Tuesday 22 October 2019

Comment: Land Development Agency must consider bigger picture - not only housing

(L to R) Heather Humphreys, Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy TD during the a launch of the establishment of the Land Development Agency. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
(L to R) Heather Humphreys, Leo Varadkar and Eoghan Murphy TD during the a launch of the establishment of the Land Development Agency. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

THE latest effort of the Government to establish a housing initiative must not be dominated by individuals who have never worked in the real world of construction and planning. Ticking boxes, benefiting from public service contracts, as the Housing Agency has done for eight years, will not provide a single home. As the former chair of the agency has consistently declared, "Our housing crisis is normal".

The new Land Development Agency (LDA) was launched by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy. It was supported by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, and Employment Minister Heather Humphries, who seeks to create 660,000 new jobs between now and 2040, saying that this smart spatial planning and land management is central to our success in this area.

There has been €1.25bn allocated for development. No doubt that fund is supported by the local property tax of people who saved and sacrificed to get a mortgage in the 1980s or 1990s - at 17pc interest. While an 'affordable' price today is suggested at €320,000 for a modest house, supported by two full-time working people, it would not be available in Dublin. A three-bed terraced house, a 1960s example of social housing, close to Dundrum Central Mental Hospital is on the market for €625,000.

The interim chief executive of the LDA is John Coleman, former chief finance officer of Nama. His approach is that the LDA will reach far beyond planning services. It will manage projects in a similar manner to UK agencies and beyond, with a panel of development partners. He intends to initiate a "slick and tight procurement process" to compress and condense the delivery timeframe.

Be that as it may, the quality of design, materials and infrastructure is of significant importance when it comes to our built environment. The country is littered with poor quality housing estates, ghost estates, derelict town terraces.

A major boost to Ireland this year is the return of many professional economic emigrants, including architects with experience from Europe and beyond.

Coleman said the power of compulsory purchase order is also within the LDA. The power of objection, refusal, appeal, judicial review and all the routine delays and challenges mean that all LDA processes and procedures must still comply with environmental impact and conservation impact regulations.

According to Coleman, there is an immediate potential for 3,000 residential units to be delivered on State landbanks in Dublin city centre, Dundrum, Balbriggan, Skerries and a further 1,000 units in Naas, Cork, Galway and Mullingar. The Government's aim is to increase housing stock by 150,000 in the next 20 years.

What appears to be overlooked is that there is a surge of private land owners, developers, being consistently refused permission by local authorities, including land owners seeking to build a single house for a family member. Our cities are saturated with grossly designed apartment blocks from the 1990s. External elevations have deteriorated so much that historic streetscapes are visibly destroyed.

The LDA must consider landscape and heritage, not just bedrooms and bathrooms. Landbanks could be in architectural conservation areas or adjacent to significant green spaces similar to St Anne's Park, Clontarf, where a strategic development plan has failed in its application for 500 houses this week.

In his promotion of the Dundrum Central Mental Hospital site, the Taoiseach insisted that it will be developed for "real people". As opposed to? The patients of the 94-bed protected-structure hospital will be moved to a new building in Portrane, accommodating 130 patients.

Mr Murphy says the site is due to be developed for 1,000 units. Elsewhere, up to 1,500 residential units are proposed. At a guess, that is at least 3,000 new residents and 1,500 cars, adjacent to the narrowest of roads in Windy Arbour.

While the LDA is focusing on housing - and nothing other than housing was mentioned in the press conference - there is a necessity to improve the local environment and provide scope for small retail. Some of the largest social housing developments in Dublin - for example, Tallaght - are wastelands, due to the lack of integration with social and accessible small retail outlets.

According to the Taoiseach, the LDA will be the cornerstone of new development in Ireland. It "will have teeth", staffed by people with experience. Why wouldn't it be? So far, the list contains three men. He considers the LDA to be a radical idea, saying it is the first time that State land is in place and the first time such an agency has been put in place to meet the present and future needs of our growing population. The major factor is that 30pc of State land is to be used for affordable and social housing.

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty said the LDA will be overseen by an independent board in the same way the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) was in the 1950s to attract foreign investment. If the LDA is as successful as the IDA has been, with active professionals making significant decisions to upgrade Ireland, that would be a positive outlook for Rebuilding Ireland and Project 2040.

Deirdre Conroy is a conservation specialist and barrister

Irish Independent

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