Long journey to get past development roadblocks nears end
Government credibility staked on strategic development zones and fast-track planning
Cherrywood in south Dublin: undeveloped land bank is set to become new town centre.
To much fanfare, the Government identified Cherrywood as south Dublin’s newest suburb back in 2010. Wedged southeast of Carrickmines and northwest of Shankill, it was declared an area of economic and social importance, and designated as a strategic development zone (SDZ).
This was a big prize for the area, opening it up as a site for up to 8,000 new homes and 30,000 new residents. Not only that, it meant development should happen sooner rather than later.
Governments nominate areas as SDZs based on their strategic or economic importance. Councils decide on the detail of the planning for those zones in consultation with the public through a three-stage process that is meant to take two years.
An Bord Pleanála then approves them, or not, based on the overall proposal’s viability. Once a developer’s project meets a zone’s criteria, getting permission to build should – theoretically – be straightforward.
In the same year that Cherrywood earned its SDZ status, it got its own Luas stop. Since then it has seen a raft of infrastructure projects which arguably make it one of the best-connected areas of Dublin.
All of this came before a brick had been laid on a residential home or apartment. It is worth pointing out that the area’s population has hardly increased over that period and it will be at least another three years before it does.
Almost four years would pass before a planning scheme was approved to outline how Cherrywood would evolve. In the intervening period, the local planning authority – Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council – planned how libraries and parks would feel, how the roads and other infrastructure would look and, perhaps most importantly, how many people would live there.
Cherrywood is due to get 15 million under a Government scheme dubbed the Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF), which provides cash for work such as roads and other services to allow the construction of new homes.
The Government will contribute €11.39 million of this and the council will provide the balance. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is due to announce this shortly along with similar grants for other housing projects around the Republic.
US developer Hines is Cherrywood’s key player. The company has almost finished building roads, installing water and electricity supply networks and laying parks needed for the new suburb.
Hines recently sought permission for Cherrywood’s town centre, made up of shops, offices and 1,269 apartments. The developer hopes the council will approve this by the middle of this year, allowing work to begin in the second half.
“There is progress, but Hines would love it to be faster,” said a source.
The US builder hopes other developers will follow suit later in 2018. Those others include Cairn Homes, which wants to build 300 homes in Cherrywood on a site it bought from Hines for €21.5 million.
This is how the scheme is meant to work. Hines builds Cherrywood’s centre and framework, the roads, services and amenities, while others develop their own parcels of land within that.
“Once the superstructure of the town centre starts building into place, everything else will fly along,” said Anne Devine, the council’s director of infrastructure forward planning.
“It’s my understanding, subject to [Hines] getting their grant, they’re going to steam ahead and they could possibly be on site this year. We’re getting on with our business of LIHAF in opening up other parts of the land for development so, by the end of 2021 you could potentially have 2,000 homes there plus a new town,” she added.
If that happens, it will be some 11 years after Cherrywood was first designated as an area for development.
Reports over the past few days have highlighted issues that developers encounter in other parts of the State. Ms Devine is confident these will not crop up in Cherrywood.
“There wouldn’t seem to be any infrastructure challenges in Cherrywood going forward. Water isn’t an issue out there,” she said, responding to a story earlier this week that Cairn Homes had encountered issues surrounding water infrastructure on a site in Maynooth, Co Kildare.
In its meeting with the Department of Finance in November last year, Cairn did, however, flag difficulties and delays getting plans approved or altered in Cherrywood and Clonburris and on the Brennanstown Road.
Over in west Dublin, Clonburris sits between Clondalkin and Adamstown, on either side of the railway line that carries trains southwest of the capital. Almost 15 years ago, the then government earmarked it as a strategic corridor in the now forgotten national spatial plan.
In 2008, a later administration designated it an SDZ, to follow nearby Adamstown, the first such zone in the Republic. However, the financial crash halted progress.
The proposal was resurrected following a review in 2015, just as it was dawning on the powers that be that the Republic had a housing crisis.
Cairn Homes, the National Asset Management Agency and South Dublin County Council, which owns 22 per cent of the land there, all have an interest in the SDZ. In broad terms, the plans were for 8,500 homes, with services such as rail and a high-speed bus to Tallaght, tying in with the Luas.
South Dublin county councillors spent some time debating the Clonburris SDZ’s nuts and bolts. A draft plan went out for public consultation, attracting 140 submissions by last autumn, according to the council.
Since then it has eaten up 32 hours of council meetings, causing a rift in one alliance of Sinn Féin, Labour and non-party representatives,
Earlier this month, councillors voted to make the draft scheme for the development zone, subject to variations and modifications, the second stage of the process. Another round of public consultation on those changes will follow. This is the third and final stage.
Paul Gogarty, mayor of south Dublin, believes the Clonburris SDZ will go to An Bord Pleanála around mid-year. He estimates that the board should decide by the end of summer. Gogarty is confident that, ultimately, “construction can and will begin” in Clonburris.
Given that it is heading for 10 years since its original special development zoning and three since that plan’s revival, builders might well ask: when?
This week, Cairn Homes chief executive Michael Stanley estimated that it would be next year before the company could start building on the site. That would be four years on from 2015 in a process is supposed to take two.
The 32 hours of council chamber debate threw up plenty of views but councillors highlight a number of crunch issues.
One is infrastructure. Gogarty and others want this tackled first, arguing for things such as peak-time train services and a focus on public transport, avoiding the risk of having thousands of houses and not much else.
On the other side of that debate, Sinn Féin councillor Danny O’Brien argues that there is a housing crisis that cannot wait. “What we need is basic infrastructure, not that everybody goes to the city centre,” he said.
Tied to the need for homes is a demand from his party and Labour that Clonburris have 32 per cent social and affordable housing. That is one large fault line between councillors. Sinn Féin and Labour want a high proportion of social housing. O’Brien points out that paying for south Dublin’s homeless problem is already costing the local authority €22 million a-year.
Other parties want less. Fine Gael representative, Vicki Casserly, believes 32 per cent is too high, although she said she abstained on the vote: “I thought it was better to wait because we do not yet know what the affordable scheme will look like.”
All three are adamant that South Dublin County Council has to get this right first time. “The benefit is that, if it’s done right, you build a community, you’re not just plonking houses down,” said Gogarty.
Whether SDZ designation has been a success is still up for debate. It appears to have worked well in the Grand Canal area of Dublin city. Perhaps we’ll know by 2021 whether it has been a success in Cherrywood.
Of course, SDZ isn’t the only player in town. The Government has introduced a fast-track planning system for new dwellings in response to the Republic’s chronic housing shortage. Under this, builders apply to An Bord Pleanála directly for permission after consulting the local council. The board has 16 weeks to decide, and it can approve the plans, modify them or refuse them.
In the last few weeks, Burkeway Homes was denied permission under the fast-track scheme for the construction of 113 properties in Barna, Co Galway. Ironically, they were denied permission because the density of the development didn’t meet the expectations of the local authority. In effect, the developer was not proposing to build as many houses as they could have done on the land available.
The first developer to be refused a scheme under the fast-track system was Michael Cotter’s Viscount Securities, which submitted plans for 927 housing units at Clay Farm in Leopardstown. In that case, the issue was that the company had not provided adequate information in relation to storm water management in the area, which is prone to flooding.
In both cases, the developers can reapply through the fast-track process. While they could also submit a plan at local level, that would open the developments to third-party appeals – a process that could drag on much longer than the time frame under the fast-track system. Additionally, if either were to go through the local planning authority, they’d have to be applying for fewer than 100 homes.
Neither has yet reapplied to An Bord Pleanála.
In total, there are currently fast-track applications in place for a total of 4,555 units. Those include bed spaces for 1,441 students, 1,756 houses and 1,358 apartments.
Forthcoming decisions are expected in March in relation to plans for student beds by Cairn Homes and University College Cork. In April, decisions will be made on nine of the 13 active applications. Apart from one development, they are all focused on delivering residential housing.
Will this latest Government initiative work? Can it even begin to put a dent in the number of houses required to “rebuild Ireland”? Given the fast-track nature of the planning process they are using, we should have a good idea quite shortly. A lot of political capital is dependent on success.