Ireland’s Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien has said appointments to the planning appeals body will be “effectively” halted after he referred the findings of an independent report to Gardai and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
Speaking on RTE Radio, Mr O’Brien reiterated his plans to overhaul the appointments process to An Bord Pleanala: “The current appointment process of members to An Bord Pleanala needs to change and it will change.”
When asked if appointments would be halted while the system is reformed, he said: “Effectively, yes, in the main they will be.
“There’s one post that we will advertise publicly. It will run through a different process which is an important one around the marine planning function, particularly for offshore renewable energy.
We need to do this while ensuring that our planning system continues to work and that we ensure that there is confidence in the planning system and we can reverse some of the damage that has been doneDarragh O’Brien
“We will proceed with that but I will do it by way of public advertisement and we’ll do that by the end of the month.”
Mr O’Brien said he will bring a memo to Cabinet in September in relation to reforms to appointments, which he said would be “mirrored” by the new marine planning function.
He added that public trust in the body has been damaged.
“There are many, many good people within the board, staff that have have a very heavy workload,” he said, adding that processes and procedures need to be looked at.
“There are elements within the report that raise questions about that and I want that dealt with,” he said.
“There is no question that damage has been done. That can be reversed.
“The measures that I announced yesterday and will bring forward in September will certainly help in that regard.”
When asked whether previous planning decisions affected by this independent review could now be altered or revoked, Mr O’Brien said: “It’s not up to me, I say this respectfully, to have a view on whether someone would make a challenge or not. That is an individual’s right to do so should they believe that there is a sound basis to do that.
“What I focused on very clearly is the allegations that were in the public domain, because they were that serious a level that it required them to be looked into as a matter of urgency and efficiency, and that’s absolutely what I focused on without fear of favour to anyone.
“We need to do this while ensuring that our planning system continues to work and that we ensure that there is confidence in the planning system and we can reverse some of the damage that has been done in that space.”
On Tuesday night, Mr O’Brien said he had referred an independent report by barrister Remy Farrell into decisions at An Bord Pleanala to the DPP, An Garda Siochana and the Standards in Public Office (SIPO).
The housing minister said he cannot comment on the report, but added that he wants the report “published as soon as I can”.
He said: “I’ve written to the DPP in that regard and asked her, you know, to have regard to that.”
It comes following the resignation of Paul Hyde as An Bord Pleanala’s deputy chairman, the second most senior official in the planning appeals body.
Mr Hyde had been the subject of several probes into allegations of conflicts of interest in decisions he was involved in.
He had denied improper conduct but had stood aside from his role “without prejudice” in May pending the outcome of the investigation commissioned by the Housing Minister. In July, Mr Hyde quit his role as deputy chair.
Mr O’Brien is awaiting the outcome of a separate internal report from a senior management team within An Bord Pleanala, which was requested by its chairman Dave Walsh.
“I will decide, based on legal advice when I see the outcome of that report, what we do next,” Mr O’Brien said.
The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) is also to conduct an independent organisational review of An Bord Pleanala, now that the Government’s independent report has been completed.
It will involve independent planning experts from other jurisdictions and barrister Conleth Bradley.
“The external review by the Office of the Planning Regulator is obviously very important,” the minister said on Tuesday.