The right moves: Resurgent residential property market offers planners opportunity
In 2016, town planners Patricia Thornton and Sadhbh O'Connor saw the recovering property market as an opportunity to establish their own firm. Based in Dundrum, Dublin, Thornton O'Connor Town Planning already employs two other senior planners, is seeking more staff, and sees huge opportunities in the recovering markets and in new legislation designed to stimulate development.
Starting out on their own, the founders "spent a lot of time knocking on doors, explaining what we do, and looking for sites for developer clients". With over 25 years of experience between them, they soon found that their contacts with architects proved invaluable, and both commercial and residential instructions began flowing in.
The big challenge for the firm, and its clients, they told me, is the difficulty in finding development sites, particularly in Dublin, however, they see great opportunity in Dublin City Council's review of its existing 'Z6' zonings. This is an 'enterprise and employment' zoning, usually comprising older industrial estates, and many of them located in Dublin's inner suburbs, like Cabra and the Naas Road. The intention is to rezone large tracts of these lands to permit high-density residential development. With 607 hectares of land involved, Thornton and O'Connor have been encouraging their clients to consider buying now.
O'Connor told me that the draft Planning and Development Amendment Regulations 2018 "are a massive opportunity for first-time buyers". The legislation will mean that changing the use of vacant commercial buildings to residential use, will not need planning permission. She has some concerns though that the exclusions to the scheme may be overly restrictive and believes the legislation should also apply to developments over nine units, that have met their Part V (social housing) requirements.
Thornton and O'Connor are now seeing feasibility studies turning into actual applications. They say the draft apartment guidelines will improve flexibility, such as the reduced car parking and dual-aspect requirements, and the concept of 'co-living' - which is communal living for young professionals. The firm added that finding staff, and somewhere for people to live, is its biggest challenge, as it plots its own development.
Access for the disabled is still a battle
Building regulations and European legislation have improved the standards of accessibility for the disabled, to private and public buildings. However, as a regular wheelchair user, I am very aware of the difficulties that arise when the operators of public facilities lose sight of what is happening in their buildings.
The Dublin Airport Authority (DAA) and its contractors OCS generally provide a very good service to assist the disabled through the airport, but there are basic problems with the system. For years, the help-point bells in the T2 car park were incorrectly connected to the car-park security desk, instead of the OCS desk, causing endless confusion and delay. The waiting time at the help points can average 20 minutes - but there were no seats provided. I'm glad to say that following my lobbying, the DAA recently installed seating at the help points in T2. Other improvements are needed and I'll keep you advised.
At Heathrow Airport recently, I was badly let down when staff failed to provide any of the promised assistance from the Heathrow Express. The help and emergency bells were broken, and were still broken a month later. Complaints went unanswered. Only persistent complaints to the Heathrow Airport press office provoked a response, and last week the only thing missing was a brass band, as I was met off the plane by the press officer and assisted with style. Improvements are promised.
I recently became aware that some wheelchair- user customers of AIB Bank in Bray, Co Wicklow were doing their banking business on the street as they could not get over a step at the door to the bank. AIB told me that it had employed an architect in 2014 to investigate the possible provision of a ramp, but that this had proved unfeasible. The bank suggested that wheelchair-using customers had the option of visiting accessible branches at various locations (at least five miles away) - which suggests to me that the bank doesn't really understand the issue. When I persisted, the bank told me that it would provide a mobile ramp, by last Christmas, which it should have done in 2014.
Generally, it seems it is only the fear of bad publicity that provokes action, but that route is not open to most. If you encounter problems, and are being ignored, let me know and I'll investigate.