Review of An Bord Pleanála calls for urgent ‘reset’ and measures to tackle caseload

Statutory review for Office of the Planning Regulator found ‘breakdown of trust’ in key parts of organisation

A formal review of An Bord Pleanála has called for an urgent “reset” at the planning appeals body and measures to tackle a “major and rapidly increasing overhang” of planning cases.

After months of turmoil at An Bord Pleanála, the statutory review for the Office of the Planning Regulator, Niall Cussen, found a “breakdown of trust” in key parts of the organisation.

Former deputy chairman Paul Hyde resigned in July and former chairman Dave Walsh took early retirement in November.

With only four board members currently available to deal with a “burgeoning caseload”, the review warned that the situation was becoming critical.


The board has 2,300 cases on hand, an amount comparable to the volume of decisions usually made in a given year.

“Of this overall caseload, approximately 600 have already been prepared for the board’s attention, it is inevitable that the other 1,700 cases present a further backlog for board decision-making. The impact for ordinary citizens is obvious in terms of the increased processing times that will be faced.”

The report, published on Tuesday, was the second in two months by two Scottish experts appointed by Mr Cussen.

Paul Cackette, former chief planning reporter to the Scottish government, and John McNairney, Scotland’s former chief planner, described a “crisis of public and political confidence” in An Bord Pleanála. They went on to say the authority was suffering “an internal crisis” which must be overcome alongside operational challenges.

“The interviews and staff survey suggest a demoralised workforce – impacted not just by the public commentary regarding the organisation in recent months – but some staff interviewed also raised significant concerns about weaknesses in management systems and practices,” the reviewers said.

Mr Hyde faces criminal prosecution on charges he gave false particulars to An Bord Pleanála but has denied any wrongdoing in the face of claims he was conflicted in certain decisions.

Mr Walsh’s role came under scrutiny after it emerged that Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien had cut Mr Hyde’s phone and email access days before the deputy chairman stood aside temporarily from his role in May. Mr Hyde was still rostered to consider planning cases at that time, despite telling the board of an undeclared conflict of interest in an appeal taken by his sister-in-law.

“Revelations concerning An Bord Pleanála have had a major adverse impact on public confidence in the organisation since the early part of April of this year. Media coverage has highlighted many aspects of concern in relation to appropriate operation of procedures within the organisation,” the report said.

“Ongoing revelations... have informed widespread negative public and political commentary and have been followed by high-profile exits from the organisation.”

The reviewers also described an “operational crisis” in the authority, saying a “major reduction” in its decision-making capacity was impacting all parts of the wider planning system.

Key recommendations in the two reports for Mr Cussen are already embraced in draft laws to overhaul the planning system that are being advanced by Mr O’Brien.

The authority will be renamed The Planning Commission – An Coimisiún Pleanála in the Minister’s draft laws, with a new chief planning commissioner and up to 14 commissioners deciding on cases; a separate governing executive led by a chief executive.

Such measures are in line with recommendations in the latest report to Mr Cussen, which call for a “radically new” organisational approach in the planning authority.

The review called for new procedures for documenting the formation of boards to make planning decisions and on the allocation of casefiles to board members. It also called for procedures for “the escalation of the determination of cases to another composition of the board, including where the board intends to depart from an inspector’s recommendation”.

It called for measures to strengthen decision-making at board level, including the taking of an oath by board members and the provision of administrative support and record-keeping by secretariats.

It also called for measures setting out “the prescribed circumstances” where direct or indirect communications between board members and an inspector may occur when a report is being prepared and to set out a board member’s reasons for departing from inspectors’ recommendation.

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times