The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) notes the positive progress being made in the implementation of the recommendations from its Review of Systems and Procedures used by An Bord Pleanála.
The OPR review, which was carried out in two phases and concluded at the end of 2022, made 34 recommendations aimed at strengthening procedures, restoring public confidence and ensuring the effectiveness of the national planning system. Twelve months on, significant progress has been made with many recommendations already implemented. Operational reform will continue in 2024 in advance of the structural reorganisation being progressed through the Planning & Development Bill 2023.
The OPR has been engaging closely with An Bord Pleanála throughout the year in relation to implementation of the review recommendations, and will continue to do so in 2024. OPR monitoring to the end of 2023 acknowledges the following progress:
- Restoring capacity at board level within the organisation to deal with ongoing caseload was a fundamental recommendation of the OPR review. Since early 2023 an expanded board of 15 members has been in place (up from five at the time of review), which has allowed An Bord Pleanála make inroads in relation to the backlog of planning files.
- The mechanism allowing for board meetings with a quorum of two members has been permanently removed.
- A new Code of Conduct, based on guiding principles identified in the OPR review, was introduced in September 2023. This Code sets a new standard for staff and board members in the delivery of their responsibilities.
- A dedicated Ethics Officer has been appointed to oversee the ethics regime and to ensure higher standards of governance and monitoring across An Bord Pleanála.
- A new in-house legal unit has been established to support the decision-making process.
- The review’s recommendation to restructure the organisation, to separate day-to-day operations from the quasi-judicial planning decision-making function, is being progressed through the Oireachtas. The current Bill introduces a new name – An Coimisiún Pleanála – reflecting a new organisational, management and governance structure whereby planning decisions will be dealt with by Planning Commissioners, operational management will be led by a Chief Executive and the overall strategic direction of the renewed organisation will be overseen by a Governing Board.
- Continued progress is being made in relation to the enhancement and development of internal decision-making procedures to ensure that processes are unquestionably robust in terms of transparency and fairness. Clearly established guidance and protocols are being implemented in relation to all stages of the decision-making process to assist staff.
- A renewed focus has been placed on staff development and performance. This has included a focus on internal communications. An Bord Pleanála is also placing an increased emphasis on external communications and engagement with stakeholders.
The significant progress made in relation to staff recruitment must also be acknowledged. While recruitment is ongoing, over 100 new posts have been sanctioned since the OPR review was initiated. Approximately 250 staff, including board members, are now working within An Bord Pleanála and the overall complement of staff is expected to exceed 300 during 2024.
While significant progress is being made, the effect of the backlog of planning files continues to be a significant concern for the overall operation of the planning process and the stakeholders it serves. While the on-hand caseload has been reduced from a high of approximately 3,600 planning files to 2,400, the effective elimination of the current backlog, and the avoidance of a similar build up in the future, is critical to upholding public confidence in the efficacy of the planning process. A key pillar of the above is the maintenance of a sufficient number of board members (commissioners) and staff.
The OPR will continue to work with An Bord Pleanála and the Department of Housing, Local Government & Heritage to ensure that the issues identified through the review process are addressed and that a culture of continuous improvement is embedded within An Bord Pleanála. Following the confirmation in January of Peter Mullan’s appointment as chairperson in a fulltime capacity, it is expected that this challenge is one that will be addressed during 2024.