Legacy costs of lax planning and cheap credit

Endemic corruption, chaotic sprawl, a legacy of ghost development and widespread environmental degradation — they are just some of the phrases used by An Taisce in its review of planning during the boom years.

The report found “reckless overzoning” during the end of the Celtic Tiger boom provided an easy route to cheap credit, facilitated widespread property speculation and lead to the collapse.

The review of planning across 34 city and county councils highlighted the scale of the problem and found in 2008 there were 42,000 hectares zoned for residential purposes — enough for 4m extra people on top of the 4.4m population at that time.

This does not take into account thousands of hectares of land zoned for mixed-use, industrial, retail, commercial, and other uses.

The report found the problem was nationwide, but Donegal has the worst planning record in the country. The county was one of nine — Roscommon, Leitrim, Kerry, Mayo, Galway County, Cavan, Carlow and Waterford are the others — warned they have failed the test for good decisions on housing and development.

An Taisce’s report said Donegal had about 2,250 hectares of residential land in 2010, enough for a population increase of 180,000 but half of all planning permissions over the past decade were granted on unzoned land.

Charles Stanley-Smith, An Taisce spokesman, said the legacy of bad planning will affect people living in the areas, and Irish society, for many generations.

“Bad planning is not victim-free. The analysis shows that there is a very strong correlation between councils that have scored poorly and a range of negative socio-economic and environmental outcomes,” he said.

An Taisce checked the record of 34 city and county councils using several factors including the percentage of planning decisions appealed to An Bord Pleanála reversed, vacant housing stock, one-off housing and land rezoned.

The association, known as the National Trust for Ireland, called for an independent planning regulator, free from political pressure.

The report, State of the Nation: Ireland’s Planning System 2000-2011, gave four councils a C — South Dublin, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Galway City and Fingal — while 13 got a D grade and eight received an E grade. Five received an F grade — Mayo, Galway County, Cavan, Carlow, and Waterford County — while four councils received an F- grade — Donegal, Roscommon, Leitrim, and Kerry.

An Taisce said the problems experienced in Donegal were symptomatic of the wider issues also identified in Roscommon Leitrim and Kerry. No council achieved an A or B grade.

Here is how An Taisce ranked the councils from highest to lowest, with scores based on the organisation’s own points system using eight criteria, with a maximum of 272 points:

* Grade C — South Dublin, 200 points, 74%; Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, 199, 73%; Galway City, 190, 70%; Fingal, 185, 68%.

* Grade D — Meath, 167, 61%; Wicklow, 167, 61%; Kildare, 163, 60%; Cork City, 157, 58%; Dublin City, 153, 56%; Limerick County, 152, 56%; Offaly, 150, 55%; Limerick City, 144, 53%; South Tipperary, 139, 51%; Westmeath, 134, 49%; Laois, 131, 48%; Louth, 123, 45%; North Tipperary, 122, 45%.

* Grade E — Waterford City, 120 points, 44%; Cork County, 118, 43%; Kilkenny, 115, 42%; Longford, 106, 39%; Sligo, 102, 38%; Clare, 100, 37%; Monaghan, 94, 35%; Wexford, 94, 35%.

* Grade F — Waterford County, 88 points, 32%; Carlow, 85, 31%; Cavan, 83, 31%; Galway County, 83, 31%; Mayo, 82, 30%.

* Grade F- — Kerry, 70, 26%; Leitrim, 60, 22%; Roscommon, 44, 16%; Donegal, 32, 12%.

An Taisce called on Environment Minister Phil Hogan to restart the independent inquiries into planning matters in seven councils which were suspended in favour of an internal review branded “scarcely credible” by the organisation.

The report warned about the link between bad planning and higher rates of residential vacancy including ghost estates, population decline and emigration, lower house prices and significant water pollution.

Mr Stanley-Smith said the Celtic Tiger property bubble was as much to do with poor planning policy as reckless lending.

“If there wasn’t lax planning where would the people have got planning permission to seek the loans from which they went out in billions looking for.

“Lax planning has caused as much of a problem in this country as lax financial regulation. If there hadn’t been lax planning there could not have been a property bubble.” Mr Stanley Smith said that based on the population figures, the lands rezoned and the permissions granted, the authorities in Donegal might as well not be planning at all.

Among other recommendations the report called for a radical overhaul of local government in Ireland beginning with a cull of councils — down from the 88 city and county authorities and the 54 town or borough councils to about 25 local authorities catering for 200,000 people.

An Taisce said it would support a site value tax, similar to the scheme in Denmark, to ultimately replace the €100 household charge.

The association also claimed it had been marginalised during the Celtic Tiger years but highlighted that it made submissions on about 3% out of 450,000 planning applications lodged during the decade. Some 80% of the appeals it made were upheld by An Bord Pleanála. However, council chiefs in Donegal accused An Taisce of bias.

The county council claimed An Taisce was prejudiced against rural and peripheral regions after it was given an F- grade for housing development in the latter half of the Celtic Tiger.

The report also found massive flaws in various elements of planning policy and implementation. Among the errors was ignoring the National Spatial Strategy, leading to development sprawl the report said had created a “dangerously fossil fuel dependent society” that was the second most oil dependent country in the EU.

Published in 2002, the strategy was, in the words of the An Taisce study, “the way things were supposed to be”: a plan-led approach to the development of the country. It was a blueprint for avoiding urban sprawl, with regional gateways developing in coordination with a national strategy.

According to the report, the strategy “has been allowed to completely fail and must be reviewed with clear forward-looking evidence-based policy choices”.

The report notes that in the National Spatial Strategy — Outlook & Review 2010, published by the Department of the Environment, development had become more dispersed and fragmented, “with greater distances between where people live and work”.

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