For five years, Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, says he’s pushed for Dublin City Council to build 19 houses at Beech Hill in Donnybrook.
“We finally got funding from the minister last June, and we haven’t even gone to planning yet,” he says, with disbelief in his voice.
But what’s the hold up?
Lacey puts it down to the public procurement process that the council has to follow, and the layers of bureaucracy imposed as part of this by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
The council has to be satisfied with an architect and the procurement, but then the Department of Environment must also be satisfied with the procurement, explains Lacey. Then if the architect is given the go ahead and draws up plans, he continues, they go before the council and any changes made must go back to the department for approval.
“This is a very simple design by the way,” he says. “And it’s on a site owned by Dublin City Council.”
Ten months on from when funding was approved, he expects planning permission will be submitted in the next month or so and hopes the homes might be completed by spring of 2017.
Could the Council Manage?
Known for being critical of the Department of the Environment, Lacey describes it as dysfunctional, incompetent, obstructive and inefficient.
He blames it for this lengthy planning process and says it interferes in local government too much – even at very trivial levels.
This double-checking is to ensure that public money is spent correctly, but could the council handle it alone to speed up the planning process for houses during the current crisis? Lacey thinks so.
“The solution would be to give local councils both the power and responsibility to carry out its functions and then when people don’t carry out those functions to have a penalty in place,” he says.
He points out that before domestic rates were abolished in 1977, Dublin City Council could spend this significant amount of money as they pleased and managed just fine when it came to funding and approving housing projects.
“But since rates were abolished, we get block grants of money from the department and they largely decide how we spend it. I wouldn’t mind if they were any good at it,” he says.
Problems for Approved Housing Bodies
Karen Murphy, a director of policy at the Irish Council for Social Housing – an umbrella group for housing associations – knows all about this to-ing and fro-ing that Lacey is talking about.
The process is different for different funding schemes, she says.
Taking the Capital Assistance Scheme as an example, she explains the approval process. “It’s quite detailed and can be a lengthy approach depending on the project,” she says.
First, a housing body puts forward a project, which needs approval from the local authority involved and then the Department of the Environment. Then it can proceed through the process.
“Basically there’s a four-stage approval process which goes through both the local authority and the Department of Environment, after [a project] has been put together by an AHB (Approved Housing Body), who has a design team – it is quite a well-scrutinised process,” chuckles Murphy.
She says these four stages always take months, but can go on much longer.
Murphy finds that sometimes the biggest delay is in the initial approval of projects. Last year, for example, housing bodies had a lot of difficulty with this.
The Department of Environment issued an open call for proposals last March, with a deadline for submissions in April. Approval didn’t come through until the very end of July, says Murphy.
“That was a significant delay before you even get near the four-stage approval process,” she says. “There is some scope for streamlining, particularly in relation to how the call for proposals is handled.”
Because of the delay, a lot of the units identified by housing bodies for purchase in March were gone by July. “We did manage to replace them, but it was a duplication of effort, cost and time. All because we were waiting for approval,” she says.
Room for Improvement
The Irish Council for Social Housing is in discussions with the department to reduce delays where possible.
Murphy hopes deadlines for authorities’ responses to submissions could be reduced to four weeks. “We’re looking at those kinds of time frames,” she says.
She also hopes for some scope for housing bodies when it comes to small developments. Local authorities only need to go through one stage for developments smaller than five units.
“We would like to see that brought in for AHBs. That would be a great help,” she says.
She acknowledges the department’s efforts to date. The four-stage Capital Assistance Scheme was once a nine-stage process, and this streamlining was warmly welcomed.
“But we still have it going through the local authority and the department. And it’s not always clear who is doing what exactly,” she says.
Does the local authority architect glance at it or go through it with a fine-toothed comb? she asks. And what about the department?
“I think that can cause confusion and delay, because they don’t even really know what their role is,” she says. “But I do know that within the department they are trying to address this and they have have looked at streamlining measures.”
Similar Issues for Private Developers
Confusion within authorities can cause problems for private developers too.
Last year the Department of Environment changed the regulations for the allocation of social housing for developments.
One post on BRegs Forum, a website for sharing information on building regulations, from January, explores some of the possible effects this has regarding time delays.
According to this article, it would appear that making an agreement on social housing provisions before lodging a planning application, instead of after, leads to delays in lodging it.
This is because it takes time to get everyone around the table to make the agreement. And if planning permission isn’t granted, discussions have to start again.
Peter Stafford, director of Property Industry Ireland, says it’s an issue that’s raised with him often.
The new guidelines caused a lot of confusion initially, but now, from speaking with planners, he understands that one of the biggest problems is that different authorities are interpreting the requirements in different ways.
So halfway through the application process a developer can discover they’ve been using a different definition to the local authority, says Stafford.
But he says this can easily be overcome once everyone uses the same definitions. He suggests that the department should issue some guidelines with these definitions to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“It’s just a little bit confusing when you have 34 planning authorities, each potentially using language in their own way,” he says.
Other bureaucratic issues raised with him are struggles to get pre-planning meetings with local authorities – though he says Dublin City Council generally has a good reputation for meeting with planners at an early stage.
However, Stafford argues that there should be a central office, particularly one for all of Dublin, which has the sole purpose of checking paperwork for planning applications.
It can be difficult to get a meeting with local authorities to go through all the paperwork, but then a single error in six or seven volumes of documents can make the application invalid and the process has to start again.
Errors like a misplaced map, a small typographical error or the wrong font can cause this.
One developer Stafford spoke to yesterday said seven weeks into the review of his planning application, it was deemed invalid because one of six volumes was missing a photocopy of a map.
He says that a central office to revise paperwork and ensure that its valid would speed up the planning process significantly.
“The criteria would be exactly the same,” he stresses. “It just means that once you submit the paperwork, the only thing they’re judging your planning permission on is the quality of the development, rather than the quality of your paperwork.”
Then the planning authority would have eight weeks to simply decide whether to grant or deny planning permission. He says this certainty within the bureaucratic system would save thousands in professional fees, prevent delays and create savings in financing.
“The bottom line is you have to balance ensuring public money is spent appropriately and, on the other hand, minimising any delays at any stage because of the urgency and scale of the crisis we’re in,” says Murphy.
“There are some things which significantly add to the length of the process, about which we can’t do anything,” says Simon Brooke of voluntary housing association, Clúid. “Like the public procurement process: there’s nothing to be done about that and overall they’re a good thing. There are other elements, within administration,” he says.
Clúid submitted a number of recommendations to the Department of the Environment to help to increase housing association output. First on the list was administration of Payment and Availability agreements.
Once the department agrees to fund a social housing scheme provided by a housing body, it issues approval to the relevant local authority, who makes the Payment and Availability agreement with the body.
“It is Clúid’s experience that the process of making these agreements is subject to very significant delays of up to 16 weeks and on occasions longer,” states the submission.
The document states these delays are due to local authority staff not being familiar with this work, staff shortages and varying practices between local authorities.
Though Brooke says Dublin City Council is pretty efficient, he still suggests the best plan of action would be to centralise this part of the process within the department.
Property Industry Ireland also has a submission and plans to put it to the next government. It calls for a minister for housing, infrastructure and planning.
Stafford believes that one minister looking at these three issues would lead to getting planning right, which would lead getting housing right.
“The volume of the houses that will get built in 2017 and 2018 will be determined by how responsive the planning system is in 2016,” he says. “If you eliminate bureaucracy now and you put certainty in the planning system now, you will see a lot more development on site next year.”