Business As Usual No Longer an Option Planning Conference Told

  • Planners Concerned that Politicians Will Shirk the Hard Decisions  in New National Planning Framework
  • Alternative to Proper Planning is Urban Sprawl and  Even Longer Commutes Institute Warns - 
  • Irish Planning Institute also Highlights Need for  Planning Regulator Office to Be Independent of Minister  and for Urgent Need to Recruit Additional Planners -
  • With House Build Prices in Dublin Just 45% of Actual House Purchase Prices, Conference Also Hears Calls for Measures to Reduce House Purchase Costs along with Incentives and Taxation Measures to Free-up 200,000 Homes Lying Empty

"We can no longer adopt a business-as-usual approach when it comes to planning". This was the clear message coming from the Irish Planning Institute's annual conference in County Mayo today which heard calls for politicians to grasp the opportunity to create a planning system fit for the 21st century in developing the new National Planning Framework. The Institute warned it will mean hard choices if urban sprawl and even longer commutes are to be avoided. It will mean more concentrated investment in gateway cities and larger towns in addressing the imbalance between the capital and other economic centres. It will also  require an Office of the Planning Regulator that is truly independent for the successful implementation of the National Planning Framework. 

The two-day conference, "Reimagining the Planning System: Making it Work", is taking place in Westport, itself a planned town that this year celebrates its 250th anniversary. It will see a range of topics teased out, including homelessness and the housing crisis, urban renewal and the future of towns, sustainable transport in the regions, tourism and regional planning, and ways to make the planning system work better. 

Among the speakers at the conference are representatives from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland and the Simon Community who have called for a range of measures to bring down house purchase costs and to increase housing stock. The Minister for Housing, Planning, Community & Local Government, Simon Coveney TD, will address the conference tomorrow Friday April 7.

Making the Tough Choices

Deirdre Fallon, President of the Irish Planning Institute, highlighted the importance of policy-makers stepping up to the mark as they develop a new framework for national planning. It will mean making difficult decisions to avoid urban sprawl, unsustainable rural housing and even longer commutes: 

"With the development of the new National Planning Framework, we have a golden opportunity to right the planning wrongs of the past – by all stakeholders – in ensuring a planning system that is fit for purpose and that truly serves the national interest. We can no longer adopt a 'business-as-usual' approach. For decades, planners have been calling for more balanced regional development, consolidation and strengthening of existing urban centres, and integration of land use and transport. But each time we have a real opportunity to change course, the hard choices are shirked. With the requirement that this new Framework receive Oireachtas approval, it's really vital that our politicians turn rhetoric into practice and enable planners deliver a planning system and service fit for the 21st century.

"Making the right decisions require accepting that there is no choice but to bring about meaningful change to existing settlement patterns in order to both address the existing housing crisis and to ensure adequate and sustainable housing provision into the future. That requires funding for the frontloading of infrastructure, the provision of a mix of affordable housing types, the re-use and improvement of existing building stock and the identification and promotion of economic sectors that are thriving in each region. The alternative is urban sprawl, extending the current pattern of long-distance commuting particularly around Dublin and other cities, and an exacerbation of existing trends towards unsustainable rural housing in remote locations.

"It is essential that the National Planning Framework is overseen by an Office of the Planning Regulator that is genuinely independent of the Minister, and which has full enforcement powers as originally conceived. This office will have a crucial role in ensuring that the Framework is implemented through local development plans and local area plans. Unlike its predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy, the new Framework must also be accompanied by an implementation plan which sets out a roadmap for delivery." 

Deirdre Fallon also highlighted the importance of the new National Planning Framework focusing investment on gateway cities and larger towns, as well as the impact of planning staff shortages in local authorities:

"The emerging National Planning Framework must ensure more concentrated investment and better transport links and development are focused on gateway cities and larger towns and funding ear-marked for these locations. The Framework needs to protect the important role of Dublin, while seeking to address the ongoing imbalance between the capital and other economic centres. Limerick and Cork have the capacity to support strong levels of employment and population growth while consideration should be given to the potential role of Letterkenny/Derry as a city region in the North-West. It must be clear how the identified gateways are expected to energise the surrounding rural area and how our towns and villages will collaborate.

"It is also important to recognise that achieving good planning outcomes relies on having the wherewithal to do the job effectively. Therefore, planning authorities must have adequate numbers of planners. Yet we know that the number of planners employed in local authorities decreased by almost a third between 2006 and 2014. A snapshot survey of almost half of planning authorities carried out this year has found that since then the number of planners in these areas has increased by just 8 per cent at a time when the competing demands on planning departments have never been greater. If we are to satisfy current planning service needs and meet the growing demands and responsibilities placed on planners, then planning departments must be properly resourced."

House Build Costs Less than Half House Purchase Prices

The homelessness and housing crisis was the focus of a number of speakers, with Claire Solon, President of the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland, highlighting how the cost of bringing a property to market is inhibiting building in certain geographic areas, as well as the building of affordable housing units:

"From our research of house-building projects in Dublin, we have found that the cost to build a house from foundation to roof, represents 45 per cent of the overall cost of actually providing the house. Other factors such as the cost of acquisition and development finance, design, sales and marketing, levies, VAT, and profit margin, make up the remaining 55 per cent. Taking all of this into account, the average price of a new three-bed semi-detached home in Dublin would therefore need to equal or exceed €330,493. 

"Compare this with a couple on the average industrial wage with a combined salary of €74,000, and taking into account a mortgage of 3.5 times salary and a likely deposit requirement of €35,000, brings us to available funds of in or about €294,000. You can see how short this couple is when it comes to that house price of €330,493. That's why the Society is recommending a number of measures to reduce house costs and alleviate the housing crisis – first we should reduce VAT to 9 per cent, finance costs to 5 per cent, and development levies to €1,500. We also need to undertake efforts to increase the supply of land through a mixture of incentives and penalties. We need to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of all regulations, and review the impact of the Help to Buy scheme in potentially increasing house prices. Lastly, we need to provide incentives to encourage house-owners in city centre locations to make vacant houses available, and introduce mechanisms to make the refurbishment of protected properties more feasible for owners."

Targeting Empty Homes

Niamh Randall, Head of Policy and Communications with the Simon Communities of Ireland, also addressed the housing topic and believes one of the first priorities needs to be freeing up the many empty homes around the country: 

"The key to addressing the ongoing housing crisis is access to social and affordable housing. One quick fix is to focus on the low-hanging fruit of the almost 200,000 homes which are lying empty around the State – that's 27 homes for every person in emergency accommodation. Looking internationally, it is clear that a range of measures are required to address this issue effectively, including incentives and taxation. There should be a forensic examination of Local Authority housing stock with additional funding mechanisms structured to incentivise swift turnaround. There are also regulatory burdens which mean that significant potential housing supply is being held back. A simple change of use, for example from commercial to residential, can involve three different approvals, all on different timescales, with different submission requirements and fees. We would like to see consideration of a one-stop-shop to break down this considerable bureaucracy. Of course, we know that many people entering homelessness are coming from the private rented sector, and so prevention is key. That's why we need to continually monitor market rents and adjust Rent Supplement and Housing Assistance Payment accordingly."

The conference sees delegates undertake a number of field visits, including a looped walking tour of the historic core and quay area of Westport. This will highlight the successful development of Westport town into two distinct areas connected by a former railway line and now a successful urban greenway. Separately, a bus tour will visit Castlebar and take in the extension of the Great Western Greenway.

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