Cairn Homes chief executive Michael Stanley maintains that some 2,000 of the first 5,000 dwellings the company has built would not have been completed without the fast-track scheme for residential construction, or the Strategic Housing Initiative in official speak.
This allowed anybody proposing to build 100 or more homes to seek planning permission directly from An Bord Pleanála, bypassing local councils. Decisions either way were not subject to appeal, but any interested party could get the High Court to review them.
The scheme drew a lot of flak, and, as always happens, judges ended up reviewing several high-profile projects, some of which they shot down. It comes to an end next month, but by Stanley’s reckoning, it achieved a key objective, to get housing projects through the planning process.
He argues that whatever replaces the scheme should incorporate its successful elements but accepts that builders will have to live with whatever the Oireachtas decides the planning system will be.
Recent official figures show the scheme had mixed results. Planners decided on 108 fast-track projects last year, approving 79 and refusing 27, while two were withdrawn. Of those approved, 37 faced court challenges, clearly indicating that most opposition to the scheme comes from those who do not want new homes built, presumably close to where they live.
This is the problem that any new scheme has to tackle: existing residents’ interests. While it would be unjust, not to mention unconstitutional, for any planning system to rule out appeals or judicial reviews, the grounds for challenging house building need to be narrow.
Objecting to something outrightly invasive, or blatantly contrary to good planning or existing zoning, makes sense. But any new scheme should allow planners, appeals boards and the courts, to treat things such as existing residents’ newly discovered concerns for the local wildlife, or their fears for property values, with healthy scepticism. Or better still, to ignore them altogether.
Cantillon cannot be confident that this will happen. Ultimately politicians make planning laws, when they do, they will always bear in mind that most of their voters own their own homes. They will be in no hurry to pass legislation that could upset those supporters in the future.