I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear before it to assist in its examination of An Bord Pleanála's most recent financial statements and to discuss the board's important work and its recent progress in delivering on its statutory mandate. Considering that I took up the post of chairman of An Bord Pleanála in November 2018, 11 months ago, I may, with the Chairman's indulgence, ask my colleagues to address some of the issues that may be raised during the session. They may be more familiar with some of the matters.
It is important to remind the committee that it would not be appropriate to discuss individual planning cases, as to do so could compromise decisions or various judicial review cases before the courts. However, where we can discuss generalities of case types and broad issues emerging, we will endeavour to be as helpful to the committee as possible.
The board is well aware of its critical role in considering and determining planning appeals and major housing and infrastructure proposals, and it remains committed to delivering decisions as quickly and effectively as possible. We are also very cognisant of our corporate governance responsibilities. I can confirm that the board considers itself in full compliance with all applicable provisions of the code of practice for the governance of State bodies.
We have developed and use a framework of assurances, including an audit and risk committee and internal audits, and we undertake regular updates at management committee and board levels of our risks and mitigation actions. As is required under the code of practice, I receive a report annually from the independent, external chair of the audit and risk committee. The committee's most recent report has confirmed that our risk management processes and internal controls are operating effectively. As chairperson, I am also reassured of our financial and governance controls through the unqualified audit opinion from the Comptroller and Auditor General, both for 2018 and for all previously audited years.
The committee will have noted from our annual report and accounts that, in financial terms, as outlined by Mr. McCarthy, the board had a total income of €24.4 million in 2018, comprising primarily an Exchequer grant of €17.5 million and fees revenue of just over €4 million. We spent just over €24 million, leaving a surplus of just over €550,000 when capital transfers and appropriations were taken into account.
I will give members a little background on the organisation. The board currently has 164 whole-time equivalent staff and ten board members. The Minister and Department have been very supportive in approving recent resource requests, including our workforce plan for the period 2019-20, in recognition of the increasing demands and complexity of the cases that are coming before the board, including in relation to strategic housing developments, vacant site levy cases and major infrastructure projects, and taking into account the forecast increase in cases.
In policy terms, the national planning framework and the emerging regional spatial and economic strategies set a clear priority for appropriate development in the right locations to facilitate the sustainable and orderly growth of our cities, towns and rural areas, and the board has a clear role in implementing such policies through efficient and consistent processing of case decisions.
In a constantly evolving and more complex legislative and legal context, where environmental issues and public participation are rightly to the fore, it is crucial that the board has all the information it needs to make sound decisions and gives people time to feed in their views on proposals during the deliberative process, reflecting our core principles of integrity, independence and fair-mindedness.
While it is acknowledged that the board's capacity and performance to meet its statutory objective period of 18 weeks has been impacted, particularly in 2018, by the transition to our new case management system, the increased caseload and the fallout from reduced board capacity in 2017, we have made strong progress to turn things around in recent months.
In 2018, we recorded a 32% increase in the number of cases decided over the previous year, with over 2,800 decisions made. In November and December alone, we decided almost 600 cases, which is up 36% on the same two months in 2017. This helped us to reduce the number of cases on hand by more than 300, from 1,355 to just over 1,000 files at the end of the year. This reflects the commitment of our hard-working staff and board to really get to grips with the backlog generated and deliver robust decisions as efficiently as possible.
In terms of meeting our 18-week statutory objective period for deciding normal planning appeals, we are aware that an overall compliance rate of 43% for 2018 is not what we would like. Equally, however, the priority and focus for me since I arrived in the job and took over as chairperson has been to process and decide those cases longest with the board, which had a consequential impact on our percentage compliance rate last year. However, we have a clear plan in 2019 to clear the backlog and get back to a compliance rate of 70% to 80% by the end of this year. Things are going well. Our aggregate compliance rate for appeals for the year was up to 67% by the end of August, and the average decision time was 19.5 weeks, down from 22.5 weeks in 2018. For the last four months, we have averaged 78% compliance but we know that more work is needed. The board’s performance in relation to strategic housing developments has been very strong, with 39 cases decided during 2018, all within the 16-week target.
In overall terms, last year the board granted permission for 27 applications for more than 7,100 housing units and almost 4,500 student bed-spaces, which is a vital contribution to the overall increase in residential activity. This trend has ramped up significantly in 2019, with 40 applications granted permission in the first eight months of this year for a cumulative 9,070 homes and more than 3,000 student bed-spaces. We are continuing to prioritise these cases and to deal with any large-scale housing appeals expeditiously.
Over the course of 2018, the board prepared a five-year strategic plan with four clear goals. These are to: protect and enhance our reputation for independence, impartiality, integrity, trust and transparency; make robust, timely and high-quality decisions which support proper planning and sustainable development; improve our service to meet changing customer expectations; and foster a motivated, resilient and responsive organisation. While this is, of course, a five-year strategy out to 2023, there are a number of initiatives and actions that we are prioritising in 2019 to help to realise these objectives and set us on the right path. High among these priorities is the roll-out and refinement of the project, Plean-IT, which will ultimately enable appeals, observations, submissions and applications to be made online, linking in with the local authorities’ own e-planning initiatives.
I am conscious that I am taking up members’ valuable time to raise specific issues so I will leave it there. I have included some summary graphs in my submission. These outline high-level statistics as a reference. We are happy to take any questions.