No major change in public policy happens by accident, but rather as a result of lobbying. And so it has proved yet again with the proposed downsizing of apartments in Dublin, with the city planners coming under pressure from a variety of vested interests to reduce standards.

So let’s meet the movers and shakers. Foremost among them is the Construction Industry Federation, led by former Progressive Democrat minister Tom Parlon. The CIF has traditionally represented big builders and developers and “has the ear” of government ministers.

Also lobbying for change in standards is Property Industry Ireland, a division of employers’ lobby group IBEC. It claims that Dublin City Council’s higher specifications for apartment design would “add €76,000 to the cost of a two-bed apartment” in the city.

Garrett Sherry, president of IBEC’s Dublin and Mid-East Regional Executive Committee, wrote in the Irish Times that “These inflated costs are undermining the economic viability of many apartment developments.” He urged city planners to “move to swiftly clear the obstacles” to private sector investment in housing.

Others who have been active in pressing for a relaxation in standards include Brian Moran, an architect-turned-developer, who runs Urban Land Institute (ULI) Ireland, and is also managing director of the Irish operations of Hines, a US-owned investment company active in Dublin.

Hines, which originated in Houston Texas in the late 1950s, opened its Dublin office in March 2011 to “target Irish-owned and banked real estate assets, both in Ireland and abroad” and to exploit opportunities emerging from “de-leveraging” in Ireland, in the way vulture funds do.

The company already has more than €1 billion of retail, office and residential assets under management, including the Bishop’s Square office complex in Lower Kevin Street, the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre, Spencer Dock and the Cherrywood Business Park in south County Dublin.

As chair of ULI Ireland, Moran organised an early morning “roundtable” last April on residential standards and density, innovations in housing design, the accommodation needs of different sectors of the population and “sustainable urban communities”.

“This is an excellent opportunity,” ULI’s notice about the meeting said, “for all those involved in residential development and residential standards in Dublin to contribute their views and hear some of the latest thinking on the subject. It will also form the basis of the ULI Ireland submission to Dublin City Council.”

James Pike, former president of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) and chairman of O’Mahony Pike Architects, was to be there to “share his thinking on changing residential requirements and standards, including some of their recent innovative projects in Ireland and the UK”.

Dublin City Council (DCC) confirmed that representatives of its professional planning staff had been invited to participate in the ULI event. The council itself had also “convened a series of meetings with development interests to assess impediments to housing supply within the city area”.

Current RIAI President Robin Mandal has also been active in putting forward the case for more “flexibility” in apartment design, notably by reducing DCC’s requirement that 85 percent of all apartments in a new block must be dual-aspect – i.e., have windows facing in two directions.

Also at issue is the size of apartments. In 2007, DCC raised minimum permissible sizes to 55 sq m for a one-bedroom apartment, 80 sq m for a two-bed and 100 sq m for a three-bed – significantly higher than the national standards specified by the Department of the Environment.

Minister Alan Kelly and his junior, Paudie Coffey, have also warned local authorities in the Dublin area against adopting “unreasonable or excessive requirements in relation to the standard of housing or ancillary services” that could “impact adversely” on its delivery, according to the Irish Times.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the government’s own Housing Agency entered the fray last October, calling on DCC to reduce its rules on the size of apartments to permit the construction of rental-only units with a floor area of only 40 sq m – similar to the “shoebox flats” of old.

John O’Connor, the agency’s chief executive, reportedly told the Irish Times that he wanted the council to reduce the minimum sizes of all apartments, so as to “kick-start” construction at a time when the city faces a major housing crisis, and make homes more affordable for Dublin’s “young mobile workforce”.

But DCC planner Kieran Rose has warned in a letter to the Irish Times  that reducing standards “will act as a deterrent to us attracting and retaining these highly mobile and skilled workers” – because they would tend to see spacious apartments with good storage as a “quality of life” issue.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if standards are reduced as proposed, it will show that we’ve learned nothing from the boom and bust. But whether city councillors will share that progressive view, or cave in to pressure from the lobbyists, remains to be seen in September.

Frank McDonald is the former environment editor of the Irish Times, and the author of several books, including The Destruction of Dublin (1985), Saving the City (1989), and The Construction of Dublin (2000)....

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