Justin Sinnott: Needs of local people key to the success of new towns
In the eight months since I was elected as an Independent Councillor to Fingal County Council, the related issues of housing and planning have remained at the very top of the Council's agenda.
My Council colleagues and I are contacted by people directly affected by the housing crisis every week - in many cases, these are people and families who have been waiting years for a home. I know that the Council staff work enormously hard to help people in this situation and the wider housing issue is given absolute priority by Council management. And the issues faced by my Council are replicated in Councils across the Country.
As we have slowly emerged from the recession, planning and development has become both a local and national priority. In Fingal, we are working towards the next development plan.
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We all know that the boom-and-bust construction cycle left enormous problems, from the homeless crisis to the thousands in negative equity.
In many of the developments that sprang up during the boom there still remain significant issues, for example unfinished estates, unpaid development levies and private management fees. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure development is sustainable and community-focused.
In my view, there are two enormous challenges facing local authorities and councillors. Firstly the very practical challenge of approving future developments that take account of the views and legitimate concerns of existing residents.
Developing land for housing does impact on people. I have already had experience of this. Recently councillors in Fingal were presented with a proposal for the development of nine social houses in an area near Balbriggan. A number of local residents committees raised quite legitimate concerns about the proposed development, such as the lack of amenities, the reduction in open spaces, traffic management, and even the sustainability of the development.
They were supported by a cross section of councillors, representing both left and right.
However, I felt that the concerns, while legitimate, could be applied to many areas across the county and used to challenge any development. I was also very conscious of the fact that I, like many politicians, had made housing a major campaign issue of mine.
How could I call on the Government to get its act together on housing, but then oppose a development plan?
Approving the nine social houses for nine families was the right thing to do.
In my view, one way to address concerns in existing communities is to link new developments with local improvements - for example, taking a more flexible approach to development levies, so that they can be used to improve roads and other amenities in areas where construction takes place.
However, as it stands, current planning regulations require that all funds collected can only be applied as capital for public infrastructure and facilities for the approved development. The Government needs to examine this.
The wider issue of development levies will be debated by councillors and local authorities in the coming months as the Government's 'Construction 2020' plan specifically refers to reductions in those levies.
I am concerned by this proposal. Who will make up the funding shortfall? Local authorities are already under financial pressure, so increasing the burden on councils would be counterproductive.
The other challenge is providing proper infrastructure and amenities. During the boom, thousands of houses were built, but infrastructure needed to service those new communities was lacking. Inadequate school provision had an enormous effect on families.
Building houses and developing land cannot be done in isolation. Planning requires a national strategic plan with minimum standards that provide the basis for sustainable communities to develop.
Cllr Justin Sinnott is an Independent councillor for Swords Ward, Fingal County Council
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The Residential Land Availability Survey map was created by drawing together zoning maps held by each local authority in the State.
Developed by the Department of the Environment, it sets out individual plots of land in towns, villages, cities and rural areas, and indicates the number of homes permitted on each site.
It took almost two years to develop, and provides planners and developers with an overview of the available land for housing.
It does not include land zoned for mixed-use development, which would generally include some housing provision. Nor does it include derelict sites.
The data is based on the situation as of March 31 last. Stage 1 land is considered not viable for development in the short-term because necessary services such as water are not in place. Stage 2 land has no major constraints. Not all the land has planning permission.