The ‘Independent’ Planning Regulator

I have a problem with the Office of the planning regulator (OPR) and given the fact that we are a democracy and we all have freedom of speech (in theory anyway – given our libel laws), I think it is high time I got this off my chest. Most readers of this blog will not really know much about this new appointment of the planning regulator because it pretty much went under the radar. Fact is, the new planning regulator, Niall Cussen, was appointed in December 2018 by Minister Eoghan Murphy which was kind of nice given the fact that Mr Cussen was Mr Murphy’s principal advisor in the Department of Housing

Niall Cussen, Minister Eoghan Murphy and Joe Corr IPI

I read about the appointment a week before Christmas on the 18th December, 2018 on the digital copy of the Irish Times but couldn’t find it in the hard copy. Maybe I just missed it. I imagine it must have been printed in the newspaper, as this new position has similar power to a government minister except, of course, we don’t vote him or her in. It’s a big deal. If you don’t co-operate with the regulator it’s a criminal offence, (according to Colm Keena of the Irish Times). The regulator can “sue and be sued, acquire, hold and dispose of land or an interest in land and acquire, hold and dispose of any other property”. Wow. That’s pretty powerful.

 Mind you in his previous role as chief advisor, Mr Cussen was already very powerful. I remember distinctly a Newstalk interview with Minister Murphy where Ivan Yates chided Murphy over the influence that Mr Cussen had over him. Yates went on to write in the Independent in January 2019, in reference to the housing crisis; “Specifically the guidelines emanating from the chief planning officer, Niall Cussen, must be reappraised”. Naturally, I found these comments very interesting.

 So the aim of the appointment of an ‘independent’ planning regulator is to bring back public confidence in the planning system and, really importantly, to investigate ‘systemic’ problems, especially corruption risks. This is what Justice Mahon recommended in his planning tribunal. He also recommended that the regulator be appointed by an independent board, which I’m sure must have been the case. (I believe there were two main candidates in the running). But here’s my problem: how can the ultimate insider be objective or independent? How can someone who has pretty much written all the planning guidelines that came out of government – National Planning Framework-  National Spatial Strategy etc.- be objective when it comes to planning policy? I mean, if someone makes a complaint involving officials that the regulator has worked closely with in the Department of Housing, An Bord Pleánala, County Councils or the Planning Institute, it could be tricky. The police, for example, ended up appointing an outsider to be on the safe side. And without casting any aspersions, but not wanting to ignore the elephant in the room, we are in the middle of a housing crisis and the planning system has contributed greatly to getting us to where we are today. My question is, why would you imagine that the author of the planning policy over the last decade is going to suddenly make it all better? I do wonder….  

Mariane Finucane- God rest her, interviewed the regulator after his appointment. I listened to it. She didn’t give him an easy ride. I also heard the then president of the Irish Planning Institute, Joe Corr, being interviewed on Newstalk. He was very excited about the new appointment. But since then, it has been quiet. Occasionally you will hear about some comments on a Development Plan down the country or an out of town shopping centre in Cork. But for someone so powerful there has been very little public scrutiny for such a key national role. I follow it on Google Alerts, which keeps me up to speed. I also follow the OPR on Twitter and I was very touched to see that on a bank holiday Monday, some months ago, they followed me back!  (one of my 10 or so followers).

So, my interest was sparked last Sunday when I read an article in the Sunday Times by Colin Coyle about Johnny Ronan’s company (RGRE.) The CEO of RGRE had written to the Minister for Housing, Darragh O’Brien, complaining about Dublin County Council and about biased comments made by public officials. A lot about the article piqued my interest given our own story. The minister apparently referred them to the planning regulator. But wait for it, even though the Minister (who is the regulator’s boss) suggested that RGRE should take their concerns to the regulator, according to the article the regulator’s response was that they wont’ investigate cases where “An Bord Pleanala are involved”. Now that rules out an awful lot of planning in Ireland and certainly all of the Strategic Housing Development ones; the ones that go straight to the Board.

Thinking about it (and I’m open to correction) it doesn’t strike me that there is much of an appetite to investigate those allegations, which let’s face it, are pretty serious. Mahon was pretty strong that the regulator should investigate possible systemic problems and that sufficient checks and balances should go right up to the top. He also said that the regulator “has the job of reviewing corruption risks and to ensure that corruption risks are identified and corrected as they arise.” The regulator is charged with bringing back public confidence and presiding over a fair planning system.  So what’s the problem? Funny thing is that in his ‘Highlights of 2019’ statement Mr Cussen makes reference to the Mahon Tribunal saying; “The Tribunal recognised the need for an oversight body for the Irish planning process which is operated through the 31 local authorities, three  Regional Assemblies and An Bord Pleanála….”(my emphasis).  There is no logic in excluding a vast chunk of the planning process from scrutiny, so what’s going on?

Anyway, it all seems very strange to me. It wouldn’t exactly inspire me to take our complaint to the regulator. But then again our case “isn’t as straightforward as that…..” I think we had better wait until the outsider arrives.

FOOTNOTE:

The national press has today announced that the planning regulator has not examined one case out of the ninety one cases reported to the OPR in its first year…….That will really help with public confidence.