An Bord Pleanála chairman Dave Walsh is leaving the planning authority, in a move that comes after months of turmoil over the work of former deputy chairman Paul Hyde.
In a statement on Thursday, the body said Mr Walsh had decided to take early retirement “for personal and family reasons” and had informed Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien of his decision.
“Mr Walsh acknowledged the difficult decision that he had come to, and recognised the huge commitment, resilience and expertise shown by everyone throughout the organisation to continue to operate with the highest levels of professionalism, integrity and collegiality in very difficult circumstances, and the great support he has received from everyone across the organisation in his role,” the statement said.
Turmoil has engulfed the authority since April, when questions first surfaced about Mr Hyde’s personal declarations to An Bord Pleanála and claims of alleged conflicts of interest. Mr Hyde resigned in July. He always denied any wrongdoing but faces prosecution in relation to claims he gave false particulars to the board.
Mr Walsh’s role came under scrutiny after it emerged that the Minister had cut Mr Hyde’s phone and email access days before the deputy chairman stood aside temporarily from his role in May.
The Minister’s move came in a conversation with Mr Walsh late one Friday night, when the Pleanála chairman told Mr O’Brien that Mr Hyde was still rostered to consider planning cases. This was despite Mr Hyde telling the board that day his undeclared conflict of interest in an appeal taken by his sister-in-law.
Mr Hyde never formally interviewed by Mr Walsh under specific legal procedures for cases in which the chair believes a board member’s conduct “has been such as to bring the board into disrepute”.
The statement from An Bord Pleanála quoted Mr Walsh saying it was a privilege to lead the body over the last four years.
“I believe now is the right time for me to embark on the next chapter of my life and to focus on other priorities,” he said
“While it is of course difficult to leave such an organisation, I am sure that the staff and Board will continue to strive for the highest public service standards that they have set for themselves and for the organisation and I am confident that the actions being taken by the Board, supported by the Department and the Office of the Planning Regulator, will help to quickly restore the Board’s reputation and underpin its central role in the planning process.”
Mr O’Brien thanked Mr Walsh for his service, which has spanned some 27 years between the Board and the Civil Service and wishes him well for the future.
A statement from the Department said the Minister will now move swiftly to initiate the process of appointing a new chairperson and will also appoint a deputy chairperson as provided for under the Planning and Development Act, 2000.
“Critical reforms are required to strengthen the Board’s systems and processes and restore public confidence in the Board. This will continue to be progressed as set out in the action plan for An Bord Pleanála which was recently agreed by Government,” he said.
The appointment of a new chairperson to An Bord Pleanála is a complex process and is expected to take some time.
A spokeswoman for Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said that legislation allows the minister to appoint one of the Board’s ordinary members as a deputy chairperson.
“The Minister will move swiftly to appoint a Deputy Chairperson and initiate the process of appointing a new Chairperson to ensure appropriate stewardship of the Board both in the short and longer term,” she said.
A Department of Housing statement said: “Minister O’Brien has been clear that the Action Plan he has set out is to reform and restore confidence in the Board.
“The appointment process will be overhauled and the number of board members increased.” spA
Opposition politicians have renewed demands for reforms and also called for the publication of an internal ABP review of controversies at the planning authority.
Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said the announcement of Mr Walsh’s early retirement is a “very significant development” that provides Mr O’Brien with “an enormous opportunity to create a clean slate at the very top of the Board”.
He said reforms should happen in the appointments process of the chair and Board members and also in how the organsation is managed and governed.
Mr Ó Broin said Mr O’Brien needs to work with the Oireachtas Committee on Housing “to fix all of the problems that have been endemic in the Board… with a comprehensive package of reforms that has cross-party support”.
He said reforms should be introduced “as quickly as possible because right now the Board continues to be in a deep crisis.”
Mr Ó Broin called for the publication of an internal An Bord Pleanála review of Mr Hyde’s planning decisions and other matters.
Labour Party Spokeswoman on housing Rebecca Moynihan declined to comment on Mr Walsh’s early retirement but said there is a need to “overhaul the system” with “root and branch reform”.
She said that a nine-member board in a complex planning system “is not fit for purpose”.
One action in Mr O’Brien’s reform plan is that the Board should be increased up to 15 members “as part of new more immediate legislation to allow for new functions and sufficient rotation of members across different classes of files.”
Social Demcrats TD Cian O’Callaghan said: “The drip feed of allegations regarding An Bord Pleanála over recent months has been very damaging to public confidence in the planning system.”
He also sought the publication of An Bord Pleanála’s internal review and called for Mr O’Brien to “insist that all allegations in the public domain are dealt with quickly.”
Mr O’Callaghan added: “There must be full transparency and accountability to restore public confidence in the planning system.”