Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Guidelines

10:30 am

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, for taking time out of his exceptionally busy schedule to take this Commencement matter. I represent Limerick city, where the number of apartments being granted planning permission is causing concern among my constituents. What plans does the Minister have to reduce the density guidelines for homes developed outside of Dublin and city centres? Under the 2009 urban guidelines, density levels are between 35 and 50 units per hectare, which results in a large number of apartments in any development. The most recent CSO figures, for quarter 2, show that the number of apartments is now at approximately the same level as that of houses. In quarter 2, some 4,900 applications for houses were approved and 4,700 for apartments, which is an increase of 156% in the number of apartment applications in the past year while the number of housing applications remains more or less static. Will a review be carried out? We want sustainable living.

I speak in particular about where I live, in Castletroy, where it has become an important issue, given the large number of planning applications being submitted. Many apartments, even if they are built, will not be sold and, consequently, many developers do not build them. The cost of developing apartments is approximately 30% higher per unit than that of building a house, whether semi-detached or terraced. Furthermore, many developers cannot secure funding to build apartment blocks and, in many cases, they forward sell them. Such apartments are not starter homes.

While I do not wish to discuss the specifics of planning permission, given that it is a confidential matter, I will outline an example. In Castletroy, there is a development of 332 units, comprising 53 detached houses, 157 semi-detached houses, 91 terraced townhouses, and 32 apartments in a three-storey block. It constitutes a density level of approximately 30 units per hectare. The development is beside a public park and works exceptionally well. The type of living is sustainable and of mixed use. We need to build homes but they need to be starter homes. A number of developments have been initiated nearby, some of which are awaiting a decision while planning permission has been granted for others. The local authority seeks 41 units per hectare. In some cases, where there would have been terraced houses, the local authority has sought increased density by adding apartments but that is not sustainable.

The area of Castletroy is highly populated and, while there is public transport, it needs to be enhanced. There are capacity issues with the level of development as it is. The development in question is highly sustainable, with more than 30 units per hectare, and combines an apartment block, terraced houses, semi-detached houses and some detached houses. By increasing the density requirements from 35 units to 50 per hectare, however, the only development that will be able to get planning permission is an apartment block. That is borne out in the CSO figures, which show that the number of apartments is now similar to that of housing. The number of housing applications granted permission has been static for the past year but it needs to be revisited. High-density buildings are needed in the centre of Limerick, Dublin and other cities. Outside of the city centres, in the suburban areas, account must be taken of what is sustainable.

I ask the Minister to carry out a review of Dublin city and all the other cities. He might take the examples I have given and perhaps the matter can be examined by him and his officials.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It is my first opportunity to speak in the Chamber since it has been refurbished and it is fantastic to be back. I accidentally went to the wrong room because one creates new habits and they stick in one's mind. I have a written reply but, if it is okay with the Senator, I will provide him with a copy and not read it out. I would like to speak more specifically to the matters he addressed, whereas my written reply gives an overview of the general Government view on density.

In light of the more rapid increase in housing delivery than has been the case for a number of years, the Senator wants to ensure that we will build homes in a sustainable way.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is correct.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

He wants to ensure that we build the right types of homes, for the right people, in the right places. It is not just about increasing the supply of any type of home being built but rather about building the right types of homes, for the right people, in the right places. With Project Ireland 2040 and the national planning framework, we have tried to make decisions at a national level as to what that means. We do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past and to condemn future generations to urban sprawl. It is bad for the climate to build further and further away from jobs, schools and hospitals. It will also condemn people to long commutes to the city centre, work and school if we are not able to build more homes closer to the viable infrastructure.

The big question is what the ideal density is. We produce national guidelines and each of the local authorities' development plan should be in line with them. An Bord Pleanála retains the powers to challenge a local plan if it is not in line with national policy. Since the beginning of this year, for the first time ever, there is a national planning regulator. If someone believes that what the local authority is doing in a given area is incorrect, he or she can now appeal to the planning regulator. If someone believes that An Bord Pleanála has done something incorrectly, he or she can tell the planning regulator that he needs to examine the matter. All such additional checks are in place to ensure that people are not allowed to go against good, sustainable planning, and that politicians do not interfere in the process either.It is incumbent on elected officials, including Senators, Deputies and Ministers, to ensure they constantly review and gain understanding of what policy made in a Department means when it is implemented on the ground.

On good dwelling densities per hectare, a hectare is roughly the size of a rugby pitch, to use a comparison with which the people of Limerick would be familiar. In urban areas, there should be a minimum of 50 dwellings per hectare. On how the Government can help drive greater density, some Land Development Agency sites in Dublin will reach 100 dwellings per hectare, which is quite an achievement. That will involve many apartments, which are badly needed in the centre of Dublin. The Senator referred to the increase in apartment building. It is welcome, but we need to see far more. It is not meant to replace the traditional building of houses. We are meant to be doing both. Outside inner city areas, there is a dwelling density of 35 to 50 per hectare or rugby pitch. That is recognised as a good standard for urban areas, not the inner city core. We are aiming for approximately 35 dwellings per hectare in larger towns and fewer than 35 dwellings per hectare in villages and other areas. Those are our aims in terms of good density.

In trying to reach those density requirements, we need to break our thinking that every single home or dwelling on that ruby pitch must be a house. On one site, we can have houses, apartments, duplexes and shared accommodation for the elderly with all the appropriate services such as live-in help and so on. Some housing bodies have done that very effectively, with a particularly good example in County Kilkenny. We are trying to give guidance to local authorities and private developers on a new way of thinking around achieving a density of, for example, 35 to 50 dwellings per hectare in an urban area. Doing so does not mean building only apartments or houses and apartments; it can encompass three-bedroom, semi-detached houses, detached houses, terraced houses, apartments and step-down homes for the elderly on one site.

I have been to Castletroy several times, including once very recently. The density of dwellings per hectare there seems appropriate, but I am happy to go to the site and take a look. I will not interfere with planning permission or anything of the sort and I am not asking to meet the developer or the builder, but I will go the location referred to by the Senator. I have done so in previous instances where people have told me that the densities set out under the guidelines do not work for a particular site. It is incumbent on me to take a look and see whether their claims stack up. I would like to do so in this instance, particularly because I know the area well, and see whether national policies make sense for that site. I commit to doing so.

Home Building Finance Ireland has been operational since the beginning of the year and is helping smaller builders outside cities to secure finance to build homes.

On the viability of our housing stock, it is now more expensive to build homes because we are building them to an A standard. Our social housing homes are the best homes being built in the country and that costs more money. Apartments cost more because of the various things that must be done. In order to increase viability we have made changes to some specifications such as the number of units per core and the need for car parking spaces. Obviously, the latter is unnecessary in a place such as Dublin city centre but would be necessary in other parts of the country. I recognise that it is a challenge. When apartments were built many years ago in parts of Dublin such as Stepaside and other areas beyond the M50, people said that building apartments in such places was crazy because nobody would live in them. Now there are not enough apartments in those areas because infrastructure such as public transport and so on was put in place.

It is important to remember that even in a crisis when people want homes built immediately, the homes we build should stand for 100 years. We must ensure that we are building the right homes in the right places for the right types of people or else we will have more problems in the future. I will visit the site in Castletroy such that I can get a proper understanding of the difficulties to which the Senator refers.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am sorry to have interrupted the Minister but I wanted to ensure the Senator has a chance to respond. The Minister got good value for his money.

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister. I look forward to welcoming him to Castletroy. My perspective on this matter is straightforward: we need to increase density in city centres and we need to have a mix. The problem is that it must be sustainable. Many planning applications that are submitted involve a combination of apartments and terraced townhouses but the local authorities are pushing on density guidelines at national level and the planners are telling developers to increase density which, by definition, means more apartments. That is reflected in the figures published by the Central Statistics Office, which has indicated that the number of apartments being granted permission is equivalent to the number of houses. The number of houses granted permission has not increased in the past year. We need mixed developments with apartments, townhouses, semi-detached houses, detached houses and accommodation for older people. The young families and parents whom I know want their children to be able to afford to buy and to have a choice. The problem is that as density guidelines are so high, in many cases, many planning applications are comprised to a significant extent of apartment blocks that will never be built by the developers. They will build some of the houses. There is not enough housing stock coming on board and that is something at which we need to look. We need to build more homes, but that must be done in a sustainable way. I applaud the work being done by the Minister in terms of driving the number of houses being built, but it must be done in a sustainable way.

I will welcome the Minister to Castletroy and show him the situation on the ground. We can achieve a model that would reduce densities outside Dublin and inner cities while attaining an appropriate density level in a way that is sustainable in the long term in the areas concerned. Local authorities should be given flexibility to make judgment calls regarding applications in specific areas in terms of the sustainability of housing. I thank the Minister for his offer to come to Castletroy specifically to see the planning situation there.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I ask the Minister to keep his reply brief as we are almost out of time.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I share the Senator's vision of sustainable house building. Let us continue the debate on the ground in Castletroy.

Sitting suspended at 11.27 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.