Housing crisis: We need to stop building assets and start building communities

More planning regulations won’t solve the housing issue. We need a whole new mindset

The only thing that is surprising in the latest claims about the planning process aired last Monday by RTÉ is that anyone is surprised. We have known for years that the system is under huge stress. The public’s confidence in it has been undermined by a residual legacy of political interference, and a lingering suspicion that it is characterised by greed, shady land deals and rezoning decisions.

The allegations in the programme come at a time when discussion about housing is already fraught: a generation unable to access affordable housing is stuck and unable to move forward with their lives. Despite the expectation of delivering up to 30,000 units of new housing this year, some property industry analysts predict that there will be a continuing shortfall of between 20,000-30,000 affordable homes every year without a dramatic shift in policy. According to Construction Industry Federation (CIF) estimates, there are more than 70,000 units of housing held up in appeals and Judicial Review cases. The CIF estimates that judicial review adds between €10,000 and €20,000 to the cost of a home.

Understandably, then, there is a palpable sense of anger since the airing of the RTÉ Investigates programme (to which I was a contributor) which looked at claims that two individuals were lodging environmental appeals against planning developments and then withdrawing them for financial gain.

The fact that nothing that RTÉ alleges happened is illegal only adds to the sense of gloom. When individuals can apparently make money from lodging and then withdrawing appeals, it would be naive to think that there are not more systemic problems. What is going so badly wrong in a system that is actually renowned for its relative openness and transparency compared with other countries?

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It is welcome that the Government is considering ways to prevent this behaviour, but this won’t fix the planning system’s other problems. Delays due to vexatious or malicious appeals should not be tolerated, but neither should public participation in the planning process be sacrificed just to speed up unsustainable developments. The planning process must be given adequate staffing resources and time to consider all applications on their merit, and to ensure that policies and laws are being adhered to. Without the active engagement by citizens and NGOs, planning outcomes would be much, much worse than they already are. Many planning applications get slowed down for all the right reasons – poor design, incompatibility with environmental and climate legislation or failure to properly consider the impact on surrounding neighbourhoods and amenities.

The issues outlined by RTÉ Investigates are just some of the many ways in which our planning process is dysfunctional. We still have towns and cities that are plagued with dereliction, urban decay and traffic congestion, alongside a continuing pattern of rural development that is best characterised as urban-generated suburban sprawl. Despite a national policy supporting compact development, 50-70 per cent of new housing is built at greenfield locations outside of a town or city, and more than a fifth of all new homes are built on individual sites in the countryside, far from existing settlements and essential services or places of employment.

How has this come about? Ireland’s unprecedented levels of economic growth over recent decades generated opportunities to transform the property landscape for profit. Publicly funded infrastructure projects such as motorways and roads unlocked land for development. Rezonings generated windfall gains for landowners. The lucrative combination of secure property rights, a permissive planning system and economic growth means that the planning system has gradually served to increase the economic value of property and land.

At local level, planning authorities have to balance their legal obligations with a political culture that elevates the interests of private individuals, often for reasons that have little to do with the public interest. Remarkably, some councils are still zoning land for development on flood plains and vote to place impractical and illegal restrictions on renewable energy projects.

There is no shortage of planning policies in Ireland, in case you’re thinking that’s the problem. According to NGOs such as An Taisce and Friends of the Irish Environment, policies are often aspirational and forward thinking. However, in practice, they are not being implemented. Examples include a continued proliferation of vacancy, underutilisation and low-density housing. Wide roads and high walls around housing estates set up the perfect conditions for locking in car dependence and social isolation, even if the houses themselves are A-rated.

The failure to future-proof designs for climate change and people’s needs mean that we are not building communities at all, just assets. Poor planning ultimately sets us up for future problems that include spatial inequities, higher transportation costs, social isolation and weak community ties. It could be argued that planning in Ireland has largely failed to deliver the “sustainable” part of the development bargain.

According to Dr Gavin Daly, all of the planning reforms introduced after the financial crash to prevent another “chaotic developer-led market-frenzy” were unpicked over the past decade. These changes gave us the disastrous Strategic Housing Development process written “lock, stock and barrel” by property industry lobbyists to fast-track the building of Build-to-Rent apartments. No matter how desperate we are to see more housing built, it must be done to a high standard that guarantees wellbeing and proximity to services and that minimises environmental impacts.

Nor should we forget the importance of public participation and access to justice, which is enshrined in the Aarhus Convention. Anything in the new planning bill currently before the Oireachtas that restricts the rights of citizens or NGOs to take legal actions could result in more cases ending up before the Aarhus appeal committee and the European Court of Justice instead.

There really is no way to get around environmental laws, so why not implement them? Let’s embrace the opportunity for low-impact sustainable communities and the opportunity to conserve the natural environment and biodiversity in tandem with economic development. As solicitor Fred Logue pointed out this week, the best strategy is to do better planning from the start. This must mean future-proofing housing developments and learning from bitter experience that de-democratising planning will only make things worse.

Sadhbh O’Neill is a researcher in climate policy