Thank you, Chairman. In our appearance before the previous Committee of Public Accounts we provided detailed information on the trends affecting the work of the board. For the benefit of members, I have circulated some details updating these trends, on developments since then and in response to the Comptroller and Auditor General's VFM report.
I will begin with the workload of the board to bring the committee up to date with what is happening. In 2001 the intake of appeals peaked at 5,422, the highest on record. Last year the number fell by 15% to 4,562, but this year the trend has increased, with the result that there will be probably an increase. It is difficult to estimate its size in percentage terms.
The output of the board has been increasing. Up to 2002, notwithstanding the continued increase, it was still trailing the intake. However, there was a big change in 2002 as a result of the various measures the board took to try to deal with the backlog that had built up. In 2001 output increased by 5.5% but was still behind the intake. In 2002 the output of cases determined by the board increased to almost 5,900, by far the highest number recorded since its establishment. Together with the drop in the intake, this resulted in a complete turnaround in trends over previous years. Therefore, the number of cases in hand in the board decreased very significantly in 2002. As a result, there has been a considerable improvement in terms of performance vis-à-vis time objectives which I am glad to say has continued into 2003. There are detailed figures before the committee which show that last month we were determining almost 80% of cases within the statutory objective period. The average time to dispose of cases was 15.8 weeks. As members will know, the statutory objective period is 18 weeks. Our strategic target is to meet this target in 90% of cases. We are continuing our efforts in this regard.
As I said in my last appearance before the committee, the board has taken every conceivable measure to find ways to deal with the backlog of cases and our efforts have been successful. One of the additional measures we have taken has been to widen further the pool of planners available for recruitment by the board by allowing them to be headquartered outside Dublin. Another change made since previous discussions has been the assumption by the board of functions relating to the approval of infrastructural projects. This has become a significant feature of its work as major public infrastructural projects being carried out by local authorities on a public private partnership basis must be approved by the board under the EIS or the compulsory purchase order procedure.
Generally, the board is satisfied that it has carried out its new functions effectively and efficiently. There is no backlog of cases in these areas. In fact, there are only four major road schemes in hand, though five are referred to here, which may come as a surprise given the reports which appear in the media from time to time.
I assure the committee that the board attaches considerable importance to infrastructural projects and that there is a separate system for dealing with them. They are not caught up in the day-to-day appeal work handled under separate structures. Within the planning appeal structure we have a system to prioritise major infrastructural projects such as large housing schemes, energy and water projects, waste developments and major employment generating projects. Naturally, as such cases involve larger projects, they are more complex, difficult and time consuming. We have a special system to track them to ensure they are dealt with as quickly as possible. We have a dedicated team of inspectors to deal with larger housing schemes to ensure there are no bottlenecks. We have improved our performance generally in regard to these priority projects and are certainly not complacent. There is room for further improvement. We are engaged in the examination of further measures which can be taken to ensure larger cases are processed in the shortest possible time.
The Planning and Development Act 2000 effected major changes to the planning system. The most important relating to appeals is the requirement that persons wishing to make third party appeals must have made a submission to the planning authority during the currency of the planning application at local stage to establish a right of appeal. It is a little too early to say what the effect of these changes will be but the figures we have indicate they have reduced the number of third party appeals. To a greater extent, they have invalidated many of the appeals we receive as third party appellants have not made submissions to the planning authority.
At our last meeting with the Committee of Public Accounts we indicated that the board was carrying out a major review of its structures and organisation to ensure we put in place procedures which would enable us to discharge our functions as efficiently as possible. A draft report was submitted to us by independent consultants which recommended radical changes to the structures and procedures of the board. It has been the subject of observations by management and staff and we hope to finalise it soon. If the committee is wondering why it has taken so long, the answer is that we have taken a conscious decision that our priority has to be to deal with the backlog and get arrears and delays under control. We hope to finalise the future structure of the board later this year.
The VFM report drew attention to many qualitative issues about the analysis of decisions. Since its submission, the board and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have established a joint working group to consider the issues raised, many of which have a wider impact on the planning system than on the board. Two of the report's conclusions related to the rate of planning authority decisions reversed by the board. The board has published a table outlining, in relation to each local authority, the rate at which its decisions are appealed and the rate at which those decisions are reversed. Such tables will continue to be published which should aid analysis of the performance of individual local authorities.
The VFM report also referred to the need for a system to assess the quality of board decisions and the need for an analysis of the reasons board decisions did not, at times, accord with an inspector's recommendations. The board has been very conscious of the need for quality in its decisions. I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for his comments on the professionalism with which we carry out our duties. The board has been conscious that its decisions must stand up to scrutiny from any quarter. We have many procedures in place to ensure we give decisions of the best possible quality, some of which I have listed in the briefing material. We regard consistency as integral to quality.
In practically all cases the board can avail of a professional planning report before it makes its decision. It has 12 members and normally operates on the basis that the statutory quota for a meeting is three members. Most decisions are made at meetings attended by three members who work according to a rotation system. Strong contacts are maintained by board members. Issues of general application which arise from time to time are discussed regularly among all board members and cases of particular significance due to size or the issues involved are referred to larger or full board meetings.
To assist in the better analysis of appeal outcomes, the board has been undertaking a number of detailed studies of three prominent categories. We decided initially to examine wind farms, telecommunications masts and one-off rural houses which are the subject of a substantial number of appeals. We hope to publish the results of these studies in our 2002 annual report. In the meantime some preliminary results in relation to two matters are available and can be communicated to the committee.
In the case of telecommunications masts, third party appeals against planning authority decisions have only a 10% success rate, well below the average, while first party appeals against planning authority decisions to refuse have a 44% success rate. The pattern is somewhat different in the case of wind farms in respect of which 25% of first party appeals against refusals were successful. Only 33% of third party appeals were successful.
In relation to overturning an inspector's recommendation, the traditional pattern continues to be maintained with a success rate of around 10%. We agree with the Comptroller and Auditor General that the matter may merit more detailed examination. The three studies we are undertaking will cover issues such as this. We will continue to analyse the inspectors' reasons. Each inspector gets a copy of the board's decision and its reason for overturning the report. There is nothing secret about it; it is in the file where the applicants or appellants can read it. In fact, with cases being decided under the 2000 Act, the reason the board disagreed with the inspector in the granting or refusal of permission is given in the board order.
On the wider issue of the quality of board decisions, in principle, the board would have no difficulty with, and would welcome, any assessment of the quality of its decisions. We believe it will stand up to scrutiny from any source. However, we must be careful that such a system does not lead to the reopening of decided cases, uncertainty about the finality of board determinations or involve undue diversion of the board's scarce resources.
Planning authority decisions can be measured by reference to the outcome of appeals - one yardstick for measuring the quality of local authority decisions. Unfortunately, since the board is the final arbiter, there is no similar ready yardstick available to it. It is difficult, therefore, to devise a system of quality assessment of its decisions, just as it would be difficult to devise a system of quality assessment of court decisions. While it is a difficult issue, we should not give up on it. There are possible approaches. The joint working group between the Department and the board is looking at this in considerable detail and we are looking forward to the recommendations it might make in this regard.
The final issue, mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is the number of reports being produced by board inspectors, in respect of which there has been a downward trend in recent years. To be fair, it is wrong to view this too simplistically because a number of factors bear heavily on it, one of which is the increased scale and complexity of the work. There is no doubt that the number of large and contentious developments coming before the board has increased substantially. A number of housing schemes are before it. They do not involve hundreds of houses, which would have been regarded as a large scheme a few years ago, but thousands. There are waste projects, which are difficult, and many quarry projects. There are also wind farm projects. These developments require a large input from inspectors which is bound to affect the number of reports an inspector can carry out over a given period.
Another fact mentioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General was that a large number, almost 50%, of the simpler cases in 2002 - the number has changed this year - were carried out by outside consultants, not the board's inspectorate. The ongoing problem of a high turnover of inspectors, unfortunately, tends to affect productivity. A final factor which should be mentioned, although it should not be overplayed, is that new legislation also has some effect on the output of inspectors while they get up to speed with it.
For the past year or so we have had in place a system of close monitoring of inspectors' work performance and reporting carried out by the planning officer and deputy planning officers. We are hoping this can ensure we get the maximum output from inspectors. We are also looking at other measures such as a greater degree of standardisation of reports, how to streamline oral hearings and so forth, which would also contribute to better output from inspectors.
That summarises the position. I hope I did not exceed my time.