Here is the NIRSA submission on the Public Consultation Draft of the Guidance Manual for Managing and Resolving Unfinished Housing Developments published by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.  It was submitted last Thursday 13th January.

NIRSA welcomes the publication of the draft Guidance Manual for Managing and Resolving Unfinished Housing Developments by the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.  Given the nature and scale of the unfinished estate phenomenon in Ireland, and their various associated problems, it is vital that a strategy, including appropriate policy and statutory instruments, is developed and implemented to address and resolve the issues these estates face.

General comments and recommendations

Whilst we welcome the Department’s public consultation draft, and feel it is a step in the right direction, we are of the opinion that the guidance manual needs significantly more work if it is to be effective in tackling the various issues that unfinished housing developments face.  Indeed, without significant changes to the proposed way forward we would envisage many estates progressing very little from their present circumstances over several years.  In particular, there are nine general concerns that need further attention.

a)  The lack of compulsive mechanisms to ensure that issues are resolved.  The proposals in the draft manual are highly voluntaristic in nature and seek to encourage, rather than compel, various stakeholders to address specific issues.  It is proposed that all elements of Site Resolution Plans (SRPs) are negotiated between stakeholders, with discretion left to Local Authorities as to whether to pursue stakeholders with available legislative instruments.  This voluntary nature makes it likely that some stakeholders will seek to avoid addressing the problems developments face. There is thus a real risk that the guidance will not achieve its stated aim of finalising the development of incomplete estates.  In addition, given the centrality of SRPs as the prime mechanism to address issues related to unfinished estates, this instrument should be detailed very early in the document.

SRPs should be composed of compulsory elements which are rigorously enforced to ensure compliance.

b)  The lack of time frames. The present proposals are not accompanied by any proposed time frames for development and implementation.  This is a significant oversight that will potentially lead to enormous drift and the potential for very little to happen over lengthy periods of time to rectify the problems of unfinished estates.  Issues of health and safety, for example, need immediate attention.  Some estates have been in their present state for a number of years.  The delay in recognising the seriousness of the unfinished estates phenomenon, the time taken to undertake and analyze the DEHLG Survey, and the time taken to formulate this consultation document has meant resolutions to existing problems have already considerably delayed corrective action.  The absence of time frames will extend the delay to action even further as stakeholders drag their feet to suit their own agendas.

Time frames should be added to the various steps involved in SRPs and this timetable should be rigorously enforced.

c)  The lack of conflict resolution mechanisms.  Whilst the manual sets out the idea of SRPs, it does little to spell out how such SRPs would work in practice or how to resolve conflict between stakeholders within SRPs.  Given the varying vested interests of stakeholders there is significant potential for conflict, especially around issues of finance and liabilities.  This is especially the case whilst SRPs are voluntaristic in nature as stakeholders seek to minimize their risk and costs and maximize their benefits.  Without a well defined conflict resolution mechanism for managing SRPs the danger is that many SRPs will stall and little progress will be made to address the problems facing estates.

A conflict resolution mechanism should be devised that will ensure that SRPs do not stall and fail.

d) The lack of clearly defined SRPs suitable for different kinds of estates. The manual talks of a spectrum of unfinished estates, but only provides a broad description of a SRP.  It would be much more useful to present a typology of unfinished estates accompanied by model SRPs, with defined policy instruments and pathways mapped out to resolve the issues facing each kind of estate.  These should be also summarized in tabular form.  This would provide much clearer guidance on the expected routes of resolution and outcomes in relation to different kinds of unfinished estate.  It is acknowledged in the document (p. 33) that some sites might be assessed as not having a viable future, and one model SRP should outline what happens in these cases (which is not done at present).  The case example provided in Appendix 3 is far too thin on detail and substance to fulfil the role of a model example SRP.

A typology of unfinished estates should be devised and ideal type SRPs set out for each category, including well defined policy instruments and pathways to resolution.  This should include cases where a SRP has designated an estate as being unviable.

e) The absence of embedding within wider housing, planning and public policy strategy. The manual discusses a range of potential statutory instruments that might be used by Local Authorities when negotiating with stakeholders.  However, there is little attempt to embed the approach taken to resolving unfinished developments within wider housing, planning and public policy strategy, including the National Spatial Strategy, National Development Plan and four year economy recovery plan.  There is a single page (p. 29) that discusses unfinished estates with respect to core planning strategies (development and local plans, regional planning guidelines) and wider housing policy concerning public housing and sustainable communities.  This isolates SRPs from the wider context of, and initiatives in, planning and housing policy that should be providing vital framing for SRP formulation.

The approach to resolving the problems facing unfinished estates needs to be embedded within and framed by wider housing, planning and public policies.

f) The lack of a single agency tasked with ensuring that SRPs are properly formulated and implemented.  Without sufficient oversight, it is likely that the process of developing SRPs will drift significantly meaning:

  • they will vary in form enormously across the country;
  • there will be variances in their delivery and execution (leading to a ‘postcode lottery’ with respect to resolutions reached depending on the competencies and efficiencies of local authorities);
  • conflict in the resolution process will be ineffectively and inefficiently dealt with.

A single agency charged with oversight will ensure that SRPs are pursued as envisaged, that they are consistently applied across the country, that there is a skilled hub of expertise and experience for mediating conflict in SRPs, and that SRPs are aligned with other strategic policies relating to local core strategies (development and local plans, regional planning guidelines) the National Spatial Strategy, National Development Plan, and so on.

A single agency should be appointed to oversee and be responsible for the successful delivery and implementation of SRPs.  In our view that should be the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency.  This agency should be sufficiently resourced to undertake the task.

g) The need for greater clarity on the parameters of estates needing SRPs

The manual uses the DEHLG’s national housing development survey to initially define those estates that SRPs will be applied to.  Further narrowing of the remit is undertaken by excluding “developments that are substantially complete and might only have minor outstanding issues that are normally addressed by the taking-in-charge or maintenance processes”. Neither does the document focus on dwellings that are being occupied or dwellings that have not commenced and will not therefore be causing problems in relation to safety or visual impacts.  There are a number of problems with these parameters.  First, the DEHLGs survey is limited to post-2007 estates and there are estates completed prior to 2007 that have issues that need redress.  Second, just because an estate is considered ‘complete’ does not mean it does not have issues that need redress.  For example, a completed estate might have low level of occupancy that makes an estate management company unviable and therefore is missing adequate services such as street lighting or bin collection or communal electricity to power sewage treatment plants.  Third, because houses are occupied does not mean an estate does not suffer from problems relating to road surfaces, lighting, sewage, and amenity areas.  Fourth, SRPs do need to consider dwellings not yet commenced to assess whether such dwellings are desirable and viable

There is a need to revisit the parameters defining what unfinished developments will be tackled through SRPs; this will be aided by the taxonomy recommended in point d above which should identify the problems faced by different kinds of estates.

h)  The issues of finance, resourcing and NAMA.  The draft manual is very thin on the issues of finance (a single page, p. 28), a crucial element in the ability to be able to tackle most issues facing estates.  The manual has little to say about what happens when a developer is insolvent and therefore little or no credit is available. The manual also offers little on the possible mechanisms and risks associated with different financial approaches.  A second gap in the discussion is the resourcing of the SRP process in a time of declining municipal capacity; how will resources be made available to stakeholders to facilitate SRP creation and implementation. Finally, the manual is relatively silent about the role of NAMA in the process of resolving issues on estates within their portfolio.

There is a need to set out all the possible mechanisms to overcome financial shortfalls, including a cost benefit and risk analysis of different approaches.  The resourcing of the SRP process should be clarified. In addition, how NAMA will operate with respect to SRPs, including the office within NAMA who will be responsible for negotiation, needs to be agreed and set out.

i)  The issue of estate management.  Many unfinished estates, especially apartment complexes but also some housing developments, were conceived as being run as private developments that would be serviced by estate management companies, rather than being taken in by Local Authorities.  Many such estate management companies have become insolvent or are unable to discharge their duties because there are not enough residents to provide sufficient fees.  In these cases, existing residences are suffering from a number of issues such as a lack of proper services with respect to bin collection, lighting, sewage treatment, security.  The issue of estate management is not dealt with in the manual.

There is a need to include estate management companies as a stakeholder group for SRPs and for the issues faced by residents when an estate management company goes bust or cannot operate effectively to be covered by SRPs.

Brendan Gleeson and Rob Kitchin