Councils must avoid ‘back of fag packet’ approach to zoning, says deputy planning regulator

Rate of housing construction on zoned land is ‘shocking’, Anne Marie O’Connor says

Local authorities must not revert to a “back of the fag packet approach” to the drafting of their development plans, the State’s deputy planning regulator, Anne Marie O’Connor, has said.

Ms O’Connor described the rate of housing construction on land zoned by councillors as “absolutely shocking”, with only one in six zoned sites seeing an application for homes during the lifetime of a development plan.

Speaking at a Dublin City Council housing seminar, Ms O'Connor emphasised the need for "evidence-based" zoning and a move away from blanket zoning or "colouring yellow across a development plan, hoping that something will happen".

Councils needed to ensure development plans became “action plans” for the delivery of homes, she told the seminar at the Mansion House in recent days.

“Really focus and think about how much land you need, where it should be, and how you are going to achieve it,” she said.

“Because the statistics in terms of the delivery on zoned land are absolutely shocking. There is a one in six chance a piece of zoned land will come forward for development in its planned period, and if we want to be trying to direct development into the right places for the right reasons, we have to change the way we have been looking at that traditionally, because we know where that has led us.”

‘Flawed thinking’

Ms O’Connor recently made a submission to the draft Dublin City Development Plan on behalf of the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) instructing the council not to go ahead with a number of restrictions on build-to-rent (BTR) schemes on the grounds that the council was breaching national policies and ministerial guidelines.

Ms O’Connor told the seminar she realised some might find mandatory planning guidelines “difficult” but she said “they provide a real clarity around certain issues that are deemed to be key. You may not like some of them but that is their purpose.”

When local authorities did not apply national policies it created a “friction and a tension that does not work well for the planning system or for planning outcomes,” she said.

“The idea that clear breaches” of national planning policies “can be facilitated within the planning system and that is in some way going to lead to good outcomes I think is a flawed way of thinking”.

However, she said there was room for councils to define appropriate housing mixes for particular areas.

“We are looking to see has this [zoning] come from somewhere or has it just been plucked out of the air. If it has come from analysis … that’s a very different thing than just the introduction of the back-of-the-fag-packet approach that has gone on in the past.”

The planning system could not operate “business as usual and hope for different outcomes”, she said. “If we are hoping to build sustainable communities and sustainable development, then we know business as usual has not delivered that.”