The Irish Planning System: Origins and Recent Reforms

Ireland’s planning system is defined by the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1963. While this legislation was closely modelled on the UK Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the implementation of this system in Ireland differed significantly from the UK model. Ireland’s planning system has long been criticised for its lack of a regional level framework, its weak governance arrangements and its unusually laissez-faire application (McGrath 1998; Norris and Shiels 2007; Kitchin et al. 2012; Walsh 2012; Counsell et al. 2014). Yet the weaknesses are not immediately apparent on a superficial reading of Irish planning law and surrounding policy apparatus.

Like its UK counterpart, the 1963 Planning Act obliges Irish local authorities to specify their spatial development proposals in development plans of at least five years’ duration (Bannon 1989). Plans for urban areas should designate land for residential, commercial, industrial, institutional and amenity use and make provision for necessary infrastructure such as roads. Adherence to the development plan is controlled by means of planning permissions. However, compared to the UK, the development planning process (allocation of land uses through zoning) has traditionally been much weaker in Ireland. Many rural local authorities did not regularly revise their development plans until the 1980s (Bannon 1989). In addition, the 1963 Act did not require development plans to estimate and make provision for meeting future housing needs, nor to specify the appropriate design and density of dwellings. According to Meehan (2003, pp. 65—66), most plans made only “... limited quantitative assessment of demand for housing”, and specified “. maximum but relatively low [housing] densities (generally in the region of 6—10 per acre), but did not address the design/form of housing”.

Further, the Irish planning system was characterised by a virtual absence of strategic regional or national planning, until recently. Although a national spatial plan was published in 1968, as were strategies for the Dublin and Eastern Regions in 1967 and 1985 respectively, the first two of these were implemented only in part and the third was not implemented at all (Bannon 1989). Apart from the establishment of an independent planning appeals body, An Bord Pleanla, in 1977, no significant changes were made to the planning system established by the 1963 Act until it was superseded by a new principal planning Act in 2000 (Meehan 2003). Further, Ireland’s development control process (i.e. the system for scrutinising particular proposals against the criteria and standards contained in development plans), is generally regarded as weaker than its UK counterpart, although sharing its discretionary character.

However, in the early 2000s, a number of significant reforms to planning for residential development were introduced and the system was tightened up significantly compared to the past. Many of these changes were introduced through the new Planning and Development Act 2000 which consolidated and reformed the preceding planning legislation.

While the new legislation did introduce new checks and balances to the planning system, it also contained a number of specific provisions to address growing concerns over housing affordability. These concerns were articulated by a series of reports prepared by consultancy company Bacon and Associates (1999—2000) and commissioned by the Minister for Housing and Urban Renewal. A key focus of these reports was on the need to increase housing supply in and around the Dublin area, particularly by increasing housing densities. The report also advised implementing arrangements to enable local authorities throughout the country to support affordable housing.

Consistent with these recommendations, Part V of the Planning and Development Act obliged local authorities to amend their development plans to incorporate housing strategies detailing how future local housing demand will be met. These strategies must estimate the need for social rented housing, and for ‘affordable housing’ which, in the Irish context, refers specifically to dwellings for sale at below market value to low-income households. To satisfy this social and affordable housing need, the provisions enabled local authorities to designate up to 20 % of the land zoned for residential development locally for affordable housing purposes, with property developers required to transfer the necessary proportion of dwellings, land or sites to local authorities as a condition of planning permission. Following a vociferous campaigning by the construction industry, the 2000 Act was amended in 2002 to allow developers to meet the requirements for provision of social and affordable housing by making a financial contribution or by providing dwellings or land in an alternative location. In addition, the stipulation that planning permissions granted prior to the 2000 Act would lapse if not used within a two-year period was rescinded by the 2002 legislation.

The latter provision significantly slowed down the impact of Part V as a significant number of the residential developments completed in the early 2000s were not subject to its provisions. But after a slow start, by 2006—2007, the mechanism was delivering around 3 % of the total housing completions (Fig. 7.4) and nearly 20 % of total social housing (Fig. 7.5); this included 3757 social rental units between 2002 and 2011, although the main contribution was in the production of low-cost home ownership units (DKM 2012). Over the entire period 2002—2011, a total of 15,114 units were delivered (62.1 % affordable home ownership and 37.9 % social rental dwellings). This represented around 3.8 % of all dwellings delivered over the period 2002—2011. Notably, as part of the transfer of the social and affordable housing, local authorities were required to purchase the land component (but at unimproved values). The discounted land values were inherent to the low-cost home ownership scheme.

While Part V represented a clear attempt to introduce an inclusionary affordable housing strand within the Irish planning system, the slow take-up and limited overall achievement in addressing the most acute housing needs must be seen as disappointing to those who would advocate such an approach in principle. In particular, there is evidence that the measure did not enable supply of adequate numbers of social housing units (which have been in short supply since the economic crisis) and over-supply of affordable housing (which attracted no purchasers after the housing crash). Morley et al. (2015) echo studies by

Contribution to housing supply, dwellings delivered via Part V 2002-2011 (Source

Fig. 7.4 Contribution to housing supply, dwellings delivered via Part V 2002-2011 (Source: Derived from DKM, p. 27)

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Delivery of social housing units via Part V, as a proportion of total social housing units 2002-2009 (Source

Fig. 7.5 Delivery of social housing units via Part V, as a proportion of total social housing units 2002-2009 (Source: Derived from DKM 2012, p. 42)

DKM (2012), Spotlight (2014) and SCSI (2015) in underlining the relatively ineffective performance of Part V, but these arguments are in perspective claims that it had become a major barrier to expanding housing output post-crisis. Other issues relating to infrastructure financing, in particular, are seen as more important. It is also worth making the point that, from the UK experience, it may take longer than a decade to get such a system working at a high level of effectiveness, and Part V had only about 6—7 years before it was swamped by the recession.

The 2000 Act also extended Strategic Development Zones (SDZs) which enabled ‘fast track’ provision of critical infrastructure such as power stations, which might otherwise have been held up in the traditional planning process by local opposition, to include housing developments. This was an important mechanism which had the potential to rectify the geographic imbalance between housing demand and supply. Three housing SDZs were designated in 2000 — two in Dublin and one in the Greater Dublin Area. However, during the boom period, these projects were slow to take off, with Adamstown in West Dublin the only project to commence within four years of its announcement, due to the length of time required to plan and provide the key amenities required before housing development of the strategic scale envisaged could occur. This task has always been challenging in Ireland (as in many other nations) because responsibility for the provision of main roads, railways and schools lies, not with local authorities, but with a plethora of other agencies (Williams et al. 2002).

In addition, a number of other measures were introduced to increase housing supply in response to the housing market analyses commissioned from Bacon and Associates (1998, 1999, 2000). For instance, funding for the Serviced Land Initiative, which finances the water, sewerage and road infrastructure necessary to release land for residential development, was more than doubled to €47.8m per annum, 38 % of which was reserved for Dublin (Department of the Environment and Local Government 1998). The Housing Ministry also published new Residential Density Guidelines for Planning Authorities, which recommended the doubling of densities in suburban areas (Department of the Environment and Local Government 1999). AnBord Pleanala employed additional staff in order to process planning appeals more swiftly and planning schools were allowed to increase their student numbers, leading to a significant growth in graduate output (Department of the Environment and Local Government 2001). Bacon and Associates’ 1999 report also recommended that a national spatial development strategy be formulated to balance the distribution of population and economic activity across the country, and to divert housing demand away from Dublin. A National Spatial Strategy was subsequently published, covering the period 2002—2020 (Department of the Environment and Local Government 2002). It aimed to achieve balanced regional development by designating a number of cities and towns as ‘gateways’ (engines of regional and national growth), towards which investment infrastructure, services and amenities should be directed.

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