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Why we’re not building enough affordable houses

Development is hamstrung by Edwardian rules that block medium-density development. We need new, mandatory regulations

It is ironic that as our housing crisis accelerates, discussions on potential affordable solutions should be dominated by a focus on garden size and housing separation distances. What should be debated is why our planning standards, relative to other European countries, restrict the range of own-door housing options available. Updating our planning standards will reduce site costs, house prices and increase the number of homes delivered.

Their origins date from 1902 when planners Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker walked apart in a field until they could no longer see each other’s nipples through their shirts

Just how outdated are our planning standards? They are a legacy of moral values originally intended to protect the modesty of Edwardian women. Their origins date from 1902 when planners Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker walked apart in a field until they could no longer see each other’s nipples through their shirts. They determined that the 70ft between them was an appropriate separation distance to achieve privacy in housing layouts.

Unwin and Parker were key figures in the Garden City Movement and their research formed the basis of Unwin’s book, Town Planning in Practice, published in 1909. Unwin served on the Tudor Walters Commission, which adopted many of his recommendations as the basis of the planning standards for Lloyd George’s Homes Fit for Heroes house-building programme.

Subsequently, these guidelines were adopted throughout the English-speaking world. Unwin later made recommendations to cater for the motor car, which led to the typical form of suburban housing, based on low densities and significant car ownership, which became the dominant form of residential development of the 20th century. Incredibly, 120 years later, our development plans are still being influenced by these outmoded and restrictive standards.


Yet many of the most favoured and sought after residential areas in our cities and towns – Phibsborough, Portobello, Ranelagh, Rathmines, Turners Cross and Stoneybatter – were designed and constructed prior to the introduction of these standards. These neighbourhoods are attractive precisely because of the compact density and fine urban grain they achieve. They are closer in character to the urban form and densities of new residential communities permitted by modern European planning standards.

Considerable research on housing projects, based on these international standards, was carried out by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI), the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) and Property Industry Ireland (PII). Departmental officials were briefed on this research and their supportive response was reflected in a series of departmental guidelines, published with the intention that they would be adopted by local authorities. However, local development plans continue to “cut and paste” outmoded standards, with the tacit support of planners and engineers resistant to change, ignoring the departmental objectives.

As a result of these outmoded standards, a disproportionately high number of apartments is required to meet sustainable compact growth targets. The latest SCSI report on the cost of apartment construction indicates that the cost of delivering apartments to the market exceeds their sale price in many areas with high housing demand. We also need a significant supply of affordable apartments in appropriate urban areas. However that’s a another problem which needs separate resolution.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien, is due to issue new guidelines for planning authorities on Sustainable and Compact Settlement to address “key issues including density and viability, spatial planning, transport and quality design” in the near future. However, based on experience, if local authorities can continue to ignore such guidelines, they will.

Compact communities

Given that planning standards have a major impact on the viability of residential projects, the current failure to meet housing targets will continue unless the Minister and his senior officials make departmental guidelines mandatory and introduce a new policy to permit a wider range of modern own-door housing types.

Successful urban neighbourhoods will be nurtured, not by super-high densities and tall buildings, but by mid-rise, medium-density communities

With our growing population, the pressure to provide sustainable, compact communities for 21st century Ireland is set to continue. There is an increasing recognition that the patterns of urban expansion of the past century are inappropriate. Successful urban neighbourhoods will be nurtured, not by super-high densities and tall buildings, but by mid-rise, medium-density communities, which promote social mixing and interaction. People want more options and a vibrant community, as evidenced by the popularity of our older neighbourhoods and exemplary new European models.

Creating compact, sustainable residential communities is critical if we are to manage many of Ireland’s contemporary challenges. This requires architects, urban planners, landscape architects, engineers, developers and policymakers to work together in a collaborative manner. However if the legislative framework in which they work is outdated, as it is, this challenge becomes more difficult if not insurmountable.

In order to ensure that a higher number and variety of own-door housing types are delivered, the Minister and his department can make a significant impact by requiring the implementation of current urban design guidelines in development plans and, crucially, by introducing new, mandatory housing planning standards.

Without decisive leadership and implementation of informed policy, we have little hope of overcoming the current housing crisis. With it, we can work towards the creation of new, sustainable residential communities in affordable neighbourhoods providing a range of house types which inspire, support, positively transform people’s lives and meet the needs of a 21st century knowledge society. After all, our obligation as a society is to our grandchildren – not to our grandparents and their moral standards.

Tony Reddy is chairman of Reddy Architecture+Urbanism, a director of the Academy of Urbanism and PII and a former president of the RIAI.