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Back in February, an official at the Department of Housing dropped a quibble in the middle of an email chain, about how Dublin City Council handles requests from landowners and developers to rezone industrial land.
“I think there is a wider problem with these Z6 objectives,” wrote Niall Cussen, a principal officer in the department.
Z6 zonings are mainly industrial, those which the council says must be used to create and protect jobs and enterprise, although there is some wiggle room for homes among other uses as long as they’re not the main event.
There’s an “inflexibility to change where vacant/underutilized”, wrote Cussen. “Its been represented to me quite a few times.”
It’s unclear, though, who made those representations to Cussen, who has a broad range of high-level responsibilities when it comes to national housing policy.
There’s nothing in the lobbying register because those who lobby to influence policy are only obliged to file returns if they contact those who are classed as “designated public officials” – some civil servants at higher levels of government, special advisers, or politicians.
Principal officers such as Cussen don’t fall within that net, raising questions about whether the net should be widened or if, given that it is councillors who sign off on land rezonings, there are already ample checks and enough transparency.
Which officials are considered “designed public officials” was set when the Lobbying Act was introduced in 2015.
It aims to capture who makes decisions or has significant influence around decisions, says Sherry Perrault, the head of lobbying regulation at the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO).
There was some talk at the time of capturing principal officers, too. “But this has not been done,” she says. “I am unaware of any intention to expand the list at present.”
SIPO made a couple of submissions when the act was reviewed by the Department of Public Expenditure in late 2016.
Firstly, that lawmakers consider expanding the list to include senior staff in influential public bodies that are missed at the moment, before extending it to lower levels.
Secondly, that designation of principal officers should be made on a case-by-case basis depending on the delegated authority, it said.
Not all civil servants below assistant secretaries can make decisions. So bringing them under the act “might not be reflective of their authorities of influence”, says Perrault. “Any such expansion should therefore be made on a case by case basis.”
Cussen’s email signature in February had him as a principal officer. The Who Does What website lists him as a principal adviser who has responsibility for leading the development of Ireland’s strategic planning frameworks, overseeing expertise to the planning policy unit and developing wider planning policies and legislative proposals.
He also advises the department on planning matters in general, manages the forward planning unit, and the department planning advisers, liaises and takes part in cross-departmental groups to address housing-supply difficulties, and oversees the implementation of part of the government’s flagship housing policy, Rebuilding Ireland.
His job also includes overseeing local-authority plans, and advising the minister in relation to his powers under section 31 of the Planning and Development Acts, which allows the minister to override local authorities when they design their development plans.
The Department of Housing Press Office didn’t respond to a query about possible concerns that limits on who is a designated public official might mean a gap in transparency around lobbying for policy around land and zoning issues.
The press office also didn’t directly address a request for a list of the people who had made representations to Cussen about this issue of rezoning industrial land.
As chief planner, Cussen “would interact with literally hundreds of people every month and year, including professional counterparts in local authorities as well as customers of the planning service”, a spokesperson said.
In his email, Cussen had suggested raising the issue with Dublin City Council. That didn’t happen, said the department spokesperson. The email was “an internal communications piece” and “no follow-on contact was made […] in that context”.
The Wider Debate
There’s an ongoing debate around whether industrial estates in the city should be rezoned for housing – which would magnify the value of any land with the flick of a pen – or whether there is plenty of residentially zoned land already available.
When councillors drew up the current city development plan – the map of the city which sets out what can go where – several suggested industrial land that might be rezoned for housing: including Greenmount Industrial Estate in Harold’s Cross, Newtown Industrial Estate, or land on McKee Avenue in Finglas.
Officials in the council’s planning department are chipping away at a survey of industrial land, looking at how much should be rezoned for homes, and how much is needed to industrial uses – in other words, for jobs.
That survey is still in the works, said a Dublin City Council spokesperson. “It is quite an onerous task, due to the size and complexity of a number of the individual estates.”
Some of those who are being lobbied are designated public officials, and so those contacts do appear on the lobbying register.
Over the summer, the company Genvest, which manages, invests in and develops property particularly in North Dublin, had a meeting with Fianna Fáil Councillor Tom Brabazon, about lands at Malahide Road.
The entry says it was “to establish the status of the ongoing rezoning study being carried out by Dublin City Council of Z6 lands”.
Brabazon said, though, that they talked too about the site of the Crown Paints store on Malahide Road, and the possibility of a hotel and apartments there.
A planning application to demolish warehouses there, and instead build a hotel, aparthotel, almost 200 apartments, a creche, offices and shops was refused by Dublin City Council in June this year. Genvest didn’t respond to queries about the site.
Brabazon said that he pointed out that the Smurfit Kappa site in Coolock had already been rezoned not that long back. The old Chivers Factory site in the neighbourhood has, too.
So he was worried about the balance for jobs and homes. “We’re going to have a whole pile of residential in the area, but nowhere for people to work,” he says.
At the moment, it’s still up to councillors whether or not to vote to rezone parcels of land, says Brabazon. He says he’ll always be guided by what the city manager says. “Unless it’s patently illogical.”
So he doesn’t know whether more civil servants should be drawn under the act, if they’re lower-level and not making decisions. “I think it’s the people who make decisions that are the key to it.”
Alison Gilliland, a Labour councillor, says there are a myriad of ways, though, in which policies from the Department of Housing shape the city.
In some cases, diktats from the department override the Dublin City Development Plan, the blueprint agreed by councillors that maps what should be built where, how tall it should be, how spacious it should be.
The Department of Housing brought in smaller apartments through guidelines that local authorities have to follow. “That has been eroded away by, and I’m going to put my hands up, [former Labour Minister] Alan Kelly,” she said.
More recently, Fine Gael Minister Eoghan Murphy has run a consultation on heights – looking to bring in guidelines that would, again, would override the development plan.
Councillors know the specifics of different neighbourhoods though and blanket citywide policies ignore that, Gilliland says. “I think that is where we are being undermined.”
Some wider issues around land rezoning are out of the hands of Dublin City Council. Such as who benefits from hikes in land values that rezoning can gift to owners.
That’s outside of the scope of the land survey the council is doing, said a council spokesperson. “The recently established Land Development Agency has a remit to drive strategic land assembly so that the state can secure a fair share of uplift for the common good.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Public Expenditure said that bringing more officials under the act was considered in an earlier review in September 2016.
But they decided that the act “needs further time to bed down” before they add to the list. They can collect more evidence around who should be included, which can be looked at in a review in 2019, they said.
Public servants are all subject to the Ethics Acts, Freedom of Information Act requests, and parliamentary questions, and accountable to Oireachtas committees too, they said.