Planning for Communities

cungkring.com : Well, we now have the numbers. There are 33,000 vacant units across the State, according to the National Housing Development Survey and an additional 10,000 units under construction. It’s not much consolation to families living in unfinished estates, but I had thought the figure would be higher.

At the height of the boom we were building 90,000 units per year, and last year the figures were around 25,000.Even at this lower output figure the amount of vacancy is less than two years supply.

I suspect the housing units close to our main towns and cities will be occupied sooner than other developments. Just last week in Booterstown in Dún Laoghaire empty apartments were being snapped up at bargain prices, albeit at a massive discount. The units furthest away from where the new jobs are will be the more difficult to sell. Certainly the blanket use of tax designations in entire counties was flawed. It was naive at best to assume that property based tax incentives could lift all boats in economically depressed areas.

Someone suggested at last week’s Irish Planning Institute Conference that we had seen the end of apartment building and a return to the semi-detached house. I doubt it. I think what we will see is an end to the badly-designed slapped-up so-called ‘luxury developments’ surrounded by a sea of car parking in a field that was owned by someone who knew someone three miles down the road. That can only be a good thing. The new planning laws promote well-designed buildings in the appropriate location. We’ll see more mixed-use developments; terraced housing, and well-insulated homes closer to shops, schools and the workplace. That can only be a good thing.

Many of the empty housing units will eventually come under the control of the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA), and the survey information will be of benefit to the NAMA as well as to Planning Authorities. We’re putting in place a Housing Expert Group chaired by John O’Connor of the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. Their first job is to approve a Manual prepared by planning and housing experts in the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government within the next few weeks that will assist agencies in managing the legacy of unfinished and empty housing units.

We need to be careful not to see empty housing units as a neat solution to local authority housing waiting lists. Many of these developments weren't designed with the needs of vulnerable housing clients in mind. Hopefully the lessons of 'sink' estates have been well and truly learnt by now. I had a good meeting with Fr. Pat Coogan from Respond a few weeks ago. 

I asked him what would he do if a hundred empty homes became available. He said he'd take twenty houses and use two of them to provide communal facilities and use the other eighteen as social housing. He'd then sell the other eighty to homesteaders who might purchase the homes for a knock-down price and put down roots in the community. Both groups of residents would support each other. I thought it was a valid proposal, and I'm sure will figure in the discussions that the NAMA and other agencies have over the coming months.

Currently there are strong powers available to the Health and Safety Authority to take action on sites that are still under construction. In addition Councils have powers under the Derelict Sites Act, the Dangerous Buildings Act and Litter legislation. Also, under the 2010 Planning Act we’ve given Councils and residents additional powers to “take in charge” parts of unfinished development. We’ll also be clarifying the powers available to Planning Authorities to use bonds or securities to ensure that works are finished off in housing areas.

If you’re living in an unfinished development chances are you’ve already looked at the plans in the Council offices and compared them to the reality of what’s been built. It’s important to itemise the problems and discuss them with the solicitor who handled the sale. They can advise you on what action to take. The primary responsibility for completion of a development lies with the developer, but if they’re not responding, you should take the issue up with the Council directly. 

The Manual that is being finalised by the Expert Group will assist Councils in using their legal powers to improve unfinished developments. Over the next few months Council’s around the country will be required to prepare Site Resolution Plans for all unfinished developments in consultation with the Expert Group, the developers, residents and other key stakeholders.

Other Government Departments can use this detailed survey to help them with their work. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation and the IDA can use the data to show prospective employers where there is ready availability of housing . Other Departments such as Education, and Arts, Sports and Tourism may find the information useful in thinking ahead. Some of the dwellings may well find a future as holiday homes. Others may become student accommodation.

From the Green Party’s perspective much of our work has involved reforming the planning system to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. Over the last year we’ve put in place a “refreshed” National Spatial Strategy, new Regional Planning Guidelines and a new Planning Act. We’ve also put measures in place to protect habitats and water supplies. In addition we’ve witnessed a halt to decentralisation, and a windfall tax on land that is rezoned. The recession has given us an unprecedented opportunity to learn from past mistakes and put in place policies that concentrate the right kind of development in the right locations.

An 80% windfall tax on “up-zoned” land which forms part of the NAMA legislation, dramatically reduces the incentive from land-owners to seek the rezoning of their land. This is as close as we’ve been able to get to the implementation of the 1973 Kenny Report without a constitutional referendum.

Joined-up planning policies have also been a focus of the reforms. Minister Gormley and I have put in place closer links between the National Development Plan and the National Spatial Strategy; Regional Planning Guidelines at the inter-county level , and City and County Development Plans and Local Area Plans at a local level. That may not sound ground-breaking, but if you saw some Local Area Plans you might be scratching your head wondering at to how they reflect national policies.

Most of the provisions of the Planning Act 2010 passed into law a couple of weeks ago. The new law puts an onus on Councils to review their plans within a two year period and ensure that the plan has an evidence-based core strategy. This will lead to a change from the laissez-faire plans of the past which failed to deliver on their stated goals.

Of course there’s also a process of education needed to up-skill elected representatives and officials. The Irish Planning Institute ran a well-attended seminar last week, and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has plans for regional information sessions around the country over the months ahead. In the UK the Royal Town Planning Institute runs a school for councillors back-to-back with their professional conference and I’m hoping to do something similar here.

The Scottish educationalist Patrick Geddes summed it up many years ago in three words – “Survey, analysis, plan”. For far too long we built without connecting these three essential elements.

Now is the time to get things right.

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