Friday 18 October 2019

Scrapping height limits will change our landscape, but it won't end housing crisis

Highlighting housing issues: Protesters from Dundrum Housing Action at the official opening of 44 new social houses at Rosemount Court, Dundrum, Dublin, yesterday. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Highlighting housing issues: Protesters from Dundrum Housing Action at the official opening of 44 new social houses at Rosemount Court, Dundrum, Dublin, yesterday. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

The removal of upper height limits will play a role in boosting housing output, but the measure is not - as Tom Phillips says - the final piece in the jigsaw.

The real barrier to apartment construction is cost, with an October 2017 report from the Society of Chartered Surveyors noting it was cheaper to build a three-bed semi-detached house than an apartment.

A large part of the reason is land prices, with the report saying this ranged from €33,000 to €125,000 per unit.

But the industry suggests there's also the issue of development levies, the cost of financing and the emerging skills shortage, where competition for construction workers is stiff. Building on brownfield land, as the Government wants, is also complex with construction often taking place on tight sites where neighbouring buildings have to be propped up and where getting materials onto lands can be difficult.

All these issues add to costs, and with Central Bank lending rules rightly restricting the ability of people to borrow beyond their means, it has resulted in many schemes with planning permission not going ahead because the cohort capable of paying the required price doesn't exist.

A report from the Housing Supply Co-ordination Task Force For Dublin bears this out. There was permission for 17,500 apartments in the capital in July this year where work had yet to commence. Since the beginning of last year, just over 27,000 homes have been built. Of these, fewer than 3,900 are apartments. In some cases, schemes didn't go ahead as developers were awaiting clarity on the height issue.

There is a chance that some will go back to the planning system seeking increased height for projects already approved, but at the very least these guidelines provide certainty for the future. That's not to say they give builders carte blanche. "It would be wrong to suggest these guidelines are a free for all, it is not a diktat," one official source said.

The height issue really only applies in Dublin, and has resulted in some developers being held "prisoner" by what appear to be arbitrary rules, they added. High rise was restricted to the Docklands, George's Quay and areas around Connolly and Heuston stations, but buildings up to 50 metres tall could be considered in other parts. These councillor-imposed limits are now gone, which will leave the Government open to accusations it is removing another power from local politicians.

There will be safeguards. Planners will have to take into account issues including traffic impacts, access to light and - crucially - good design before deciding whether or not to approve. Decisions can be appealed. The guidelines also stress that "appropriate" density is required in areas earmarked for growth, which doesn't always equate to very tall buildings.

In the cities and regional towns, there is a default of six storeys (between around 18 and 24 metres), falling to four (12-16 metres) in the suburbs. These changes means developers can go beyond those limits, if they prove their case.

The guidelines sensibly point to the need to build on brownfield sites, with a particular focus on former industrial estates, dockland locations and low-density urban shopping centres. But crucial to the appropriate development of our towns and cities will be protecting the historic cores, while not limiting new development simply because surrounding buildings are old.

Planners will also need to start identifying areas suitable for taller buildings, focusing on areas close to the centres and on public transport links. Where will tall work? And what if the Bus Connects plan to develop more than 200km of dedicated bus and cycle lanes in Dublin doesn't go ahead? Will that limit the number of sites where very tall buildings are possible, because the transport links won't be there? And what about the lack of good public transport systems in many of our regional towns and cities? Will that limit development?

Leaving aside the height issue, one very positive measure is that construction of commercial or retail units is phased with development of housing and leisure facilities. This will require policing.

The era of building two-storey homes on greenfield sites is coming to an end. About time too, as the State has been struggling for years to provide utilities such as water, broadband and power, but also roads, public transport, schools and health facilities to serve these communities.

Lots of new homes have been - and continue to be - built on the margins of our urban areas. That has to end. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to get planning right, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

Irish Independent

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