The Department of Housing. Photo by Lois Kapila.

There’s a lot in the Department of Housing’s recent guidelines to planning authorities on urban development and building heights that may be considered positive. But the thinking underlying it is questionable and anti-democratic.

Introducing the guidelines, Minister Eoghan Murphy said that “Our cities and our towns must grow upwards, not just outwards, if we are to meet the many challenges ahead.”

That sums up the thinking behind the guidelines, and the fault line within the document.

The first key policy in the guidelines, and probably the most important one, indicates that planning authorities shall explicitly identify areas where “increased building heights will be actively pursued for both redevelopment, regeneration and infill development”. These areas shall “not provide for blanket numerical limitations on building height”.

The guidelines are transfixed by the need to have taller buildings in our cities, and particularly in Dublin, at which most believe these guidelines are aimed.

Dublin is named in the document and compared with Paris. The guidelines indicate that the city of Dublin has a population of approximately 500,000, whereas the same area in central Paris has a population of 2.1 million. This is a central argument for greater heights in Dublin

But the comparison between Dublin and Paris is not apt.

For starters, Dublin has a coastline and this impacts on the type development that happens here. Its pattern of development has been impacted by significant poverty in the past, urban vandalism from national and city governments, and an appalling transport network.

Dublin has followed different patterns of development, framed by our Georgian heritage and the Americanisation of society via the motor car. That was government policy in the 1960s.

Paris, meanwhile, is the capital of a country with more than 60 million people, whereas Dublin is the capital of a country with 4.8 million. Perhaps if the drafters of the policy looked at the episode of Father Ted where Ted is describing the difference between “near and far” to Dougal.

Anyway, Paris is not a high-rise city either. On the contrary, one of the striking things about Paris is that for a very large metropolitan centre, it has very few buildings that are over six storeys. It does, however, have very significant densities.

That is the essence of what “Urban Development and Building Heights: Guidelines for Planning Authorities” is trying to achieve. But the focus has been placed incorrectly on height and not density.

Section 1.4 of the guidelines correctly indicates that there is an “unsustainable pattern of development whereby many of our cities and towns continue to grow outwards”. However, the guidelines incorrectly look only to height to solve this problem, and complain about generic maximum height limits being imposed across functional lines.

When in draft form, the guidelines were subject to considerable criticism by Dublin City Council’s planning committee and from the executive of the council.

The council indicated that its development plan provided a comprehensive approach to heights in the city. These had been developed over a long time and emanated out of the city’s height strategy in 2000.

The council indicated that the government’s guidelines “could prejudice the plan-led process that has been carefully established and improved over a period of 20 years”.

The Dublin City Council and the Department of Housing both believe there needs to be a move from houses to apartment living. They both believe in the need for more-adequate heights.

The council is, however, more focused on achieving greater densities. It developed a comprehensive and generous apartment size to encourage more families to live in the city. Yet this, like the city height strategy, was overturned by the Department of Housing.

This department has become highly intrusive and controlling. In addition, it has moved planning applications for housing schemes over 100 units for An Bord Pleanála to decide upon.

The Local Government Reform Act 2014 was supposedly a mechanism to transfer powers back to local government. What we have seen since 2014 is a gradual and systematic withdrawal of key powers from local authorities – and their centralisation, instead.

The attitude of government towards local democracy and local government has been nothing short of shameful.

And there just has not been any evidence that these centralised policies work, particularly on housing.

The Department of Housing’s urban development and building heights guidelines, and changes to apartment sizes, offer nothing to the creation of a more liveable city and making Dublin more attractive to live in.

There is still no consistent believable policy on public transport. There is no evidence of accompanying investment in the development of the Dublin Fire Brigade, which would be essential if we are to have unrestricted building heights.

These guidelines are poorly thought out by a department that is throwing everything into the pot to solve a housing crisis. Perhaps they might just build accommodation. It would be a good start.

Odran Reid lectures in economics, local development and planning at DIT Environment and Planning and is a member of the Dublin City Council's Planning and Property Development Strategic Policy Committee...

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