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Planning for a population increase of 1 million people

New national plan ‘needs to create 660,000 additional jobs to achieve full employment and a predicted need for 550,000 more homes by 2040’

‘It is more often the legal process that holds things up, as we saw with the Apple Data Centre in Galway’

‘It is more often the legal process that holds things up, as we saw with the Apple Data Centre in Galway’

 

Major developments take major planning. This month sees the closing off of public consultations for Ireland’s biggest planning endeavour yet, the new National Planning Framework (NPF).

When it is finally published, the document, Ireland 2040 – Our Plan, will guide strategic planning and development across the country over the next two decades and beyond.

The aim is to ensure that population growth over the period is sustainable, not just economically, but socially and environmentally too.

Finalisation of the NPF comes alongside the 10-year National Investment Plan, essentially putting together one plan to guide both strategic development and infrastructure investment at national level.

The NPF with the NIP will also set the context for each of Ireland’s three regional assemblies – Northern & Western, Eastern & Midlands, and Southern – to develop their Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies.

Regional Assemblies source European funding for Regional Programmes, promote co-ordinated public services, monitor proposals which may impact on their areas, and advise public bodies of the regional implications of their policies and plans.

The ultimate objectives of the NPF are to guide the future development of Ireland, taking into account a projected one million increase in population, the need to create 660,000 additional jobs to achieve full employment and a predicted need for 550,000 more homes by 2040.

Of the one million extra people expected here, 25per cent are being planned for Dublin and 25per cent across Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford combined – enabling all four to grow their population and jobs by 50-60 per cent. The remaining 50 per cent of growth is planned to occur in key regional centres, towns, villages and rural areas, to be determined in the assemblies’ forthcoming regional plans (RSESs).

Among the aims of all of this activity is to enable people to live closer to where they work, moving away from the current unsustainable trends of increased commuting. The aim is also to regenerate rural Ireland by promoting environmentally sustainable growth patterns, and to plan for and implement a better distribution of regional growth, in terms of jobs and prosperity.

The idea is to transform settlements of all sizes through imaginative urban regeneration and bringing life and jobs back into cities, towns and villages.

Among the other key points highlighted and addressed within the draft NPF are proposals to significantly strengthen regional growth and connectivity, particularly in and between the four cities outside Dublin, within the Northern and Western Regional Assembly area, and more broadly within the Southern and Eastern Regions.

There are proposals to secure more compact forms of urban development in all types of settlements, to reduce sprawl and to provide more choice, with a new national infill development target to accommodate 40 per cent of the urban growth within existing built-up areas on brownfield lands.

The need to counteract the decline of small towns and rural areas throughout Ireland will also be addressed, especially those located outside the catchment area of cities and larger towns. And there is recognition of the importance of the countryside as a living and lived-in landscape and community requiring careful planning to ensure it is sustained.

The dovetailing of the NFP and the NIP should help provide the investment in infrastructure that “will enable us to unlock the potential of some of our towns and cities”, says Stephen Purcell, a director of Future Analytics.

The consultancy specialises in data-driven strategic regional and urban planning and development, providing data analytics to built environment professionals. “As things stand, in Ireland we spend 10 times as much on the day-to-day running of existing infrastructure as we do on strategic investment projects in this country,” says Purcell.

Strategic investment projects are vital if we are to see balanced, sustainable growth both in Dublin and the regions. “It’s important for foreign direct investment too. You can see that in relation to the government tendering for some of the EU HQs post Brexit. We are looking to get them to base here, and as part of the process the EU is asking those tendering to demonstrate that they have the housing capacity, the school system and the accessibility required to cope.”

The introduction of fast-track planning for large scale housing and student apartment developments is helpful, he says, “but although planning gets the brunt of the ire when people are looking for reasons for delays in developments, in fact it is more often the legal process that holds things up, as we saw with the Apple Data Centre in Galway. Denmark already has its Apple Data Centre up and running.”

Dublin’s Metro North is another case in point. “It got to planning stage, wasdropped in 2011, and is now back on the drawing board, with talk of being operational by 2027. Getting stuff done is the issue here,” says Purcell.

The fact that there are still questions about the viability of construction doesn’t help. “The margin still isn’t there for developers, given the level of risk involved,” says Purcell. “That said, right now, with the National Planning Framework and the National Investment Plan, there is an opportunity for an integrated approach to planning and development.”

Opportunity for the regions

The advent of a joined-up National Planning Framework and National Investment Plan presents an enormous opportunity for Ireland’s regions, believes Michael Boyd, of Boyd’s Real Estate Alliance, in Kilkenny.

He believes the county has plenty to commend itself to developers looking to embark on large-scale projects, such as residential housing developments.

“Kilkenny has enormous positives for developers, including ample water supply and sewage capacity, roads and infrastructure. With the support of local county council planners, there is no reason why more developments can’t take place here,” says Boyd.

While the NFP will provide cohesive planning guidance at a macro level, it can often be micro issues that cause logjams and delays however.

An unforeseen consequence of the advent of Irish Water, for example, which takes water out from the purview of local authorities, could be that it slows down planning matters. “Traditionally the Councils held all these areas, so if a planner needed to talk to a water person, he just had to walk down the hall,” says Boyd.

The cost of and speed at which utilities connections, including water, are made are also a factors for developers, particularly in a market that doesn’t offer “continued visibility over the medium to long term”, says Boyd. “Sure they can sell 50 houses now, but can they sell the next 500 or 1,000?”

The problem is one of margin, or rather lack thereof. “And the elephant in the room on that front is VAT,” he says.

VAT currently stands at 13per cent on new homes, which means that, on an average €300,000 new home, nearly €40,000 – or roughly €1 in every €8 – is going on VAT.

“If it wasn’t there builders could get a better margin, which would mean they could afford to build more. Outside of Dublin, margins are still very tight, and, as a result, very little building is being done in the regions. And right now, in excess of 40 per cent of a house price goes to the government in some way or other, whether in VAT or social housing levy or water connections.”

Lack of supply of new houses is pushing up prices for second-hand ones, to the overall detriment of society. “Houses are now only affordable if you have the backing of Mum and Dad, or if you are a high flyer. They have become an elite product. Thirty years ago, if you were a guard or a nurse or a chef, you could get a mortgage and get a house. Now you need the State to help you. We are increasingly moving from a situation where only the elite can buy a home and everyone else will need assistance from the government in the form of social and affordable or public housing. That’s ridiculous.”

By contrast, “if the government got out of the market, taking VAT off and making a few other structural changes, housing would be a much smaller part of our monthly income and that would be better for everybody”, says Boyd.