‘Fast-track’ planning process for housing slows to a crawl

The Strategic Housing Development process is frustrating local residents and developers alike

With this week’s easing of Covid-19 restrictions seeing the resumption of construction on new home schemes across the country, the “fast-track” planning process introduced by former minister for housing Eoghan Murphy as a temporary measure four years ago seems to be perhaps the main impediment to the delivery of housing.

The Strategic Housing Development (SHD) process, as it is known formally, appears at this stage to have got the backs of just about everyone up, be they local residents opposed to the large-scale residential schemes being proposed for their respective backyards or the builders hoping to deliver them.

Galway-based developer Burkeway Homes’ plan for 121 new homes in Bearna is just the latest scheme to come a cropper, following the decision by a group of neighbouring residents to pursue a second judicial review challenging An Bord Pleanála’s approval of the scheme. The company had intended to commence construction on the site, having received the go-ahead for the project on its third attempt in February of this year.

The fast-track process arrived to much political fanfare in July 2017, on the promise that it would reduce the time to secure ultimate approval for a large housing development from the 18 months it had been taking in certain circumstances to a maximum of six months. Nobody had reckoned then that the approvals given by An Bord Pleanála would find their way to the courts with such frequency. Indeed, between 2018 and 2020 the number of challenges to approvals given by the planning board rose from 41 to 83.

Low density

In the case of Burkeway’s bid to build in Bearna, its first proposal in 2018 was rejected by An Bord Pleanála on the grounds that its density was considered too low, and its mix of detached and semi-detached housing insufficient for an area in such close proximity to Bearna and Galway city.

After taking this ruling into consideration for its second application, Burkeway then applied to build 197 homes consisting of a mix of houses, apartments and duplexes along with open space and recreational space. While that enlarged scheme secured approval in November 2018, a group of residents from a neighbouring development brought an appeal by way of judicial review in the High Court in January 2019. The appeal was brought on a number of issues including whether An Bord Pleanála’s decision complied with the Galway County Development Plan as well as matters relating to the Habitats Directive.

In June 2019, Mr Justice Garrett Simons overturned the board’s decision, concluding that it had acted outside its powers resulting in two material contraventions to the Galway County Development Plan. In the first instance the judge found that the approval of 197 units would breach the population allocation for Bearna as set out in the plan’s core strategy, which envisaged an increase in the area’s population of just 420 by 2020. In the second instance, the judge found that the development plan required a “justification test” for development works in an area of the site, which had been identified as being at risk of flooding in advance of planning permission being granted.

Misdirected anger

Having taken all of the above into account, Burkeway submitted its third and latest “fast-track” planning application for the Bearna site in November, and received approval for the development of 121 houses in February.

While the company’s managing director Michael Burke is understandably frustrated at the pursuit by local residents of a second judicial review, one might usefully ask if his frustration is being misdirected.

Given the length of time it’s now taking to “fast-track” applications for large-scale housing projects and the frequency with which they end up being challenged in the courts, perhaps the time has come to make haste slowly by reverting to the traditional planning system.