In our application to make this presentation today we specified five points of major concern regarding An Bord Pleanála. The first two deal with aspects of genuine rural representation — or rather the lack of it — on the board. A few points at this stage suffice to set the scene, but the committee may wish to return to rural representation later. First, and uniquely in Europe, one third of the population live in single houses in the countryside. In a just society, therefore, this should be genuinely reflected in the constitution of the board. Second, as recently as 9 May this year, Urban Institute Ireland, based in UCD, which is studying the development of guidelines for managing housing in the countryside, sought the views of various interested parties at a workshop session in Dublin. A planning inspector with An Bord Pleanála is on record as saying there should be no housing in the countryside. This statement has huge implications not alone for any element of fair and impartial treatment for cases being appealed, but is also in direct conflict with Government policy.
Third, one of Ireland's most important industries, farming, has been represented on the board since 2002, by two professional career planners who were employed by the board as senior planning inspectors at the time of their nomination by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Both of these were reappointed for a further five years by the then Minister, Deputy Dick Roche, in 2007. They can be further reappointed in 2012 for a final five-year term under the planning Act — a potential total of 15 years. Over the past eight months the IRDA sought answers from the Minister, Deputy John Gormley, John O'Connor, chairman of An Bord Pleanála and David Begg, CEO of ICTU, regarding the specific nomination and appointment of these two planning inspectors to the board. The questions, which have produced no answers to date, were published by the IRDA in a quarter-page advertisement in the Sunday Independent on 30 September 2007 and subsequently pursued by way of parliamentary questions and representations by Senators and Deputies.
Typical answers received by these Oireachtas Members ignore the actual questions, stating instead that the Minister is "satisfied that the current nomination and appointment processes are fair and transparent." However, protestations of fairness and transparency are not an adequate substitute for answers and in that context we welcome this opportunity to continue our quest for answers in this democratic forum today.
The IRDA wishes to stress that we ask these questions today as ordinary members of the public. Therefore, questions relating to the strict legality of these appointments are based on our reading of the appropriate sections of the Planning Acts as they appear to us. It is our view that in a democracy, where all citizens must obey the laws of the land, it follows that those laws must, in essence, be written in clear unequivocal language capable of being correctly interpreted by the average literate person. Ignorance of the law, we understand, is no excuse for breaking it.
I will now give a brief background to the questions relating to the appointments to the board. Ordinary members must be nominated by prescribed organisations. Currently there are 40 prescribed organisations grouped together in a number of panels representative of all sections of society. Members of the board are not intended to be experts as such. The board has experts to advise it. That statement has appeared many times on letters, copies of which have been received under freedom of information requests. However, six of the current ten-member board have professional qualifications in planning. One panel in 2001 comprised ICTU, the IFA, the ICMSA, the ICA and Muintir na Tíre. Legislation states that one member shall be selected from this panel. Nonetheless, in 2002, two senior planning inspectors were appointed to the board through being nominated by the ICTU at the same time.
Furthermore the Act states that not more than one member shall be appointed from any single organisation within the panel in the circumstances prevailing at that time. On 27 November 2006 the then Minister, Deputy Roche, said:
New board members are selected following an open and comprehensive request for nominations by a range of organisations representing the broad range of social interests. This process helps ensure that the board reflects the broader society that it serves.
These words clearly express the spirit of the law. In these circumstances it is impossible to visualise a situation where two people could justifiably be appointed from any one prescribed organisation, given that there are 40 organisations in total and that the majority may never have had any person appointed at all.
It is deeply disturbing that these two appointments were made in 2002, all the more so given that both appointees were full-time employees of the board at the time. Today, of the eight ordinary members appointed to the board through the panel system — the remainder are appointed directly by the Minister — some 25% come from one prescribed organisation. We can just imagine the outcry which would ensue if two members of, let us say, the IRDA were appointed to the board at the same time.
We have the following questions regarding these two appointments. Were all five organisations in the panel written to for nominations? We would like to see evidence from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. If so, how many submitted names? Once again we would like to see evidence. Given that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is supposedly independent, other than administering the appointments system, and that the board itself supposedly plays no act or part in appointing members and is not aware who has been appointed until informed by letter from the Minister — this is based on a Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government public statement — where did the suggestion to nominate two serving employees of the board, through ICTU, originate? This information is highly relevant and should be made public in the interests of openness, fairness and transparency.
As part of the nomination process, ICTU was required to provide letters from the two planning inspectors giving their consent to their names going forward. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was, therefore, at least aware of the intentions of the inspectors. Our question is whether it is credible in these circumstances to accept that the board or its chairman was not also aware that two of its senior planning inspectors had been nominated by ICTU. The Department stated that a professional qualification in planning, though not essential, was an added advantage for members given the nature of the job. That was stated in a report in the Irish Farmers’ Journal . Is it credible in these circumstances to accept that the nomination of the two planning inspectors, whose CVs and senior positions as employees of the board were fully known to the Department, did not receive favourable treatment over other nominees submitted by rural organisations?
Given that there is widespread unease regarding the total lack of rural representation on the board as well as the fact that the original appointments for five years have been extended to ten years, the IRDA contends that nothing short of an inquiry in depth, probably under oath, will reveal the full details surrounding the appointments discussed here. Considering that there is also widespread concern, under many headings, regarding the full appointment of any serving employees on to the board other than as an interim measure in certain specific circumstances, the results of such an inquiry would reveal whether the appointments system is truly ethically and legally above board and not susceptible to manipulation by any party.
The IRDA has stated publicly that the board could be entirely composed of its own employees in the future, and that would be in the medium term, given the precedent established in the case of the two planning inspectors. Mr. John O'Connor, chairman of the board, at a meeting with the IRDA dismissed this assertion, saying that the panel system would prevent this happening. However, the legal situation is that, if requested, a prescribed organisation can nominate any person it chooses, and that person is not required to be a member of the organisation in question. This legal fact affords no protection to the composition of the board from manipulation if parties are willing to so act. The re-appointment of the two inspectors for a further five years in 2007 means that farming interests continue to be represented on the board by two professional career planners. That information is contained in a written answer to a question in the Dáil. The IRDA considers this a cynical facade and an insult to democracy. It copper-fastens distrust in the board.
The further papers included with this presentation relate to what I have spoken about and include a copy of the relevant sections of the Planning and Development Act 2000.