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Irish Times – Nov 26th
Public confidence in board 'at risk'

Analysis: Any perception that An Bord Pleanála lacks independence has been vigorously denied by its chairman, writes Frank McDonald

The last thing An Bord Pleanála wants is a public perception that it is not impartial in dealing with planning appeals. So its chairman, Mr John O'Connor, moved yesterday to reject allegations that it lacked independence.

His vigorous defence of the board's impartiality was largely directed at those who cast aspersions on it when they didn't get the decision they wanted, more often than not politicians who supported particular developments in their area, Mr O'Connor said.

It was necessary to rebut this kind of allegation in the strongest possible terms since, left unanswered, it could damage public confidence in the board as well as morale within the organisation, he added.

Although he respected the right of anyone to disagree with a ruling on the merits of a case, "attempts to denigrate decisions by impugning the independence of the board are an entirely different matter and are irresponsible".

But what about the growing perception that An Bord Pleanála has effectively rubber-stamped major projects, notably motorway schemes or waste incinerators, such as those planned for Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, and Carranstown, Co Meath?

Of the 14 major road schemes adjudicated on by the board since January 2003, not one has been refused. Even the proposed M7-M8 interchange in Co Laois was approved despite a planning inspector's recommendation for a refusal.

Mr O'Connor agreed that the inter-change, which would serve Dublin-Cork and Dublin-Limerick traffic but not Cork-Limerick traffic, was unsatisfactory and said the board, in approving it, had suggested that it should be redesigned.

Although some "very significant changes" had been made to other road schemes, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the appeals board has been assiduous in facilitating them - perhaps out of fear that it would otherwise lose this role.

Referring to the M3 motorway, the chairman said that, while it was true that the board had not laid down any archaeological conditions in its August 2003 approval of the scheme, the environmental impact statement had dealt with this in depth.

In the case of Indaver's hazardous waste incinerator at Ringaskiddy, the board was faced with a report by one of its senior inspectors recommending an outright refusal. But it granted permission, largely because of Government policy.

"There is a very clearly laid down national policy on waste management, and this proposal was in line with that policy, which An Bord Pleanála would agree with anyway," Mr O'Connor said. "However, we don't feel constrained by it."

He denied that the board was now overruling a higher proportion of inspectors' recommendations on appeals, saying the number of reversals was "around 10 per cent". It just so happens that many of these involve contentious cases.

"If the legislators had wanted planning inspectors to decide on appeals, it would have done so," he said.

That function was given to the board, which paid attention to what the inspectors said, but also took account of national policy.

He agreed that there had been "changes of emphasis" in Government policy on sustainable development since a strategy to achieve it was adopted in 1997, notably through the National Development Plan and the National Spatial Strategy.

These had to be taken into account in making decisions, as well as regional planning guidelines and local development plans. The situation in the Dublin area in particular would be far worse without the influence, at least, of regional guidelines, Mr O'Connor said.


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