There is much poorly informed media commentary blaming the lack of housing supply on overly restrictive planning regulations.
Let’s be clear. Our planning regulations are the lightest in Europe, and yet we have this problem of lack of supply.
Within this uninformed commentary lies a groundless but popular narrative, that planning is holding up the supply of housing, most particularly through the restriction on building heights in our cities. Irritatingly, as DIT Housing Lecturer Lorcan Sirr points out regularly, it is one that is not being openly refuted by our government.
In fact, allowing taller buildings will not help at all. For starters, they usually take too long to deliver. But there are bigger issues. Tall buildings are primarily a design issue. The real question is do we want them or even need them?
The Dublin City Development Plan for the period 2016–2022 came into effect on 21 October last. These milestones usually go by with little fanfare, yet the plan is the blueprint for the development of the city for the next six years and beyond.
The new development plan is quite balanced and nuanced on the matter of heights. It envisages clusters of tall buildings at strategic nodes around the city, particularly the docklands and around major transport hubs such as Heuston Station.
This is a good thing. Tall buildings, in architectural and urbanist terms, can have a big role in creating identity, structure and a sense of place.
Clustering tall structures at strategic locations around the city, as the city council proposes, makes sense. These locations are opportunity areas, and how we develop them is critical to building a sustainable city for everyone.
For the remainder of the city centre, heights are restricted to 28m (seven to nine storeys, depending on use and design) to protect the surrounding fabric and heritage.
The historic city centre is hugely important both economically and culturally. It is part of our urban heritage and identity. The city council is correct to recognise this.
These are prosperous and sustainable cities with performing property markets. It is good that they are not afraid to protect their medieval heritage (something Dublin shares with them).
In suburban areas, building heights are cut back by the council to 16m (usually a maximum of four to five storeys, again depending on their purpose and how they are designed).
This is a really sensitive issue, and since many of us live in low-rise areas, we don’t want obtrusive towers overlooking and impeding our privacy. There might be a case for sensitively designed landmark structures in some of the urban villages and maybe at transport hubs, but more for “place-making” purposes than anything else.
Exceptions are allowed where the council prepares a Local Area Plan or other place-making scheme. It is hugely important that the city council invests fulsomely in meaningful public consultation in any such designs.
Good place-making implies a lot of things – proper public participation, very good design quality, provision of amenities and integrated planning. It is an understatement to say that we have not been very good at this in the past, but it is the future of planning if we want to survive at all.
Ironically, where planning permission for some of the tallest buildings in the city has been given, developers are not even taking it.
The North Lotts & Grand Canal Dock SDZ Planning Scheme permits U2 and Harry Crosbie to build 22-storey towers, architecturally framing the most dramatic gateway to the city, on either side of the Liffey Quays. But the U2 Tower is out of the ground and will only be 18 storeys.
It is not surprising that developers are building below their permitted height. Tall buildings are expensive, with low floor-to-building ratios. Some say they can even be used as an indicator of an over-heating property market – not quite what we are experiencing right now – and this is probably true.
What the city needs is higher densities, but in the right places and well designed. Economists, in particular, tend to conflate high rise with high density. This is not the case.
A good local example of what he is talking about is Ballymun, where the tall buildings were demolished. The new Ballymun, not only has higher densities, it also boasts really lovely parks and streets, well worth a visit. This is “density done well”.
Let’s repeat it again: our planning restrictions are the lightest in Europe and yet we have this problem of lack of housing supply.
To understand the real problem perhaps we should look to finance (the clouds of the 2008 economic crash still shadow us) and an over-reliance on private initiative to deliver what is essentially a social good.