key idea of the board as it was originally designed in the 1970s as a jury of one's peers.
I am glad to hear the Minister is indicating the Bill will do more than provide for appointments. The Bill needs to go further than just tackling that issue of the appointments process. One of the small things that needs to change is the name of the board. When people hear the phrase An Bord Pleanála, they think of a board of directors, people who meet six times a year in a part-time capacity. This is a planning authority. This is a body in respect of which the State pays individuals significant sums of money to be planning officials. To avoid confusion and in line with that fresh start, actually renaming it as what it is, a planning authority, and recognising that the members of that planning authority are effectively full-time planning officials would be a small, symbolic but useful step in the right direction. There not only needs to be clarity in terms of the requirements of members and staff of the board, but also there needs to be sanctions of an appropriate nature where people fail to declare interests or fail to adhere to proper procedures, ultimately such that people can be stripped of their membership of the board for multiple failures. We need to strengthen those existing procedures. We need to get rid of subpanels. There is no justification for them and they are contrary to the original legislative requirements of the board. We need to have proper monitoring and publication of information, including the declaration of members' interests, rather than just having them available for inspection, to increase transparency. I simply do not understand the idea of divisions within the inspectorate. It is a terribly bad practice. I do not believe it is in the spirit of the original legislation either. Just as files should be allocated on a random basis, so indeed the requirement for the work of the inspectorate.
There should be no role for any board member to request or seek to amend the inspectors' reports. Board members can disagree with those inspectors' reports. That is published in a transparent way in the final decision of the board. Inspectors' reports should reflect what those inspectors wanted them to reflect rather than being in any way pressurized or required to consider amending them. Ultimately, we need to ensure there are measures to mitigate groupthink. We need diversity, dissent and critical thinking in all operations of the board. We need to ensure there is a distancing of the decision-making of the board from the interests, whether individual or collective, of industry or other commercial views. I acknowledge the Minister had made provision for additional staffing, although there is going to need to be more, particularly in respect of the maritime requirements. The board must have adequate resources and clear statutory timelines for all forms of decision-making, not just on large-scale residential developments, which I welcomed, but for all others.
Beyond An Bord Pleanála, we have to deal with the legacy of bad Government planning policy. We need to scrap those mandatory ministerial guidelines. The very phrase "mandatory ministerial guidelines" is Orwellian in its conception, and therefore the inferior design standards for apartments, the removal of caps on building heights need to go. We need to restore democratic decision-making to our communities and to the democratic decision-making process of the development plan, strategic development zones and, ultimately, the urban development zones, which the Minister has included in his plan. We need to accelerate the use of place-making as the Minister has outlined.
We also need to establish, as a matter of urgency in the next 12 months, a dedicated, fully resourced planning and environmental court. The Minister should be warned. Restricting access to judicial remedy will be done at his peril. The problem is not that there is too much litigation. The problem is those conflicts I mentioned earlier and that, where legal access or redress is sought, the judicial process is too long. The best way to deal with that is a dedicated court with the expertise and resources needed to expedite judicial reviews as quickly as possible. Crucially, we need to have participative planning at as early a stage as possible in our process, and statutory timelines for all aspects of the planning process and the court, as I said.
The Minister has a unique opportunity to address these issues. He has to act and act now to restore public confidence and the confidence of the wider planning community in An Bord Pleanála and to undo the damage of previous governments which, to date, the current Government has continued to support. If he does all of that, he will have our active support as participants in this reform agenda. Now is the time for a fresh start in the operations of An Bord Pleanála to ensure the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the present or into the future.
The Minister stated we have to have trust and integrity in An Bord Pleanála. I agree with him that we should have trust not just in An Bord Pleanála but in the full planning process and in our civil servants. It is difficult at times, when decisions have been fundamentally flawed and An Bord Pleanála has often been a closed shop. Now board members and their actions have been called into question. Despite the fact An Bord Pleanála is expected to hold oral hearings in cases of applications involving national and significant issues, or when such hearings are requested, this is routinely refused and dismissed out of hand. It indicates the decision-making process of planning authorities should be more open to scrutiny. That is the reason those decisions are taken. How often have we seen the board of An Bord Pleanála ignore its own inspectors' reports? This was alluded to. They correct them for their own value or change them to support a decision they were going to take. How often have we seen An Bord Pleanála ignore not just the concerns of local council planning officials and authorities but also development plans or the zoning confines of a particular site? Far too often in my view, and it has been happening more of late.
It would be interesting to look at the decision of the board members now under scrutiny when it comes to the destruction of our historical heritage in this city in recent years. Were the members who are now under investigation party to decisions to grant consent to the demolition of the O'Rahilly family home at 40 Herbert Park in Ballsbridge, a key house in the revolutionary years of the early 20th century? I do not know, but if they were, I do not know whether there was a conflict of interest or for what reason that decision was taken. I know that some of those named An Bord Pleanála officials who are under scrutiny played a role in refusing to grant an oral hearing on three planning applications before them regarding Moore Street. They are now adjudicating them at present. I am not aware if there is any specific conflict of interest.
I have to say, from a heritage perspective, shame on them. There is no more important site being earmarked for development at present than Moore Street, and I know the Minister has a specific interest in this. It is historically significant and of national and international importance, with legislation seeking its full protection before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Many local authorities are opposing its destruction. A national monument would be interfered with. A historical building survey and assessment reports that the local planning authority have are not being considered by An Bord Pleanála because they were produced after the deadline. Yet, An Bord Pleanála refused an oral hearing.
This is a national monument. This terrace held a retreating GPO garrison at the end of Easter week. This was where the last meeting of the 1916 Rising Military Council met and where the surrender was decided to avoid further loss of civilian life. This is where the soldiers of the republic, namely, the IRA, were told that there would be a day soon when the war would be waged again. However, there are some who would rather erase our history. In this context, let there be no illusion that some people would rather it would be destroyed.
Does anybody bar me find it obscene that those presiding on planning applications often have skin in the game? Some are definitely not independent. Some are developers and holders of development land. Given the scandals of the past in this city, in particular Wood Quay and Frascati House, we need to be very careful with who is on An Bord Pleanála. I agree with the Minister on the importance of maintaining trust and confidence in our planning system. However, I am sorry, but I do not have it at the moment. I will explain why.
I know there were underhanded goings-on in relation to Moore Street in terms of the State, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage officials and Dublin City Council officials lining up with the current owner of the site to offer a package for loss of earnings to the area's street traders. However, that €1.7 million was tied to three conditions, thus making it a bribe. The figure quoted is not disputed. A trader has put it that they received three offers: the first one was €1 million; the second was €1.5 million; and the third and final offer was €1.7 million. How much value is put on the disruption of history?
The traders on the most recent ministerial Moore Street Advisory Group, MSAG, were being told to endorse the Dublin central vision of the Hammerson group, involving the destruction of much of the historic Moore Street site. They were specifically told to vote for a report to the Minister that also endorsed the same. They were instructed to issue a statement going back on their earlier support for the Ceathrú Chultúir 1916 Bill, my own Bill, which had unanimously passed First and Second Stages in the Dáil and is awaiting Committee Stage. They were also told to give a commitment not to submit any planning objections to the applications that Hammerson was about to make late last year regarding that site. That is a bribe - there are no two ways about it - because it is conditional. The supposed package was conditional on them taking those actions. That is also gross interference in the planning process. It is gross interference in the legislative process given that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, had earlier indicated here in the Dáil that he would take his lead in relation to my Bill from the MSAG report. It is also interference in the function of the same Minister’s own advisory group.
Thankfully, the traders walked away in disgust literally minutes before the MSAG’s finally deliberative meeting in May 2021. While I made that charge to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, earlier this year, he dismissed my concerns as being unfounded allegations, without asking me for any proof, without asking for the help of An Garda Síochána, without even picking up the phone to ask his own party members who are on the MSAG whether those allegations stood up or without even asking the traders who walked away who had been in the media backing up the allegations I had made. As far as I am aware, the allegations have never been directly put to the traders by An Garda Síochána or anybody else.
Was the Minister aware of what was happening in his Department under his watch? Did he agree the bribe figures and amount? Did he agree that officials from his Department were colluding and were allowed to so with a private developer and the city council to interfere in this way to attempt to bribe ordinary Dublin citizens concerned about their future livelihoods to act illegally?
I am listening to him intently. However, unfortunately, the way this debate is structured, I do not have the ability to respond to what the Deputy said. It is not a questions and answers session. I can happily, in another public forum, give him direct answers to the quite serious things he said-----
I am more concerned for people who are not here who could be identified and are entitled to their good name until proven guilty in a court of law. This is most definitely not a court of law. I ask the Deputy to proceed carefully.
I can finish by saying that the Dublin city manager agreed that these figures were involved. I can ask the Minister whether he agreed that €300,000 was being set aside kind of to pay traders. It is a simple question. There are no allegations. Were there conditions tied to those payments? Was the Minister aware that Dublin City Council was also going to give up a similar figure? This is the city manager. In print, he named himself. I did not name him or bring him into the question at all.
There needs to be an investigation of that. I will send the Minister a note. I sent it to his junior Minister in the hope that he would at least initiate an investigation, but he did not do so.
I would suggest the Deputy table another parliamentary question or a Topical Issue matter so it can be dealt with within the constraints of Standing Orders. We will deal with it.
I very much welcome this debate. It is timely and important. An Bord Pleanála is a critical arm of the State. Since it was established, it has, by and large, served this country and its citizens well. My party, namely, the Labour Party, has been a strong supporter of the principles of An Bord Pleanála when it is acting at its best. We believe in the organisation and its importance. We believe in robust, transparent decision making and adjudication systems and third-party statutory independent appeals processes to vindicate citizens’ rights. What is also vital to the functioning of a robust appeals system, especially one dealing with important planning matters - issues that have massive impact on our personal lives, how we develop and plan our communities, our economy and our society and how we protect our environment - is the question of integrity and public trust. We know only too well, and experience in relatively recent history tells us, how the greed and avarice of some politicians and some public officials over the years destroyed confidence in the political system, local government and some other important institutions of State.
An Bord Pleanála has, by and large, commanded the confidence of the public. It was seen as a body that was fiercely and correctly independent, that protected its independence from local authorities, the Department and central government for good reason, and was the last bastion and form of protection outside recourse of the courts for the vindication of the rights of citizens on planning matters. While one may have, from time to time, quibbled with individual decisions it made or policy positions it may have taken, it was with a degree of confidence that we could follow the logic of a decision or adjudication. We understood, largely, how decisions were made in compliance with the law, regulations, local development plans and other national obligations and requirements.
For many years, it seemed to be a body that was almost above criticism or, at least, saw itself as being above and beyond criticism. It was beyond reproach. We were not advised and it was never suggested that we were permitted to publicly criticise An Bord Pleanála. I recall the - I was going to say "veiled" - less-than-veiled criticism from some quarters that was levelled at one of the Minister's predecessors, namely, Deputy Alan Kelly, when he initiated a review into An Bord Pleanála in 2016. Frankly, there was hostility from the Department, An Bord Pleanála and some other actors in the planning and development community to that initiative - one that we can now conclude was very important. I will return to that initiative. In truth, no public body is beyond criticism. That should always have been the case, especially for a body as omnipotent, almost, as An Bord Pleanála. Informed criticism and regular review are crucial to the proper functioning of all public services and no public body should be immune from that.
Recent events have rocked public confidence in An Bord Pleanála. By any stretch, it is extraordinary that the alleged actions of a former deputy chair of the board were considered to be so serious that a senior counsel had to be put on the job and undertake a review into those actions in the context of alleged conflicts of interest. I note that, as the Minister put on the record in August and now in the House, the report has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. That suggests the report was provided to An Garda Síochána in the first instance. It is advisable, of course, that we do not comment any further on the substance of that but, rather, allow the independent DPP to come to a conclusion. I understand why the Minister is unable to publish the Remy Farrell report, although I would like it to be otherwise. It is clear there are matters contained in the report that are of ongoing interest to other authorities. We will allow that process to conclude uninterrupted.
There is also an internal review that is being undertaken by An Bord Pleanála on its rules and procedures. We do not know exactly what it is considering because, as far as I can establish, the terms of reference are not available. This is all somewhat opaque and I would prefer if that were not the case. As the Minister said, there is a review ongoing with the Office of the Planning Regulator, and that is to be welcomed.
I return to the 2016 review. Arguably, if the bulk of the key recommendations of the 2016 review initiated by Deputy Alan Kelly had been implemented, we would not be here today discussing these issues. Although the independent review chaired by Gregory Jones noted "a well-deserved high reputation for its integrity and professionalism" at the time, it listed 101 recommendations that were needed to reform An Bord Pleanála. Earlier this year, Deputy Kelly highlighted that only a miserable 36 of the 101 recommendations made in 2016 had been implemented in the six years since the independent review was commissioned and the report published. It seems that another 23 non-completed recommendations are now going to be examined again under different reviews. Six years on from the Jones review, much of this seems to be a rinse-and-repeat job. The reality is that many of the issues that were identified then are long-standing issues. They are still issues now and they cannot be ignored. As my colleague, Deputy Kelly, said, this has been going on way too long. Six years have been wasted, quite frankly, due to the lack of political will to deal with the scale of some of the challenges and changes required.
It is worth putting some of these recommendations on the record, especially in the context of the Government's housing crisis. They include giving the board legally binding timelines of 12 weeks to process general cases, giving the body the power to award costs against any party that has acted unreasonably in its planning appeal to the board and the reform of outdated processes for appointing members of the board of An Bord Pleanálaby recruiting two members through open competition. All these issues feed into this debate and the situation the board finds itself in at the moment. I recall well the resistance to the initiation of the Jones review in 2016 and, quite frankly, attempts to bury some of the more important recommendations contained in that report. If many of the recommendations in the report had been implemented, there would be more transparency in terms of how An Bord Pleanála does its business. There would be much more clarity and accountability. There would, for example, have been reform in respect of how long a board member can serve. That would have promoted new thinking and fresh perspectives, as well as more rotation and fewer potential conflicts of interest, with strict rotation in the context of who is making decisions on what kinds of cases. There would have been measures to widen the definitions and scope of what constitutes a conflict of interest.
I am interested in the view of the Minister on this because it is an issue that also impacts on the ongoing review of ethics legislation more generally. The broader definition of what may constitute a conflict of interest needs to change and be modernised and updated. There would have been changes to make more transparent the appointment of board members. There would have been provision, for example, for greater support in internally reviewing decisions. We have had six wasted years and that has allowed issues such as these to emerge and a controversy such as this to fester. For trust and confidence in the board to be built up, we need to act quickly and the Minister needs to act expeditiously. What has been going on and come to public attention is really damaging but it is important that those matters came to public attention. If this Government and the previous one had acted, there is a good chance we would not be here discussing these issues today.
In essence, the earlier remarks of the Minister covered my final remarks. I suspect that morale in An Bord Pleanála is very low at the moment and that should be an issue of concern for us. All Members know there are good, professional and dedicated public servants who work there. They work there for the right reasons and they discharge their responsibilities in a professional, efficient, open and transparent fashion but there is a cloud hanging over them now and that cloud should be lifted from them. The Minister needs to move quickly and decisively to restore trust and confidence. I will elaborate on a remark made by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, earlier. If the Minister is taking this reform in the right direction, the Opposition will support him. This is a matter on which we can unite if the Minister gets it right. We in the Labour Party are happy to work with him to get this matter of serious public interest resolved once and for all.
I thank the Minister for the opportunity to have this debate today. It is vital because, as all present are aware, the planning system is at the heart of everything we do and, right now, there is an urgent need to restore trust in that system. Planning objectives and decisions impact on every person and town in Ireland. The planning system decides where we live, the type of houses and apartments we live in, how we get to work and where those employment locations will be. It decides the location of our places for education, public services and community and recreational activities, as well as how our towns grow and how we relate to those towns. It goes well beyond our built environment. Planning must also protect, preserve and restore our natural environment and be to the forefront in climate action and protecting our water quality and biodiversity. Without a reliable, resourced and functional planning system, we will fail to build the houses we need to build for our people. Without it, we will fail to build the transport links that are needed or to deliver renewable energy infrastructure, schools and employment opportunities. We will fail to address our climate challenge and fail future generations as we destroy our environment. The planning system is an essential step in the delivery of those objectives. The planning system needs to be trustworthy. The decisions from local authorities and An Bord Pleanála have multiple impacts on families, residents and individuals. The decisions impact on local areas, as well as entire communities or regions, both in the short term and for decades into the future. The decisions are based on a hierarchy of planning objectives from the highest level in the national planning framework, such as compact growth, decarbonisation and regional balance, to the lowest effective level in county development or local area plans, down to the more granular detail applicable to the objectives for that county or town. Trust in the planning system is not obtained as a result of getting or not getting the decision one wants. Rather, it is earned through consistency and adherence to the principles of sustainability and proper planning, with the common good to the fore in all those decisions.
Trust in planning is earned through the democratic process of elected public representatives to agree objectives in those national, regional, county and local development plans and trust is earned by public participation through consultation and public submissions to craft those development plans, and through public observations submitted on planning applications based on the democratically agreed objectives for our towns, counties or regions.
Trust in the planning system was badly eroded by the introduction of strategic housing developments, SHDs, in 2017. It eliminated a vitally important stage in public participation and local democracy in planning. Despite the findings of the Mahon tribunal which exposed endemic political interference and corruption in land zoning and decision making from a generation before, the SHD legislation appears to have created greater damage to trust in politics and planning. Thankfully SHD applications have been ended by this Government, which is a positive move, and we have replaced it with a new system called large scale residential development. That restores the decision making back to local authorities and enables vitally important public participation at that stage.
A further concern on erosion of trust in the planning system and local planning objectives is the use of the specific planning policy requirements, SPPRs. They were introduced under section 28 ministerial guidelines and they can and often do run roughshod over locally agreed planning objectives especially in relation to height and design standards. The SPPRs have recently been criticised by many professional planners. Indeed the Irish Planning Institute has called for them to be revoked. That is something we need to look at closely. We need to carry out research to see what the impact of revoking the SPPRs would be.
Those who are privileged with the responsibility to make planning decisions that shape our towns and cities also have a critical role in protecting trust in the planning system. The recent allegations regarding members of An Bord Pleanála have further eroded trust in the planning system. It is important that these allegations are investigated quickly and thoroughly and that the findings and recommendations of any investigations are acted on effectively by this Government and by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien.
As allegations began to surface and were reported in the media in regard to some decisions of board members at An Bord Pleanála the Minister appointed senior counsel to carry out an investigation entitled Report into the Management of Conflicts of Interest and Relevant Disclosures by the Deputy Chairperson of An Bord Pleanála in Regard to Certain Decisions of the Board and Related Matters. My Green Party colleagues and I were of the very strong view at the time that the investigation needed to be swift and thorough and to report back within an short timeframe. I am satisfied that the Minister took this view on board in his actions. The report was commissioned in April and finally agreed in May to be completed by July when it was given to the Minister who immediately sent a copy of it to the Attorney General for legal advice. I understand the Attorney General advised the report be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, and the Minister, acting on that advice, referred it to the DPP, the Garda Commissioner and the Standards in Public Office, SIPO. It is now a matter for the DPP as to whether a criminal prosecution should be undertaken arising from the findings of the report. It is vitally important for the restoration of trust in our planning system and in the public interest that the report is published as soon as possible. Indeed all of the investigations and the reports must be investigated as soon as possible. I understand the Minister has received the advice of the DPP which is to await the Garda investigation. I stand by that sensible advice.
We need all of these investigations to be completed thoroughly and published. When that is completed I suggest that we scrutinise them in the Oireachtas committee. I know the Minister would be open to that. To begin the process of rebuilding confidence the Minister has outlined measures he intends to take and is seeking engagement with the committee and others on these measures which will include the independent organisational review of An Bord Pleanála by the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, with senior counsel and independent planning experts from other jurisdictions and a new appointment process for board members. Other measures underway include a review of the code of conduct of An Bord Pleanála being undertaken by the board, the cessation of two-person decision-making panels, an internal review to determine any revision of processes pertaining to the allocation of files, decision procedures and amendments to inspectors' reports. It is also intended that a senior legal advisor will be appointed to An Bord Pleanála to support these measures.
The Minister has communicated with me as chair of the Oireachtas committee and has given an undertaking to furnish the reports to the committee pending the advice of the DPP. There will be further engagement with the committee and with officials from the Department. We will participate in the procedures to address matters at An Bord Pleanála. I issued an invitation on behalf of the committee members to the chair of An Bord Pleanála, Mr. David Walsh, and I expect Mr. Walsh to appear as a matter of urgency at the committee. I expect that the committee with the agreement of the members will also invite the Office of the Planning Regulator to appear at an appropriate time in relation to its review of An Bord Pleanála.
It is a priority and in the best interests of everyone in our country that issues at An Bord Pleanála are addressed quickly, that malfeasance if any is identified and that anyone who has been found to have not acted in the best interest of the people and for proper planning is removed and appropriate actions taken against such persons. It is important at the same time to recognise that there are good people working hard throughout that organisation and it is critical to the future of planning in this country. There are good planners and staff in our local authorities in forward planning, developing local and county plans voted on by councillors. There are professionals across the planning system who act in the best interest of society for sustainability and the common good. There are good people working through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on policy and legislation consistently to improve the planning system. Those people need to be acknowledged, supported and protected from those who give planning a bad name. It is important that there is a robust system in place that identifies and holds those accountable that seek local planning objectives and zonings that are against the advice of council chief executives, senior planners, the planning regulator and against the advice of professional transport planners in transport agencies.
It may be suggested that non-compliance with advice is minor or insignificant, however there is a cumulative impact from these decisions that manifests many years later through lack of local services, school places, transport deficits and a general poor quality of life for people who have to live in those areas. Many of us in this Chamber may have sat through county development plan processes where poor decisions are made and advice is dismissed; where a lobbyist or individual landowner's gain may be beneficial to a councillor or party but that comes at the expense further down the road in the form of flooding, car dependency and lack of access to services for future residents. I only wish more residents had the time and opportunity to witness and attend a county development plan vote. Planning is not an exact science but paying heed to professional advice is rarely a bad idea.
The planning system is currently under review by the Attorney General and the Oireachtas committee has met on four occasions with senior departmental staff to engage with the review of the system. The committee will have a full part to play in the legislative changes that may arise from the Attorney General's review with the expectation that legislation will be ready over the coming months. This aligns with the programme for Government commitment to "review and reform the judicial review process, so that such reforms come into effect upon the establishment of the Environmental and Planning Law Court, while always adhering to our EU law obligations under the Aarhaus Convention". It is critical to the future of our country and to the overarching infrastructural energy, transport, housing and development needs to address climate breakdown, that there is a fully functional, trustworthy, accountable and resourced planning system both at local authority and An Bord Pleanála level. The system must enshrine the principles of proper planning, sustainable development and the common good in all decisions. Those decisions, regardless of who makes them, must be taken with integrity, honesty and independence and be capable of standing up to scrutiny at every stage. Public trust must be restored and planning must be seen for the benefit it brings to all, now and for future generations.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I will focus on the need to improve An Bord Pleanála as it has an important role in this State realising its renewable potential, in particular at this time its offshore wind potential.
We know that we have a great resource in this State and there is a long-term potential of 70 GW of ocean energy opportunity from wind, wave and tidal sources. Unfortunately, decades of under-ambition and painfully slow regulatory advancement has suffocated the development of this natural resource. This is highlighted by the fact that we have just one small wind farm currently in operation. The climate crisis, our energy security concerns, and the skyrocketing costs of light and heat reinforce the need to accelerate the delivery of offshore wind potential. The European Union has encouraged countries to ensure that their planning systems and authorities are sufficiently resourced to deliver on decisions on these projects as quickly as possible and that they should receive priority.
We need to ensure that offshore projects that are now planned are not unduly delayed due to Government inaction, that they are robustly scrutinised to assess the biodiversity and environmental impact and that communities have an opportunity to have their say. I would like to see that as many of those projects as possible are State-owned or led or community-owned or led. We need timely decisions which do not necessarily need to be quick but agreed ones.
We need proper statutory timeframes that are enforced and adhered to. We have statutory objectives but they are being missed by a country mile. For example, in decisions on planning appeals for renewables projects, of the ten planning appeals cases taken to An Bord Pleanála, none were decided within the 18-week statutory objective. The average time for a decision was 60 weeks and the average time for the board inspectors to make a recommendation was 35 weeks.
On strategic infrastructure development, SID, applications, of the three SID applications heard by the board, none were decided within the 18-week statutory objective and the average time for decision was 69 weeks. The average time for the board inspectors to make a recommendation was 47 weeks. That is completely inadequate.
As for achieving those timelines, I am aware of the deep frustration and I hear from State agencies and private developers that their deep concern is not so much with the prospect of getting a refusal but is of the inordinate delay in obtaining a decision one way or the other. Those statutory timelines need to be adhered to and to do that, they need to be resourced. We know that it is the case that An Bord Pleanála's marine and climate unit is significantly under-resourced. This is an issue I have raised with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on numerous occasions, which is the resourcing of An Bord Pleanála, our planning authorities, but also the wider planning system, including the notified bodies whether that be through BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Environmental Network, and the agencies and NGOs that it supports. The system needs to be provided with the resources and the capacity to do its job in a timely manner.
That brings me to my final point on the need, which is committed to in the programme for Government, for a planning and environmental court. This commitment in that programme is to establish a new planning and environmental law court managed by specialist judges and on the same basis as the existing commercial court model. I understand that there are ongoing discussions taking place with the Department of Justice on that and as to how it might work. It will have a very important role, particularly to bring Ireland in line with its European and international obligations. That is something the Minister should take on board and ensure that it happens.
At the outset, with reference to the 2016 report that was ordered by the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, I wish to state that some of the recommendations in that report, if implemented, would be a disaster. If that is not clear to people after recent events, I do not know when it will be clear. One of those recommendations was that some decisions would be made, in some cases, by a sole or one board member. For any party or Deputy to think that those sort of recommendations should be implemented is highly questionable.
I agree with previous comments that we should have a full response from the Minister on which recommendations have been implemented, why the other ones have not and which ones are still under consideration. I would certainly not fully endorse that report and all of the recommendations in it. I also agree with the need to abolish the so-called mandatory ministerial guidelines and to restore local democratic development plans, which is very important. I also am concerned, arising from the Minister’s speech, that there are multiple allegations in regard to multiple members of the board and about the manner in which these are being investigated. I take it from the Minister’s speech that they are not being independently investigated and are only subject to an internal review by An Bord Pleanála and that the investigation by the OPR is more general in its processes. It is acceptable that those multiple allegations about multiple board members should only be subject to some sort of internal review. These should be robustly and independently investigated.
The reason we are having this debate now is because of excellent investigative journalism done by The Ditchwebsite and also followed up by the Irish Examiner. We should not have to rely on the media to be doing that if State bodies had been doing their job properly. It is entirely legitimate to ask the question as to why the Office of the Planning Regulator did not act on a very detailed complaint it was given on 28 November 2021 by retired The Irish Timesjournalist Frank McDonald. He submitted an 18-page complaint to the Office of the Planning Regulator detailing many of the issues that have subsequently emerged in the media. We need to know from the OPR why that complaint was not fully investigated and what steps are in place to ensure that in future, such complaints are treated seriously. That was a detailed complaint from a credible source.
We need to know from the Minister why there is not an independent investigation going on in regard to the other allegations in respect of the other board members. I will not go into the details of these; they have been published extensively in the media. There are allegations about conflicts of interest in terms of board members making decisions that affect them directly in their local area, conflicts of interests on their personal connections, a great number of decisions being made in one meeting and decisions being made by two members of the board when the legislation is clear that in respect of strategic housing development, SHD, applications, the minimum number of board members required for such decisions is three. Indeed, there are allegations about a high level of refusals and of overturning of inspectors’ reports. We need to have robust independent investigation into that, as well as answers given.
We need to hear from the chair of the board as to why it did not notice that anything wrong was going on or, if it had noticed that something wrong was going on, why it did not act upon it and why there were not sufficient internal checks and controls. How was it that the legislation could be breached by two members making decisions and did the chair knew of that or not? We also need to hear about the practice of random allocation of files and why that was abandoned by the board. That was a key safeguard. We need to know when that decision was made, by whom and on what basis it was made. We need to know why a large number of decisions, especially on strategic housing developments, were concentrated among two board members, in particular. An Bord Pleanála spent €8.2 million defending itself against legal challenges when it came to strategic housing development rulings. That alone should have raised significant alarm bells internally for the board. Why did it not?
In terms of the issue of inspectors being put under pressure to amend their reports, we need to have the answers on that and we need to ask were any inspectors assigned to different areas because some board members or members of the senior management may not have agreed with reports. Has that question been asked? Is the Minister asking that question and looking for answers? Will there be any independent engagement with inspectors to get their views and input on this? As said previously, the practice of randomly allocating files to inspectors needs to be brought in so we do not have a situation where certain inspectors are being allocated certain files and other inspectors are not, where this could be based on previous reports fitting or not fitting with the wishes of senior management or the board. All of that needs to be very thoroughly and robustly investigated by the Minister if we want to restore confidence in the role of An Bord Pleanála.
We must also have an analysis of strategic housing development decisions by the board to see whether there are any patterns emerging in terms of who was making decisions on particular applicants and developers, and whether there is any pattern as to applicants or developers getting their permissions granted very consistently by the same board members. That presumably would be quite an easy analysis to conduct. It should be conducted and the findings of that should be shared with us as a matter of urgency.
These allegations have been in the public domain since April and, several months on, some of these basic questions have still not been answered. I am not sure if some of these basic questions are even being asked by the Minister or the Government. Of course, if we do not ask these questions and do not look for answers, we are not going to find anything.
On the question of a new appointments process for the board, it is very important that board members are appointed and that the board has independence, and that any changes in the appointments process do not further undermine the independence of the board. There is considerable concern that any changes could, in fact, mean that rather than the board being more independent, for example, of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, if it is a process where that Department is heavily involved and effectively has a veto through the Public Appointments Service, that could further undermine the independence of the board, which would be highly problematic.
It is very important that the planning review that the Government is undertaking is not rushed through. We saw before the end of the last Dáil several amendments and changes to planning legislation rushed through, so the Government’s form on this is incredibly poor. If there is anything the Government should learn from all of this in terms of what has gone wrong in An Bord Pleanála, it is in regard to the strategic housing development legislation that was brought in back in 2016. The research conducted independently by Dr. Mick Lennon of UCD and Dr. Richard Waldron of Queens University, Belfast, where they interviewed people involved in that legislation, including lobbyists for Property Industry Ireland, is very clear. A lobbyist from Property Industry Ireland states that the proposals were given to the then Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Simon Coveney, and they were implemented lock, stock and barrel. We all know at this point that that legislation, rather than making delivery of housing faster, has led to delays, more litigation and more judicial reviews. It was a disastrous approach. I urge the Minister and the Government, in terms of any changes in planning legislation, not to rush it through and to look for proper scrutiny so we can ensure further mistakes are not made in this area. We must avoid what Dr. Lorcan Sirr described in terms of the strategic housing development legislation as “regulatory capture”, where the Government and the regulators were, in fact, captured by those they were seeking to regulate. That should not be the basis for forming planning legislation.
People need to have confidence in An Bord Pleanála and what has happened in recent months has shaken the confidence not just of the public, but of the people who represent them. I welcome the opportunity for statements on the matter.
The landscape around planning has changed dramatically in the last decade but, as the previous speaker said, it was changed very dramatically by the introduction of and the acquiescence of Government to the strategic housing development process in 2016. For people listening who might be new to it, the strategic housing development process was intended to be a fast-track planning process, possibly well-intentioned, to ensure that new homes - at the time, in my mind, homes equated to houses - would be delivered on sites in a much more efficient manner. The whole idea was that a local authority would essentially be cut out from the process and the application would go directly to An Bord Pleanála, thereby eliminating the input of local people, local communities and their representatives, and also overriding county development plans, local area plans, height prohibitions in particular counties and densities. It drove a coach and four through what had preceded it, all with the intention of delivering more homes on the ground more quickly.
When we eliminate the role and ability of the public to contribute meaningfully to a planning process, they will always find an alternative way. When An Bord Pleanála made decisions, suddenly there were communities taking judicial reviews, a process that had previously been considered to be only for those with deep pockets. Community organisations and residents associations discovered, as one person said to me, that all they need to do is hold ten cake sales and that will finance a judicial review. On top of that, successful judicial reviews do not have to be paid for at all by the individuals, groups or organisations who take them. What has resulted is a situation where what was intended to be a fast-track planning process has become mired, bogged down and tangled up, never mind the controversy piece, with groups who never saw the need to take legal action against decisions by a planning authority now queueing up.
What was very interesting and refreshing was when Mr. Justice Hunt, in the case of an SHD in my own constituency, overrode the unbelievable decisions of the local authority and An Bord Pleanála to say that a development consisting of 400 or 500 units would have little or no impact on local traffic and that no provision had to be made in regard to public transport. I think that has set a very useful precedent that the NTA and South Dublin County Council, in making their planning decisions and in contributing to planning applications by way of commentary, need to take note of. A judge of the High Court said, to the best of my knowledge, that transport and public transport are issues and are grounds for the refusal of a planning application.
That is the background. It means that because An Bord Pleanála became the only port of call for people who wanted to lodge an observation to a planning application, it started to increase the kind of oversight, scrutiny and interest that people took in the decisions of the board whereas, previously, if the local county council had turned down the application, people had often been happy with that. Of course, if they had not objected at council level, they could not object at board level. Sometimes, they appealed to the board and if the board upheld the decision of the council, then the public felt they had had their say - while they may have been very unhappy, dissatisfied and frustrated, they felt they had had their say. There is a real need to restore the efficacy of the planning system in Ireland to ensure people have confidence in it.
An Bord Pleanála was almost seen as a court of independent opinion.
I have become alarmed over a number of years at the lack of transparency we see. I do not have time to say much about the stories that were recounted by a previous speaker, such as that of a local authority approving a planning application, someone appealing it, the inspector at the board approving it, but two or three members of the board then overturning that decision. There is no transparency in such a case as to how that minority of board members came to the decision. Whether the public agrees or not, there is a lot to be said for those decisions not being held in camera, in order that people can see exactly the process that led the board to its decision.
Having been party to oral hearings at An Bord Pleanála, I acknowledge it does incredibly good work, as do its officials. In regard to its oversight of planning appeals taken to it by third parties, I have always found it to be very thorough. However, the events of recent months, in which there have been question marks over a number of board decisions and some of its members, have led to a situation that must be answered. The efficacy and good name of the board must be restored, if they are restorable, in order that the public can have absolute confidence that when people submit a submission on, or objection to, an application, it will be dealt with fairly and transparently, leaving no gaps for confusion or frustration at the end of the process.
I would be very slow to comment on any content in the Remy Farrell report or any of the allegations that have arisen. Due process will take effect and we need to be cognisant of that in this debate. Nonetheless, it is fair to register on the record our concerns regarding some of those allegations. The public must have trust in our planning system. People must trust in the impartiality and integrity of the system if it is to function sustainably. We need to ask ourselves a fundamental question, which is whether that environment and culture of integrity and faith exist at present among the public. The honest answer is "Probably not", as faith in the agency has undoubtedly been shaken.
To that end, I welcome the interim steps the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State have taken. I welcome their sanctioning of a further 24 posts at An Bord Pleanála, with a commitment to review its staffing resources shortly. That is much needed and long overdue. We must ask ourselves whether a system that can take anything up to 18 months to deal with a one-off housing appeal is fit for purpose. Given the current inflationary cycle, the price of building a house could increase twofold by the time a decision is adjudicated upon. We need an appeal process that is quick, fair and transparent, not one that facilitates prevarication and sleepless nights for people looking to build a home.
The thing that irks me the most about the current appeals process is that I find myself actively discouraging people from appealing refusals on their own submissions, as it is not justifiable to appeal a decision and then sit and wait for 12 to 18 months for it to be reviewed. It is far more appropriate, and sometimes more economical of time, to revert back to local authorities, if possible, to address concerns. In such cases, I ask myself afterwards whether I gave the right advice to those people. Hindsight is a great thing but one never knows at the time what is best. No public representative should be in the position of having actively to discourage people from going through a perfectly legal and sound appeals process because it could cost the person too much time. That highlights one of the main problems we have with An Bord Pleanála and is key to the question of whether it is fit for purpose.
I understand the review by the Attorney General, which the Government has undertaken for the past 12 months, will come before Members shortly. The one thing on which I disagree with Deputy Cian O'Callaghan is on his point about taking our time on this. Yes, it is important to take the necessary time, but it needs to be done quickly because we are facing a massive challenge in the next few years in terms of green and renewable energy. Let us face it, a lot of the projects in question are contentious and cause considerable concern to people locally. We need a board or another agency that is fit to deal with the large number of applications that are likely to come before it in the next few years. As I have outlined before, any process that takes two, three or four years for some of these developments to progress is not fit for purpose. If we are sincere about challenging the energy crisis we face and converting as much as possible to renewable and green energy, we need a vehicle that is able to streamline applications and prioritise projects that will help us to get out of this energy crisis.
Under An Bord Pleanála's own guidelines, members and staff are subject to its code of conduct and its internal grievance and disciplinary procedures. As of now, I understand the Minister has no role in such matters relating to staff or members of the board. When it comes to any future legislative changes and any organisational changes that may be addressed in the review, it is imperative that there be avenues for the Minister of the day to intervene where there may be cases of impropriety or question marks about any board member.
An Bord Pleanála must be adequately resourced. I welcome the sanctioning of an initial 24 additional staff but, in the long term, we probably need multiples of that if we are to have an efficient and transparent appeals process. Decisions must be expedited, particularly in the area of green and renewable energy. We cannot have a situation where people go on waiting endlessly and facing missed appeal dates only to get new letters giving another appeal date that will undoubtedly not be met. We need to ensure transparency. A number of speakers referred to two board members sitting and adjudicating on what sometimes were large decisions. We must put an end to that practice and ensure full transparency in all activities of the board.
We have all spoken about planning on previous occasions in the House. We in this State have had a colourful relationship with planning. On that basis, it is absolutely necessary that we have an impartial and trustworthy planning framework and infrastructure. I accept that files have been sent to the DPP and I accept that the Garda is investigating, which limits what can be said. However, given what has happened, it is absolutely necessary to deal with any element of impropriety in regard to An Bord Pleanála. I do not think anyone has any major issue with the review of the organisation in regard to board appointments, the decision-making process, compliance, the recruitment process, corporate governance oversight, operations and efficiency. These are all terms we agree with but we need to see action on them. There has been much discussion about the Attorney General's review of planning and we all may have different views on what the issues have been over the years. Most Members who spoke today, particularly on the Opposition side, referred to the difficulties and the absolute mistakes that were made in regard to SHDs. I will move on from that.
The Minister said in his speech that the Attorney General's review will be finished during the fourth quarter. In the document that was circulated to Members, however, the reference is to the end of December. I assume that is the correct date. We all know there have been huge issues with planning and huge issues for anybody who is looking at large and necessary infrastructure projects. We also know there has been an absolute failure to communicate and converse with communities, particularly at the beginning of any of these major projects, and that it should be possible to deal with a considerable number of such difficulties prior to their blowing up into enormous difficulties. However, we are not always good at doing that preventative piece of work.
We all accept the absolute need for An Bord Pleanála but there has been an abject failure to resource it over the years.
This is more of what we do. We may set up reasonable structures and within any set-up in this State, we even may have a sufficient number of positions at times to deliver on particular services, but then we do not have those positions filled and staffed. In some cases, such as with An Bord Pleanála, we definitely have not done the business regarding resourcing.
Earlier, Deputy O'Rourke spoke about the marine and climate unit in An Bord Pleanála and the major difficulties there. We all know the issue we are dealing with now concerning energy security and the absolute necessity of transitioning to renewables. We all know we can be a global superpower in offshore wind energy production, in particular, but we must ensure that we have planning processes that can deliver on this potential. I suppose this also means that we must deal with all those linked parts in respect of the framework we have in place and ensure they are working. Therefore, we will all be very happy to see what the outworkings of the Attorney General's review are and what legislative moves will be undertaken.
We must, however, have all those pieces in place to enable us to deliver on what is even more necessary now than it was before, in the sense of the world we now operate in, where we are being held to ransom due to the exorbitant and excessive price of gas and other energy sources. We understand the geopolitical situation that has caused some of this situation. Where there are supply chain issues, we also know that the problem is that there are people looking to profit at every link along that line. Therefore, we must ensure we are doing everything necessary at domestic, European and international levels. We must also ensure, though, that we have a trustworthy planning infrastructure on which people can rely on and one in which it is not seen that people, or some people, can get favours. Beyond that, such planning infrastructure must unquestionably be fit for purpose and must not hold up the necessary infrastructural projects that must happen. This is all before I mention anything regarding housing.
I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy. How do the Irish rich get rich? The answer is property. To a substantial extent, it is through property and property development. What has been one of the major sources of corruption and corruption scandals in this country in recent years? The answer again is property and property development. This is what is at stake when we are talking about the integrity of An Bord Pleanála and the entire planning process. We have a shameful history of corruption in the context of property because people can become very rich very quickly if certain planning decisions are made, or not made. One of the interesting things about one of these allegations - and I will not, of course, prejudice the investigation of these things - against Mr. Hyde is that he had a stake in development land near a site where he was involved in denying planning permission. I do not know if that allegation is true or not, but it is interesting, is it not? It is interesting, of course, because if someone has development land in one place, it could possibly be in his or her interest to not allow a development near it which might undermine that person's ability to make a profit on it. I think this may well explain the slowness in delivering social and affordable housing. Why on earth would private, for-profit developers want to see lots of affordable and social housing that would be cheaper than the very expensive housing they want to build and sell?
To give an example, we have been campaigning for 15 years to get public and affordable housing built on the site at Shanganagh. Not a sod has been turned but private developers are banging up so-called strategic housing developments all over the place. They are making lots and lots of money. They are getting planning permission, and then sometimes not building or building at their own pace when they can maximise their profits. Of course, we remember from the Celtic tiger days that much of the stuff these private developers built turned out to be rubbish. As we are now going to discover with the defective buildings scandal, perhaps 70% or 80% of what was built during the Celtic tiger era was defective in respect of fire regulations. People are now going to carry the can for large amounts of money, while all this building was rubber-stamped through the planning system to create fortunes for those property developers who helped to crash the entire economy.
There is a very important warning in this. The integrity of the An Bord Pleanála planning system should come into very sharp focus when we talk about the dangers of what was done on land by private property developers and a planning system that did not work properly in the context of what may now be done offshore. I say this because there is a gold rush under way in respect of the development of offshore sites for renewable energy production, mostly by private, for-profit companies. One way we could, at least potentially, mitigate the possibility of corrupt and poor planning driven by profit is not to give away our offshore sites for renewable energy production to private, for-profit companies, as we are doing now. That would at least remove some of the incentives for corruption and bad planning. Therefore, a lot is at stake in getting this process right.
I find it interesting, of course, that so many Deputies, particularly on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael benches, are forever giving out about the fact that ordinary people may object to certain developments and that they might take judicial reviews. I heard Deputy Lahart make the ridiculous suggestion that ten cake sales could be enough to fund the taking of a judicial review. He has obviously never been involved in trying to mount a judicial review. It costs tens of thousands of euro. Communities mostly do not have the wherewithal to mount judicial reviews against what are often awful planning applications, driven purely by profit. Another aspect concerns the planners. One way to ensure the integrity of An Bord Pleanála is to listen to the planners. It is shocking that a group of two people, often appointed from organisations that did not even exist, are making planning decisions where they override professional planners and they are not even required to give a planning reason as to why they have done so. Therefore, we need root-and-branch reform of An Bord Pleanála.
There is something rotten in An Bord Pleanála. The only reason we know this is because of the work and the serious stories published by The Ditch, especially over a period of about six months, about what has been happening with An Bord Pleanála. I will briefly list just some of the many allegations published on that website. The publication of these allegations started on 6 April, with a report that Paul Hyde had defaulted on loans and had failed to declare his legal ownership of three properties in the 2021 register, as required by law. Then, on 12 April, the allegation was made that he had signed off on a controversial build-to-rent development on which his brother's company had worked. On 13 April, another allegation was made that Mr. Hyde had not declared a conflict of interest when refusing planning permission for a development beside land owned by his firm. On 22 April, it was further alleged that he had not recused himself during 2019 and 2020 from at least a further six housing development applications on which his brother's company had worked. On 27 April, it was alleged that he had voted against a proposed housing scheme on a site bordering development land owned by his father. On 6 May, the allegation was made that he had approved the controversial planning application made by his sister-in-law-----
Yes, these are allegations. The allegation concerning the application made by his sister-in-law concerned a property she co-owns with Mr. Hyde's brother. On 11 May, it was alleged that another board member had voted on at least three planning applications in the Dublin 6 suburb where she lived. One of these was less than 400 m from her home. On 30 May, another allegation was published that she had approved planning permission for a development application brought by one of her company's clients. On 31 May, it was then further alleged that the director of planning, a different person, had signed off on three major housing development applications that had been brought by her husband's clients. One of those was just 500 m from her home. On 2 June, an allegation was made that she had assigned herself to a planning application in her own neighbourhood. On 7 June, it was alleged that a board member had not declared her interest in a successful planning appeal when her architecture company had made the appeal on behalf of her next-door neighbour of 15 years. On 9 June, it was alleged that Mr. Hyde had granted planning permission to a property developer represented by his former board colleague, Mr. Michael Leahy. On 15 June, an allegation was published that he had not declared a conflict of interest when he refused a hearing to a campaign group concerning a flood defence scheme that is now subject to proceedings in the Supreme Court.
On 16 June, it is alleged that another board member voted on a further 15 planning applications in her own Dublin neighbourhood. On 30 June, it is alleged that just two board members refused a challenge against a controversial Intel expansion in County Kildare despite there being a legal requirement for three board members to make such decisions. On 7 July, it is alleged that when considering strategic housing developments, board members only disagreed with each other twice out of 400 applications. On 12 July, it was alleged that two board members were deciding on up to 26 planning cases - a meeting held without a third board member. On 14 July, it was alleged that two more board members voted on at least three developments in their own neighbourhoods. On 14 July, it was alleged that despite there being a legal requirement for three members to determine, again, two people were doing so. On 21 July, it was alleged that Mr. Hyde twice granted planning permission in cases involving his cousin. On 29 July, it was alleged that An Bord Pleanála unlawfully ruled on 65% of cases involving alterations to strategic housing developments, SHDs, fast-tracked with two board members acting. On 5 August, it was alleged that Mr. Hyde granted planning permission to his cousin. On 8 August, it was that alleged another board member voted on at least six planning applications where they lived. On 2 September, it was alleged that the senior counsel set to chair the investigation had recently acted in at least three cases before the planning authority. On 6 September, it was alleged that the chairperson voted to approve a data centre less than a kilometre from his home. On 15 September, today, it was alleged that a board member twice overruled a planning inspector to block 47 apartments less than half a kilometre from her Dublin 8 home.
Our planning system is absolutely broken. We need a new system that allows affected communities - housing groups, trade unions, environmental groups and others - to have democratic oversight and control of planning and development.
The final point I want to make is about the obscene monstrosities of massive electronic billboards being erected outside people's homes, in the case of Rathmines, outside children's bedroom windows, with little or no consultation. Why are we allowing these monstrosities, which are deliberately distracting for motorists and which use as much energy as three households, which are being restricted in France and Germany for that reason, to happen? We simply should not, for environmental and for community reasons, be allowing such monstrosities to be erected.
This is an important debate. I welcome the speech of the Minister and, indeed, the speeches and the iteration of some of the charges that are being investigated. It is important that each and every one of those will be fully and properly independently investigated, as I understand it, by the Garda Síochána. That is the way it should and must be.
I pay tribute to former Mr. Justice Feargus Flood, who passed away recently. He was, in fact, the chair of the tribunal into planning corruption in Dublin city and county some years ago. The toxic mix of Ministers, developers and politicians was fatal for many of them because of the corruption that was exposed at that time.
Regardless of where I sit in this House, I will always support transparency and accountability, as, indeed, the vast majority of this House does.
There were some very important people involved in exposing those issues at that time: Mr. Frank McDonald from The Irish Times; Mr. Charlie Bird from RTÉ; and the famous, or infamous, Mr. Vincent Browne. They put the spotlight on these issues. That is proper in the appropriate place.
Whatever question there is, we have to make sure the ordinary person has confidence in the planning process. Confidence was shaken in the 1980s and the 1990s. No doubt it is shaken now and an appropriate and judicious examination of all the issues is terribly important. Never do we want to hear in any tribunal of inquiry, not that there will be one in the future, what Mr. James Gogarty said to the guy who was with him in the taxi as he went to the Minister's house with two brown envelops with £40,000 in each. He said, "Will we get a receipt for this?", referring to the £80,000. "Will we hell", or words to that effect, was the response. That day has to be gone. It was shocking and appalling.
For my own part, I have stood in the High Court to vindicate the planning rights of my community. When developers knocked down a listed building in the middle of the night, my former late colleague, Mr. Eddie O'Doherty, and I took a High Court action because the local authority would not act to vindicate a listed building under a High Court injunction that it could not be demolished without planning permission. It disappeared overnight on a holiday weekend. I note the court cases that were fought there. We fought the civil case and we were witnesses in the criminal case where those who knocked it down were prosecuted and the company, in fact, pleaded guilty.
The problem is that we do not want history to be repeated. I thought those fights and those battles that we fought would be ended now but such may not necessarily be the case.
I welcome what the Minister is doing. I welcome the commitment to change. I welcome a strict time limit on membership of the board. In fact, we probably need a judicial involvement in some respects in the operation of the board. There could be a case for a judge or a retired judge to review and oversee some of the goings on there to make sure that all of these issues should never arise again and we should look for best practice in other jurisdictions in relation to that.
There are a couple of points I want to make about the present day. For instance, in County Meath, there is a proposal by Dawn Meats to have a facility in Beauparc which will impact significantly and, I believe, adversely on the environment of the River Boyne. Hundreds of people have objected but the facts are that An Bord Pleanála has refused to grant those who objected to the facility to An Bord Pleanála an oral hearing, which, I think, is wrong. We need to look at that.
The more time goes on, the more things are the same. In Drogheda, there is a small estate called Beaulieu View. There was an open space in it for many years and the person who built the houses has decided to apply for planning permission to put a house on the green open space. It went to An Bord Pleanála. The An Bord Pleanála decision was that as it was identified as a green space in the original application it could not be built on but, as one might guess, I have had to write an objection this week to Louth County Council because the builder has applied again to build on a green site. It is a joke. These things should not be happening and we need greater clarity in these matters.
Regardless of what happens, I believe the investigations and analysis into An Bord Pleanála must restore our confidence in the planning process. The professionalism, as has been remarked on by many people, of the vast majority of people involved in the process hopefully will be vindicated. If it is not and if people have broken the law or the regulations, they must face the full rigor of the law. I fully support any actions which the Garda may or may not take into the future after due process.
This is an important debate. I welcome the actions of the Minister. I cannot fault him on any of the points he made in his address to us.
In a functioning planning system, despite our misgivings and frustrations with decisions, we lean on the integrity of the system. That integrity assures us that while we may disagree with the decision, it was made in good faith, with total objectivity, cognisant of all the arguments by all the stakeholders, and employing expertise and knowledge greater than our own. In a functioning system we have confidence in the process, we accept the decision and we move on. That integrity is the basic foundation of the system and without that foundation, we have no system, certainly not a functioning one.
It is true that the integrity of the Irish planning system has been undermined by these allegations and it is not for the first time. The system came through a harsh spotlight with the planning tribunal, as Deputies who spoke before me have referenced. It exposed the corruption within the system. The Office of the Planning Regulator was set up as a consequence and the general public came to expect it could have confidence in an independent planning system. That trust is again in tatters.
As a quasi-judicial body which interprets law and whose interpretations and subsequent decisions have consequences that are social, economic and environmental, we need An Bord Pleanála to be as above question as it is possible to be - just as we expect of the Judiciary. If there is room for doubt, that integrity is challenged and all decisions are undermined.
That the Minister felt there was a legitimate case to instigate an investigation and that the Director of Public Prosecutions has begun its own investigation is enough in itself to damage severely the board, irrespective of the eventual outcome of those investigations. Deputies who have spoken before me have outlined what, at a stretch, can be described as a litany of irregular practices at the top of An Bord Pleanála. They have aired the possibility of sanctions, pending the outcomes of the investigations that are ongoing, and have proposed measures to restore confidence in An Bord Pleanála. The allegations of irregularities are one thing, but we could uncover all incidents of wrongdoing and still not restore confidence in An Bord Pleanála and in our planning system. The public needs to know for certain that the right decisions are being taken. I welcome the Minister's commitment to review the process of nominations to the board. In my view, he may need to go further. There is a fundamental question of governance when it comes to An Bord Pleanála. It is not a regular State board; as Deputy Ó Broin before me said, it is a planning authority. On regular State boards, some positions are filled by ministerial appointments. Regular State boards, however, set strategy; they do not make operational decisions. In An Bord Pleanála's case the politically appointed board members are, under the legislation, the decision-makers on individual cases. Operational independence does not exist. In other words, a small few politically appointed persons are the gatekeepers to major development projects that have impacts and consequences.
I can think of a number of decisions upheld by An Bord Pleanála in recent years in my home city of Limerick that have raised eyebrows. We have seen a 13-storey office block in the first and oldest Georgian block in the city. I do not think that would have been permitted if it were proposed for Merrion Square, despite the similar characteristics of the settings of both. We have seen the demolition of historically significant buildings such as Daniel O'Connell's regular residence when he practised in the Limerick courts on numerous occasions. We have seen the demolition of Curragower House, a late-18th-century gem, which was a mainstay of the riverfront in Limerick for more than two centuries. It is lost forever and is now a gaping hole on the vista of Clancy Strand. We have seen An Bord Pleanála permit a road bridge over the Park Canal, through a special area of conservation, with seemingly minimal justification. Thankfully, it is not constructed yet, and I hope it never will be.
In another part of the country is the Galway ring road, which, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, you will know very well, and which is totally at odds with the principles of sustainable development and proper planning.
I disagreed with all these decisions but I accepted the outcomes. Now, however, following these allegations, I have little confidence that the decisions were made objectively and correctly.
We need An Bord Pleanála. We depend on it to create a better country and, in the context of the existential crisis we face, we need An Bord Pleanála to enable and to facilitate a huge development of our renewable energy industry in the coming years. We need it to develop towns and cities that are livable and less car-dependent. We need to do everything we possibly can to restore confidence in An Bord Pleanála. I welcome the Minister's commitments to do so.
I thank the journalists from The Ditchfor their continued work in ensuring stories such as this one are brought to public attention.
An Bord Pleanála is an important body in the planning process. It provides an appeals process for planning issues following the principles of natural justice. It is clear, following the recent revelations, that the public have lost confidence in the board. Councils up and down the country are talking about the board, and some councils have passed votes of no confidence in it. The Government must act swiftly to restore public confidence in this important body. It should be properly resourced, transparent and accountable and should follow the highest standards of governance.
The board must be allocated additional staff resources to ensure the planning system can deal with climate-related planning applications such as renewable energy projects. The previous speaker mentioned that also.
It is clear the board is under pressure and is taking too long to make decisions. There are statutory timelines under which local authorities must reach decisions on planning. We need the same for An Bord Pleanála. We need to see a quicker decision time on key infrastructure such as housing, while ensuring there is adequate public consultation.
The Government must establish a stand-alone planning and environmental court to ensure that judicial reviews are heard in a timely manner by judges and court staff who specialise in this area of law. The Government must ensure that our obligations under the Aarhus Convention are followed and that there are no further restrictions on access to the planning system or to the courts. There must be reform in how members of An Bord Pleanála are appointed. We in Sinn Féin favour a hybrid model which mixes nominations from professional bodies with an open competitive recruitment process. We need to see repeal of the mandatory ministerial guidelines introduced by Eoghan Murphy and to restore democratic decision-making to the county development plan process.
The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, must take immediate action to restore public confidence in the work of the board. All reports must be published and there must be a significant change in membership of the board to ensure a fresh start.
Deputy Canney will not make it, so I will take his time if that is all right. I am sharing time with Deputy Tóibín.
I normally begin my contributions by welcoming the opportunity to speak on the topic in question. I must say, however, that on this occasion I am pretty dissatisfied with the behaviour of the Government in scheduling this debate. The Government has allocated three and a half hours today for Deputies to make statements on An Bord Pleanála. The reason for my displeasure with this is that earlier this year, in July, the same Government allocated just two and a half hours to debate almost 50 pages of new planning legislation. In July we had all the legislation rammed through, with little time for debate or scrutiny, and many of the Deputies who spoke during that debate on 7 July expressed similar concerns. They described the Bill as a very technical one which needed more time to be examined. Regardless of the contents of the Bill, it is fundamentally very poor governing practice to rush things without debate or adequate time for oversight. That is how these mistakes are being made. It is how loopholes are found and how the errors occur, and that in turn is how legal challenges succeed. We are here as legislators. The fundamental purpose of our being here is to design, to debate and to enact good legislation. Ramming through Bills is becoming too much the norm, and the Government appears to be using the summer recess tactically to avoid scrutiny of or debate on certain types of legislation. It happened in 2021 and it happened again in 2022.
There are so many problems in our planning system that one would think that scrutiny of even more planning legislation would be high on the agenda to try to tidy up some of the mess the planning system is in. The housing crisis, for example, is being exacerbated by planning legislation. Developers have in some cases in the past few years had their developments scuppered by planning regulations that made certain developments in certain areas unfeasible. The planning regulator's insistence on high densities for developments in rural areas is one such example. No one would deny that is appropriate for city environments, where the transport infrastructure to accommodate high-density settings is available, but it is not appropriate in rural or regional Ireland, where no such infrastructure exists. In a number of An Bord Pleanála inspector's reports the inspector has relied on the proposition that ministerial guidelines impose a minimum density of 35 dwellings per hectare in respect of edge-of-town greenfield sites where no such minimum exists. This has been described in those reports as higher planning policy that usurps the statutory standing of the local county development plan. The current regulator continues to act ultra viresin writing to the county councils to insert as mandatory such non-existent minimum densities.
It has been decided in the courts enough times now that the current regulator is simply wrong on some of the most basic elements of the law.
The advice he has given to the Minister and the Department has also been wrong. This should by now raise alarms bells. I expected action to be taken after the Department's most recent loss against Cork County Council for the second time, which was a complete waste of taxpayers' money. The fact this particular regulator is investigating his former colleagues in An Bord Pleanála, some of whom he may have appointed or advised on their appointments, is a perfect display that all of the millions spent on tribunals and inquiries have taught us nothing.
The issue I am raising is that we cannot have the regulator investigating people with whom he worked. It makes no sense and it is not transparent. He has worked with these people. He was the head of planning policy. That is the issue, if I had not made that clear. Is that okay?
I am not going to have an exchange with the Deputy. She is entitled to make her contribution uninterrupted by me. I am simply drawing her attention to be careful in naming people - that is all. I am not going to have an exchange with the Deputy. She may continue.
I am talking about the Office of the Planning Regulator investigating his colleagues, which is clearly what it is. That is what I am outlining. It is not appropriate. The fact we have this investigation ongoing is not appropriate.
I ask the Leas-Cheann Comhairle to take our exchange into account if I take longer to explain what I am trying to say. The Minister of State is well aware that we could have a situation arise again as to the transparency of that investigation. We heard what Deputy Paul Murphy said in the context of all the people he named. There were 20 at least and there did not appear to be an issue, but when we mention someone who was a colleague of these people, it may give rise to an issue. It certainly does not instil the trust and confidence of the planning system, of which I believe the Minister of State is quite aware.
The premise of the regulator, and this is a fact, is that viability is not a planning consideration. The Government's planning policy leaves developers with two choices: to build to meet the conditions set down by the regulator or not build at all. This means developers have not been building, which has mainly contributed to the lack of housing supply along with the failure of the Minister and the Department to recognise the problem. The planning system is a mess. The system of objections, appeals, and judicial reviews needs to be streamlined so as not to benefit serial objectors or deprive citizens of their say while ensuring the Government operates within the law and delivers the much-needed housing required. If this is not addressed, our housing supply will not recover to the levels required to solve the problems that exist.
There are thousands of people now homeless. There are no places for students to live while going to college. Yesterday, PhD students said they are sleeping in tents on the grounds of Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Neither are there houses for the immigrant workforce we need to take up the jobs we cannot fill with the local workforce. All of this can be traced back to the planning policy of this Government and those before it.
The most recent controversy surrounding An Bord Pleanála has damaged trust in An Bord Pleanála and the entire system. The deputy chair resigned in August, and due to the ongoing investigation into the possible conflicts of interest that went undeclared, I shall refrain from commenting further on the specifics at this time. Regardless of the outcome, this should be the catalyst for reflection on the role of An Bord Pleanála and the state of the planning system as a whole. I hope we do not have to continue spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money on judicial reviews because the Department was sitting on its hands and ignoring the basics of the problem.
I raise issues of grave concern regarding our heritage and An Bord Pleanála. Builders bulldozed the home of the O'Rahilly in September 2020 to prepare the site for a 12-storey apartment and hotel development. I raised this issue with the Taoiseach at the time in this Chamber because of the historic importance of the building. The Taoiseach agreed that it was absolutely wrong that a building, a site of this value in terms of our heritage, a national monument, was floored in such a manner by a developer.
The O'Rahilly house was central to the formation of the State, Cumann na mBan, the Gaelic revival, the revolutionary war, and all that went on with that. Three future Presidents of the State attended meetings at the house, as did each of the signatories of the Proclamation. Yet, in an act of cultural vandalism, the developers just tore it down. The O'Rahilly's grandson, Proinsias Ó Rathaille, to whom I spoke, is campaigning for accountability and for the house to be constructed. However, as of yet, nobody has been held to account for what happened. An Bord Pleanála granted consent to the demolition of this national monument and listed building. Three of the board members, including the then deputy chair, Mr. Paul Hyde, and Ms Michelle Fagan, who were party to that decision have been named as having failed to declare a conflict of interest in a number of other planning decisions. It is an incredible issue that a country, a republic such as ours, with the heritage we have, simply floors such buildings and deletes the opportunity of future generations to access, touch and be in the locations where the founders of the State were.
Another issue relates to a site not too far from here, namely, the Moore Street battlefield site. I refer to the Hammerson planning application which seeks to destroy not in its totality but elements of the Moore Street battlefield site. It would radically change the nature of that location. This is the birthplace of the Republic. It is a location that was central to the 1916 battles around the GPO. The planners ignored the views of elected members to have buildings Nos. 10 to 25 Moore Street listed. The planners have shown complete disrespect for our heritage and the cultural significance of that street. There has been an ongoing battle since then in respect of that street. It was a battlefield upon which freedom and independence of this country was fought, and now there seems to be a battle between the defenders of that heritage and large property developers.
We know there was a framework between Dublin City Council, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and Dublin Central GP Limited, of the Hammerson Group, to compensate traders for the impacts of the development on that site. We also know that officials from the Department responsible for heritage, Dublin City Council, the Moore Street advisory group, and Hammerson Group met with representatives of the traders on the Moore Street site. Serious allegations were made in Villagethat offers of compensation were made to traders at these meetings on condition they would support Hammerson's planning applications.
All I am asking is that the Department and the Garda investigate what happened to the house of O'Rahilly and the Moore Street battlefield site. Aontú demands that the Government and the Garda investigate this.
I will take the whole speaking slot because my colleague is unavoidably absent.
There are a number of issues in regard to An Bord Pleanála. Long before anyone made any allegation of impropriety, I had been complaining about the total inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the board. I believe that one of the first signs of a problem is when organisations become totally incompetent at doing what they are meant to be doing, there is a pile-up of material and nobody ever seems to be able to get a clear answer to anything.
One of the problems is, of course, that we do all of the investigations post factum. I hope that this time we will get it right and make sure there is a good, open and transparent system.
For years An Bord Pleanála has been an organisation that has let down ordinary people time and again. There is a statutory objective whereby it is meant to make decisions within four months. I was looking at a list of queries in which people were not making representations on decisions but asking when those decisions would be made. This is a legitimate question. When an application is made it pops up on the website that there will be a decision four months from the date it is submitted. I know of a case in Moycullen that was lodged on 12 March 2021. I do not care what the decision is as long as it is the right decision. We are now in the ninth month of 2022, a year and a half later, and An Bord Pleanála cannot make up its mind. I know of another case lodged on 13 August 2021 in which no decision has been made.
The next case I will mention is fascinating. It involves seeking leave to apply for substitute consent. The request is for leave to apply for substitute consent and not substitute consent itself. It was lodged on 5 October 2021. In other words, it is almost a year later and there is still a wait to get a decision on whether an application can be made for substitute consent. It is a type of planning permission where there are issues regarding environmental impact statements and non-compliance. In this case the person making the application had no connection to the people who were not in compliance with the quarry law.
I want to highlight this next case because it seems extraordinary that it was lodged on 31 December 2021 and there is still no decision. The application is with regard to previously granted permission to renovate and extend a derelict building in the countryside. It is a one-off derelict building. Surely it does not take nine months to decide whether someone can renovate and extend an existing house. The next case was lodged on 21 January and involves the demolition of a cottage and construction of a house. It is eight months since it was lodged. We would think it would not be that complex.
The next case I will mention is the worst case I am aware of, and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle would agree with me on this. Galway City Council bought a house in Kiltullagh. Mysteriously, one night the house got burned down. Galway City Council applied to demolish and rebuild the house for the family to whom it had been allocated. I grant that there were any amount of objections but I have to say it seems that those objections were more about who was getting the house. The family are people of impeccable character but they belong to a minority community. They are waiting for a house and are living in a caravan. The application to An Bord Pleanála was made in April. More than four months have passed. We would have thought that if somebody's house burned down and we wanted to rebuild it for them to live in it that it would be a very simple planning decision. When I add up all of these cases and other cases I find totally ineffective decision making.
I do not know whether any Member has seen the film "A Man For All Seasons". When the titular character was coming out of the court one day somebody tried to bribe him, telling him about their daughter's case in a certain court. He gave a very quick answer in two parts. He said he would make the same decision he would make in the case of his own daughter and that it would be a fair decision and a quick decision. The second part of this is part of justice; justice delayed is justice denied. It is symptomatic of an organisation being totally incompetent that it cannot make decisions in good time even on the simplest of matters. When we have a chaotic organisation chaotic things happen. An Bord Pleanála needs reform from top to bottom. We do not need another agency. Replacing an agency because it does not perform is codology. The concept of an appeals board that is independent, fair and effective is perfectly reasonable but it should be fair and effective.
When looking at organisations we get in all types of experts but one thing we never seem to do is get in a process auditor. Those working in industry focus every day on making sure nothing has to be done twice, getting rid of all the logjams and delays, making sure that something is moved only once and not twice and that people do not tie themselves up in knots answering as to why something has not been done. Can we imagine all of the calls An Bord Pleanála is getting? I mentioned only a few cases. Imagine the waste of labour. Imagine the work that staff could be doing if it were done properly. There is waste in these organisations. I could say the same about visa applications.
Queues take staff, time, money and resources. We should eliminate the queues and do things in the time indicated. If we did this we would not need quite as many staff because people would not be endlessly answering queries as to when a decision would be made. It is vital that an organisation that does not deliver on time all of the time has a process auditor. Perhaps if this had happened in An Bord Pleanála four, five, six, eight or ten years ago, when it started slipping behind its statutory targets, some of the issues, which I do not want to comment on because they could wind up before the courts, would have come to light. This might have happened if somebody had gone in and looked through the processes to see whether they were good and efficient and delivered to the citizens of the country fair, good and timely decisions.
I have to say the idea of allowing two people on their own to make major planning decisions seems a recipe for disaster. Most people would have thought the big decisions were not made in such a way. A one-off house is one thing. We do not seem to have any graduated decision-making. We seem to treat the replacement of a house that was burned down, where a family just wants to go back and live in it, the same as a very big office block, apartment block or housing development. We do not seem to have any proportionality in the system regarding the checks and balances in larger decisions that affect many people and are more likely to be contentious.
We need to follow the issues that have been raised right to the very end. I am glad it has been referred to various agencies. They should be allowed to do their business through the processes the State has set up to deal with anybody who might or might not have acted in a wrong way.
We need to reform the board. We need to reform its decision-making. We need to make sure that it is fair and open and that the systems are good. The other thing we need to do, because justice delayed is justice denied, is to make sure that decisions are made in good time and that files are not lying round waiting to be dealt with interminably, while people have to put their lives on hold. I hope that out of this morass of a mess we, at last, have brought the An Bord Pleanála issue to a head and that we will get a much more effective and transparent system out of the changes that will now be brought in.
It is good that we are having this discussion about the serious issues that have arisen surrounding An Bord Pleanála. These go right to the heart of our planning system. It is the biggest crisis in our planning system since the Mahon tribunal. It is important to remember the words of Mr. Justice Alan Mahon who said that the presence of conflicts of interest do not necessarily equate to corruption but it creates the conditions under which corruption can flourish. It is clear from what has been reported that the conflicts of interest were rife in An Bord Pleanála. There has been a litany of allegations of poor processes, procedures and practice, thanks to the work of the investigative site The Ditch, which produced no less than 29 detailed reports on various cases of malpractice and, in some instances, cases of even of greater concern. As a result of The Ditch, these things have become clear and have come into the public realm.
We know that it is not reducible to a single individual or instance. However, the reality of this is that the board's code of conduct is perfectly clear in that those board members are forbidden from voting on decisions in their own neighbourhood and must recuse themselves to ensure conflicts of interest do not arise and, yet, we have a clear pattern of this being breached time and again.
How is it that we become reliant on an online news site to make these things clear for us? Decisions by An Bord Pleanála are not irrelevant. These are decisions which literally impact on communities. How can we expect communities throughout this State, whose neighbourhoods often rely on the decisions made by An Bord Pleanála, to have in those decisions and in their being made in the best interest of the entire community? How can it be that, years after the Mahon tribunal, questions are still raised on the planning process in this State?
How can people have faith in the system? I have only been a Deputy for approximately two and a half years and, time and again, we see issues with ethics. We see clear breaches of ethics. How can people have faith in the system? How can they believe that the system is actually working for them when all they see are cosy relationships, friendships and breaches of ethics? That is completely and utterly wrong.
South Dublin County Council recently passed a motion of no confidence in An Bord Pleanála, just a few days ago. I think that if a similar motion was put to this House and there was a free vote, a motion of no confidence in An Bord Pleanála would also be passed here. A Minister, one of the Minister of State's colleagues, recently stated that An Bord Pleanála should be disbanded and it is hard to disagree with that. If it is not disbanded, as has been mentioned, that could cause other issues. It needs to be disbanded or radically reformed from the current organisation it is now.
This absolute scandal and abuse of the planning process by some board members of An Bord Pleanála has done considerable damage to the faith residents have in the planning process. Confidence in the planning process has never been great but this abuse of power and recent resignations from the board has brought confidence in An Bord Pleanála to an all-time low. Communities do not believe they are getting a fair hearing.
Most communities and individuals are already at a disadvantage in the planning process because they are not planning experts. They do not have the resources or the wherewithal to tackle and take on these big development companies and planners. Thus, when they see politically-connected individuals appointed to extremely well-paid jobs and then making decisions that benefit their friends and families, it is greatly upsetting. It makes people angry and undermines democracy and confidence in the planning process, because the list of board members looking after families, friends and neighbours seems to be endless. How could they have-----
Yes, allegedly, of course, if that is helpful. How could they have faith in An Bord Pleanála? In 2016, a performance review was carried out and made some recommendations. Needless to say, these recommendations were not acted upon. That is another reason the public has no confidence in the board and another reason An Bord Pleanála needs to be either dissolved or radically changed and a new functioning structure created to replace what is a discredited institution.
Salaries of the board members have been mentioned. They are far beyond what is required. There are salaries of €240,000 for the chair, €144,000 for the deputy chair and €127,000 for ordinary board members. They add up to nearly €1 million per year for board members' salaries. These rates cannot be justified given the jobs they are doing. An Bord Pleanála needs to have a time limit set for it to make decisions.
This debate is timely. It is interesting that yesterday, we had the debate on the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, report and today on this report on An Bord Pleanála. The public has lost faith in An Bord Pleanála. Villages, communities and ordinary people have no faith in An Bord Pleanála. This has been going on for a long time, where people were making objections. I am not someone who supports serial objectors and these were genuine objections. There might have been quite a number of them. A planning inspector would come down in good faith, do his or her thorough report, go back to the board and recommend that it be refused or the opposite and have the board say "No" or overturn the recommendation.
It has just been outlined that it is costing €1 million per year to run this board. It is jobs for the boys. It has never been better. Normally, they are Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil boys - to make it even better. I came from one of those great institutions, as it used to be, fadó fadó. I mentioned Surf, Daz and other stuff and washing the dirty linen here in connection with this already. There is a lot of it to be washed and there are many alleged irregularities in An Bord Pleanála.
Basically, an inspector goes down in good faith, does a report and the board rejects it. It is two men, mainly. I believe they are all men on the board. I do not know but I may stand corrected on that. They can decide the fate of a community or a development. There is something badly wrong in the state of Denmark with An Bord Pleanála. I also believe it must be disbanded. It is so endemic. The rot in it is so bad that belief and trust in the board is gone.
The Minister of State can twist or shake his head but I fervently believe and ask that it should be a new, reconstructed board in which people have faith. We should halve the salaries in this time of austerity. Why do members need that kind of money to go on it? What happened to the voluntary boards? Are there any voluntary boards any more? I used to be on a number of them when I was allowed to be on them. We find that all the boards now are on big pay, money and everything else. It is rotten. It must be disbanded and people must have confidence in it going forward.
I have been in construction all my life. In helping people with planning permissions in areas such as one-off houses and businesses across the board, the biggest thing we must deal with to help people put a roof over their heads is An Bord Pleanála. I have a serious concern that even with the planning process in place, people, no matter where they are in the country, can pay €20 to object to an application, no matter how silly or important it is.
Again, these people are serial objectors. Why they cannot be filtered out at an early stage is beyond me. For €20 they can hold up a planning application from a young couple who are trying to build their lives or a businessperson who wants to invest in our areas. People can object to anything down to the colour of a door for €20 and it goes to An Bord Pleanála. Once they start a sequence at planning stage it gives them the right to take it on to An Bord Pleanála. That system must change.
The criteria around the board's investigations must also change. I heard recently from a man whose agricultural shed had been objected to. Due to antisocial behaviour in the area he had to lock the agricultural shed. The board would not tell him when the inspector was coming and when the inspector arrived the shed was locked. Somebody spotted that the inspector was there and rang the applicant. The applicant went as fast as he could and was five minutes away. He got a note from the inspector saying that when he arrived to inspect the premises it was locked, even though the applicant had no prior notice. The inspector went with the objector and said it was not an agricultural building but an industrial one. It had to go back to the board again and be applied for again and be overturned because of a lock on a door. The inspector never told the applicant when he was going to be there.
Now we have investigations into the board of An Bord Pleanála for corruption. This is going back to the old boys' club again. It is history repeating itself. Rub my shoulder and I will rub yours. That is going back to the old politics in this House and all the investigations that went on here for years. It must stop now. The Minister is here to respect and represent the people and bring An Bord Pleanála to account.
The crisis that has emerged with respect to the integrity of An Bord Pleanála at senior management level has thrown a shadow over the work of the entire organisation. It clearly demonstrates the procedures and safeguards that were in place were not only to prevent but also to detect serious conflicts of interest from emerging and it shows us these were far from robust. Thanks to the work of online reporting platform The Ditch, we are now in a position to be more informed about the nature of the crisis and the length of time such alleged conflicts of interest were being carried on. I will say no more on that particular aspect but I hope these issues can be resolved fairly and swiftly.
We need to have trust in the fairness and impartiality of the planning process. We also need a proper, functioning planning process, which we do not have. I have first-hand experience of that with Banagher Chilling in my constituency. It was a saga that went on for two years. I was informed in January 2021 than an inspector's report was to be ready and made available within the next two weeks. We did not get a decision until June 2022. There are serious questions hanging over the delays with Banagher Chilling. Why are these delays occurring? There is also the fact it could have jeopardised investment. If that is the carry-on of An Bord Pleanála I have no doubt it will jeopardise investment into this country.
The question here is whether An Bord Pleanála is fit for purpose. Is it just another quango of politically-appointed cronies on excessive salaries acting unlawfully and costing the taxpayer millions in legal costs? Why would the Minister allow An Bord Pleanála to carry out an internal review, which in other words means it is investigating itself? How much did the senior counsel Remy Farrell probe into An Bord Pleanála's costs? Cork City Council, Kerry County Council and South Dublin County Council have all passed motions of no confidence in An Bord Pleanála in recent months. Over the last six months, since early April, quite a number of other very serious issues have emerged, including the fact Mr. Hyde overturned the vast majority of the refusal recommendations of his own planning inspectors in approving applications for telecommunications masts over a two-year period. The Irish Timeshas since reported that Catherine Pierse, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has advised the Minister that the report should not be published until the criminal investigation is complete and a decision has been made on prosecution. The Minster should outline to the Dáil whether or not this is the fact in the case. This Dáil debate into the different ongoing controversies that have shaken An Bord Pleanála is critical as these controversies have completely undermined public trust in our planning system. The lack of public trust in Ireland's planning system is a very serious matter and it is now essential that the Minister with political responsibility for the system, namely, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, provides a clear and concise outline of how he is going to deal with all of the issues and equally, restore public confidence in An Bord Pleanála. How can the Minister stand by and do nothing when An Bord Pleanála as an institution is riven with dysfunction?
As we know well, the planning process is a very difficult process for people. It should have been more clear that something like this was going on in An Bord Pleanála for quite a period of time. As previous speakers have said, it is like the old boys' club. It is jobs for the boys. Nod-and-wink situations were going on within the planning authority. Consider the difficulty the young people are in. They are spending thousands and thousands of euro to get planning permission. They are putting in applications and then somebody can appeal that application, as Deputy O'Donoghue was saying, for just €20. That could destroy a young person's whole future. Then you have got to deal with An Bord Pleanála, which is a law unto itself. It has been aided and abetted by the political system instead of being questioned by it. What we have is report after report costing millions and millions and nothing out of it, like we had in the report we had yesterday. The whole process from start to finish must be looked at before we even get to An Bord Pleanála. There are a lot of planning permissions and a lot of difficulties put before people that do not need to be put before them. These are young people trying to get a start in life. I have it down in west Cork all the time. We are constantly dealing with trying to get planning across the line for young people and it is very unfortunate. People are going to banks and trying to get loans and then they look at this codology going on with An Bord Pleanála. What does the Minister think they feel out there? I think many people feel a lot of disgust. It is something the Government has let slip by and it cannot continue to do that.
I welcome these statements. It is something both Government and Opposition Members called for before the recess and I am glad we are making the time to have this debate.
I welcome that the report outlining the practices of An Bord Pleanála has been referred to the DPP, the Garda and to the Standards in Public Office Commission for them to make their judgments on. The report should be made public as soon as possible without impinging on any legal investigation. Transparency in the work of An Bord Pleanála is of the utmost importance. Transparency is meant to be at the heart of our planning system and it is simply a matter of public interest. It is important the information contained in the report be in the public domain sooner rather than later. Myself and my colleagues on the housing committee will want to discuss this report in public session as soon it is possible to do so.
An Bord Pleanála plays a crucial role in our planning system and any allegations of inappropriate actions or behaviour by its members must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Our planning system is nothing without impartiality and integrity. Housing supply is currently the biggest challenge we face and as we implement the measures contained in Housing for All and move to address our housing crisis, An Bord Pleanála must be to the forefront of facilitating sustainable, appropriate development. We must aid the momentum needed to build more homes so we can ensure more families and young people can aspire to have a place to call their own. Housing for All sets ambitious targets for housing development in Ireland as well as vital infrastructure under the national development plan and An Bord Pleanála has an important role to play.
I do not doubt for a moment that the staff of An Bord Pleanála work extremely hard under challenging conditions and in a system that can never operate fast enough, such is the demand we place on our planning decisions. It is important to stress any outcomes of the report into handling conflicts of interest or the ongoing investigations should not colour the view of the majority of the very hardworking, diligent people working in the offices of An Bord Pleanála. I welcome that the Minister has sanctioned a further 24 posts for An Bord Pleanála to assist with the growing demand in this sector. Extra boots on the ground are absolutely needed and these staff will help fulfil the functions An Bord Pleanála will take on as part of the new marine planning arrangements.
I was happy to support the Maritime Area Planning Bill both at committee and when it was before the Dáil earlier this year. Now more than ever, we need a planning system that supports us to harness our natural resources into energy. That is absolutely crucial. This Bill will help us achieve our renewable energy targets for 2030 and bring in a much-needed planning regime for offshore wind. An Bord Pleanála is going to be crucial to the effective running of that planning regime and so many other planning decisions. That is another reason addressing the concerns around conflicts of interest within the organisation is now urgently needed.
The current appointments process is also due to be overhauled and that is going to be a really positive development. I understand the Minister is in the process of bringing a plan to Cabinet to outline a new appointments process for members of An Bord Pleanála underpinned by new legislation. That is possibly one of the most important steps we can take as legislators when it comes to this. I also welcome that the two-person decision-making panels are a thing of the past. That is going to bring a new level of clarity to the planning process. While we strive to put transparency and trust to the forefront of An Bord Pleanála's process, it is important that we do not add further delay to decision-making turnaround times. As we all know, getting a decision on a planning application can be a really lengthy process. I would hate to see the process becoming even more drawn out at a time when the delivery of houses is so crucial. We need a system that is transparent, trustworthy, reliable and efficient, a planning system that is fit for purpose and that does not create unwarranted delays when timely action on housing is so badly needed. As I said, I welcome that this report on An Bord Pleanála is now with the DPP, the Garda and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. I have confidence they will take all the necessary steps when carrying out their work. I call again on the Minister to ensure that this report is made public as soon as possible.
Many years ago tribunals were put in place by the State to root out many malpractices associated with land zoning and consequently planning. Thankfully, new procedures, obligations and processes were put in place, many overseen by the likes of SIPO. I know that is up for review based on recent events, notwithstanding many other events also. The Dáil will take up that challenge in the coming weeks and months.
Planning is supposedly consistent with national and regional guidelines and associated with relevant construction standards, best engineering practices, environmental considerations, health and safety and other such considerations. All that is carried out by local authorities under a statutory time period. If and when those decisions are subsequently challenged, as is the democratic right of an appellant, the onus of responsibility to ensure professional competence falls to An Bord Pleanála. It appears from this report that there are breaches in rules and regulations which guide the decision-making process. If that is the case or is proven to be the case, we have a big problem. That is notwithstanding the point made previously which I have made myself in this Chamber when I brought forward proposed legislation and Bills to deal with ensuring An Bord Pleanála has a statutory time period to make a decision. That should of course be the case and I look forward to the planning and development legislation, referred to by the previous speaker, that the Government will bring forward for reform in the coming months. I am sure it will have recommendations in that regard.
At the time of those tribunals, the probity and competence of planning and the public's trust in it were at crisis point. That would appear to be the case again, at a time of crisis in the housing sector when we need those systems to stand tall without fear or favour. Applications have been delayed by deliberations by An Bord Pleanála and thereafter by a judicial review process which further jeopardises the potential investment that may be forthcoming in order ensure these developments take place. This is a crisis at a time of emergency in respect of housing. I urge and beg the Government to insist on bringing forward real, meaningful changes that help ensure the democratic planning process is one we can all stand over. It is quite obvious that many in this Chamber do not stand over this process at present. That is a far cry from the commitments we got following those tribunals. We do not want to enter that period again or a similar one. I beg the Government not only to entrust the Attorney General to bring forward his proposals, but to direct the Attorney General and prescribe the sort of changes that are necessary to address these issues and others that have been raised by many Members over the course of the last years.
We are speaking in a vacuum because we have no report before us. I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution. It is an extraordinary week. Yesterday we had the report on Siteserv discussed here and we saw what went on between the two angels, the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, and Mr. O'Brien. In between we had the villains and we heard how they were just allowed to do exactly what they wanted. Here we are looking at An Bord Pleanála a week after the first judge in charge of the planning tribunal was buried. Let us remember what he said on planning in the final report of the Mahon tribunal, The Final Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments:
Given the existence of such rampant public corruption, the obvious question is why it was allowed to continue unabated. The short answer to that question is that it continued because nobody was prepared to do enough to stop it. This is perhaps inevitable when corruption ceases to become an isolated event and becomes so entrenched that it is transformed into an acknowledged way of doing business.
I could quote more but I will not. I have only four minutes. We had the Moriarty tribunal. We had the Office of the Planning Regulator directly arising from that. Then this week we have seen Siteserv and now we are looking at An Bord Pleanála. I will make no comments to prejudice any inquiry. The most serious questions have to be asked here by a Government that allowed a process to continue without analysis, without the institution being able to analyse itself and come back.
Suddenly we have an announcement of 24 staff, I think. It begs the question as to how the board was supposed to function. I am going to ignore the allegations for the moment and leave them to one side and look at processes and procedures. How was it supposed to function if suddenly we can give 24 staff? How was it functioning in terms of conflicts of interest if there was nobody monitoring that? Did we look at what SIPO has told us over and over again, that each Government has ignored? In its 2009 annual report, SIPO recommended the Department of Finance should draft new legislation to be based on best practice for dealing with conflicts of interest. Fast forward every single year. In 2021 the annual report stated that for a number of years, SIPO has called for a comprehensive review of the existing ethics framework, and so on. It was absolutely ignored. Finally the programme for Government 2021 began something but the review has not been seen to date.
Then we have a myth of judicial reviews being the cause of everything, and nobody bothers to read anything. If they read the Planning Regulator's report, he tells us that judicial reviews are a minute part of the problem. Yet we have the myth being perpetuated by many Deputies on all sides that we are in trouble because of judicial reviews. On many occasions judicial review was the only option taken most reluctantly by people on the ground. They have done us a favour in an awful lot of places.
On strategic housing development, which we have abandoned now, thanks be to God, but not really because we have given a number of years to phase it out, I will quote what the chief planner in Galway said.
She highlighted the strain put on the department of planning in Galway, stating that the statistical success of the strategic housing development process is benchmarked against An Bord Pleanála's ability to meet its deadlines, but it hides all the pressure and time required at local level. She said it was a flawed attempt to deliver social housing. We brought this problem upon ourselves, government after government, particularly with strategic housing developments that bypass the local authority.
I will stop there as I think I am out of time.
I am concerned at the undermining of local democracy on a continuous basis. The strategic housing development was just the final straw in undermining local authorities, depleting them of staff and allowing staff to be moved all of the time. When they have acquired skill, suddenly they are moved. We removed the Waste Management Act. They have no power at all in relation to waste management. We have left the local authorities bereft of power and resources. We have managers in place who have corporatised according to Government policy, as opposed to having people who serve the communities.
The planning issue is going on for years and planning is getting tighter. I believe the Government will table legislation in the next few months, and I hope it will be made more workable for rural families.
The first thing I wish to talk about is An Bord Pleanála. Why is it that nearly all An Bord Pleanála employees are from or live in Dublin? If I live in Dublin, I know how Dublin works. However, I damn sure do not know how Wexford, Galway or Donegal works out in the middle of the countryside. Why is it that no one was let work? Some 15 years ago there was supposed to be decentralisation in An Bord Pleanála. Nobody was given decentralisation and nobody from other areas could work from home or do anything like that. Everyone had to work from the office in An Bord Pleanála. If people drive the M50 every day, they know there a problem with the traffic there. If they look at a house around Dublin, they know there is a problem somewhere there. However, I am damn sure they do not know what the problems are in Connemara, Donegal, Kerry or wherever. Their ideas and what they believe people need are completely different from what people actually need in certain areas. There is a major problem there to be addressed and it is not being addressed.
I would disband An Bord Pleanála, to be quite frank about it. There was a time when politicians were being called everything and anything anytime they would go about planning. However, it has gone the other way. No one knows anything about what is going on anywhere. There are only refusals for Mickey Mouse things. There is no engagement or working with applicants. For a long time - the past two years - you could not even get a pre-planning meeting in most councils because Covid or another excuse was used. That is a major problem.
Were there people from the private sector who were not direct employees but were getting work within An Bord Pleanála? Is there an internal file or document? Has the Minister of State seen that work was given to people who were not directly employed by An Bord Pleanála that the Department did not even know about? Is there an internal document done on that that no one has commented on so far?
There is a young couple in Moylough, for example, who went through Galway County Council and got their planning permission and it was appealed. To be honest about it, you would be scratching your head to find a fault, because it is within the village, had sewerage and everything. For a full year this young couple was trying to build a house in a housing crisis. They are only one example of many throughout this country. They got a letter from An Bord Pleanála stating the issue would hopefully be addressed by March. They then got another letter in June stating it would hope to have it done in the following few months. Finally, they got a letter stating it would try to get it done sometime. That is no good and it is not the An Bord Pleanála that should be.
I think the Minister of State needs to just rip it apart. It needs a root-and-branch overhaul from beginning to end. The problem that is happening in this country is no more than what is happening with the HSE. A long time ago, politicians were involved in the western, southern and every health board. People would say those fellows and women were destroying it. However, have a look at the way it has gone since. The HSE is like Nanci Griffith’s “From a Distance”. We write to a Minister and the Minister replies saying, “Thanks for your letter. We will send it off to the HSE.” Whatever it sends back to us is along the lines of “Look, tough luck. Take it up. Suck it up. That is it.”
Either we are elected to do things or not. Unless we revamp the legislation on planning or the way planning is done, we are crippling young people throughout this country. We are actually inflicting more problems on top of the cities such as Dublin and other large cities where youngsters might be able to build at home, near their farms or whatever and they are going through hell on earth for all different types of reasons. For example, if you had a house in Wexford, you could not build in Roscommon. That was the rule up until recently. Such a rule I never heard of in my life. However, in the next council, it did not matter if you had one down there. Consistency is not there.
I ask the Minister of State to address this, if it is the last thing he does over the next two years. Planning has to be sorted out and, by God, An Bord Pleanála needs sorting out.
I thank everyone for their contributions on this important matter.
Since its establishment in 1977, An Bord Pleanála has become an integral part of the Irish planning system, providing an independent, impartial and objective appeals process, in addition to numerous other functions. The immediate actions that have been taken in response the recent allegations, along with those being undertaken by the Office of the Planning Regulator and the board itself, are necessary steps to ensure restoration of the high level of public and institutional confidence the board has built up over its lifetime.
I recognise the vital public interest in the report from Mr. Remy Farrell, senior counsel, into the management of conflicts of interest and relevant disclosures by the deputy chairperson of An Bord Pleanála in relation to certain decisions of that board, and that the public must have trust in the impartiality and integrity of our planning system if it is to function effectively. I am confident the review being undertaken by the Office of the Planning Regulator into An Bord Pleanála’s system - I should point out that Mr. Conleth Bradley is an external worker in relation to this audit - and all the procedures will be significant in progressing the Board forward in terms of accountability, systems procedures and effectiveness. It is the intention of the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, and my intention that the outcome of this review will help inform other internal changes as required in An Bord Pleanála and will assist in identifying legislative amendments that may be required.
The reform of the appointment process for board members to the board of An Bord Pleanála is critical to ensure impartiality and transparency in the board and will restore confidence in An Bord Pleanála as the independent planning body that is foundational to the success of the planning system in Ireland. In addition, we are acutely aware of the need to ensure the board has the skills and resources to carry out these functions. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, indicated earlier that he intends to approve further substantial increase in staffing resources for An Bord Pleanála shortly, building on additional resources agreed in 2021, to ensure it is fully equipped to meet the demands of our planning system, including new functions it will take on as part of new marine planning arrangements.
With my own particular responsibility in the area of marine planning, I am acutely aware of the importance of the board having the skills and resources to deliver on this new function, but also of this role as a new modern marine planning regime. We are working hard to prepare the way forward for this new consenting regime, with an establishment team in place for the new maritime area regulatory authority, MARA, with the roles of chairperson and a number of board members advertised this week. With coastal local authorities, MARA and the board will play a fundamental role in this new area of planning, which has assumed an even greater priority in light of the energy crisis and the potential of the offshore renewable energy sector. This will build on and expand the skills within the board and, like the Minister, Deputy O’Brien, I commend the staff of the board who work on many key cases in challenging circumstances.
They continue to deal with a caseload of in excess of 3,000 cases annually and there is no doubt that, over time, the complexity of these cases has increased significantly. Making sure that the board is working as effectively as possible against this background is critical. Resourcing, learning and development and digitalisation all have a significant role to play, as do the measures that will continue to evolve in the coming months, both specifically in respect of the board, but also the major exercise under way as part of the planning review to streamline and clarify planning legislation.
I have been privileged to engage in a number of meetings with stakeholders as part of the planning advisory forum and have been struck by the commitment of stakeholders from many different perspectives to come to common views on the approach and a way forward in planning that increases the plan-led approach and improves public engagement and transparency. I am confident that this will set a new context for the board to operate and will ensure that the planning system works more effectively for all. My officials have engaged on several occasions with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage in constructive debates on all aspects of the planning system, from plan-making through consenting and enforcement. We look forward to continued engagement with the Oireachtas as part of the wider programme of planning reform.
As part of this process, maintaining trust and confidence in the planning system is of the utmost importance. The Government has sought to act openly, quickly and effectively in responding to the immediate problems, addressing underlying issues and maintaining a fully functioning planning system. The series of measures outlined by the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, which will evolve, will ensure fundamental change for the benefit of the entire planning system while maintaining its full and ongoing operation.