Every year, Tom Phillips puts up a slide of Dublin’s docklands for his students in UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy. 

Phillips, an adjunct associate professor, asks his class to identify where is Capital Docks, Ireland’s tallest residential tower, at just 22-storeys. 

“Most of them can’t find it,” Phillips said. “It is not evident because it is not very big. The very place we should be building tall buildings is Dublin’s docklands, but we’re not.” 

About a week ago, Phillips watched as developer Johnny Ronan’s plan for two high-rise towers in Dublin’s docklands was turned down by An Bord Pleanála (ABP). 

Phillips was an advisor to Ronan on the building as part of his full-time job as managing director of Tom Phillips + Associates, a planning advisory business he founded in 2002.

Ronan had hoped to build 1,005 apartments in three towers, ranging from 45 storeys to 14-storeys on a site marked Special Development Zone, meaning it is land the state has designated as important to be developed. 

ABP said it would have given Ronan’s project called Waterfront South Central permission as it believed it complied with national planning guidelines. But ABP felt forced to turn it down because of height limits specified in the local SDZ plan. “It is the softest refusal you could get,” Phillips said. 

He said the state’s SDZ plans were outdated and on average 12 years old. The planning scheme for the Docklands SDZ where the Waterfront project is located was written in 2013, at a time when Ireland was considered a financial basket case and the prospect of developers having the money to build taller buildings felt very distant.

“Stuck in a time warp”

“If you are outside an SDZ you are automatically upgraded when new changes come in,” he explained. “But if you are inside an SDZ you are stuck in a time warp. The result, in this case, is that 1,000 residential units are not getting built when we need them.”

Phillips said as a result, planning in Dublin city was riven with contradictions. “Look at what is happening with Castleforbes (a site in Dublin 1, being developed by Glenveagh). They have planning permission for an 18-storey building.” 

Tom Phillips: “It is very difficult to make changes to an SDZ without going through a huge process.” Photo: Bryan Meade

“They are outside the SDZ so Dublin City Council has no problem with that, yet 200 metres away, DCC takes Johnny Ronan and Salesforce to court when they want to bring a building from 9 to 11 storeys. It makes no sense.”

Another slide Phillips shows his students every year is of a Luas moving through empty fields in Dublin. “There are five stops for the Luas near Cherrywood but it only stops twice as there is nothing to stop at,” he explained. “This is an infrastructurally-led scheme but much of it hasn’t been developed.” Phillips said this wasn’t the fault of the developer of the land around Cherrywood, called Hines, which was very experienced internationally. “The difficulty is, it is very difficult to make changes to an SDZ without going through a huge process,” he said. 

“If you look at Cherrywood from an aerial view you can see that more development is around the SDZ than internally because of this. The government has designated all these SDZs but they are doing nothing to make them easier to develop. It is all hidden in plain sight.”


A combination of contradictions, dysfunction, litigation, and lack of leadership have created the housing crisis facing Ireland today. Phillips has worked for 32 years in the industry, advising many of the country’s biggest investors on developments. 

His advice has helped shape modern development in Ireland working on guiding many large and complex projects through the planning process. These range from the 73-acre Grangegorman Campus in Dublin 7 centred around the new Technical University Dublin (formerly the various DIT sites); to Project Opera, a 14-storey tower planned for Limerick; and the Grange, a 500-apartment mixed-use complex in Stillorgan, County Dublin. 

Phillips has a diverse range of experiences, and over the decades he has worked with most of the big players in both the private and public sectors. 

Yet he is, he admits, “totally frustrated” at the current unpredictable nature of Irish planning where, in the midst of a housing crisis, it has become ever more difficult to get homes to build. 

As a result, he has written a 172-page report entitled SHDs and SDZzz – fast-track planning and other oxymorons in Ireland.

It is a compelling and damning read that examines both the old way of doing things through SDZs and the new Strategic Housing Developments (SHDs), which the state brought in in 2017 with the intention of speeding up the delivery of housing projects of 100 units or more. 

His report explains in forensic detail just how badly things have gone wrong in Ireland creating an unprecedented housing crisis.  

“There is so much opinion presented as fact when it comes to planning,” Phillips said. “I wanted to just look at what the actual facts are.”

Phillips looks at every SDZ, noting they were put in place on average 12 years ago, and in one case 20 years ago – when the needs of Ireland were very different. 

“Circa 45,000 housing units are approved for these sites, but only 6,000 units are built or under construction,” he finds. “Six SDZs (55 per cent) have no units built nor under construction.”

Phillips also looks at the record of SHDs in delivering new homes at scale in the face of increasing objections. He finds that 16 per cent of the first 250 SHD decisions have been judicially reviewed, meaning objectors have gone to the High Court to challenge development. 

Once objectors got to the High Court, they have won in 92 per cent of cases, sending projects back to the drawing board. Phillips said the use of judicial review to overturn SHDs was accelerating as “88 per cent of successful SHD judicial reviews have come in or after 2020,” he said. “More SHD units have been ‘quashed’ by judicial review (circa 7,000) than have been ‘delivered’ by SDZs (circa 6,000).”

“For an instrument brought in to deliver homes, mostly, only c. 6,000 of the proposed c 45,000 units have been delivered in SDZs, whereas SHDs, which have been heavily criticised have permitted c. 48,000 units in one-seventh of the time SDZs have been facilitated.”

Phillips said in the wake of the last financial crash there had been “risk,” because developers found it hard to raise finance for projects in Ireland when it was in an EU/IMF bailout. 

But now he said the biggest worry for developers was “planning risk.”

“It is not a case of just getting planning permission,” he explained. “It is a case of waiting 8 weeks (when building SHDs) to see if anyone is going to judicially review you.”

Phillips said it was remarkable how quickly the state could react in a “knee-jerk” fashion to negative articles about co-living schemes, a small part of the housing market. But it was allowing so many judicial reviews to go ahead, leading to the blocking or delaying the delivery of thousands of homes. 

“Co-living is a minuscule part of the SHD story,” he said. “The state can change the rules for it quickly... but not do anything about the glaringly obvious issue of judicial review which is stopping so many housing developments in this country.”

“We argue the need for the retention of an improved SHD process; the revocation of non-performing SDZs; and prompt responses to the shortcomings of planning legislation unearthed by the exponential growth of judicial review procedures,” Phillips said. 

“One would be mistaken to assume that, unless the process is re-examined, the forensic level of scrutiny applied to SHD judicial review proceedings will not spread like a contagion to other forms of development.”

Phillips said adding judicial interpretation into the mix for planning was creating huge uncertainty for developers, making it harder for them to raise finance. 

He said that in some cases, judicial reviews were winning or being launched based on minor arguments like the dimensions of underground piling not being exactly specified or the incorrect breed of bat being referred to in an area. 

“It is like the number of angels on the head of a pin,” Phillips said. “It is not relevant stuff that doesn’t matter at a time when we really need houses. We are going in ever-decreasing circles tying ourselves up in knots in the courts rather than delivering new homes.”

Phillips said an issue was the “churn of housing ministers,” which meant that despite them wanting to do well, they weren’t there long enough to make much of an impact. “We need a proper housing commission,” Phillips suggested. “It should combine the private and the public sector to work together to solve this problem. Neither side can do it by themselves.”

A commission, he said, would help to depoliticise housing and encourage politicians to work towards solutions rather than fighting. “More weight is being put on the ability to frustrate development rather than provide it,” Phillips said.  

47 objections by TDs and Senators

There were 47 objections made by TDs and Senators to the first 250 SHD decisions, according to his report. 

These were split between all parties with independents accounting for 23 per cent of objections; Fianna Fáil (19 per cent) and Fine Gael (17 per cent). Next came People Before Profit (11 per cent); Sinn Féin (nine per cent) and Green (nine per cent). Labour and the Social Democrats accounted for a further 6 per cent each.

Phillips said the Land Development Agency, while doing its best, was only part of the solution. It wasn’t big enough to solve the entire problem. “You need private sector developers to build and you need local councils to build too,” he said. 

“I find it bizarrely ironic that Dublin City Council – which hasn’t built much social housing for numerous years – is spending its time judicially reviewing An Bord Pleanála in the courts trying to hold up schemes that will deliver social housing. It is like a bad joke.” 

“How can a public body take a case against another public body to score points that won’t lead to a single house being built in a housing crisis?” he asked.

Tom Phillips: "“Housing policy should be driven by what are the requirements of today’s 23-years-olds." Photo: Bryan Meade

Another issue identified by Phillips was the contradictory approaches to Cork City Council versus Dublin City Council, with taller buildings finding it easier to get support on sites near the River Lee than along the River Liffey in the capital.

In Cork, he noted that An Bord Pleanála had granted permission for a 34-storey hotel on Custom House Street, while in Dublin, Ronan’s Waterfront project was blocked “not due to some inherent design issue, but due to the perceived ‘sanctity’ of SDZs.”


Tom Phillips said that the debate around housing tended to be between people over the age of 40, while people much more impacted by the crisis in their 20s and 30s were not heard. 

“My generation is stopping my children’s generation from getting housing,” Phillips said. “My eldest daughter is 21. We need to look at housing through the eyes of a 23-year-old.” 

“Housing policy should be driven by what are the requirements of today’s 23-years-olds. They want to get married, form partnerships, have children etc. the same way we did..."

"But my daughter’s generation, as the ESRI recently found, are the first generation to feel worse off than their parents and the main reason for this is high rents and lack of housing.” 

“If you have a vested interest in blocking a project you should be exposed to the cost of taking a judicial review,” Phillips suggested. 

“The people taking judicial reviews in many cases don’t seem to think of their own children or their neighbours' children who are being denied the ability to live in the same area that they grew up in. If we don’t do something now about housing, we are shutting out entire generations.”

Further reading

Home truths: Darragh O’Brien on scaling up, battling local authorities and what institutional investors can’t do

Stephen Kinsella: The social physics of housing