There is a housing emergency, worsening by the week. In an emergency, the urgency to build is not only understandable, but imperative. That does not lessen in any way the requirement for rigorous oversight. Indeed, bad memories of the wild-west mentality that allowed shoddy buildings to be thrown up during the Celtic Tiger period have not faded.
Such is the background to the troubling revelations concerning the planning appeals body, An Bord Pleanála ( ABP). The drip feed of claims and allegations is starting to mount up.
Paul Hyde, ABP’s deputy chairman, is at the centre of conflict-of-interest claims, which he denies. A review of his decisions is under way. However, as An Bord Pleanála struggles to deal with the issues highlighted, a bigger picture is also emerging. It points to a situation where planning officials feel they are being routinely put under pressure to change reports to allow through questionable developments.
It seems inevitable a wide, more comprehensive review of events at An Bord Pleanála will prove necessary. Indeed, many argue it should already be a matter of urgent priority.
No planning system can function without broad public confidence in its workings. In today’s Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks opinion poll, a significant majority of respondents have expressed concern about recent reports.
Around the country, however, citizens directly affected by particular planning decisions in their communities are closely monitoring events.
Serial objections to planning proposals, often in the form of nimbyism, are of mounting frustration to those who cannot find homes in a broken property market. Residents living close to proposed developments, often backed up by local political representatives, have recourse to the legal system to halt what might be perfectly reasonable or legitimate developments.
These tensions — and competing agendas — are often difficult to reconcile. This makes it all the more important that those who will ultimately come down on one side or the other are seen to be acting in a transparent manner.
No housing emergency can be so bad that it necessitates driving proposed developments through the planning system to meet demands. In any review, it might be necessary to establish
whether instructions of any sort were issued from within the political system to the planning appeals board in the face of public objections.
Reports that officials within ABP felt under pressure to change reports to green-light certain developments are disquieting in the extreme.
There should be no shortcut through the planning system. If objections are prolonging the housing crisis, there is a solution to that too.
It may be necessary to better resource An Bord Pleanála. Irrespective of the outcome of the process now under way, it is clear that the planning body is under extreme pressure.
Planning objections are regularly made and routinely appealed. Everything from a standard house extension to a large-scale block of high-rise apartments eventually makes its way to planning officials. Surely there is a better way of managing the burgeoning caseload.
A case seems already made that any review of An Bord Pleanála must ask the question: is too much being asked of too few officials? And is the wider planning system under which those officials are operating fit for purpose?
There are two reviews under way. The Planning Regulator is also taking a keen interest in the controversy. That is as it should be. Slowly but surely, as our poll today indicates, confidence in the planning system is being undermined. The situation demands a robust response.