When it comes to planning reform, the first question isn’t how to do it but whether to do it. Is the planning system, in fact, an impediment to housing delivery? It is not a settled question. There are learned and experienced people on both sides of the debate over the impact of the planning system on housing affordability and infrastructure.
With the new Planning and Development Bill, which passed cabinet this week and has begun to move through the Oireachtas, the government has come down on the side of the planning sceptics. The Bill’s goal is to improve clarity, certainty, and consistency in the Irish planning system.
But having decided the planning system needs reform, the government has stopped short. This Bill is not radical. Of the seven principles that have guided it, the first is “avoidance of unnecessary change.”
The Bill is less about fixing the system than tweaking it, and resolving some of its most pressing problems. There are measures aimed at reducing the likelihood of successful judicial reviews, and at speeding up the process.
Something notable for its absence is any reference to international best practices. This is typical. The Irish housing system is prone to navel-gazing.
Labour Senator Rebecca Moynihan, who Sean spoke to as part of his piece on the new Bill, made the same point: “If we’re going to go to this hassle, we should implement best practice internationally. We shouldn’t just go with what the Brits do, and update that.”
What might best practice look like? Well, Ireland and the UK’s planning systems are unusual by international standards. In Ireland and the UK, development is illegal by default, until it is specifically approved by a planning official. In other countries, developments are presumed to be legal once they comply with specific rules that are laid down in advance. Ireland and the UK are also notable for having some of the worst housing shortages in the developed world.
This would be a big change. An army of planners, whose job currently is to issue planning permissions, would have to be redeployed. It’s a fight the government chose not to start.
It’s not just citizens who are angry at the status quo. Brian Moran is managing director of Hines Ireland, a large multinational property developer. He told Sean: “When I presented the Irish business to Hines senior leadership in London this year, it was pointed out that Ireland’s is the worst planning system Hines operates in. And Hines operates in 220 systems around the world.”
When the coalition government was formed in 2020, it would have been clear that it was going to live or die based on its record on housing.
Now, the government has identified the planning system as an impediment to housing delivery. The Planning and Development Bill has just begun its journey through the Oireachtas.
Even if you assume that it’s a great Bill that will achieve exactly what it intends, you have to ask why it has taken so long? The coalition has been in power for two and a half years. It’s a long time to diagnose the problem. Especially since the problems with the planning system have been well-ventilated.
The Bill will need to go through the Dáil and that will take time. Then there will be a long delay before secondary legislation is passed to give the law force. Based on the experience of the 2000 planning Act, it could be four years after the act is passed before it’s fully implemented. Then there is the building timeline.
The point is that this Bill won’t feed through to new homes and lower prices for many years, if ever. If the coalition and the Minister hoped to benefit from it, it should have been one of its first priorities.
If housing is an emergency, this Bill doesn’t have the feel of an emergency intervention.
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