Draft national guidelines on urban development and building heights, issued last week by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, are the flimsiest to emanate from the Custom House in Dublin since the so-called Sustainable Rural Housing guidelines in 2004.
The ostensible purpose of the latest guidelines, which will become mandatory for all local authorities and An Bord Pleanála to take into account, is to break the cycle of low-density suburban sprawl by creating “more compact and integrated communities” in our cities and towns.
The recipe for achieving this laudable aim is to eliminate any height restrictions on development, especially in core urban areas, where building heights of at least six storeys would become “the default objective, subject to keeping open the scope to consider even greater building heights.”
In seeking to justify this, the 14-page document cites the fact that 2.2 million people live in central Paris, occupying a land area roughly the same as the urban parts of Dublin, which have less than a quarter of this population, and such a discrepancy “highlights the potential” of building upwards.
But anyone who knows Paris can see that the vast majority of its dense population within the Boulevard Péripherique are accommodated in apartment buildings that are no more than six or seven storeys high, with only a tiny minority living in towers. The same is true of most European cities.
Lot to learn from the Japanese
But Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy is fixated on the idea that only the sky should be the limit for Dublin and other urban areas. He has even said that we had a lot to learn from the Japanese, even though their cities are the most congested in the world.
Thus, the draft guidelines chide local authorities for “setting generic maximum height limits across their functional areas”, mainly in response to “local-level concerns like maintaining the character of an existing built-up area”, even though this could “undermine wider national policy objectives”.
But now, the specific planning policy requirements of the guidelines would “take precedence over any conflicting, policies and objectives of development plans, local area plans and strategic development zone [SDZ] planning schemes” – all of which would “need to be amended” to comply with them.
Even the suburbs are to be reshaped, with standard two-storey semi-detached houses being replaced over time with duplex or apartment buildings of four storeys
Even the suburbs are to be reshaped, with standard two-storey semi-detached houses being replaced over time with duplex or apartment buildings of four storeys as the “default objective”, so that it would be possible to provide substantially more population growth within existing built-up areas.
Much taller buildings
As for much taller buildings in inner urban areas, the draft guidelines say: “It is critically important that development plans identify and provide policy support for specific geographic locations or precincts where increased building height is not only desirable but a fundamental policy requirement.”
Yet the Dublin City Development Plan did exactly that by designating the areas around Heuston, Connolly and Tara Street rail stations as well as Docklands for high-rise (above 50 metres), a further nine areas for “mid-rise” and a ceiling of up to 28 metres for the remainder of the inner city.
Now the department is seeking to declare an open season for tall buildings pretty well everywhere, whatever about their impact on views of major historic buildings, such as the Custom House, which is why Johnny Ronan’s plan for a tower on Tara Street was rejected by An Bord Pleanála.
Protected structures are not mentioned even once in the draft guidelines. Neither does the document deal with the enormous additional costs of building high, in terms of providing more lifts and ensuring fire safety. And most of the “good examples” it lists are offices or hotels, rather than residential.
The only guidance given on context is that high-rise schemes in architecturally sensitive areas “should successfully integrate into/enhance the character and public realm of the area, having regard to topography, its cultural context, setting of key landmarks [and] protection of key views.”
The draft guidelines note that Project Ireland 2040, the National Planning Framework, envisaged that “greatly increased levels of residential development in our urban centres and significant increases in the building heights and overall density [would be] actively sought out and brought forward”.
However, the Government’s insistence that its planning framework favours consolidating urban areas was exposed as a sham when the final version was “rural-proofed” so that anyone who wants to build a random house in the countryside would be able to cite merely “social reasons” for doing so.
And with “a presumption in favour of buildings of increased height in our town/city cores and in other urban locations with good public transport accessibility” as well as a more liberal approach to rural housing, what Murphy looks likely to deliver is the ruination of both town and country.
* The draft Urban Development and Building Heights Guidelines for Planning Authorities is open for public consultation until September 24th.
Frank McDonald is a former Environment Editor of The Irish Times