Trust in An Bord Pleanála needs to be restored

Developments at An Bord Pleanála (ABP) have already reached a stage where nothing short of a complete change of leadership and structure is required to restore confidence in the credibility of the planning complaints process. However, in tandem with such radical changes, the trials must continue to unravel the full facts behind the so-called Paul Hyde affair over alleged conflicts of interest surrounding the former ABP vice-chairman.

As we report today, the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, formerly the Fraud Police, has assigned a senior official to investigate a report on the vice chairman for evidence of crime. Mr Hyde denies any wrongdoing in relation to decisions made under his supervision.

A senior guard will analyze line by line a report prepared for Housing Secretary Darragh O’Brien for possible breaches of planning legislation underpinning the operation and governance of ABP. Proper procedure must be followed. But the involvement of a heavyweight specialized Garda unit in the controversy over Mr Hyde’s alleged conflicts of interest in planning decisions, while appropriate, is deeply troubling.

These developments have understandably fueled speculation about the conclusions in the as yet unpublished report prepared for the minister – underscoring the seriousness of the situation. The report was commissioned by Mr O’Brien who, on the advice of the Attorney General, forwarded it to the Gardaí, the DPP and the Standards in Public Office Commission.

ABP says it is committed to taking “all necessary actions” to ensure its systems, procedures and controls are fully compliant and fit for purpose to restore full confidence in the board’s role and decision-making.

That’s fine so far. The question for the Minister now is whether it is appropriate for ABP’s current board to take such action. Since the details of the Hyde affair came to light, the Board under Chairman Dave Walsh has been slow to come out publicly to appreciate the full gravity of the situation.

It is accepted that ABP must act within the bounds of due process. However, media reports that the former deputy leader’s mobile phone and email had to be blocked on orders from the Housing Secretary three days before Mr Hyde resigned suggest that ABP did not fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation. The deputy chairman has since resigned.

It is recognized that in a housing crisis, the need to expedite planning applications places a significant strain on An Bord Pleanála staff.

As a result, corners appear to have been cut; Planning files were flipped through by board members with minimal review; There is a lack of proper papers showing how decisions were made or why the inspectors’ recommendations were rejected.

The minister has also announced a “significant increase in staff” at ABP. That’s how it should be. But it doesn’t go far enough. A full account of what happened at ABP needs to be made
Public confidence in planning procedures needs to be restored. This is not achieved by tinkering with the edges of the current structure.

Too much reputational damage has already been done and the minister needs to know that only sweeping change can fix this sorry mess. Trust in An Bord Pleanála needs to be restored

Fry Electronics Team

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