Planning System Drivers of Supply Imbalance
Despite the existence of the National Spatial Strategy, in practice, a number of other factors combined to undermine the implementation of strategic planning objectives. Further, while the planning system reforms had effectively freed up residential production to respond to the tremendous increase in housing demand, these same settings left the nation vulnerable to the rapid reversal of demand when economic circumstances turned. The following sections examine the ways in which particular planning system factors contributed to the overhang of supply and the mismatch between demographically driven housing need and the geography of new homes.
Firstly, Norris and Shiels (2007) contend that the reforms to the planning system introduced under the Planning and Development Act2000 (in response to the reports commissioned from Bacon and Associates (1998, 1999, 2000) as outlined earlier) addressed many of the causes of sluggish housing production during the 1990s. Following the passage of the Act, barriers to medium density housing development were reduced. Finance for land development became easier to access and planning agencies had greater capacity to undertake strategic planning and development control functions, with increased numbers of planning professionals on staff.
It was also envisaged that the 2000 legislation coupled with the National Spatial Strategy would lead to greater national and regional-level coordination. Yet these reforms proved ineffective in ensuring that the spatial distribution of new housing development reflected population and economic growth (Kitchin et al. 2012; Walsh 2012; Counsell et al. 2014). This was due to shortcomings in the design and in the implementation of these measures. One of the important reforms introduced in the new legislation was provision for ‘Gateways’ designed to facilitate economic growth in key regional locations, in part, through the use of expedited planning provisions. However, by 2005 concerns were being aired about the Gateway model and its potential to foster successful regional alternatives to Dublin. Scott (2005, p. 9) argued that “. the number of gateways designated (eight in total) may prove too many in a small economy to effectively develop clusters of economic growth.... needed to counterbalance the dominance of ... Dublin”.
Another problem was that the National Spatial Strategy was not given a legislative basis. Rather, its implementation was to be achieved by means of regional planning guidelines prepared by eight regional authorities, with the local authorities responsible for sub-regional planning legally obliged to ‘have regard’ to these regional guidelines but not bound to adhere to them. Lack of statutory authority to underpin regional spatial plans is not unusual and in many jurisdictions explains implementation gaps between spatial strategies and actual patterns of development (Tewdwr-Jones and McNeil 2000). For the greater Dublin area, guidelines (to execute the National Spatial Strategy) were published in 1999 (Brady Shipman Martin et al. 1999). However, these guidelines were largely ignored in the development plans published by local authorities in the greater Dublin area, which continued to rezone land for housing far in excess of the guidelines’ recommendation. This acted to draw development out of the City into the surrounding counties. Although there was a legal challenge to one of these development plans (which proposed to rezone land and permit housing development in an area not meeting the criteria of the spatial strategy as articulated in the regional guidelines) this was unsuccessful. The determining consideration was the non-statutory basis of the guidelines. Local authorities must ‘have regard to’ these guidelines but are not obliged to refuse non-complying proposals in the event of an inconsistency (Simons 2003).
Similarly, excessive zoning of land for development was also evident in some parts of the countryside during the boom years (Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government 2009; Kitchin et al. 2012). Figure 7.6 shows the greenfield land capacity of local areas throughout Ireland. As highlighted, the exuberant approach to zoning for housing development resulted in abundant land supply—with most parts of Ireland buffered by sufficient developable land to accommodate at least 30 years’ demand for new homes (assuming a buoyant population growth of over 2 % pa and household size of 2—2.6 persons) to enable significant levels of growth, which far exceeded actual trajectories. A number of rural counties (Cavan, Roscommon and Monaghan) had land zoned for new dwellings in excess of 50 % of their total current housing stock. Yet population in these counties did not increase in line with such trends (rising 13.2 %, 9.3 % and 6.5 % respectively between 2001 and 2006) nor would it continue to do so (it grew by 14.3 %, 9.0 % and 8.0 % in the respective areas between 2006 and 2011) (Central Statistics Office, various years).
The location of these extensive land reserves in greenfield settings (often beyond areas of economic and population growth, remote from
- 7 Planning Practice, Housing Oversupply and Ireland's Housing...
Fig. 7.6 Ireland's permitted site capacity as a proportion of existing housing stock, average and county maximum by region (2008) (Source: Derived from An Taisce 2012)
transportation and services, and/or on sites afflicted by serious natural hazards, such as major flood risk) (An Taisce 2012), further served to undermine the nation’s strategic planning goals. Indeed, it was more likely the case that in many settings, housing development itself was perceived to be a strategy for stimulating rural economies and promoting population growth (Gkartzios and Norris 2011), as discussed further below.
More broadly, a number of commentators have argued that the extremely permissive approach to housing development on green field sites discouraged development in urban areas, thus also working to undermine the principles of the National Spatial Strategy. This tendency towards greenfield rather than ‘brownfield’ (including infill) sites reflected a number of political and pragmatic considerations. For instance, a larger range of criteria must be taken into account when assessing development proposals within existing urban settings.
In particular, the need to consider impacts on adjoining neighbours, traffic, heritage and infrastructure capacity imply more extensive assessment and consultation with those potentially impacted by the proposal. Site assembly is often required in urban areas, together with land decontamination in some cases and higher-density developments are more expensive to construct.
In the Irish context, all of these factors rendered inner city development less attractive and more risky from the perspective of developers, whose existing business model and capacity was far more attuned to greenfield contexts. Combined with a planning framework which in practice seemed to facilitate housing development on greenfield sites, the emphasis on development in greenfield and rural settings, despite the clear demand and policy preference for housing in existing urban areas, was perhaps inevitable (Norris and Shiels 2007).
Further, when faced with proposals for housing development, rural counties tended to be far more flexible than their urban counterparts, and seemed prepared to approve projects of marginal merit. Figure 7.7 shows much lower rates of planning refusal in rural counties than in inner Dublin, particularly in the mid-1990s.
As shown in Fig. 7.7, refusals were particularly rare in the South and West/North in 1996 (around 5 %); only 2.6 % of total applications in both Carlow and Clare were refused in 1996, compared with a Dublin average the same year of 14.7 %. Mayo’s refusal rate in 2001 was 8.9 % while in Dublin it was 19.1 % and in 2006, more than a fifth (20.1 %) of planning applications were refused in the Dublin area, compared with just 8.5 % in Sligo. Refusal rates did rise somewhat in 2001 and 2006, in all areas, perhaps as a reaction to the boom conditions. Of course, refusal rates reflect a combination of local policy settings and market characteristics, and in more complex, higher-value markets it would be expected that a higher rate of proposals would fail to comply with prevailing controls (because the windfall to developers who secure permission for a non-complying project is far higher). Nevertheless, analysis of planning approval patterns in Ireland over the period suggests a distinctly political explanation for these trends, with development most politically contentious in Dublin. Under the Irish planning system, elected members of local authorities (city and county councillors) have the power
Fig. 7.7 Average and county minimum planning refusal rates by Region, 1996-2006 (Source: Derived from An Taisce 2012)
to overturn the decisions of the authority’s professional planners if they wish. Table 6.2 shows that there was a distinctly spatial pattern to political decision-making, with local councillors in the greater Dublin area (e.g. County Kildare (396)) and in rural areas such as Roscommon (311) or Westmeath (367) most likely to overturn professional recommendations, in favour of a proposed development. Areas such as Louth (119 in 2010), Tipperary South (201 in 2004) and Wexford (98 in 2005) also had high rates of overturning of professional planners’ decisions, whereas this phenomenon was much less common in cities. Just ten decisions of this type were overturned in Dun-Laoghaire-Rathdown and five in South Dublin over the nine-year time span. In the case of regional and rural Ireland, housing development was welcomed by local politicians, despite the advice of professional planners. To understand the political factors influencing the pro-growth stance in rural Ireland, it is necessary to look beyond the planning system.