Planning at a standstill as major housing schemes ‘put on ice’
The ‘fast track’ planning system for housing is in crisis with “an immediate and lengthy timing risk” to plans for more than 60,000 housing units – a massive blow to the hopes of prospective first time buyers.
Several planning and construction sources told the Sunday Independent that because permission for so many new homes has been overturned by the High Court, planners have downed tools and strategic housing developments (SHDs) has come to a complete halt.
Plans for thousands of homes due to enter the SHD planning system – including 1,600 homes at Drumcondra and a third 400 unit phase of the Bailey Gibson development – have been “put on ice” because of the growing logjam, said sources.
Crisis meetings took place last week between a number of planners working for major housing developers and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien was warned by senior planners that thousands of new homes are now indefinitely on hold after the High Court sought guidance from the European Court of Justice on specific planning policies related to strategic housing decisions.
“This could lead to layoffs in the sector, particularly amongst architects, engineers and planning consultants because there is so much uncertainty that people involved in designing housing schemes have literally downed their pens,” said one well-placed industry source.
The hold ups stem from a series of High Court judicial reviews that have overturned planning permission for 7,500 homes, with a further 6,500 awaiting such judicial review.
But the European Court referral in recent weeks by Mr Justice Richard Humphreys of one such judicial review of planning permission granted by An Bord Pleanála for the first 416-unit phase at the Bailey Gibson site off the South Circular Road could mean even longer delays and left planners and housebuilders reeling, according to senior sources in both sectors.
Justice Humphreys has presided over many of the judicial reviews that have quashed plans for thousands of units at large housing developments around the country in recent months. He is in charge of the High Court’s Strategic Infrastructural Development Judicial Review List, which includes strategic housing developments.
The Irish Homebuilders Association (IHBA) said that it had been advised that it could take at least 18 months for the referral to the European Court of Justice to be heard and that this could delay any development brought to judicial review in the meantime.
“Some 14,000 homes are in question in the judicial review process currently, meaning many families seeking homes are going to experience further delays,” said James Benson of the IHBA. “No one would question the right of appeal and the need for a robust process for third parties. Likewise everyone would agree that we are in desperate need of housing and the numbers speak for themselves.”
But Benson said that the referral of the Bailey Gibson case to Europe had now exposed combined applications for 64,000 units currently at various stages of the strategic housing development system to legal risk.
“There is an immediate and lengthy timing risk to tens of thousands of units at this current point in time,” said Benson.
“The sector needs certainty and continuity of work. We know the number of residential units submitted for planning in Q1, 2021 is down 29pc compared to the same period in 2020 which is concerning. There is a clear hesitancy in the sector for many progressing with SHD applications and many deferring potential plans until they see what comes after the current scheme expires.”
A new report by planning firm Tom Phillips Associates found 92pc of judicial reviews into strategic housing development (SHDs) since 2018 had resulted in the plans being quashed, with an over 400pc increase in 2020 in the number of SHDs quashed.
“Now every SHD (and planning applications in general) lodged is at severe risk of being ‘quashed’ through the High Court, even if granted by An Bord Pleanála,” said the report. “As a nation that has missed its housing target by 40pc in 2020, and which is already behind on circa 9,000 housing units in 2021, Ireland cannot afford to let any more homes remain unbuilt.”
It cited a judgment by Justice Humphreys that quashed permission for the development in Howth of 164 homes. One of the Judge’s key concerns was that there were no dimensions provided on drawings for subterranean piling sheets and that “the actual grant of permission is devoid of meaning because the permission is to construct the development in accordance with the plans submitted, but those plans do not include adequate details as to the location and dimensions of the sheet piling.”
The planning consultants’ report continued: “One could conclude that this effectively makes every application in the system (no matter how big or small) inadmissible if they have not provided subterranean drawings and/or drawings without dimensions.”
This meant a large number of applications could be deemed invalid “and could result in strategic developments such as road schemes or essential housing developments of national economic or social importance being held up in the courts.”