I thank the Chairman and committee members for this opportunity to appear before the committee early in my term to discuss some of the important work the board is doing and to highlight some recent progress and priorities for the coming year. As the Chairman mentioned, I am joined by Ms Loretta Lambkin, chief officer, and Ms Rachel Kenny, director of planning. As I have only recently taken up the post of chairman, with the committee's indulgence, I will defer to my colleagues to answer questions that may be posed, which they may be better placed to answer.
The board is well aware of its critical role in considering and determining planning appeals and major housing and infrastructure proposals, and we remain fully committed to delivering decisions as quickly and effectively as possible. The national planning framework, NPF, 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 hinterlands, and the board has a clear role in implementing such policies through efficient processing of case decisions. In a constantly evolving and more complex legislative and legal context, where environmental issues and public participation are to the fore, it is also 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. This reflects our core principles of integrity, independence and fair-mindedness.
To give the committee a little background on the organisation, the board currently has 159.5 whole-time equivalent staff and ten board members. The Minister and the Department have been supportive in approving recent resource requests, in recognition of the increased demands and complexity of the cases that are coming before the board, including in regard to strategic housing developments, vacant site levy cases and major infrastructure projects, as well as the forecast increase in case intake that we expect during the coming years. We are currently undertaking a workforce plan to assess our future capacity to deliver on our statutory mandate in a timely manner and we will shortly write to the Minister identifying what we see as the core resource requirements to maintain and improve our performance.
While it is acknowledged that the board’s capacity and performance to meet our statutory objective period of 18 weeks has been impacted by the transition to our new IT system called Plean-IT, the increased intake and caseload as well as the fallout from reduced board capacity in the past, 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 more than 2,800 decisions made. In November and December alone, we decided almost 600 cases, which was up 36% on the same months in 2017 and helped to reduce the number of cases on hands by more than 300 from the level of 1,355 to just more than 1,000 files currently. This great push and effort reflects the commitment of our hard-working staff and board to 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 a 40% rate is not where we want to be but, equally, the priority and focus for me in my first few months has been to process and decide the cases longest with the board, which has meant that many of the cases determined in the past three months were beyond the 18-week period. This has had a knock-on consequential impact on our percentage compliance rate, but we have a clear plan in 2019 to clear the backlog during the first half of the year and get back to a compliance rate of 80% plus by the end of the year. The compliance rate for appeals decided in December had improved to almost 50%.
The board’s performance with respect to strategic housing developments has been strong, with 39 cases decided during 2018, all well within the 16-week target. Overall, the board granted planning for more than 7,100 housing units and almost 4,500 student bed spaces during 2018, which is a vital contribution to the overall increase in residential activity. We expect a significant increase in housing applications in 2019, reflecting the ongoing demand for pre-application meetings. We have 19 applications up for decision in the next three months, which have the aggregate capacity to deliver approximately 4,170 residential units and more than 1,750 student bed spaces. We will continue to prioritise these cases and deal with any large-scale housing appeals expeditiously.
During 2018, An Bord Pleanála prepared a five-year strategic plan with four clear goals, namely, to protect and enhance our reputation for independence, impartiality, integrity, trust and transparency; to make robust, timely and high-quality decisions that support proper planning and sustainable development; to improve our service to meet changing customer expectations; and to foster a motivated, resilient and responsive organisation. While this is a five-year strategy, we will prioritise a number of initiatives and actions in 2019 to help realise these objectives and set us on the right path. High among these priorities is the roll-out and refinement of our Plean-IT project, which will ultimately enable applications and appeals to be made online, linking in with the local authorities' own e-Planning initiative. This year will also see the development of a new website to make it easier to find information and a separate web portal through which online appeals and applications will ultimately be lodged. Furthermore, in light of the likely increase in strategic infrastructure applications, I am also prioritising a review of our processes, including our pre-application consultations, to learn and apply lessons from our own and participants’ experiences in the past and to identify ways to streamline and ensure that we are operating as efficiently as possible to facilitate robust and swift decisions.
As the largest planning body in the country, with exposure to a wide range of case types and issues, it is also incumbent on the board to support the Department, planning authorities and the new Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, to ensure planning policies are practical, consistent and clearly understood by all.
The board provided practical, helpful advice to the Department on the establishment of the strategic housing development functions in 2016, and I believe that we can also contribute to shaping and informing new policies and legislation to improve everyone's understanding of the planning code and ensure a consistency of approach across the country. I am conscious that I am taking up members' valuable time to raise particular issues so I will leave it there. We are happy to take any questions. I have included a couple of summary graphs with my statement that give members a sense of the type of cases we deal with and also the level of activity in recent years.