Sunday 24 February 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Time to face down our lack of common sense when planning to build new homes'

Politicians complain about the housing crisis - yet battle against developments in their own backyards, writes Colm McCarthy

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.
DELAYS: The site in Howth where developers now face a High Court hearing which could reverse their planning permission
An artist’s impression of the proposed development in Howth
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

If you live in Dublin and would like to vote for the Nimby Party at the May local elections, you will be spoiled for choice. Prospective candidates bemoan Dublin's severe housing shortage while they campaign shamelessly against every proposed residential development. They have co-conspirators in Cork.

Accommodation costs, especially in Dublin, are unaffordable even for those with steady jobs and the issue is becoming a factor in public service pay claims.

The imbalance will not be rectified by preventing willing builders from building more homes.

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The list of politicians engaged simultaneously in pious lamentations about the housing crisis, while blocking developments in their local area, spans Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, Sinn Fein and every available flavour from the independent and minor party ranks.

Parties of the left, whose historic appeal is to the ''men of no property'', are especially prominent in expanding the numbers likely to remain in their target category.

In a city surrounded by vacant suburban land, and whose central districts are pockmarked with derelict sites, scarce housing is the undeclared ambition for too many politicians. It takes genuine chutzpah to blame builders, developers, the markets, Central Bank lending rules, or even local authority planners, for a problem more often the handiwork of elected public officials.

The hand-wringing about excessive rents, homelessness, long commutes and waiting lists for local authority housing will intensify as wannabe TDs compete for the support of the voters who are presumed to want more of the same.

More of the same means unaffordable house prices and unaffordable rents. Some councillors will insist that they are reflecting the concerns of residents' associations, but others are actively creating those concerns. The hypocrisy is unmistakeable.

When the price, but not the everyday value, of your home goes up by some extraordinary amount, you own the same home. It does not sprout extra bedrooms, or a bigger garden. The value is unchanged, but the price goes up, to the delight it would appear of happy homeowners with no intention to sell, and of too many politicians.

This is a collective delusion sustained by the pretence that over-priced housing constitutes credible collateral for mortgage loans. This country, and especially the capital city, is no better off because house prices are a large multiple of construction costs. The country cannot export over-priced housing to naive foreigners and thus realise its housing ''wealth''.

When prices part company with sustainable economic reality, this is no longer a harmless fantasy.

High rents are destructive of labour mobility, of manageable commuting patterns and hence of economic efficiency. The principal economic engine in the country, the city of Dublin, is being rendered uncompetitive while extravagant accommodation costs destroy any sense of intergenerational fairness.

Modest apartments in the inner suburbs of Dublin now cost north of €2,000 per month to rent. Houses in the outer suburbs are priced at 10 or 12 times average income, against four or five times back in the days before political constraints on supply became entrenched.

The property expert Karl Deeter has prepared a list of politicians who have led the opposition to new housing supply in their own electoral areas. It includes wannabe TDs but also government ministers and prominent members of all opposition parties and movements, left, right and centre.

He reckons that the quantum of housing delayed by objectors, often led by local and national politicians, has been around 10,000 units in recent years.

All political party websites contain solemn declarations against the social evil of unaffordable prices and rents, perfectly avoidable in a thinly-populated country with a small capital city.

Numerous public representatives of these parties betray the rhetoric daily in their pitch for votes. The message remains: vote for us, and we will magically deliver affordable housing while opposing any builder seeking to build more housing.

If the builder has already been through the planning process, we will appeal to An Bord Pleanala and on to judicial review.

From the builder's angle, the costs per home consist, in the here and now, of fees to lawyers and PR consultants, rather than the cost of bricks, glass, slates and the staff to put them together.

People are commuting daily from Portlaoise and other midland towns to Dublin through the boundless prairies of Kildare. Look at a map on Google - there is room for one of the world's largest cities between Dublin and Portlaoise.

There is no shortage of land, there is a shortage of residential zoning. Where land is zoned, there is a shortage of local authority services. Where there is both zoning and services, there is a shortage of planning permission. And where all of these are in place, there are politicians keen to protect, in the words of one recent objection, the architectural ''ambience'' of Stillorgan, apparently a Unesco world heritage site.

In an attempt to reduce planning delays, a fast-track system of direct resort to An Bord Pleanala for major projects has been introduced, leapfrogging the first port of call, the local authority. Previously the Bord dealt with appeals against local council decisions, with the council being, as it were, the court of first instance. Any housing project over 100 units can now go directly to ABP.

But there is no appellate body as such, so objectors proceed to the High Court for judicial review. This fast-track system may not be working as intended. An Bord Pleanala will need to rely on the local authority engineers and planners anyway for local context, so they cannot really be circumnavigated.

More importantly perhaps, the High Court is in danger of becoming the appeals body since there is no other. It is a reasonable feature of administrative law that some route of appeal be available. But is judicial review at the High Court the best avenue?

A developer called Marlet is about to find out. Granted permission via the fast- track by An Bord Pleanala, they face a High Court hearing which could reverse it on foot of objections from Howth residents, led by a Labour party politician, to an apartment development a short walk from the DART station.

The basis of objection includes various technical matters to do with geology and traffic, the standard fare at planning appeals but now headed for resolution to a body not designed for the purpose. For residential projects, perhaps the old system was superior.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy was interviewed by RTE's Sean O'Rourke on Thursday and expressed exasperation with the machinations of councillors, referring to ''vexatious'' objections without naming names.

''I don't want to have to intervene any more to take away more powers from councillors in this process, but it's becoming very difficult as I see more objections'', he said.

The implication is that the Minister is prepared to re-visit the planning laws and there may be no alternative. Local councillors are simply too local, and the result is frustrating national housing policy.

The essence of the conflict is that there are enough Nimby voters, and hence councillors, to pervert the intention of the planning acts, which was to inhibit intrusive and objectionable developments - not to prevent the construction of residential accommodation in residential areas.

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