MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Exorcising the devil in the housing details

Even when political will appears to be behind speeding up the delivery of houses, problems
arise in terms of the actual details involved in the provision of housing, writes Michael Clifford

Martin Cullen watered down the legislation to allow cash to be handed over in lieu of housing or sites.

THERE is broad consensus that the best way to tackle the housing crisis in the first instance is supply.

This is the mantra of the government, opposition, construction industry, and agencies involved in housing.

The Government has made a series of announcements in recent weeks about the huge sums of money that are to be invested in social housing. The latest yesterday concerned the provision of an extra 1,000 units.

However, it is now emerging that as far as speeding up the process is concerned, the devil is in the detail. Coughing up the money to get things off the ground is one thing. Ensuring that the building of houses urgently meets demand is a matter that requires diligence and precise application in the engine room of governance.

On Monday it emerged that new minimum apartment sizes introduced last month can’t be built because the smallest permissible rooms would not fit inside. Alan Kelly had hailed the lowering of mimimum sizes as a measure that would speed up the building of apartments at more affordable costs.

The new regime was included in a circular Planning Guidelines on Design Standards for New Apartments issued in December. In the rush to get the thing out — largely in response to pressure from the construction industry — somebody forgot to check the new apartment sizes against national guidelines for minimum bedroom sizes. It turns out that one into the other does not go.

Now in today’s Irish Examiner we reveal that another measure aimed at speeding up supply has hit a different, probably more serious, roadblock. Just last November, Mr Kelly’s department issued a circular giving effect to a new regime in the provision of social housing.

Social housing has been linked to private development since the Planning Act 2000. Part V of that act, which was brought in during Noel Dempsey’s tenure in Environment, instructed that 20% of new developments over a certain size had to be set aside for social and affordable housing. In basic terms, the builder had to hand over one in five homes to a local authority at cost.

The industry was not best pleased at this encroachment on profit, not to mention the knock-on effect of locating social housing in private development. Part V was an excellent provision in terms of planning, both for housing and social cohesion. But it was not good for house prices in these developments and the corresponding profit.

Within a year, the industry had a more malleable figure in charge of the Department of the Environment. Martin Cullen watered down the legislation to allow cash be handed over in lieu of housing or sites. This has the effect of increasing profit for developers, decreasing the provision of social housing, and gifting local authorities with windfalls that were ultimately swallowed in general spending.

Last year, Alan Kelly moved to belatedly put things back on track. He changed the rules to ensure that cash would no longer be accepted, but he also lowered the proportion of social housing from 20% to 10%. He said the changes would produce 4,000 new social housing units over five years.

Now problems have arisen about the circular that accompanied Mr Kelly’s new directive. Local authorities are interpreting the new rules as requiring that the details of Part V be sorted out at an early stage of the planning process.

The circular requires interaction with a whole array of local authority personnel and often others drawn from the private sector, such as valuers, to outline how Part V will be delivered.

“Getting all of those around a table is nigh on impossible,” one developer told the Irish Examiner.

“And one local authority agreed with me and said that I’d have to deal with each one individually. All of that is holding up the process before the planning application even gets under way.”

The Irish Examiner understands that at least five local authorities are now moving forward Part V on the above basis.

The second problem to arise is that the confidential information concerning site values, projected sale prices etc will be placed on record on the planning file. This is commercially sensitive and could provide competitors with a serious advantage in competing for other jobs.

Thirdly, quite often planning permission is granted for less units than were applied for. A developer might be denied his application for 50 houses, but granted it for 40 instead. In such an instance, with adjustments then required for site value and house prices, the process of putting together the Part V element must begin again.

Architect Eoin O’Cofaigh says the interpretation of the circular is “the law of unintended consequences”. Nobody wanted the new process to slow up the delivery of new homes, but that is the outcome of the application of the new rules.

There is no reason why agreement on Part V could not be thrashed out once planning permission was granted. The commencement notice giving the go-ahead for building to begin could easily be contingent on agreement on Part V being reached.

What the whole shambles does illustrate is that even when political will appears to be behind speeding up the delivery of houses, there is a serious requirement for attention to be paid to the devil in the detail.


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