Aboard Pleanála (ABP), the government warned that “a mammoth challenge” in managing Strategic Housing Development (SHD) cases and other work could hamper their work on key energy infrastructure projects.
The Planning Board expressed concerns that elements of the National Development Plan relating to offshore renewable energy, submarine cables and related matters could be hampered unless the Housing Ministry urgently approves the hiring of key personnel.
It came as the Planning Board was inundated with SHD cases and planning applications.
Under legislation passed last year, ABP will be responsible for processing, evaluating and advising on proposals under a marine planning system for projects such as renewable energy programs.
In January, ABP told the Department of Housing that “a separate unit is to be established to prepare for these new naval functions.”
A staffing plan was drawn up to staff the new unit, but planning officials wrote to the Housing Department asking it to approve a procedure to urgently hire workers.
This was done “to help reduce the current backlog of normal planning complaints at the oversight level and the expected large number of new strategic housing applications expected in the coming months”.
The plans included hiring five senior planning inspectors, but ABP wanted three of those posts to be urgently sanctioned last January.
Correspondence reveals that the planning committee had difficulty meeting obligations to process planning applications in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, it feared a flood of SHD applications would help the work build even further.
The termination of the SHD program – amid a multitude of legal challenges to planning decisions – resulted in an influx of applications ahead of the February 25 deadline.
The aftermath of the pandemic, along with staff turnover, board-level vacancies and a large body of forensic reviews and complex work involving legal cases, also contributed to a significant workload, an ABP official told the Housing Department.
“These additional resources are needed as soon as possible given the nature and profile of the current and anticipated cases, which relate to both a significant number of housing units and infrastructure projects with associated employment potential,” the official added.
“As the number of cases continues to increase, it becomes a formidable challenge to handle those cases efficiently, notwithstanding the need to mobilize and adequately prepare cases related to the new naval capabilities, which can then impact the efficient deployment of key elements of the National Development Plan.”
The official said ABP’s compliance rate with the 18-week period in which it is required to make decisions on normal planning cases fell to 34 percent last December. It was 58 percent for all of last year but was expected to fall again this year due to work pressure, housing officials have been told.
However, the sanction request caused some confusion at the Housing Ministry.
There was concern that the new naval posts were being used to clear the SHD backlog rather than cases for which it was set up.
Dialogue between the department and ABP continued for several weeks, with housing authorities finally approving the hiring of an assistant planning director, two senior planning inspectors, a senior civil servant and an administrative assistant in April.
During that time, ABP said, “given the backlog of SHD cases, the board will not be in a satisfactory position to prepare and set up the naval unit in a timely manner.”
As of February 22, 51 SHD applications were “in hand” and the board estimates that more than 170 additional cases could require work.
The board assured housing officials that the positions needed to be filled to “allow the already stretched management team to hold mutual consultations on legislation, resolve cases in SHD and create a full implementation plan to be ready for the marine planning section “.
This weekend, ABP announced that 20 of the 21 positions approved in the 2021-2022 workforce plan have now been filled. Its naval functions have not yet begun as it has not received any proposals under the Marine Planning Act, but staff “are currently involved in preparatory system development work,” a spokesman said.
However, there were still problems meeting the legal deadlines for decisions on planning applications.
The compliance rate for SHDs was 39 percent at the end of August. The spokesman said the compliance rate for normal planning complaints is 45 percent.
Last month it was announced that the planning regulator’s office had begun a review of ABP, citing “the urgent need to move forward with measures to restore public confidence”.
The announcement followed a report on alleged conflicts of interest at ABP prepared by Senior Barrister Remy Farrell.
Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien forwarded this report to the Chief Public Prosecutor, An Garda Síochána, and the Public Office Standards Commission.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/an-bord-pleanala-issued-urgent-request-for-extra-staff-to-tackle-backlog-of-work-42014991.html On board Pleanála urgently requested additional staff to deal with the backlog of work