What’s the Point of Asking Developers to Audit Community Infrastructure?

There’s a waitlist for the school in East Wall where Joe Mooney’s wife works, he says. Too many kids, not enough spaces.

Which is why he was confused by a recent community audit, part of the planning application from Glenveagh Properties for 554 apartments on East Road. Schools near the development had falling enrolment, it says.

“They’re saying the schools and the educational infrastructure in the area is sufficient and we know they’re not,” says Mooney, an East Wall resident.

When developers want to build more than 50 homes somewhere, Dublin City Council asks them to file a “social infrastructure audit”, a survey of services like shops and schools, churches and community centres.

But the findings of these audits – meant to help planners work out the effect new developments will have on existing community infrastructure – often seem not to chime with the experiences and aspirations of local residents.

They’re done in different ways, by different groups, with different catchment areas, and starkly different levels of detail.

No Set Way

Currently there’s no set criteria for how audits are carried out, says a spokesperson for An Bord Pleanála.

“[T]he term ‘social infrastructure audit’ is not defined and therefore it is possible that something that is described as one would have no statutory status,” the spokesperson said, meaning that the audit has no standing in law.

“It’s all quite subjective,” says Mary Hughes, a planning consultant with HRA Planning and former president of the Irish Planning Institute. What audits look at can change from auditor to auditor, and project to project.

Audits for a sample of three different developments, in Scribblestown, Santry and East Wall, show significant differences in levels of detail, when it comes to how they consider, say, the demographic changes that’ll happen with new building.

For Scribblestown, where 70 homes are planned, an audit by HRA Planning sets out in detail how many people it’s expected to add to the area: 161.

The report makes clear that the existing population of Finglas South need to be considered in their community audit.

The community audit for the 112-home development in Santry, drawn up by John Spain Associates, takes a different approach.

It lists off all the existing parks and schools and churches, and concludes that “The audit indicates that the study area is well served by community facilities.”

Although it notes that Santry’s population increased by 6 percent between 2011 and 2016, it doesn’t go into detail about the age-profile, say, of those in the area – or the expected demographic impact of the development.

The 1–4 East Road community audit, carried out by Brady Shipman Martin, does not detail current demographics at all, nor does it detail, in hard numbers, the changes that will result from the proposed development.

Proposed site of East Road development. Photo by Sean Finnan.

Neither John Spain Associates, nor Brady Shipman Martin, responded to email queries about the criteria they take into account for such audits, and in these specific developments.

Mary Mac Mahon, executive director of John Spain Associates, says that how an audit is carried out depends on the development.

“It will change depending on what type of development you’re going for, what type of facilities you think maybe needed etcetera, when you examine things what’s the population in the area, what’s the age group,” she says.

Why this variance in the standards set out in the audit? “There aren’t national guidelines outlining those standards and there isn’t any legislation defining those standards either,” says Hughes of HRA Planning.

It’s a common-sense approach often, she says. There are some guidelines that can be taken into consideration, she says.

But “generally when you are undertaking a social infrastructure audit you are going to say that everything is fine, because if you don’t say everything is fine then there is an issue with your development”, says Hughes.

Some Rules

For big developments, there are some specifics that planners have to put in their social infrastructure audits.

Proposals of more than 50 homes have to assess “the capacity of local schools to accommodate the proposed development”, says Dublin City Council’s development plan.

That means seeing whether the development will mean neighbourhoods don’t meet Department of Education guidelines, for the ideal number of school places per population.

The audit for Scribblestown calculates that 70 homes, adding 161 people, would create extra need for 19 primary-school places. An extra class, it says.

The audit for Santry lists the schools in the wider area, but not numbers, or expected extra demand. If the 112 apartments at Swiss Cottage house 211 new residents, that suggests there would be 23 new pupils – also enough for a new class, going by Department of Education guidelines.

It’s also not clear if the schools the audit lists are within a 15-minute walk of the development – like the schools listed in the Scribblestown report.

The Scribblestown report looks at community infrastructure within a 15-minute walking distance of the development, as “urbanists have determined that this is the maximum distance that people are prepared to walk to utilise facilities within a neighbourhood”, according to the report.

John Spain Associates didn’t respond to queries about the level of detail in the Santry community audit.

The audit for 1–4 East Road notes that the Department of Education, while the strategic development zone in the area was being drawn up, “did not identify any requirements for new primary or secondary schools”.

It doesn’t look in detailed figures at the estimated increase in school-age children in the area, from the development.

Plans for East Road show 72 studios, 202 one-beds, 232 two-beds, and 48 three-beds. That’s roughly 882 new residents in the area, and so an extra 100 children of primary-school age – enough to fill four classes, by Department of Education quotas.

The report cites government figures that show there has been decreased enrolment in schools around the development, although these figures are from 2013/14.

On the Ground

Caroline Molloy, the manager of the Santry Community Resource Centre, says that the local community weren’t asked by those behind the Swiss Cottage development for any of their thoughts on community infrastructure in the area.

Years back, Molloy helped oversee the building of the community centre where she works. She wanted a space for a youth club for her daughter and the younger generation in Santry, she says.

“By the time it took us to build it my daughter was old enough to run the youth club,” says Molloy.

“But now, there’s not enough space here for everybody to do everything because there’s so many people wanting to use it,” says Molloy. “You’re still going to have to ferry kids all over the place because there is not enough facilities.”

Over in East Wall, Mooney is worried that the same squash for facilities is going to happen, he says.

“You’re basically going to be throwing loads of people in again without the necessary structures to create a community or a neighbourhood,” says Mooney.

Hughes, the planner with HRA Planning, says there does need to be more than housing. “It’s all about good quality placemaking.”

Is that what these social infrastructure audits are for? Ultimately, says Hughes, it’s the job of planners to assess the audits that come in with planning applications.

“Really when you think about it all of this should be planned for at development or area plan stage when the land is zoned in the first instance,” says Hughes.

“That’s when all of this social infrastructure should be provided. Certainly at a strategic level anyway,” she says.

Labour Party Councillor Dermot Lacey, who sat on the last council’s planning committee, says he doesn’t think community audits are always done with a lot of care. “I would think the norm is to throw them together at the last minute.”

“I can’t remember which development it was but they said there was a lot of creches

available nearby and it was my inclination that there wasn’t a lot of creches nearby,” says Lacey.

The council doesn’t have enough staff to double-check claims made in social infrastructure audits, he says.

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Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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