A trickle of allegations has snowballed into a deluge that is now threatening to swamp the authority
When a little-known website began to drop stories about An Bord Pleanála back in April, the residents of Millbourne housing estate in Ashbourne, Co Meath, took note. The stories were posted days apart on the “independent media platform” The Ditch, initially zoning in on the deputy chairman of An Bord Pleanála, Paul Hyde.
Sarah Foley, a young mother who lives on the estate, recalled reading with mounting interest the litany of impropriety attributed to the second-most important person on the State’s independent planning authority.
There were multiple allegations of a failure to declare his interest in appeals he helped decide on; High Court entanglements; property interests allegedly not disclosed; and a fast-track property development close to land he part-owned with his father through their company, which he voted to reject.
Ms Foley, a member of the Millbourne Residents’ Association, recognised the name, checked the planning records and found it was, indeed, the same Paul Hyde who signed off on a development of apartment blocks on the only green space in her estate.
The large grassy field that houses fronted on to used to be a place where children played, dogs were walked and the community held summer parties. Planners had considered the green a “temporary public open space” in the past. But it was private property, and the developer, Rybo Partnership, owned by horse racing enthusiast Michael Ryan, applied for planning permission to build apartment blocks on it.
Planning applications were refused three times by Meath County Council and twice by An Bord Pleanála (ABP). But it was third time lucky for Rybo. In September 2020, Mr Hyde signed off on the development, overriding the planning inspector’s recommendation that it be refused.
The residents have been challenging ABP’s decision in the High Court, but the allegations of recent weeks have prompted a fresh flurry of letters from the residents’ association to ABP to revisit the development on Millbourne’s only green patch.
Local Sinn Féin TD Darren O’Rourke wrote to the planning authority last week, asking it to include the case in the internal review it has been compelled to conduct involving around 200 decisions involving Mr Hyde.
Mr O’Rourke will not be the only TD to do so. All around the country, communities and developers are questioning planning decisions that have not gone their way, and probably searching for Mr Hyde’s name on the decision documents.
The deluge of disclosures has left Ms Foley with less faith in the planning process than ever. “It was really disheartening,” she told the Sunday Independent this weekend. “I have no trust in the planning process now.”
There is no suggestion of impropriety on Mr Hyde’s part in reaching his decision on Millbourne. He has denied all wrongdoing. However, the reaction of the local residents’ association shows how the controversies have shaken public trust in a planning appeals process founded on core principals of impartiality and independence.
A controversy that started with a trickle in April has snowballed, with a third inquiry about to open. The Planning Regulator, which has oversight of planning authorities, has confirmed to the Sunday Independent that it is poised to start a third review, focusing on ABP’s decision-making processes, which it says “must be clarified in the public interest”.
Much of the trouble engulfing ABP can be boiled down to one core question: Were the stringent rules designed to ensure fairness and impartiality in the planning appeals process being followed?
ABP is founded on independence. Its nine members — made up of mostly architects, engineers and town planners — are nominated to the board by organisations such as unions, charities and community organisations.
The code of conduct they sign up to is designed to protect the integrity of an organisation tasked with running an open and impartial planning appeals system.
Members run the risk of committing a criminal offence if they fail to declare an interest in a case. They are not allowed to “knowingly” deal with cases in their immediate neighbourhoods, or with cases involving people who are “personally well-known to them”.
They must declare any associations that might give rise to a perception of bias and are not allowed to deal with any case that could impact on their own interests, land, business or profession. They must declare “any possible conflict of interest” when files are being presented at board meetings.
And another rule: if a member of ABP reaches a debt deal with creditors, they cease being members of ABP.
Mr Hyde (50) comes from a well-known family of sailors and business people in Cork. His father is Stephen Hyde, an architect. Mr Hyde went to the fee-paying Presentation Brothers school in the city. Simon Coveney, Fine Gael’s Foreign Affairs Minister, was a classmate and a friend. They later bought a yacht together, Dark Angel, which they raced with some success.
His brother, Stefan, is an engineer and a founding partner of Maurice Johnson and Partners (Fire Safety Engineering and Access Consultants), which does a lot of work for developers.
Paul Hyde ran his architecture practice, Hyde Partnership. Mr Coveney appointed his old school pal to the board of the Irish Marine Institute in 2012. Two years later, he was nominated to ABP by a community organisation (which turned out to be defunct at the time), and was appointed by Phil Hogan, then a Fine Gael minister.
Mr Hyde’s association with Mr Coveney did not go unnoticed on The Ditch. The website’s founders include Chay Bowes, the businessman who revealed Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar had leaked a confidential GP contract to his GP friend while he was Taoiseach.
Its first story about Mr Hyde, on April 6, pointed to the debt settlement side of the code of conduct. It reported that receivers had been appointed to three of his investment properties. He had failed to declare his interest in them to ABP, and he was named as a defendant in legal proceedings in the High Court in connection with property loans.
A week later, it reported an alleged undeclared conflict of interest, signing off on a development in which his brother’s fire safety company acted as consultant. Reports of more alleged conflict of interests followed.
Mr Hyde had allegedly failed to declare his interest when he voted to refuse a fast-track housing development in Blackpool in Cork. It emerged that the site was close to land owned by H20 Property Holdings. Mr Hyde has a 25pc stake in the company, which is controlled by his father.
Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien had appointed senior counsel Remy Farrell to examine Mr Hyde’s alleged conflicts of interest when another story broke.
This one revealed he was involved in a decision to grant a planning appeal submitted by his sister-in-law, Caroline Barron, in connection with the Sandymount home she shared with Mr Hyde’s brother, Stefan — another conflict of interest he allegedly failed to disclose.
Within a week, Mr Hyde agreed to stand aside as deputy chairman on a “strictly without prejudice” basis. Denied access to his office, computer and case files, he denied any wrongdoing. He acknowledged not declaring his 25pc stake in H20, but said he did not need to because the company is dormant.
In his sister-in-law’s case, he said he did not know it was her, because it was practice not to identify applicants or their addresses when decisions were presented.
Concerns surrounding Mr Hyde’s alleged conflicts of interests are deepened by the power he held in ABP. He was in charge of the board’s Strategic Housing Development division. The Government’s solution to fast-track housing allowed developers of large projects to bypass local authorities and apply directly to ABP for planning. Mr Hyde helped decide their fate.
A month on, the allegations keep coming, and they are no longer confined to Mr Hyde. There are claims of board members voting on planning appeals in their “immediate neighbourhood”, and the Fórsa union has confirmed that planning inspectors have complained of being asked to change their reports.
The Examiner has reported that Mr Hyde and one other planner voted on the majority of the 100 applications to build telecommunications masts in a 20-month period. In 31 out of 36 applications, Mr Hyde voted to override planning inspectors’ recommendations to refuse permission for masts.
A planning source said one of the most concerning disclosures was that many significant cases were being decided by only two people, and sometimes the same two.
“A telecoms mast is controversial, and it is not a good idea to have cases decided by two people, but also to have these cases decided, by and large, by the same two people,” the source said.
ABP said this weekend that the normal quorum for a board meeting is three members, and that proposed strategic infrastructure is precluded from being decided by a two-person board.
All this begs the question: Was ABP following its own rules? Opposition parties are convinced that nothing short of a thorough root and branch inquiry of An Bord Pleanála will do.
Remy Farrell’s review for the minister is confined to Mr Hyde’s alleged conflicts of interest, including his sister-in-law’s appeal and whether there were debt deals with creditors, which, under the code of conduct, mean he “shall cease to be” a member of the board. It is not clear whether ABP’s internal review has broadened from Mr Hyde’s case files.
The planning regulator said it will start a “formal process” once Mr Farrell’s report is finished, examining the wider concerns raised, including “patterns of decision-making and amendments to inspectors’ reports submitted to the board in its decision-making process”.
It may go some way to satisfy opposition demands.
“There are now multiple allegations,” said Cian O’Callaghan, housing spokesman for the Social Democrats. “It’s knocking confidence in the planning process.
“Planning decisions are being questioned, and this needs to be thoroughly investigated. We have also heard very little from An Bord Pleanála. They have been invited to an Oireachtas committee, but we don’t know yet if they will come.”