FEWER THAN 40% of all the housing developments approved under a special fast-track planning scheme have actually begun construction.
Officials in the Department of Housing warned that the slow rate of development could “undermine” the entire plan, a key part of the government’s Rebuilding Ireland plan.
Under the scheme, developments of more than 100 units can go directly to An Bord Pleanála for planning with a decision made within 16 weeks.
However, there is no obligation on the developer to proceed immediately with construction and concerns are being raised that the system could be used to simply increase property values.
Records obtained by Noteworthy, TheJournal.ie’s new investigative journalism platform, show that in February just 10 out of 27 developments given fast-track planning had begun.
A senior official wrote in an internal email:
“[This] arguably undermines the purpose of having a fast-track planning process if there is a subsequent delay in the actual commencement of schemes and delivery of housing units.”
The officials said they would need to keep close track of developments as a report on the scheme was due before the Oireachtas in October of this year.
The official wrote: “I wonder could we find out the reasons why certain schemes have not yet commenced – is there a normal time lag between grant of permission and commencement?”
Up For Sale
In at least one case, a large development in Dublin, the land given fast-track planning was subsequently put up for sale.
Developers Marlet were given permission to develop more than 400 apartments in Cabra in March 2018.
This permission came just 14 weeks after they applied for fast-track planning, and two weeks within the time An Bord Pleanála has to make such decisions.
However, in September, the site was put up for sale with an asking price of €32 million. The property remains listed as available for purchase on the website of estate agents Savills.
Internal records from the Department of Housing explained how development in general had been slow despite the fast-track nature of the scheme.
Emails said that work had begun on ten sites in the period between May 2018 and February 2019. Of those, only two were considered to be at an “advanced stage”.
Progress on one scheme however – a Cairn Homes development in Maynooth, Co Kildare – was described as “remarkable” by an official.
Niall Cussen, principal adviser on planning in the Department of Housing wrote: “Finding out why that might not always be the case would be very useful.”
In a later email, he said it appeared the majority of the developments that were “non-starters” were owned by four companies.
He said they should be contacted individually but it was his understanding that “a few have to do with reshaping development portfolios”.
The strategic housing scheme was introduced in June 2017 by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy to speed up provision of housing and student accommodation.
The temporary arrangements were designed to create “streamlining efficiencies in the planning system” according to Mr Murphy.
“We have to make it easier and quicker to get homes built and that is why the action I took … is necessary and welcome,” he said on announcement of the scheme.
Lorcan Sirr, a senior lecturer in housing at the Technological University of Dublin, said the effectiveness of the scheme was entirely dependent on developers.
He said: “There appears to have been a built-in assumption that development would follow a grant of planning permission, which was hopeful at best, naive at worst.
“Applicants have had the benefit of an accelerated planning process – with the knock-on impact on other appeals work in An Bord Pleanála – without the government in several cases getting any benefit.
“In fact, the value-add exercise of getting planning permission without building makes land more expensive and the delivery of housing less likely.”
A Department of Housing spokesman said the purpose of the strategic housing development regime was to “significantly speed up the planning decision-making process”.
He said: “They are temporary arrangements to apply for an initial period of three years, until the end of 2019, with the possibility of an extension of a further two years … subject to a review of its operation and effectiveness.
“While obtaining planning permission is an essential step in any project, there are other factors at play that may impact on the commencement of any project, such as phasing of development (having to complete an existing project before commencing on another) and finances etc.”
He said separate measures like the vacant site levy were available to local authorities to speed up development where sites continued to “remain vacant and undeveloped”.
In a statement, Marlet – whose Cabra site was put up for sale after the granting of planning permission – said: “The strategic housing development initiative is generally working well and we have received a number of planning permissions through it.
“We hope to build up to 800 apartments in 2019 and construction is underway on a number of sites.
“Occasionally, it makes business sense for us to use a site on which planning permission has been granted to raise finance with which to fund our substantial construction activity.
“In doing so, we hope this will facilitate the building out of those sites. Such sales have not been a significant part of our business activity.”