Some practical planning solutions to address current issues in the Irish housing sector

06/10/2016
Coakley O'Neill Town Planning Ltd

It is abundantly clear that concerted action needs to be taken to address the country’s current urban housing crisis, and we know that we need to build 25,000 to 35,000 houses annually in order to meet market demand. 

The Government has now issued the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016, which includes proposals to fast-track planning applications, for a temporary period, for 100+ housing units  (and 100+ student accommodation units) to a new Strategic Housing Division in An Bord Pleanála, to ramp up the delivery of  additional private and public sector housing.  This Bill is priority legislation for publication in Autumn 2016. The approach proposed is similar to the existing process for Strategic Infrastructure Developments.

We are not convinced that fast-tracking the planning process is the right solution to this complex issue. Having regard to the provisions of the Bill, it is clear that this type of approach runs the risk of excluding consultation and engagement with stakeholders, which is crucial to the planning process and to delivering sustainable developments and neighbourhoods. 

In addition, we would question whether such an approach will in fact deliver fast-track applications and decisions. The timeframes for pre-application consultation (9 weeks) and decision (16 weeks, except in the instance of an oral hearing), are exceptionally short, given the level of complexity involved in such applications. It is notable that, in the 10 years since the commencement of the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Act, 2006, on 21st December, 2016, that only 46 applications have been made, of which 29 have been granted to date (with 9 refused; 3 withdrawn and 5 awaiting decision), and few of these applications were determined within 18 weeks.

However, in order to assist in fast-tracking planning applications, there must also be a concerted effort to make the following changes.

Urgent Need To Streamline Policy And Legislative Environment 

We must as a matter of urgency streamline planning policy and the legislative environment. As things stand, residential planning applications are subject to a myriad of lengthy and confusing guidelines, many of which may become statutory requirements as part of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2015.

Legislation also needs to be streamlined and it is unfortunate that the consolidated, amended version of the Planning & Development Acts 2000 remains unofficial and not up-to-date, i.e. all other Planning and Development Acts, including recent legislation, still needs to be cross referenced when preparing a planning application. 

By comparison, the policy environment for one-off rural housing is relatively uncomplicated, and the level of applications for such housing around the country speaks for itself.

The obvious solution to our current policy and legislative issues would be to introduce one National Planning Guidance document for urban housing developments and one consolidated Planning and Development Act.

Planning Policy Must Take Regional And Local Considerations Into Account

The appropriateness of housing density must be allowed for within statutory planning policy and legislation. In other words, the level of housing density in a particular location must be appropriate to that location. The Planning Development (Amendment) Act, 2015 currently over-rides local planning policy in favour of national policy. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency so that national planning policy is not exclusively Dublin centric.

We are not an advocate for urban sprawl, but there has to be a realistic approach to the delivery of housing density in order to increase supply, particularly in locations outside Dublin. We have many examples of inappropriate and poorly designed high-density residential schemes, blindly following policy guidelines to the detriment of other important urban design factors.

The solution to delivering appropriate planning policy is to tap into local knowledge. There should be a local housing planning team for each priority settlement in each county (as identified in Core Strategies). The team would include a planner (as team lead), an architect, an engineer, a transport planner, an estates engineer, a Part V officer, development contributions, a heritage officer, and a relevant Irish Water contact. This team would work with prospective developers to advance proposals through the system, streamlining the process and delivering the required housing stock. However, this will need proper resourcing to work effectively. 

It would also be helpful if Core Strategies for each county were fully aligned with those of the various Prescribed Bodies, including Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Irish Water, An Taisce and Government departments with responsibility for Heritage and the Environment. For example, it has taken 10 years to adopt a Masterplan for the towns of Midleton and Carrigtwohill in Co. Cork, as identified in the Core Strategy for County Cork. However, there is still uncertainty over how infrastructure will be funded and delivered.

In relation to housing supply, in our opinion we need to consider how existing, under-utilised holiday home developments might contribute to the provision of additional housing, particularly those within walking and cycling distance of town centres. With moderate amendments, these existing dwellings could make a timely contribution to the housing supply, providing a sustainable housing solution in urban areas.

Key Learning from the UK Experience

We could look to recent UK experience in attempting to resolve the current lack of housing supply. 

For instance, a change of use from office to residential development in certain areas in the UK is determined to be ‘an exempted development’ – i.e. no planning permission is required. This could be considered here for vacant office, industrial and commercial premises in priority locations. There would, of course, have to be conditions and limitations set on the exemption, such as issues to do with contamination risks and flooding risks. This could be aligned with the current Living City tax incentive scheme for the refurbishment or conversion of City Centre buildings in each of Ireland’s main cities.

Consideration could also be given to widening the ‘exempted development’ regulations, as was recently mooted in the UK, to include the demolition of vacant office, industrial and commercial premises and the building of new residential developments in priority locations. 

In addition, if fast tracking of applications for 100+ units, then consideration should be given to a less onerous process for those proposals for less than 100 units, in particular for less than 10 units, drawing on the concept of "permission in principle" contained in the UK’s Housing and Planning Act, May, 2016. It cannot be the case that proposals for smaller schemes in particular should face longer timeframes to a decision than larger fast-tracked housing proposals.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the IPI nor are they intended to reflect IPI policy.

Coakley O’Neill Town Planning are a Cork-based town planning consultancy. Their website is www.coakleyoneill.ie

 

Coakley O'Neill Town Planning Ltd