Bowing to the building lobby will backfire on minister when buyers shun shoeboxes
Published 30/12/2015 | 02:30
There is a row going on over five square metres - about 54 square feet in old money, or the size of a small single bedroom with a desk and wardrobe. Environment Minister Alan Kelly, in the rushed Planning Guidelines on Design Standards for New Apartments, is dictating serious civic space and urban design features that will define the shape of our cities and how we live long after he is gone (which is only a matter of weeks away). So trenchant is his belief that there is a large sector of the population who wish to live in studio apartments (bed beside the kitchen sink) that he has ordered that his 'guidelines' must "take precedence over policies and objectives of development plans, local area plans or strategic development zone planning schemes" and include all housing, including apartments.
There is only one reason as I see it why such an order would be made: it is not to enhance the residential amenity or even provide more housing; rather, it is to appease the construction lobby in order to increase profit margins.
Where is the logic in providing small spaces with a bathroom, kitchen and a sofa-bed when the rental market is driven by people who wish to share on a temporary basis? The same kitchen and bathroom could be used by two or three occupants with more adequate sleeping and living space for future families.
Unelected Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan, despite years of political and civic protest, gave the go-ahead for a massive incinerator to be built in Dublin 4.
Keegan is the man who rejects cars and taxis in the city, but has sanctioned a route for a daily procession of trucks through the heart of residential areas. He has also rapped senior planner Kieran Rose on the knuckles, after Rose commented that "the minister has been bamboozled by certain powerful vested property interests" on the reduced apartment sizes.
This is not the first time the minister has bowed to pressure from the construction lobby. Earlier this year, he wrote to Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Dublin City and Fingal councils, ordering that passive house energy conservation standards should not be stipulated in development plans and threatening to veto the plans if necessary.
The minister goes on to justify the 'updated' guidelines, stating their two aims as "to uphold proper standards for apartment design" - not like Priory Hall, then - and "to ensure . . . new apartment developments will be affordable to construct".
Therein lies the key. Dr Lorcan Sirr, a lecturer in urban economics and housing studies at DIT, argues that "a 20pc smaller apartment will not save the builder 20pc in construction costs, but about 5pc. And any rent or sales price for these smaller units will be about the same as a larger apartment, so the winner here is the developer".
It is about eight years since the cranes disappeared from our skyline (they are making a slow comeback to cater for the office construction sector). We have all (politicians aside) endured the pain of austerity, but the construction industry cannot try to make a comeback with retrograde standards. If anything, the Construction Industry Federation should be aiming for higher standards.
There is an obvious solution to the issue of density and size, and that is height. A study commissioned by Dublin City Council in 2000, "Managing Intensification and Change: A Strategy for Dublin Building Height", identified character areas and locations within the city that would allow for large-scale growth. Long before the Luas and the downturn, only Docklands, Ballymun and Pelletstown were seriously addressed.
In 2007, blind to the impending economic crash, Dublin City Council identified up to 15 locations for high-building clusters: eight to 16 storeys in Grangegorman, Phibsborough, George's Quay Grand Canal Basin and North Fringe; and 16-storey-plus around Dublin Port and South Bank/Poolbeg. The higher minimum floor space designated by the council was aligned to the greater building potential. That potential is still there. Nama owns a lot of the land - the Irish Glass Bottle site is a prime example.
The Vacant Land Audit carried out by Dublin City Council in February last year found there were 312 sites in the city comprising 63 hectares, with 10 of them together covering up 20 hectares. According to the audit, 22 hectares could provide 2,600 residential units. A levy of 3pc has been introduced to encourage development, but cannot be imposed until 2019.
As we prepare for 2016, we don't need a short-term, money-grab response from the minister. Each city development plan has been focused on creating a connected, quality, green city, a smart city focused on long-term economic recovery and sustainable neighbourhoods.
Few capitals in Europe have the capacity or potential to build for now and the future, but Dublin has that potential. The Living City Initiative needs to be supported with greater effort and policing, while apartment design has to be reviewed for family living and superbly designed, avoiding any more fake tall-house pastiche so dominant in the suburbs.
I am an urban and building conservation specialist and I care about the significance of our historic public realm, skyline and buildings, but I recognise that cities will degrade if people don't live in them.
High-rise is clearly not suitable everywhere; I think the Heuston South Quarter is over-developed and has compromised the views and vistas from the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
In his rush to publish during this month, Mr Kelly omitted to provide for any prior public consultation and may be in breach of the Aarhus Convention, which states that governments "shall endeavour to provide opportunities for public participation in the preparation of policies relating to the environment including housing".
Clearly, there has been ample construction industry consultation, but that is only one side of the story. Build shoeboxes and nobody will buy them.