Sunday 24 June 2018

The right moves: SCSI president believes 'rigid' planning system is damaging the economy

Paul McNeive
Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

Des O'Broin is the newly-elected SCSI president and he has lost no time in articulating his priorities for the Society in the year ahead.

O'Broin, a chartered quantity surveyor for over 30 years, a project management surveyor, and a director of Linesight in Dublin, is well placed to advise on issues in the property and construction sector. He has strong views and I met him to hear about his plans for his new role.

O'Broin tells me that his priorities can be summarised in three words: vision, leadership and value. He says his work with the SCSI will focus on setting out a clear vision on the main challenges facing the sector, which he identifies as the housing shortage, our infrastructural deficit, and member education.

O'Broin's frustration is clear, as he begins to list various "blockages" in our planning system, which are hampering the development process and restricting supply. One of his goals this year will be to work towards reducing those blockages. He cites the level of "uncertainty" in the planning process as a huge problem.

He gives the example of Apple pulling out of building a data centre in Athenry, Co Galway, having been held up for three years by objectors, one of whom is based on the far side of the country in Co Wicklow.

While this went on, Apple were already occupying new data centres abroad, having identified sites after the lengthy Irish planning process had gotten underway.

He describes the Apple decision to abandon its plan for Athenry as "a massive blow" to the country.

He argues that the Irish planning system is too rigid, and that "planners are stuck with" inappropriate zonings. He gives the Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) in Dublin's north docks as an example.

He says: "Despite the existence of 12-storey developments there already, the SDZ only allows residential buildings up to six storeys, and actually reduces in height as you move back from the river.

"And this is despite the existence of the railway line into Spencer Dock, and the huge investment in putting the Luas there."

Another example of "uncertainty" he cites is Johnny Ronan's site at Tara Street, where the developer's plan for a 22-storey (88m) tower was rejected by both Dublin City Council and An Bord Pleanála. This despite the fact the building's height adhered to the guidelines set out in the Council's own local area plan for the George's Quay area.

A lack of infrastructure is a major impediment to supply, he says, and power, water and drainage are particular problems.

"Irish Water is grossly underfunded and is not delivering basic infrastructure," he says.

Even if you have a site ready to go, he tells me, there is a good chance that your power, water and possibly drainage will be delayed - all adding to uncertainty, delay and cost.

Even for brownfield sites in Dublin city centre, it is likely that local treatment plants will be full, and the pipe network undersized. Thus developers are faced with very high costs in funding this infrastructure - if they proceed at all.

O'Broin "is not a fan of deregulation", but he feels that too much regulation is being too rigidly enforced in certain circumstances.

For example, while everyone agrees we should be building more housing inside the Dublin canals; where this is happening, developers are forced to export large volumes of soil overseas, because Irish landfills are full.

"This is virgin soil, eight to 10 metres deep - it's been there for thousands of years, but we're exporting it because of a strict interpretation of European guidelines. It's unsustainable," he says.

He is keen to see more joined-up thinking between government departments and the various stakeholders, and gives the development of the original IFSC as a good example of that.

He is pleased that the government has recently called on the SCSI, RIAI, ACEI, Engineers Ireland and the CIF to contribute strategic advice towards optimising the development process. The SCSI is keen for that group to be put on a statutory footing, so that long-term planning that outlives the electoral cycle can be developed.

While O'Broin has clear plans for the SCSI to show leadership in delivering its vision, and a strong message to politicians on removing the inherent development blockages which are intensifying the housing shortage, he is also a strong advocate for advancing education.

The Society is working on education modules to allow people both to join, but also achieve a PSRA licence, to address the skills shortage in the business, and is working with the Institutes of Technology to develop new modular and online courses to attract new members.

O'Broin is certainly bringing energy to his role, and his legacy, he hopes, will be to succeed in "getting blockages removed and more infrastructure developed".

info@paulmcneive.com

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