Two pieces in the Irish Times today about zoning and planning enforcement; another a couple of days ago in the Examiner about planning permissions. All three raise some questions with regards to the planning system.

Story 1.  The Sisters of Charity are up in arms about Dublin City Council’s rezoning of their 108 acres of land in 18 parcels in the city.  It has been classed as Z15, which means that if developed it has to have a greater proportion of open space and affordable housing.  They are arguing that the 2011-2017 development plan is ‘diverting private property into public ownership and ‘steralising’ its lands without compensation’.  They claim the plan is illegal as ‘applies a restrictive zoning to an arbitary selection of lands’.  The IT reports that they want the rezoning quashed, a stay put on sections of the plan affecting their property, and ‘damages for alleged breaches of private property and religious freedom rights under the Constitution and European Convention of Human Rights’.  It’s the same rezoning that RTE are challenging.

Development from Google Street View

Story 2: The Examiner reports that Athy Town Council have endorsed an application to build 8 additional properties on an estate where ‘residents have lived for three years with unfinished roads, incomplete public lighting and inadequately secured construction sites’.   There were 27 objections to the application, with residents concluding that the “Approval of this application is tantamount to endorsing the dangerous and reckless abandonment of site works.”  The senior planner for the council concluded on a site visit that: “Any unfinished areas have been fenced off and the site is kept relatively tidy.”  One resident notes:  “It’s very frustrating. Since we moved in 2007, nothing has been done. I am still looking out on the shells of three unfinished houses, gardens are not maintained, sections of footpath unfinished, the green area out front is without public lighting. It really has been left very shoddily.”  Clearly the residents and the planner agree that the existing site is still unfinished and some houses in the earlier phases are still vacant, which begs the question as to why give an endorsement to the next phase?

One of the shop fronts An Taisce objects to

Story 3. An Taisce has accused Dublin City Council of neglecting planning provisions with respect to unauthorised shop fronts and signage, and of failing to take enforcement proceedings against signage erected without permission or which had been refused permission.  In particular, they highlight the state of the main thoroughfares to the south of the Liffey – Westmoreland Street, Dame Street, Parliament Street and South Quays – an area of major civic and architectural importance, and a core area for tourists.  They argue that these streets are becoming dominated by low-order shops – mostly fast food and convenience stores – which are competing against each other through garish signage.  This signage is transforming the look and feel of an important part of the city.

These three stories relate to three core areas of planning: zoning, permissions, and enforcement.  They are three snapshots of a regime that is creaking along under old values and practices, that needs a branch and root review and updating for the twenty first century.  All political parties are promoting quite radical reform of a political system that is not fit for purpose.  It’s time we had a look at what works and doesn’t work in planning in an era when many planning tools are inappropriate or blunt (for example in relation to addressing the problems of unfinished estates) or have not been used in any kind of effective way in a very long time (e.g. enforcement).  And we really do need to move from individualism to utilitarianism as a guiding ethos.

Rob Kitchin

There seems to a lot of revisionist history going on over the last few days. First the CIF yesterday published a report on future housing supply in the country, arguing amongst other things that “County Galway is facing a chronic shortage of new homes over the next six years”. Now this just seems like the definition of irony in the current climate, akin to suggesting that someone with health problems due to chronic obesity needs more cheeseburgers or that the insomniac needs more coffee. As Rob Kitchin suggests, the CIF report is focussing on new homes exclusively and ignoring second hand homes in coming to their conclusions. Well, it may just be me but I was under the impression that houses had a longer lifespan than say cabbages; they don’t suddenly go off after a couple of months or years – if they do then we have some serious questions to ask the banks handing out 40 year mortgages – but that they were more or less ‘built to last’. We don’t necessarily need our houses fresh from the grocers.

And then today, the Independent published an article by former chief economist of the Central Bank Tom O’Connell suggesting that one of the main factors contributing to the property bubble was “restrictive land zoning”. He argues that the ability of large developers to bank large parcels of land in the cities and drip feed it on to the market was enabled by restrictive zoning policies. It’s hard to believe that I am even living on the same planet, let along country, as the originators of these statements.

While O’Connell’s arguments re zoning make some sense in a roundabout manner, they fail to acknowledge a range of factors. Land-banking has certainly been a pertinent issue which has undoubtedly contributed to driving up the price of property. However, his argument hinges on the assumption that supply and demand were somehow logically correlated during the boom. If this was the case then we wouldn’t have an oversupply of some 120,000 properties at present. Supply and demand are coupled in the sense that there was a demand in the early 1990s and there has been a supply ever since. In the rural renewal counties “restrictive zoning” was certainly not an issue, yet these areas are characterised by massive oversupply. At a certain point the price of land became dissociated from any reasonable demand for it as speculation pushed property into the stratospheres of what Tom McCarthy glibly describes in his novel Remainder as “imaginary futures” that are not valued “by what they actually represent in terms of goods and services”. The suggestion that more liberal zoning policies could have prevented the property bubble is indicative of a blind neoliberal assumption in the ‘logic’ of the market, which, in light of the global crisis, is all too obviously unfounded.

The Irish experience begs for more and not less regulation. Rather than zoning more land, the Government would have been better served to implement the recommendations of the Kenny report on the sale of land or to put in place more restrictions on the time period a parcel of land will remained zoned without development taking place. The CIF’s report induces further bafflement. They just seem to be roaming around the detritus of a party the morning after, shaking the bodies of the shell-shocked hungover revellers desperately trying to get them to do another shot of tequila to get the queasy party up and running again. The last thing we need at the moment is to be hitting the property bottle.

Cian O’ Callaghan

A recent post on this blog asks whether local authorities should be temporarily relieved of their decision-making powers. In response a number of critical questions can and should be asked:

1. Would centralised decision-making be any less subject to the influences of misplaced political judgement?

2. How would centralisation deal with the apparent legal issues arising in relation to dezoning?

The question of overzoning and overdevelopment does need to be dealt with but centralised control may not be the best answer. Indeed effective strategic planning at the local and regional levels is currently impeded by the neccessity to follow a common set of population porojections, produced at national level and sanctioned by the DoEHLG which are recognised by regional planners to be wildly out of line with realistic expectations of future growth given current levels of unemployment and emmigration.

Experience in Northern Ireland would suggest that a centralised system of planning can lead to beuracratic decision-making where planning decisions are made according to a tightly prescribed policy that is blind to questions of spatial context. It is also possible that centralised decision-making would open the door for a system based on tradable development rights and permits,  favoured by some infleuential environmental policy experts both in Ireland and elsewhere. Relieving local authorities of their planning powers would serve to seriously undermine the authority and legitimacy of local government at a time when a renewal of democratic principles of accountablity and civic responsibility is required.

Cormac Walsh

On Monday the Irish Independent reported that local authorities approved 43,000 apartments and homes in housing estates in 2009 and 2010 (not including one-off houses), despite the well known problems of oversupply and overhang in the housing market (see our key housing statistics).  A few months ago, the Indo also reported (also see here) on the land zoning bonanza that has occurred over the past couple years, deep into the recession, as local authorities sought to zone land ahead of the introduction of the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010.  It seems that local authorities have been facilitating developers and banks who wanted to protect or inflate the value of their property and land assets ahead of valuations by NAMA or to sneak it under the guillotine of the new Act.  The Act and the quotas in the Regional Planning Guidelines will help rein back future zonings and permissions, but there is a question mark over existing permissions and zonings.  It could be a case that any attempt to rescind permissions and dezone may lead to cases around injurious affection (compensation for the loss of value by actions of the state).  The new windfall/betterment tax of 80% on trading profits and capital gains arising from disposals of land, where it has increased in value due to a status in its zoning status post October 2009, may head some of these off, though its not clear to me about pre-Oct 2009 cases.

One really has to wonder what is going on here?  Why are local authorities/councillors helping landowners, property developers and speculators to zone unneeded land and give unneeded permissions at the expense of the state, state agencies and tax payers?  The only interests it serves is that of landowners, property developers and speculators.   The new Act is going to help, but no doubt vested interests will be at work trying to find ways around it and the local authorities/councillors seem primed to help them.  What is needed seems to be a fundamental change in planning culture away from a laissez faire presumption for development to a more measured, regulated system free of cronyism and clientelism.  The question is – can local authorities transform and deliver that?  Or are local authorities incapable of getting their houses in order to act in the public good, in which case is there now a case for all planning decisions (and not just plans) to be taken from them?  Perhaps we’re now at the stage where we need to consider this as a serious proposition, if only on a temporary basis until we have a system fit for purpose.

Rob Kitchin