Minister’s plan to lift building height cap will backfire, experts warn

Constant changes to policy lead to market uncertainty, Housing Agency chair says

Construction at Grand Canal Dock in Dublin. The housing problem “offers the potential for spectacular failure if policy interventions are inappropriate”, Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan said. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Construction at Grand Canal Dock in Dublin. The housing problem “offers the potential for spectacular failure if policy interventions are inappropriate”, Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan said. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

In the scramble to try to tackle the shortage of housing supply in Dublin, the Government in 2015 set its sights on Dublin City Council’s development plan.

Scale was needed to address the housing shortage, it said, and this meant the construction of apartment blocks.

The 2011 development plan was seen as a block to the construction of apartments because of the standards it set, particularly in relation to apartment size were too high.

Changes introduced by Alan Kelly in December 2015 lowered the minimum size of apartments, and introduced a new category of studio apartment, as well reducing the number of “dual aspect” apartments – those with windows on two sides – and increasing the number of apartments serviced by each lift .

Two years on, the hoped-for surge in apartment development has not materialised. What has happened in the intervening period is developers who previously had planning permission have resubmitted applications to build the less expensive schemes. Some of these applications have been granted, others are still in the planning system, but few developers are on site building new apartments.

In mid-2016 the Government’s focus changed to height. In June that year, then minister for housing Simon Coveney wrote to the council cautioning against restrictive apartment heights in the new development plan which was to come into force at the end of 2016.

Four areas

When councillors approved the plan last November they decided that high rise would remain restricted to just four areas of the city – the docklands, George’s Quay and the Connolly and Heuston station areas, and determined that buildings up to 50m tall could be considered in nine other areas.

In the rest of the inner city they increased the height of buildings from 19m to 24m, or from four to six storeys, and in the outer suburbs from 13m to 16m, or from four to five storeys.

However, these concessions were not considered sufficient. Last July, not long after taking up his new role as Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy indicated planning changes were on the cards that would allow the development of more high-rise building.

Speaking at an Irish Planning Institute conference earlier this month, he firmed up these plans: he would be lifting the cap on high-rise development, and would be issuing new guidelines to local authorities by the end of the year, which would require Dublin city to change its development plan.

This, says Conor Skehan, chairman of the Government’s Housing Agency, is not a good idea.

“There is a time for doing nothing; this is that time. It’s a bad idea to stand up in the rowing boat when you’re going down the river and you don’t try to fix the engine in the middle of the flight.”

Constant changes to policy, and alteration to local authority’s development plans created an uncertainty in the market which discouraged development, he said.

“The so-called ‘failed’ planning system has kept up with office demand, and nobody had been saying they are going to change the rules around offices. The problem with housing is that we keep on saying we’re going to do something.”

Even if it didn’t disturb the market, the measure was unlikely to produce the desired results, he said.

“It’s a very common mistake to confuse high rise with high density. High rise makes very little contribution to density. The benefit is very much for the housing developer: they benefit enormously from a high-rise building, the public doesn’t.”

However, he said deferral of development and the resubmission of applications, was the most likely result.

“Everybody needs the confidence to know that things are going to be allowed to bed down and the Government isn’t going to change the rules. The best thing the Government could do is say that they’re not going to change another thing for three years.”

Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan says the housing problem “offers the potential for spectacular failure if policy interventions are inappropriate”.

He points towards the pre-2008 period when the city had no limits on heights. “In the past there where was no cap, someone would by a site, get planning permission for a high-rise building, and then sell on the site which would have a higher value because of the planning permission, then the next guy might do the same. It was all just speculation with none of them having the intention to develop.”

While it might seem that planners would welcome the removal of the cap, as it would leave more decisions up to their discretion, Deirdre Fallon, Irish Planning Institute president, says it would be a double-edged sword.

“While it does increase flexibility to determine what’s appropriate for a site, it removes the certainty that comes from having a development plan policy in place.”

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