Planning


In the last couple of days I’ve been asked to comment on two issues around property data, both relating to vacancy (though we could easily have a similar discussion with regards to housing completions, homelessness, etc).  The first relates to housing vacancy and a report by Fingal County Council that contends that the vacancy levels in the local authority have been ‘grossly overstated’. The second about commercial vacancy and present rates. In both cases it’s difficult to provide strong answers because systematic data collection with respect to both is problematic and the state does not provide official data on either, except on housing vacancy every five years through the census which is a sub-optimal timeframe to be working from.

With respect to housing vacancy. I can’t find the report or press release from Fingal CC, but a story in the Irish Times reports that they believe vacancy levels are well below those reported in the census. It’s difficult to assess fully whether that’s the case without seeing the full methodology or data. What is reported in the IT is:

“The council initially conducted a desktop exercise on the 3,000 supposedly vacant properties. When commercial properties, as well as those in construction or in the planning process, were eliminated the figure fell to 361 properties. ”  They then visited 74 of the 361 homes to check on occupancy, though it’s not stated how those 74 were sampled.

Of those 74 visited, they discovered that only 13 were actually vacant. In other words, rather than having a vacancy rate of 5% (as reported in the 2016 census – 4,944 vacant units + 289 holiday homes), they have a rate of about 1% – far below what might be an expected base vacancy level of 6% (there are always some units vacant due to selling, gaps between renting, working temporarily elsewhere, people in healthcare, etc.). I have no doubt in the 18 months since the census in April 2016 properties that were vacant will have been occupied, however it seems unlikely that vacancy is so far below base vacancy, which is what the IT piece seems to be suggesting.

In terms of method it is unlikely that the CSO shared the individual addresses of vacant properties as identified in the census with Fingal. But if they were working from census data then it does not include commercial properties, nor properties under-construction, or in the planning process, or derelict. So removing those properties from census counts would make no sense – they were never counted by the CSO. Indeed, in a rebuttal story in the Irish Times, the CSO stand over their data and method – which is to send enumerators to every property in the country, to visit upwards of ten times if they fail to get an answer, and to talk to neighbours to try and ascertain the use status. I’m assuming that Fingal got their data instead from Geodirectory who source the information on occupancy from postal workers delivering or not mail. How accurate those data are I’m not sure and presumably the company would stand over their fidelity.

Regardless of the method, there is clearly a large discrepancy between what Fingal CC are finding on the ground in their small sample and what the census enumerators found 18 months ago, and presumably what An Post workers are finding. That discrepancy suggests we need a much more systematic and timely way of generating data on housing vacancy.  The government have set up a crowdsourcing means to generate vacancy information – vacanthomes.ie – where members of the public can log homes that they think are vacant, which can then be checked by local authority staff. There are well known problems with crowdsourcing such information, including coverage, representativeness and keeping the data up-to-date, and these data certainly could not be used as official statistics. Much more realistic would be a quarterly vacancy survey (much like the quarterly household survey) – probably carried out by the CSO who have no vested interest in local housing/planning data.

In terms of commercial vacancy, the state produces no statistics on the rates of vacancy for offices, retail units or industrial sites. It is a massive hole in our knowledge of the property sector. The only data that are produced are those by Geodirectory (which are limited in detail) or the property sector itself (hardly an unvested party, and the data are a product and can disappear from websites or go behind paywalls, and lack spatial granularity – usually just Dublin/rest of country or regions). In relation to commercial properties there is also a need to understand their characteristics, such as type, spec, condition, location, etc. as well as the size of space vacant, not just how many units. For example, imagine that there are ten units on a high street.  Nine of them are 1000 sqm in size and one is 5000 sqm.  If the larger unit is vacant then the vacancy rate per unit is 10 percent. However, the vacancy rate by floor area is 35 percent.  In other words, one cannot simply look at the absolute number of vacant units, rather we also need to consider the type and size of the units that are vacant. Trying to prepare local and county development plans with a fuzzy knowledge of existing development is a sub-optimal way of conducting planning and can lead to oversupply and property crashes (as per the last 20 years). Like housing, we therefore need good, reliable, timely data to understand the commercial property sector and we need the state to produce them.

In my view, there needs to be a branch-and-root review of property data in Ireland. This needs to start with asking the question: what data do we need to generate to best understand planning, housing, commercial property, infrastructure need, etc? Then to discover where the gaps are and to review the veracity and fidelity and fit-for-purpose of existing data generation and to fix as necessary. This includes assessing whether the data are being generated by the most appropriate generator. We then need to put in place the processes to produce those data.

With good quality data that people trust we might avoid different agencies producing wildly varying estimates of some element of housing or commercial property, such as vacancy rates, and we would greatly aid our planning and economic development. However, if we carry on as we are, we’re going to continue to fly half-blind and only have a partial or flawed understanding of present conditions and we are going to replicate mistakes of the past.

Rob Kitchin
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The National Spatial Strategy was officially scrapped in 2013 by then Minister, Phil Hogan TD.  Soon after, the development of a replacement strategy, the National Planning Framework, was announced.  On Thursday the initial consultation document was published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and launched at Maynooth University by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, the Minister for DHPCLG, Simon Coveney TD, and Minister for State for Housing and Urban Renewal, Damien English TD.  It sets out the process and timeline for formulating the full NPF and provides an initial framing of government thinking with respect to what should be included in the plan.

The NSS was widely considered an unmitigated failure for a number of reasons: there were too many gateways and hubs; it was misaligned with its funding stream the NDP; it was not supported by government, agencies and local authorities and was actively undermined; and it was not implemented on a statutory basis (see this post for a full history and explanation). So have lessons been learned?  The Taoiseach would like to think so, stating at the launch that in the NSS, ‘towns were placed against towns, politics against politics … and we are not going there again.’ Instead, the NPF will seek to be more cooperative, coordinated, and regionally based.

The rationale for the NPF is broadly the same as the NSS.  It is to coordinate spatially the development of sectoral areas (economy, transport, housing, energy, education, health) and guide and drive balanced regional development as the population continues to grow.  If development is not managed and it is left to business is usual to deliver shared national goals, then Dublin will continue to expand, the regional cities will have modest growth, and smaller towns and rural areas will stagnate or decline, the document argues.  Instead, the document argues that there needs to be:

  • a coordinated, strategic approach with a twenty year time horizon;
  • this approach needs to be backed by government across departments/agencies;
  • be aligned with public/private investment, including capital spend;
  • a focus on health and well-being, the environment, North-South relations, as well as economic and property development;
  • a recognition that it is a strategy, not a wish list and that it will involve making hard choices;
  • address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
  • include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.

The proposed approach to organize and operationalize the NPF through the regional assemblies and in alignment with regional spatial economic strategies that are presently being prepared.  Rather than towns competing within a region, they should cooperate and work together as clusters.  And there should be stronger urban-rural interdependence, with large and small towns supporting rural communities.  Nonetheless, it is argued that there is a need for concentrated development of the five principal cities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford – and the towns around them, to create strong growth polls for business and to realise agglomeration effects and to create scales of economy/critical mass for service and infrastructure delivery.  Unlike other countries with a similar sized population – Scotland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand – Ireland has a weak city structure with just five cities with a population above 50,000 (and only two above 100,000), that limits the ability to create balanced growth.  More modest growth will be sought in regional towns.  While growth would be welcome in rural areas, the priority is to stop further decline and to create resilience, sustainability and to improve quality of life.

There are a couple of big challenges in preparing the full NPF and getting it put on a statutory basis.  The first is the seeming paradox between ‘making hard choices’ and ‘addressing all parts of Ireland and avoiding the perception of winners and losers’.  The plan needs to make strategic decisions and prioritize areas for development and investment while also persuading everybody that those decisions are for the ‘national/regional good’ and that there is something there for them.  Given the legacy of the NSS, the localist/clientelist nature of Irish politics, and the siloed nature of government depts/agencies, that will be a challenge.  Second, and related, is given that the proposers are a minority government, the process of getting political support may involve a watering down of the plans aims, or the plan being tweaked in a way that undermines the plan’s logic to curry favour or ensure votes.  Third, in preparing the plan, it needs to be made clear how it will be implemented in practice, how it will be resourced, and how its progress will be tracked and steered back onto course if it falters, to persuade people to have faith that this isn’t a NSS v.2, but a strategic plan that will actually work in practice.

As someone who is in favour of a planned and coordinated approach – through a guiding framework, not a heavy-handed roadmap – the publication of the consultation documents for the NPF is a welcome first step.  The next step is to develop a full plan that can achieve political and public buy-in.  Part of the process to try and ensure this is, on the one hand, to produce a detailed evidence-base and various scenarios, and on the other to invite submissions as part of a consultative phase.

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or npf@housing.gov.ie; or write to:

NPF Submissions,
Forward Planning Section,
Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government,
Custom House,
Dublin D01 W6X0

The deadline for receipt of all submissions is 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.

Some related media commentary: RTE 1, Drivetime interview; RTE Radio 1 News at One; RTE 1 Primetime.

For additional information see the Ireland 2040 website.

Rob Kitchin

Rule #1 of the neoliberal playbook – when faced with a construction crisis, attack the planning system! It has been ever so since Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s environment secretary in the 1980s, launched his broadside against the “jobs locked up in the dusty filing cabinets of planning departments”. Of course, it matters little whether there is any evidence that the planning system is indeed stifling construction – the ideology demands that planning regulation remains firmly in the crosshairs. As Michael Gunder puts it – planning is “the chief remaining scapegoat of neoliberal governance”, a convenient patsy for contemporary policy failures.

Simon Coveney’s glossy production ‘Rebuilding Ireland – An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ launched last month to much fanfare promises a ‘root and branch’ review of the planning system. A headline element of the strategy is to speed-up the planning process – an ever-present feature of neoliberal planning reforms – by allowing large housing applications of a hundred units or more to be made directly to An Bord Pleanála. This is proposed as a temporary measure for four years to incentivise large-scale housing production in a manner similar to strategic infrastructure applications. The apparent rationale for this fast-tracked planning consent system is that: “with almost all planning approvals of larger housing developments for 100 new homes or more being appealed to An Bord Pleanála, this has meant that there is in effect a two-stage planning application process which can take 18 to 24 months to secure ultimate approval to go on site and start to build.” (Pg 62)Of course, no evidence is presented to support this assertion. Indeed, An Bord Pleanála’s own annual report, published earlier this month, states that: “The number of appeal cases for housing developments received over the past two years has remained low, 35 cases of 30+ units in 2014 versus the peak of 568 in 2007. While the number of 30+ housing appeals received has increased slightly (60 to the end of 2015), the number of such cases remains low.” (Pg 35). All of these appeals, according to An Bord Pleanála, have been disposed of within the statutory compliance time of eighteen weeks. Furthermore, there is also no evidence whatsoever that the strategic infrastructure process actually speeds-up the planning system, with just half of such applications over the past ten years decided upon within eighteen weeks and, only then, after lengthy pre-application consultations.

The reality is that, despite the assiduous commitment by influential commentators over the past few years to successfully paint a picture of planning as the chief villain and bugbear in impeding housing supply, permission is currently in place for 27,000 shovel ready homes in Dublin alone. According to the strategy, just 4,809 or 18% of these potential units are currently under active construction i.e. 82% of potential homes with planning permission are not commenced at all. The planning system is clearly not the impediment here. The strategy even includes a proposal that the lifetime of these extant planning permissions be extended further. This would mean that often poor quality and poorly located Celtic Tiger era housing could still be constructed as far out as 2021. Furthermore, according to the Residential Land Availability Survey, as I have written previously, nationwide, there is enough zoned land to provide for 16 years of new housing supply based on an annual projected requirement of 25,000 units.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process under the new system, the strategy proposes that An Bord Pleanála will be required to make a decision within eighteen weeks and will only be able to seek requests for further information or to hold oral hearings in “exceptional circumstances”. For local authority own development under Part VIII (social housing, roads, community facilities etc.), the whole process is to be streamlined to a maximum of twenty weeks. Proposals for major housing developments and other infrastructure are complex undertakings which are irreversible and shape places and communities for generations. The idea that adequate consideration could be given to such proposals, while fulfilling all requirements pursuant to EU and national law, within these compressed timeframes and without recourse to seeking further environmental or technical information or giving adequate consideration to local concerns or right of appeal, is a recipe for yet another great planning disaster. While the need to intensify use of vacant space in town centres is paramount, the proposal in the strategy to exempt from planning permission residential development over shops and commercial units also seems neither sensible nor workable.

Of course, if the history of strategies in Ireland is any yardstick, we should not get too carried away about Rebuilding Ireland actually ever being implemented and it will most likely remain just a paper strategy. All of the targets in it seem hopelessly optimistic and the funding proposals tenuous. It is interesting, however, that its publication was uncritically welcomed by pretty much everyone from the Construction Industry Federation to the Peter McVerry Trust – for in the teeth of a ‘crisis’ who could be against a housing strategy? This is the trump card of lobby groups such as the CIF – to position their vested interests as an illusory societal interest. The Irish Planning Institute, not an organisation given to mounting robust defences against planning scapegoating, were among the few to release an insipid statement expressing “concern”. However, there are very good reasons to be vigilant about the prevailing anti-planning rhetoric and the ‘root and branch’ review of planning proposed by Coveney. Over the past five years, the government has shown scant interest in implementing the crucial regulatory reforms recommended by the Mahon Tribunal and have consistently shown de-regulatory tendencies. Completely absent from this strategy are any measures to provide a pro-active role for planning in delivering housing and other infrastructure – like ensuring local authorities are staffed with the requisite range of planners and other expertise? The only reference to local authority resources is the introduction of new on-line planning services, again in the name of efficiency.

It is perhaps the greatest indictment of the impotence of the state that, in a Circular Letter issued by Coveney subsequent to the publication of the strategy, the so called ‘active land management’ measures involve politely asking developers to sell their lands to housing providers and, if not, local authorities should identify alternative lands elsewhere. Absent is the one measure, as recommended by pretty much everyone, that could actually release hoarded zoned and serviced land into productive use, re-invigorate under-utilised town centre properties and simultaneously contribute to the finances of broke local authorities – a site value tax. Instead, the state has once again capitulated to the development lobby and opted to subsidise developers through a new infrastructure fund, abolition of windfall taxes on sale of zoned lands, reduced development contribution levies, much weakened Part V social housing requirements and lowered apartment standards.

Gavin Daly

The prelim results for Census 2016 make it clear that housing vacancy continues to be a serious issue in Ireland.  Given that new housing units grew by only 18,981 to 2,022,895 and population grew by 169,724 to 4,757,976m between 2011 and 2016, one might have expected vacancy to have fallen substantially.  However, housing unit vacancy fell by only 29,889 to 259,562.  Of these 61,204 are holiday homes (HHs), a slight growth of 1,809 from 2011.  On a base level vacancy of 6%, oversupply is 76,984.

Vacancy and oversupply varies geographically as Map 1 demonstrates.  Excluding holiday homes all but three local authorities – South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) – having vacancy rates (exc. HHs) above base vacancy.  In several cases housing vacancy (exc. HHs) is running above 10% and four local authorities have rates above 15%.  The issue is particularly acute in the north west.

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

Map 1: Housing vacancy (exc. HHs) in Ireland

One might expect that the vacancy rate has been declining everywhere, but this is far from the case.  In fact, vacancy has been rising in many EDs.  In Figure 1, each dot is an ED, with each dot above the line representing an increase in vacancy (exc. HHs).  In some cases the increase is quite dramatic.

07_Scatterplot_BxPltSo, the question is what has led some EDs to increase in vacancy?  Some of it is obsolescence – in any housing market 3-5 properties drop out of use in a year.  Some of it might be properties under-construction and on unfinished estates being completed (and thus counted) but are not yet occupied.  And some of it will be related to population change and migration.

Here, we want to look at the latter since a large number of EDs lost population between 2011-2016, especially those in rural areas (with towns in rural counties growing).

Map 2 shows population and vacancy (exc. HHs) categorised into four classes.

  1. (light blue): population decreased and vacancy decreased (687)
  2. (blue): population decreased and vacancy increased (705)
  3. (red): population increased and vacancy decreased (1497)
  4. (light red): population increased and vacancy increased (517)

06_PopChg_and_VacChgThe relationship we would expect would be classes 2 and 3 – where population decreased, vacancy increased, and where population increased, vacancy decreased.  And that happens in 2022 EDs (out of 3406).  However, in 1204 cases (c. a third), something odd happens: as population increases, vacancy increases (517 cases), or as population decreases, vacancy decreases (687 cases).  In the case of the latter this might be explained by obsolescence and household fragmentation.  We would be interested to hear of other possible explanations.

Without further analysis it’s not possible to determine the causes of this inverse relationship.  However, what the data does show us is that how housing vacancy is unfolding is not universal and there are different social and spatial processes at work.

Rob Kitchin and Martin Charlton

Much of the coverage concerning the preliminary Census release from yesterday has focused on vacancy. This has meant distinguishing between those housing units classed as holidays homes in each area and units that are ordinarily vacant. One of the more puzzling statistics to emerge from this distinction is the 190% increase in the number of holiday homes in Dublin city since 2011. In that year, there were 322 vacant holiday houses in the city but those rose dramatically to 937 in April’s census.

What might account for this near trebling in five years? In particular why, in the middle of a housing shortage, is there almost twice as many housing units classed as holiday homes in a dense urban area when compared with five years previously? Speculation with some others on twitter concentrated on the possibility of these being AirBnB properties. I decided to put some focus on this explanation to see if there’s any truth to it.

In recent months there has been a number of online features concerned with how AirBnB (a company which matches bodies with beds across the world) might be affecting rents. If people are renting their city property through AirBnB for much of the year, how might this affect people seeking to live and work in the city full time? For example, in a number of North American cities there are concerns that full-time AirBnB rentals are displacing residents (e.g. see here or here) who are in lower paid jobs and subject to ever-increasing rents. Some city authorities are coming under pressure to restrict the use of full-time rentals through the company. A property owner can make far more renting out short term lets to passers-by than s/he can from locals who are seeking merely to continue living in a city they work and have a life in.

There is a vital politics to this displacement where AirBnB rentals are pricing people of lesser means out of particular areas of a city bustling with tourists. It is an extreme example of gentrification by displacement, almost making the popular term redundant in its bluntness. The uneven geographies of AirBnB rentals hits home for many in this city too.

In Dublin in June, the city council raised the prospect that full-time AirBnB rentals in Temple Bar, a particular zone of intense tourist activity, would be subject to planning permission. The Council argued that a particular property in the neighbourhood was effectively a material change of use from residential to commercial. It insisted of course that this ruling was “site specific” and did not cover the entire Temple Bar area. The prospect of an imposition of a change of use for the area as a whole is remote though: this seemed like a shot across the bow.

Luckily for us, InsideAirBnB allows us all access to data for rentals across a large number of cities to determine if the company is facilitating displacement. I took the January 2016 data from this site and, aside from knowing the first names of each of the renters, the database contains a number of interesting data.

There are 3,772 properties in the AirBnB database in the four local authority areas. Of this number, 3,116 (83%) are in the Dublin City Council area. 1,222 or 39% of this subtotal are for rent, according to the dataset available under Creative Commons, for 300 days or more per year. The heatmap below (Map 1) shows that near-year long rentals are broadly clustered within the Temple Bar, Cow’s Lane and north Docklands areas. Those rented 365 days per year (249 properties) are distributed slightly differently. They are by no means overlooking the splendour of Dublin Bay.

Map 1: a heatmap of the 1,222 properties available for 300 days or more on AirBnB. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

Map 1: a heatmap of the 1,222 properties available for 300 days or more on AirBnB. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

They are scattered across the city with some clusters in Drumcondra, Rathmines and Portobello. Map 2 below shows the distribution of these year-long AirBnB properties across the Dublin City area, Map 3 shows the distribution of entire house/apt available for rent for 300 plus days a year (as opposed to a room in an already occupied dwelling).  It is not beyond the realm of possibility therefore that the >300 days per annum rentals in this database includes a figure of 937 holiday houses recorded in the census. In fact, there are 934 properties rented out for 335 days or more per annum in the database. If you spent the month of December in your own city centre apartment, and rented it out for the remaining 335 days of the year, you might well be among the 937 recorded in the Census.

Map 2: Year-long AirBnB rental properties (n=249) in the Dublin city area. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

Map 2: Year-long AirBnB rental properties (n=249) in the Dublin city area. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors.

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Map 3: 300 plus days per year of entire housing unit /apartment for rent on Airbnb. Data: InsideAirBnB and OSM contributors

But this is a numbers game. We’ll have a better sense of the distribution of the city’s holidays homes when the more extensive data release begins in April 2017.

Eoin O’Mahoney

 

For the past couple of years the housing discourse for Dublin city has been one of housing shortages and a homeless crisis. The preliminary census figures published yesterday reveal that while the vacancy rates (exc holiday homes) for South Dublin (4%), Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown (5.7%) and Fingal (5.3%) are below a base vacancy level of 6% (in a ‘normal’ market we would expect c.6% of stock to be vacant due to selling/rental gaps, deaths, etc), suggesting that they have housing undersupply, Dublin City Council has a vacancy rate of 8.6% (exc. holiday homes).

In total DCC has 21,781 vacant units (20,844 exc holiday homes).  On a base vacancy of 6% (14,544 units) that suggests an oversupply of 6,300.

In other words, there is something pretty odd going on given the homeless rate has been increasing, large numbers are on the housing waiting list, and there’s a widespread belief that the city desperately needs to build housing.

So, what constitutes these 6,300 excess vacant units?

It’s somewhat difficult to know without visiting them and doing an on-the-ground survey, but let’s start with looking at the geography of vacancy in DCC.  Map 1 shows the % vacancy in the city minus holiday homes, and Map 2 shows change in the number of vacant units since 2011.

Map 1: DCC vacancy rates (exc holiday homes)

Map 1: DCC vacancy rates (exc holiday homes)

 

Map 2: DCC vacancy change 2011-16

Map 2: DCC vacancy change 2011-16

In Map 1, all the areas not shaded pale yellow has a vacancy rate (exc. holiday homes) above 6% base vacancy.  Much of the city centre and to the south have rates above 10%, and two EDs have rates above 20% (Mansion House B, Pembroke West B).  In Map 2, the blue areas have seen vacancy rates decline between 2011 and 2016, whereas red areas have seen an increase.  Interestingly, a number of areas have seen quite large increases in vacancy, especially within the canals near to the city centre, Ballsbridge and Rathmines.

Here’s some speculation as to what constitutes the excess vacancy:

  • some unreported airbnb/similar stock;
  • some second homes (used during week, but primary residence recorded as somewhere else);
  • some investment stock left empty;
  • some bedsits not yet converted after change in regulations that made them illegal;
  • some inner city obsolescence.

I’d be interested to hear about other possibilities.

Whatever the reason for the vacancy, it appears that this stock is not presently available to the market and therefore there continues to be a shortage of housing in the capital.

Rob Kitchin

 

A short animated film about rural Irish towns, directed and produced by Orla Murphy and Orla Mc Hardy in 2012

An excellent short animated film about the planning of rural Irish towns, directed and produced by Orla Murphy and Orla McHardy (2012), and presented at the recent MacGill Summer School session on ‘The Future of Rural Ireland – What Needs to be Done?’

Gavin Daly

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