10 Mar 2009

Evidence that the multitude of elaborate planning policies introduced in this country in the past fifteen years had any beneficial effect on the quality of Tiger era development is hard to produce. These policies sure were elaborate and their outcomes sure were disappointing: normal democratic procedures were suspended to secure the efficient urbanisation of Dublin’s Docklands - the result is a featureless Mediterranean-resort-grid-iron of low rise streets lacking life or character. The acclaimed Adamstown experiment – the first of our Special Development Zones – feels unnatural and contrived. And hundreds of pages of planning policies couldn’t save Sandyford and Belmayne from becoming the vortices of woe they were to become. Housing developments and retail centres all over the country, the approvals for which took months and even years of deliberating over, second guessing and objecting to are, at their very best, unremarkable. At their worst, they’ve left big scars on cities like Galway and hollowed chunks out of towns like Carlow. If the development which took place in this country since the end of the 90s had happened without the benefit of a planning system, it wouldn’t have made a whole lot of difference.

But while the planning system has had no noticeable effect on the quality of our built environment, it certainly has had a very noticeable effect on our financial situation. There are many ways in which the Irish economy has been weighed down by an unthought-through planning system, but let me suggest just three:

  • In this country, the process of deciding whether or not a development proposal should be allowed to go ahead is indescribably long and unnaturally drawn out. Even when it seems like a decision has suffered a lifetime of delays, there may be another lifetime more to come. During the peak of the economic boom, when demand for new housing was particularly high, the slow rate at which planning applications for housing developments were being approved meant that supply was only a fraction of demand. As a result, house (and other property) prices went up. The inflated prices we were forced to pay due to planning delays might have been forgivable had the process led to better environments for people to live in. It didn’t so it wasn’t.
  • In recent years, the Government has tried, through the National Spatial Strategy and other instruments, to regulate sites for single family houses out of existence. The result has been to drive prices for sites suitable for ‘one off’ development into the stratosphere. After the turn of the century, common-or-garden half acre sites in edge of town locations which, in the mid 1990s, fetched modest amounts were suddenly worth upwards of £50K. At the height of the boom, the same sites – even those in the more economically fragile parts of the country – were selling for €250K and more. So, while the physical effect of the Government’s policy to end rural development was negligible (an orderly planning system would have allowed families to live in the houses they wanted to without destroying the countryside), the effect that the same policy had on land prices was outrageous. If the Government had had the slightest understanding of what was happening they would have intervened. They didn’t, so they didn’t. (The dramatic arc of this strand of Ireland’s economic collapse is yet to play itself out: when the thousands of middle income earners living on half acre sites around the country start defaulting on their mortgage repayments, banks will be left with properties worth only a fraction of their book value.)
  • After 2000, there was a general sense that if we wanted more ‘sustainable’ cities we needed higher densities and taller buildings. How dense or how tall? Well, this was never fully teased out, which encouraged developers to pay (in hope rather than expectation) ever more staggering amounts for underdeveloped urban sites. This is how it started: at the beginning of the boom, folks in the building game were sometimes surprised to hear that €10m had been paid for a site reckoned to be only worth €5m. Months later, there’d be more surprise when it was discovered that the subsequent planning approval had permitted an extra story of accommodation which nobody else had thought possible. When word started to get around that this kind of gamble was paying off, every horse racing syndicate in the land was coming together to fling money at zoned sites. Soon, people stopped caring whether or not the thousand units they’d hoped to develop (and upon which assumption the value of the site had been set) was later halved by the planners: so long as the banks kept shovelling out money, developers simply raised prices to whatever degree necessary to cover the increased land costs.

Three negative effects on the economy caused by the Irish planning system and, because planning systems in other countries wouldn’t allow these situations to develop, specific to Ireland.  

Which leads me to my question: if X is the degree to which the average western economy is in the hole as a result of the economic recession and Y is the larger degree to which the Irish economy is in the hole, does X – Y = the cost the Irish planning system? 
          

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 14:13:13 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Gary,

There really is a 4th component to the planning mess: the greed of local authorities to obtain development fees whether or not the proposed development was sustainable. The dogs in the street could say with certainty that small villages (never mind larger towns) didn't need and couldn't sustain developments of 30-40-50 top of the market 4/5 bedroom houses squeezed onto small acreage.

All the best!
Friday, 13 March 2009 10:32:37 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Gary,

You've hit the spot yet again, in a thoroughly current & relevant way. The economic cost of our post 2000 planning 'system' is, I believe, in the billions; I thought this long before the Tiger handed in his claws, but it was obviously heavily disguised by the boom (as were the increasing weaknesses/vulnerability of the architectural profession, but that's another story...........). The other side to this is, why did this huge inefficiency never make it into the fabled environs of the Galway tent etc.? Because, of course, the chaos, confusion & incredible inconsistencies inherent within the 'system' played perfectly into the hands of the larger, shrewder and more patient developers, who were able to get what they wanted (and much more) providing they waited it out and threw enough 'expert' consultants' reports at it. Take the example of Wicklow. Huge development pressures, especially in the north of the county. But one of the most tortuous and unecessarily extended planning 'processes' in the country. Does this mean that they have a fabulous standard of development in comparison with elsewhere? Not that I (or anyone I know) has noticed. What it does mean is that there is an ongoing shortage of development of all sorts which (surprise, surprise) pushes prices sky-high - very nice if you have land with a permission on it.

Keep up the good work!
Dan O'Sullivan
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