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Building houses must pay more than planning changes

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Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

I've had a few "twitter spats" with Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, who is one of the foremost media commentators on planning and development issues. She agreed to an interview and I arrived at the campus with my arguments prepared, to be rapidly disarmed by a charming welcome and a passion for the topics which led me to realise that we may not disagree as much as I thought.

Ms Hegarty is well qualified to commentate on planning and development. An architect, she worked in private and public housing in London and Paris, and then spent 15 years in private practice here, before the recession led to her becoming an "accidental academic".

Her role sees her examining the UCD graduates who work on "real-life" projects and who write up their work as part of their training. This information gives her an insight into development trends and issues like costs and regulation.

One of our touchpoints has been the controversy over high-rise buildings, but Ms Hegarty is in favour of taller buildings, to the extent permitted in the four zones identified in Dublin. Development there, which is in the order of 80 metres high (22 storeys), is "mid-rise", rather than "high-rise" to my mind, but she is against much taller buildings and particularly for residential use.

Occupiers should be able to see the street level, she says, streets need to be able to dry out, and due to our northerly latitude, very tall buildings would cast shadows the length of O'Connell Street for much of the winter.

Ms Hegarty is annoyed about the variations to the Dublin City Development Plan, which she describes as political "knee-jerk reactions". By these she means measures like the ministerial guidelines to local authorities on taller buildings, the lowering of minimum apartment sizes and the lowering of requirements to provide certain amenities, such as balconies.

"These guidelines instruct An Bord Pleanála to materially contravene the development plans," she says.

Ms Hegarty argues strongly for the sanctity of evidence-based, long-term planning.

A consequence of altering the development regulations, according to Ms Hegarty, is that developers delayed development and re-submitted planning applications, to gain more profitable permissions.

"In fact, there is more money in policy changes than in building houses," she says. "More stable planning would have told the market to get on with it, but every year there has been another possible fillip. Now, instead of a city plan, we have individual sites being developed, without context," she tells me.

Ms Hegarty is of the view that six to eight storeys, as envisaged in the Dublin city development plan, is the appropriate height for residential development and says that six storeys is "cost optimal" for apartments. She finds it hard, however, to nominate a modern Dublin city-centre housing scheme that is noteworthy in meeting the need for higher density, and sustainability.

We get back into cloudier waters in an ultimately circular argument about the economics of development. For example, Ms Hegarty is of the view that increasing supply will not solve the affordability issues in the housing market (partly agreed), and has argued that land (and property prices) are not subject to the conventional forces of supply and demand. The argument to support the latter is that when over 90,000 houses were built in 2006, prices still increased by 11pc. However, in my view, much of this was a credit-fuelled investment bubble, disconnected from housing demand. We agree, however, that market stimuli should be supply-focused rather than demand-led.

Ms Hegarty is angry about the Department of Housing's recently amended regulations on fire safety in apartments.

"It's bad enough that we are reducing the quality of people's lives, with smaller rooms and no balconies," she says, but we are "blindly building fire traps".

She is happy for readers to join these debates on Twitter @Orla_Hegarty - where she doesn't pull her punches.

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