A new paper by Linda Fox-Rogers and Enda Murphy on the informal strategies of power in the local planning system and the workings of a shadow planning system in Ireland has just been published online first in Planning Theory.  Here’s the abstract:

Existing studies that question the role of planning as a state institution, whose interests it serves together with those disputing the merits of collaborative planning are all essentially concerned with the broader issue of power in society. Although there have been various attempts to highlight the distorting effects of power, the research emphasis to date has been focused on the operation of power within the formal structures that constitute the planning system. As a result, relatively little attention has been attributed to the informal strategies or tactics that can be utilised by powerful actors to further their own interests. This article seeks to address this gap by identifying the informal strategies used by the holders of power to bypass the formal structures of the planning system and highlight how these procedures are to a large extent systematic and (almost) institutionalised in a shadow planning system. The methodology consists of a series of semi-structured qualitative interviews with 20 urban planners working across four planning authorities within the Greater Dublin Area, Ireland. Empirical findings are offered that highlight the importance of economic power in the emergence of what essentially constitutes a shadow planning system. More broadly, the findings suggest that much more cognisance of the structural relations that govern how power is distributed in society is required and that ‘light touch’ approaches that focus exclusively on participation and deliberation need to be replaced with more radical solutions that look towards the redistribution of economic power between stakeholders.

Download the paper.

Yesterday saw the publication of the first in a series of reports by An Taisce on planning and environmental policy in Ireland.  State of the Nation: A Review of Ireland’s Planning System 2000 – 2011 provides an overview and critique of the operation of the planning system in Ireland during the period of the worst excesses of Celtic Tiger bubble. It is fair to say that An Taisce is not a neutral voice with respect to planning or environmental or heritage issues, nonetheless their data is compelling, and as they state themselves their purpose “is not blinkered opposition to development, but opposition to blinkered development”.  And we’ve certainly had a lot of the latter in the past two decades along with localism and cronyism and at times corruption.

As part of the report, An Taisce graded each local authority with respect to 8 criteria.

1  Overzoning Amount of zoned land as a percentage of population in 2011.
2  Decisions reversed by An Bord Pleanala 2005 – 2010
3  Decisions confirmed by An Bord Pleanala 2005 – 2010
4  Percentage of vacant housing stock 2006 – 2011
5  Change in vacant housing housing stock 2006 2011
6  Water quality. Urban areas with secondary treatment failing to meet EPS standards 2011
7  Percentage of one-off houses permitted as a percentage of all residential planning permissions 2001 – 2011
8  Legal proceedings commenced following non-compliance with enforcement notice 2005 – 2010

This seems like a fairly robust set of measures to assess planning performance, concerning overzoning, planning appeals, oversupply, water quality, enforcements.  The one variable that would have been good to add for oversupply, but for which their is no data, is vacant commerical property.  Some data on the ratio of serviced and unserviced zoned land and permissions on flood plains, etc would have been useful as well, but would have probably done little to the overall result.  It is perhaps worth noting that variables 4, 5 and 7 would tend to work in favour of urban authorities (though 7 is tempered by 6) – re. criteria 4 and 5 planning might not have been any better in urban areas than rural areas, but very strong population growth meant what was built was occupied.  Regardless, oversupply is a significant issue in many rural counties and should not have been allowed to happen. It should also be pointed out that other government policy, beyond planning policy, was driving development in all counties, but disproportionately in rural counties, namely tax incentives.  Again, how these tax incentive developments were implemented could have been better handled, but there was certainly political pressure to facilitate them.

The results from these variables provided grades for each local authority (see map below).

Using their 8 criteria, nine local authorities score bottom marks: ‘F-‘ is awared to Donegal, Roscommon, Leitrim and Kerry; ‘F’ to Mayo, Galway County, Cavan, Carlow and Waterford County.  All other counties score D’s or E’s except for South Dublin, DLR, Fingal and Galway City who score C’s.  Everywhere it seems was poor, with some counties worse than others.

Why does this all matter?  Planning decisions are economic and social decisions – they set out patterns of development, service costs, travel costs, etc and generally shape the space economy.  Making good planning decisions leads to social dividends and economic growth, poor decisions leads to weak or negative growth, additional costs and losses – and these have long term consequences.   Changes to the landscape such as new buildings or roads or quarries, etc are generally very long-term alterations; they are lived with by not just this generation but many generations to come.  And when it all goes wrong, like it has in Ireland, the taxpayer is left to pick up the costs of excessive development loans (think bank bailouts, NAMA, the troika, austerity, etc) and the social consequences (think unfinished estates, houses flooding, bottled water or water from tankers, etc).

In my view the report should be read by any person interested in sustainable development and communities in Ireland and be compulsorary reading for anyone involved in planning at all scales in the country, particularly councillors, national politicians and local authorities.  As this report and the Mahon Report make clear we need changes to how planning is viewed and understood and how it is implemented.  Planning should be utilitarian and for the social good; some of it in Ireland works that way, much does not.  An Taisce’s report provides much food for thought useful for conceiving what kind of planning system we want.

Rob Kitchin

Willie Penrose T.D., Minister for Planning and Housing, published two documents through the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government today relating to unfinished estates.

The first is ‘Resolving Ireland’s Unfinished Housing Developments: Report of the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments‘, which sets out the various issues relating to unfinished estates and makes various recommendations with respect to addressing these issues.  It extends the Advisory Board’s draft report published back in February.

The second is the Department’s response: ‘Resolving Unfinished Housing Developments: Response to the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments‘.  This sets out four strategic aims for the next twelve months (developing a coordinated partnership approach to unfinished estates; tackling issues of public safety; putting in place stronger legislation/policy frameworks to tackle issues; building confidence in the housing market) and a number of action points for the Department and related agencies.

There are two other associated documents that have yet to be published – the manual on how to tackle in practical terms the issues related to unfinished estates (which will be an updated version of the draft manual published in Dec 2010) and the code of practice.  These are due shortly and will give more specific information for developers, local authorities and other stakeholders.

The Department’s response piece is, in my view, the more important document because it commits the DECLG to 20 actions set out in relation to five themes.  The most important of these are the development of Site Resolution Plans (SRPs) that will involve a partnership approach to estate completion, whereby all stakeholders (developers, banks, local authorities, residents, estate management companies, Health and Safety Authority, etc) will meet to negotiate a plan of action on an estate by estate basis.  The action points in summary are:

Coordination and Partnership

1.    A National Co-ordination Team on Unfinished Housing Developments, under the chair of the Minister, will drive the implementation process, with a particular focus on resolving sites.

2.    City and County Councils will each establish Unfinished Housing Development Teams to co-ordinate actions at a local level and to provide regular reports to the National Co-ordination Team.

3.    A Code of Practice on issues such as public safety, the site resolution plan process, information exchange and identification of development solutions will be finalised by the National Co-ordination Team to ensure buy-in by developers, site owners, funders, local authorities and residents.

4.    In cases where the relevant loans / securities fall within their remit, NAMA will work with local authorities, developers and/or receivers and the Department in facilitating early resolution of public safety issues and in co-operating with the other stakeholders in agreeing and implementing Site Resolution Plans, where feasible and appropriate.

5.    The Minister will engage with other financial institutions (both domestic and non-domestic banks) to ensure a full understanding of their statutory responsibilities and to secure their co-operation and engagement with local authorities and developers in addressing public safety issues and in agreeing and implementing Site Resolution Plans.

6.    An Information Pack for local residents in unfinished housing developments will be prepared and published by the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency.

7.    Guidance will be issued to City and County Development Boards on encouraging and facilitating community involvement in resolving unfinished housing developments.

8.    A best practice Guidance Manual on Managing and Resolving Unfinished Housing Developments on unfinished housing developments will provide practical guidance for local authorities and other stakeholders on how to manage unfinished housing developments

Public Safety

9.    Local authorities will complete their own initial categorisation of unfinished housing sites in line with the four categories identified in the Advisory Group’s Report and will monitor the developments in their areas, updating regularly the National Co-ordination Team on the status of housing developments in their area.

10.    The Department will expedite the approval of applications for funding support from the €5 million public safety initiative funding with the first allocations to be made in June 2011.

11.    Local authorities and the Health and Safety Authority will continue to liaise and engage in monitoring incomplete sites and any resolution activities being undertaken either by the developer or local authority.

12.    The Department will provide ongoing technical assistance to local authorities on the categorisation of developments, on the formulation of an initial site response using the funding at 10) above, on the preparation of Site Resolution Plans, as well as planning and building control queries.

Site Resolution Plans

13.    City and County Unfinished Housing Development Teams will identify priority sites that should be the subject of Site Resolution Plans and will work with site owners, developers, funders and residents in their efforts to develop such plans, reporting to the National Co-ordination Team, with a view to ensuring that 300 Site Resolution Plans are in place by end 2011.

14.    City and County Unfinished Housing Development Teams will develop best practice approaches to the re-use of vacant housing in each of their areas by the end of 2011.

Legislative and Policy Framework

15.    The Department will immediately review existing legislation as identified by the Advisory Group and develop any necessary amendments to the legislation to ensure that there are adequate powers available to address the efficient resolution of unfinished housing developments

16.    The Department will review taking-in-charge standards for public infrastructure within housing developments such as roads, public lighting and piped services with a view to making recommendations on how best to develop national standards.

17.    The Report of the Advisory Group will be referred to the Building Standards Compliance Group for its analysis and response.

Housing Market and Planning Supports

18.    The Department will re-state previous planning guidance to planning authorities on specific policy aspects regarding better phasing of development, the provision of bonds / securities and other DECLG policies as regards sequential and phased development to inform the resolution of unfinished housing.

19.    The Department, working alongside local authorities and voluntary housing bodies, will engage actively with developers and site owners, including NAMA, in seeking to ensure positive uses for vacant complete and near complete housing and in line with the achievement of sustainable communities and balanced tenure of housing developments.

20.    The Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency will undertake an examination of the potential role for self-build and equity partnership type models to enable residents and new investors to assist in resolving unfinished components of housing developments.

What is good is that the DECLG have now appraised the situation and set out a set of action points.  It is particularly good to see a National Coordination Team being put in place and that legislation is going to be reviewed with a view to putting SRPs on a statuary basis and make amendments to existing legislation to aid their implementation.  I do, however, still have a number of concerns.

First, the speed of response.  We are four years into the housing crash and the development of the unfinished estates phenomenon.  It has taken 15 odd months to get from the announcement of a survey to a report and yet a lot of these action points are still at the reviewing and assessment/formulating solutions stage.  In the meantime, lots of people are living with a whole series of issues, many of them concerning health and safety.  The latter has been an supposedly urgent action point for quite some time.  It is true that some local authorities and developers/receivers have already moved to address some of these issues, but it is only now that the first €1.5m of funding is being released to LAs to tackle issues on the worst 230 identified estates.  The aim is to have 300 SRPs in place by the end of the year.  That is 10.5% of all estates (2,846) or on average 9 per local authority.  It’s not clear also whether that is 300 SRPs drawn up or actually in the process of being implemented.  We need to get to the implementation phase across all estates sooner rather than later.

Second, finance.  Finishing off estates and addressing their various issues is going to cost money.  There are 1,655 estates with works outstanding.  At present, there seems to be four possible sources of funding: developer bonds; the DECLG through its €5m public safety fund; NAMA and its development fund; developers/banks who own the estate or possible new investors.  There seem to be massive issues in drawing bonds down and if they can be accessed they are often insufficient to complete outstanding works.  The DECLG €5m split across 1,655 estates is €3200 per estate, which will hardly scratch the surface; NAMA will only invest in estates that are commercially viable and for which they hold the loan book; developers are bust and banks illiquid.  It really isn’t clear to me where the finance is going to come from for either developers or local authorities (where developers are absent) to finish off estates without central government funds being made available (and no such fund was announced today beyond the €5m).  One suggested solution is to recoup the costs from future sales, but again this would only work if an estate is commercial viable, investors come in, and market conditions improve in the short to medium term.  I would like to know a lot more about plans with respect to financing and I’m sure stakeholders would as well.

Third, I am still concerned that the model for SRPs is one of partnership and has the feel of voluntarism about it.  SRPs seek to encourage and not compel developers and stakeholders.  The two documents today are full of phrases like ‘encouraged to work’ and ‘should undertake’ rather than be ‘compelled to work’ and ‘will undertake.’  Without the new full manual it is difficult to fully comment on this, but it also still seems as if there is no conflict resolution mechanisms or clearly delineated objectives, milestones and timeframes for SRPs.  The danger is that negotiations become divisive and fractious and implementation effectively gets kicked down the road.  The role of the National Coordination Team is also not clear.  It seems to have some monitoring function, but its not clear if it’ll be hands on in terms of overseeing, assessing and directing progress and what it’ll do if SRPs are failing.

The next stage is clearly the publication of manual and the code of practice.  Hopefully they will turn up soon.  Today’s report and the DECLG’s response is a step in the right direction, but whether the action points and strategy being pursued will deliver, or deliver significant improvements for residents any time soon, is still an open question.

Rob  Kitchin

The Sunday Independent reported yesterday that “councils have rezoned 33,000 hectares of land — enough to build a staggering 1,086,119 units.”   They don’t have a link to the source of the data, which is a shame.  I can’t find the data anywhere on the DEHLG website.  The most recent figures the DEHLG report are from June 2008, which IAN has discussed previously along with a basic model of how long that rezoning would last in each county if population continued to grow as it did between 1996-2006.   In June 2008 there were 14,191 hectares of land zoned for 462,709 potential new units.  The Independent’s article suggests that in the last two years there has been a bit of a rezoning frenzy in which the amount of land rezoned has more than doubled (the amount of rezoned land had been increasing throughout the 2000s, up from 10,775 in 2000 to 14,191 in 2008, then jumping dramatically to 33,000 in 2010).   Interestingly, the Independent reports that Meath is the county with the largest oversupply relative to projected demand (60 times in excess).  However, the June 2008 data suggests that Meath had the least oversupply, with only a few years worth of land zoned, so it would be interesting to get more detail as to what has happened there.  In general terms, it appears that councils have been trying to push through extensive rezoning ahead of the new Planning Bill that will significantly tighten rezoning and planning decisions, and also confers additional powers to the DEHLG to dezone land.  If anyone knows a bit more about what councils have been doing re. rezoning in the last couple of years it would be interesting to get some info.  Also, if anyone knows how to source the current rezoning data we’d be grateful for a link.

Rob Kitchin

The Sunday Independent reported yesterday that deals struck with developers at the height of the housing boom could bankrupt county councils.  The example they give is of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown who signed up for 63 ‘affordable’ units and 80 ‘social’ units on the old Dun Laoghaire Golf Club site for a cost of €35.6m.  The Council already has €27.5m of affordable and social units purchased at the height of the boom.  Assuming that the social housing will get used for that purpose, rather than being sold-on, it seems as if the council is the owner of c.€25-30m of ‘affordable’ property that it is presently unable to sell-on because its purchase/sale price is more than its present value.  Clearly potential purchasers do not see the properties as either affordable or a sound investment given present market conditions. (more…)

An interesting article in today’s Examiner looking at the issue of unfinished estates, developers and bonds, and the plight of those seeking to get estates completed to an acceptable standard.  See here.  The Examiner received information from 28 county councils concerning the taking-in of estates by local authorities, wherein they take over the control and maintenance of ‘public roads and footpaths, public lighting, fire hydrants, water mains, treatment plants, public open spaces and playgrounds.’  There is little point re-iterating the article, which does a good job of explaining the main issues.  The following, however, caught our eye: ‘Co Roscommon puts at 86 its number of unfinished estates. Cavan has 55.’   (more…)