The operation of the State’s independent planning authority is to be reviewed for the first time in the wake of a controversial case where a decision was overturned by the courts.
Within Government circles there are concerns about the amount of time it can take to grant planning permission, where applications are being appealed.
Environment Minister Alan Kelly is recruiting a team of experts to carry out a review of An Bord Pleanala.
The independence of the body’s decisions is to be kept free from political interference, but other aspects of how it does its business will be examined.
The review is intended to strengthen the consistence and transparency of decisions taken by An Bord Pleanala.
A recent case where the High Court overturned a decision granting permission for two wind farm developments in Co Roscommon is understood to be key to the review.
Ms Justice Finlay Geoghegan found the board had failed to carry out an appropriate assessment of the plans in accordance with the EU Habitats Directive.
Government sources say the case demonstrated the body going against its own report and resulted in costs being awarded to objectors.
The construction industry has also raised concerns about the length of time it takes to grant planning permission for projects between delays at local authority level and appeals to An Bord Pleanala.
The examination is expected to ascertain if there are ways of speeding up the process, while still having an open and transparent process.
An Bord Pleanala is also expected to be more accountable in justifying decisions to objectors and also reporting to Oireachtas committees on its activities.
The review will look at aspects of the operation of the planning body, including the expected increase in construction activity and the related increase of planning applications and appeals in the coming years as the economy recovers.
It will also look at the anticipated increase in strategic infrastructure proposals such as major roads and electricity transmission line, and An Bord Pleanala’s responsibilities in the assessment of proposals for SDZs (Sustainable Development Zones).
It will examine the recent added responsibilities relating to the co-ordination of “projects of common interest” (PCIs), where it acts as a one-stop shop on the granting of all necessary permits and planning permissions for key cross-border energy infrastructure projects.
The review will also look at the ever complex planning environment due to the development of the EU Habitats Directive and other ecological considerations, the body’s increasing exposure to judicial reviews and legal challenges, and the ongoing updating of planning legislation and ministerial planning policy guidance.
“One matter that will not be considered for review is An Bord Pleanala’s independence of decision making which has to be kept free from political interference,” a source said.
The exact terms of reference for the review have not yet been developed or decided.
But the review is expected to make recommendations on:
• The organisational structure, including resources and any lack of expertise;
• The systems, procedures and administrative practices employed;
• The decision-making processes in determining planning appeals and relevant planning applications;
• The communication with both the public and elected representatives.
The review will be finished in the first half of next year.
“Terms of reference are currently being drafted and the review will be commenced before the end of the year. We need to make sure all our planning bodies are equipped to face future challenges,” Mr Kelly’s spokesperson confirmed.