The Green Party chairperson of the Oireachtas housing committee was warned about serious issues in An Bord Pleanála (ABP) this February but ignored the allegations.
Central to the allegations made to Green Party TD and committee chairperson Steven Mattews was the claim that ABP board members weren’t being assigned case files at random but were rather picking and choosing applications. The Irish Examiner last weekend reported that ABP deputy chairperson Paul Hyde, currently the subject of two investigations into alleged misconduct, voted on 75 of the 100 applications for telecommunications masts over the last 20 months. Fellow board member Michelle Fagan voted on 78 of the same applications.
Just two months after Matthews received this letter, The Ditch published the first in a series of articles raising governance issues at ABP. Social Democrats TD and housing spokesperson Cian O'Callaghan told The Ditch, “If government TDs were aware of serious allegations regarding An Bord Pleanála back in February, they should explain why these allegations were not investigated at that point.”
‘Contrary to previous and long-established practice in ABP’
Former Irish Times environment editor and author of A Little History of the Future of Dublin Frank McDonald in November 2021 first wrote to the Office of the Planning Regulator, whose role involves ensuring that ABP adheres to government planning policy.
McDonald – who this week began a High Court challenge against an 18-storey, build-to-rent apartment complex in Kilmainham, Dublin 8 – in his letter to the regulator made a series of allegations against ABP. He requested of the regulator an “in-depth examination of maladministration in An Bord Pleanála”.
One of the most serious of McDonald’s claims was that ABP board members were assigning themselves to particular applications.
“Previous chairpersons of An Bord Pleanála,” McDonald wrote, “were at pains to point out that individual planning appeal files were allocated on a random basis to board members. He went on to say, “Files were considered by, and decided by, different groupings of board members on a random basis. It is of the utmost importance that you should establish whether that is still the case.”
McDonald asked whether Paul Hyde, as head of ABP’s strategic housing development division (SHD), was assigning himself to particular SHDs – fast-tracked developments of more than 100 residential units. This, McDonald wrote, would be “contrary to previous and long-established practice in ABP that such allocation is done randomly”.
The regulator responded to McDonald and addressed his call for an investigation into ABP, ultimately saying the office wasn’t empowered “to examine complaints made by members of the public about An Bord Pleanála”.
‘A very disturbing pattern emerged’
The planning regulator's response led McDonald to write to Green Party spokesperson for planning and local government Steven Matthews on 15 February of this year.
McDonald in his letter to Matthews, who chairs the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, attached his letter to the Office of the Planning Regulator. McDonald explained to Matthews that, having researched board minutes for successful SHD applications, “A very disturbing pattern emerged.”
“Decisions on SHD schemes, particularly those of a high-rise nature,” wrote McDonald, “were made by panels of three that consistently included two particular board members rather than being allocated randomly among board members, contrary to assurances given to the Oireachtas by previous chairpersons of An Bord Pleanála.”
The two particular board members, according to McDonald, were Hyde and Michelle Fagan – the latter of whom, as reported by The Ditch, has also voted on planning applications less than 400 metres from her home.
McDonald told Matthews, “The Board must secure – and retain – public confidence in its judgement and professionalism, and its demonstration of these qualities must equal or surpass those available in local authorities. Sadly, it has squandered this trust over the past three years.”
Matthews didn’t respond to the letter, sent just before articles in The Ditch, Irish Examiner, Irish Times and Irish Daily Mail, as well as segments on RTÉ’s Prime Time, began raising serious questions about ABP.
Social Democrats TD Dublin Bay North Cian O’Callaghan, who sits on the housing committee with Matthews, said McDonald’s allegations weren’t shared with committee members.
“To the best of my knowledge this correspondence to the chair of the Oireachtas housing committee was never brought to the attention of members of the committee. I’ll be seeking an explanation as to why it was not circulated to members of the committee for consideration.
“An Bord Pleanála is entrusted with a very important and powerful role in our planning process and allegations regarding board members assigning themselves cases when they should be assigned at random must be treated very seriously," he said.
Matthews, when asked why he didn’t respond to McDonald’s letter, told The Ditch that he “met with Frank McDonald and other experienced and competent people concerned about planning matters in ABP”. He also said that the housing committee “has issued an invite to ABP to attend a public meeting”.
It is understood however that the meeting Matthews was referring to was a Green Party Zoom gathering and that he never formally responded to McDonald’s letter nor the complaint he made about ABP.