While politicians are busy trying to convince voters that they have the solution to the housing shortage, they seem to have forgotten our planning system’s capacity to generate disputes between councils and developers that threaten to leave building projects deadlocked for years.
Take New Generation Homes, which has found itself caught neatly between a rock and a hard place in west Dublin. An Bord Pleanála last month shot down the company's plans for 58 houses on a site at Coolamber, near Finnstown in Lucan, on the grounds that it should have sought permission for 124 new homes. New Generation originally wanted to build 119, but cut it to 58 after consultations with South Dublin County Council.
Following a motion from three councillors, Guss O'Connell, Liona O'Toole and Paul Gogarty, which would have ruled out any housing on the site, South Dublin has now proposed limited development that could allow up to 80 homes there. This still leaves New Generation in a bind: if it complies with the proposal, it risks another rejection from An Bord Pleanála; if it complies with An Bord Pleanála's ruling, it risks more objections from the council.
New Generation chief executive Pat Crean said last week that if homes cannot be built at Coolamber, they would not be built anywhere. His point was that the land was zoned for development, fully serviced and on public transport routes. If it is deemed unsuitable for housing, then what is suitable?
Local area plan
Zoning also features in a row between O’Flynn Capital Partners (OFCP) and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, which refused the company permission to build 164 homes in Cabinteely. This dispute is due in the
OFCP says its proposals match the Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown local area plan, which earmarks its site for housing, while the council says they do not.
Both developers have some merit on their side. Their sites are in existing residential areas with zoning, services and public transport. Neither company plans to bulldoze a national monument, dig up some unspoilt corner of the countryside or build in a field miles away from anywhere. That makes it hard to get a handle on the reasons behind the opposition to the projects.
Both cases feature local area plans and strategic development zones, which are designed to make planning more efficient and less prone to disputes. However, that does not seem to have worked as both applications are mired in what appear to be two old-fashioned planning rows, driven as much by local political concerns as anything else.
On this evidence, we can expect to see plenty of similar flare-ups around the country as more developers seek permission to build houses, with obvious implications for any efforts to supply the new homes that most agree are needed.
Developers are not charities. Making a profit is more necessary than ever to those that survived the recession. Much of their capital now comes from multinational investors which loan at higher interest than the banks and expect to be repaid.
However, like it or not, it is a fact that they are going to play a big role in tackling the housing crisis.
Many will find this unpalatable, particularly as the wounds from the property collapse, brought about as they see it by builders running riot, are still pretty raw. However, anyone who thinks that county councils were blameless in all of that is letting them off the hook for failing to curb those same developers’ excesses.
An estimated 70,000 houses lie empty around the Republic today, built during the bubble era in places where nobody needed them. County councils gave planning permission for these.
Between 2003 and 2007 the same local authorities collected €73 million from developers for social housing, but at the end of that period, about 50,000 families were stuck on their housing waiting lists. Interestingly, Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown collected the largest amount: €10.89 million.
So there are few grounds for describing any local council as a model of probity. However, along with the developers, they have a big part to play in tackling the housing crisis.
The big question for whichever group of politicians lands the prize on February26th is whether or not it is going to take another overhaul of our planning system to get the two sides to finally come to terms with each other.