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‘Serial planning objector’ appointed to An Bord Pleanála

Questions raised over impartiality of new board member due to past planning appeals but Environment Minister Phil Hogan is “happy” with the appointment of Greenstar founder director Dr Gabriel Dennison.

THE APPOINTMENT OF the founder director of Greenstar waste company, who has been described as a “serial planning objector”, to the board of An Bord Pleanála has raised concerns over the board’s balance.

Dr Gabriel Dennison is described as having a civil engineering background and has been an Adjunct Professor at University College Dublin since 2011. He is one of four new members to be appointed to the board by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan.

Speaking to the Wicklow Councillor Christopher Fox said he had concerns about the appointment of someone whom he described as a “serial planning objector”.

Under the Planning and Development Acts 2000 to 2006, the appointment of board members is made by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government from among persons selected from four groups of organisations.

According to Councillor Fox, Dr Dennsion has objected to 16 planning applications from rural Enniskerry over the past five to six years. Councillor Fox said that the planning objections had been made in the Glencree area. “He is not a resident in the area,” stated Councillor Fox.

He said he was not doubting Mr Dennison’s qualifications but that his impartiality had to be questioned. “It would be similar to someone being appointed who was totally pro-rural housing and just wanted to throw up houses all over the countryside – Mr Dennison is clearly anti-rural housing,” he said.

According to Sinn Fein Wicklow Councillor John Brady, due to the fact there were major difficulties in getting planning permission in the Glencree and West Wicklow area, there were a number of public meetings on the issue and a meeting was held with Minister Hogan in the Dáil last October. The issue of “serial objectors” was relayed to the minister he said, adding that two people were named in those meetings one of whom was Dr Dennison.

Speaking to Wicklow Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle said he had raised his concerns over the matter with Minister Hogan stating:

Obviously I am concerned. An Bord Pleanála are meant to be an impartial and objective body – you could call them the Supreme Court of Planning.  We need to be reassured that they are objective and impartial. What I was questioning was the criteria for nomination. I have written to the minister asking him to clarify those points – was it part of the criteria that these nominees would declare any engagement or involvement they had with the board at that stage and in the past,  and in the case where it was determined to be one way or the other that they would be deemed eligible or ineligible. Was part of the criteria that you wouldn’t have had any engagement with the board or that if you had and didn’t declare it, then is that grounds for removal – that’s the question.

He said that he was in no way casting aspersions on anybody but confirmed that there had been a meeting in the Dail last October with a delegation concerned over planning matters in the county and Minister Hogan. He said that meeting was discussing three matters with the minister – the role of the local authority, the role of An Taisce and the role of An Bord Pleanála. Doyle said that at the meeting there was an inadvertent mention of two objectors in the county, one being Mr Dennison.

I think in general the composition of the board should be balanced and should be based on all sectors of the community, the environmental pillars, the business pillars, the rural and urban pillars and I think there are nine members in total, majority with planning backgrounds. Now not all planning is negative but it does seem to be overly weighted in one direction.

The Secretary of An Bord Pleanála Chris Clarke told that the appointments are not a matter for the board but said that there was a strict regime imposed on its members under the code of conduct. When asked whether there was a conflict of interests in relation to Mr Dennison’s appointment he said the term ‘conflict of interests’ had a very specific meaning  in the two legislative codes – The Planning and Development Act 2000 and the ethics in public office.

Under the board member’s code of conduct it states that Section 147 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 requires that Board members shall give to the Board a declaration of interest including interests in land or in any business engaged in the development of land. The Board maintains a register which is open for public inspection, of all such interests.

Section 2.4 and 2.5 of An Bord Pleanála’s code of conduct states that a member or employee’s involvement in outside organisations should generally be confined to membership of his/her professional body and membership of organisations whose aims and objectives and regular activities are not aimed at influencing policies relating to planning or the environment and/or planning decisions.

It also states that a Board member or employee shall not engage in the activities of any organisation which would result in a potential conflict of interest between his/her own interests and the interests of the Board and they shall not engage in the activities of any outside organisation in a manner which could reasonably be interpreted as compromising his/her potential to carry out his/her duties with the Board in an impartial manner or as compromising the Board in carrying out its functions in an impartial and objective manner.

Clarke stated that under the code of conduct for board members, any conflicts of interest have to be declared, giving an example that if he had discovered his local residential association was making an appeal he would declare that and it would be put on a register.

I would declare an interest even though I would not have a beneficial interest. There are procedures in place on the board whereby the member, as myself as an example would never see that file. Simple as that. It would go through the building and you will never have seen it. So it is that kind of regime that any board member has to go through.

He confirmed there had been one declaration of conflict of interest this year made by one of the members in relation to an extended family member but that the previous 2 years there “have been no such declarations”.

Councillor Fox said that Minister Hogan had given assurances last year “that he was going to bring more balance back to the board  under the planning legislation that sets the criteria of who should make up the board of An Bord Pleanála” adding that he was disappointed this had not happened. While Councillor Brady said he has spoken to some locals in relation to the new appointments stating :

After speaking to the minister they felt very positive. They said the minister said he knew exactly what they were talking about and they basically thought they were pushing an open door and they were very hopeful that when the replacements were being made on the board it would all be taken into account. Then these new appointments were made and one local said to me ‘it was like a slap in the face’ and not only did he not take on board what they had discussed about the make up of the board but that to have one of the people they were in speaking to the minister about appointed onto the board itself was a real slap in the face.

Councillor Brady continued to say that he had nothing personal against Dr Dennison though his “track record” on planning appeals “does raise concerns over Mr Dennison’s impartiality”.

A spokesperson for Minister Hogan said “The Minister is more than happy with the the appointments. Dr Dennison was appointed on the basis of this experience and skills. It is open to any citizen to participate in the planning process by either lodging a planning application, or to appeal a decision of a planning authority.” They added that the implication that anyone who participates in the planning process is unfit for a position on An Bord Pleanála, is refuted by the department.

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