Last week, I wrote about our frustrating inability to build new places that are as nice as old ones. 

It’s been studied and quantified. Pedestrians tend to hurry past new buildings. And all things being equal, they pay more to live in old neighbourhoods.

Why are new developments often unpopular?

I wrote that differing aesthetic tastes between architects and the public is probably a factor. Architects tend to like buildings that are clean, sculptural, and innovative. Ordinary people like traditional forms, and neighbourhoods made up of variations within an overall pattern. 

But it’s unfair to pin all the blame on architects. They are cogs in the system. There are bigger forces at play. 

In Ireland, planners take a lot of flak. To conservationists, planners are too permissive and too inconsistent. To developers, planners are “inflexible and outdated”.

The planners have a hard job. In our planning system, a lot depends on their judgment. So there’s a lot on their shoulders. Added to that, the directions they get from the top change from government to government, and city plan to city plan. 

The upshot is a system where individual planners have a lot of power, responsibility and discretion. As Paul Kearns, a former Dublin City planner wrote, 

“Every developer and architect knows that the singular most important question to determine the likely success of any application is not the “where”… or the “what”… the “when”… but the “who” – the actual individual planner dealing with the application.” 

The inconsistency and uncertainty of the Irish planning system is a problem. Conservationists hate it for granting applications seemingly willy-nilly. Developers hate uncertainty because it makes it hard for them to plan their production pipeline and bid for sites. 

In theory, the individual planners’ job is simply to apply the rules as set out in the city development plan. But the rules in the development plans are maddeningly non-specific. The Dublin City Plan 2016-22 defines zones with terms like “appropriate scale”, “distinctive spatial identity”, “increased density”, “coherent structure”, “due regard for the existing form”. 

But what is appropriate? What’s distinctive? What’s increased? What’s coherent? What’s due regard? It’s down to planners to decide what these words means in – excuse the pun – concrete terms.

The European system

Our planning system comes from our common law legal system. In common law, with its principle of equity, a lot of emphasis is put on the common sense of the judge – and the planner. 

By contrast, European countries’ legal systems aren’t derived from common law. Theirs is a Napoleonic system. In a Napoleonic legal system, there’s less emphasis on common sense interpretation of the law, and greater emphasis on the specificity of the law itself.

So the French, Austrian, German, Spanish and Italian planning systems are more rigid and more specific. Planners’ interpretation of the rules is less important than the rules themselves. The rules themselves are less open to interpretation.

In France for example, as in Ireland, cities are divided into zones. Then there’s a rule book called the règlement, with a chapter for each zone. Local authorities have increasing autonomy in writing those, but the chapters typically each have the same fifteen subheadings. Note how objective the criteria are. They are not open to interpretation:

  1. Unauthorised land use
  2. Conditional land use
  3. Site access requirements
  4. Utilities provision requirements
  5. Minimum building plot size
  6. Distance between building and edge of street
  7. Distance between building and edge of plot
  8. Distance buildings on the same plot
  9. Building footprint area
  10. Maximum building height including setbacks
  11. Building exteriors (materials, form…)
  12. Parking requirements
  13. External spaces (free spaces, playgrounds, gardens, plants…)
  14. Environmental performance
  15. Infrastructure requirements

If you want to extend your house or build apartments in your garden, you check the règlement, and the règlement tells you. So there’s no kvetching about a neighbour, or competitor, getting planning permission that was denied to you. No question of whether money influenced the process. And the same rules apply to ordinary people and to big developers.

When the rules are clear and binding, then of course the writing of the rulebook gets more important. This brings planning into the political arena where it belongs. And it invigorates local politics. Did you know, for example, that in the latest Dublin City Development Plan, only three per cent of the city is zoned high-density city centre? That seems like something citizens should be aware of.

With its rules over building exteriors and proportions, the French system brings questions of form and beauty into the centre of the planning debate. As Ruadhri Tullock points out, the mayor of the Paris suburb of Le Plessis Robinson has been re-elected four times since 1989 on his publicly popular, planning-led agenda. 

So the French system prioritises development that is generally popular, rather than just popular with developers (who often don’t care about the public realm) or architects (who at times have different ideas to the public over what makes for great design).


A more specific, code-based planning system that’s led by the public should result in better quality, more popular developments. 

But that’s not all! 

Ireland’s open-to-interpretation system is an impediment to getting homes built, which drives up housing costs. That’s because, if you want to build homes in Ireland, you can’t know in advance whether you’re going to get planning or what form the planning will take. 

A consequence of this is that home-building is not a game for the small-scale developer. A planning decision that goes the wrong way could wipe them out. And ordinary homeowners — who might find themselves with a big garden suitable for apartments — don’t have the tools to navigate the complex and uncertain planning system. Fewer small scale developers means fewer houses getting built, and higher prices. 

That’s why home builders in Ireland and the UK tend to be huge companies like Cairn, Glenveagh or Persimmon. They have big inventories of land – what are called land banks – to help hedge against the uncertainty of the planning system. The land banks ensure that all their other resources – money, machines, workers – don’t lie idle if a planning decision goes against the firm.

It’s commonly argued that land-banking is a form of speculation by the big house builders, a way of pushing up prices. As Anthony Breach points out, if this were true, you’d expect smaller house builders’ share of overall construction to go up, as big developers grew their hoard. But that’s not what you see. 

What you see is, in countries with a common law heritage – where planning rules are open to interpretation – there are fewer homes built by small builders. The following chart shows the proportion of new homes built by small builders. The light pink lines are countries with a common law system (albeit, the US uses a version of continental-style zoning in most states).

Source: The National Custom and Self Build Association, 2020

You’ll note that the countries where small builders play a big part — Austria, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Poland, Japan — are known for affordable housing. The more certainty around building rules, the easier it is for small builders to get involved, the more houses get built, and the lower are housing costs.

Planners, architects, developers and politicians are doing their best within the system we have. But the system isn’t working well. New development is unpopular and often ugly. And of course, housing costs are far too high. There’s a better way.