Council Teams with Tech Firms to Boost Public Engagement for Planning Applications

Members of the Santry Whitehall Forum want to file a judicial review to challenge plans for 324 apartments at the Omni Shopping Centre in Santry.

The planning application from the Omni Park Shopping Centre Consortium was lodged one day into March’s big Covid-19 lockdown.

Usually forum members in this part of the city, where big planning applications have been coming thick and fast, would gather in a local community hall to talk about it.

They tried Zoom, says John Fitzgerald, a member of the forum. But it just didn’t draw the same numbers or momentum.

Four months later, An Bord Pleanála came back with its decision. Permission granted, it said.

Many locals felt unheard, they say. “It’s all stacked against the ordinary person trying to be involved in the planning process,” says Fitzgerald. “We’re blocked out.”

Right now, Dublin City Council is teaming up with tech firms to try, they say, to boost engagement in the planning process, by replacing an old hinky system with a new souped-up one.

Ideas include 3D visualisations of proposed developments, building digital twins of the city, and using conferencing software for town hall-style meetings.

It’s something the council was looking at already. But it’s become even more important with the impact of Covid-19 restrictions, says Jamie Cudden, Smart City lead for the council. “To have these 3D models more accessible is really the big demand with Covid.”

A push for greater engagement is welcome, say two planning experts. But they take issue with some of the possible partners and ideas driving the push – including talk from one tech firm of objections as an issue to tackle, ignoring the possibility that some developments may be objectionable.

Greeted with Enthusiasm

The Smart Docklands wing of the council began to flirt with partnerships and “proptech” – as technology applied to property and planning is known – last year, show emails between January 2019 and December 2019, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

In May last year, Dublin City Council ran a hackathon.

The event was hosted by developers Hibernia REIT, which gave models of its properties in the Docklands to use in the project, and a place to host the event, says Cudden.

Hackathon entrants got access to a special “highly accurate” three-dimensional render of the Dublin Docklands.

They had to reimagine how technology could deliver new services in a few spheres, including urban planning and digital construction.

PLACEengage, run by Carol Tallon, won the day, with a prize that included seed-funding and networking opportunities.

Tallon isn’t only the CEO of PLACEengage. She’s also CEO of Property District, a PR agency for the property and planning industries, and the founder of Proptech Ireland.

PLACEengage is an application for users to visualise planning applications in real time. It can also be used to host “a virtual town hall designed to inform the community about proposed new property developments”, says its website.

Cudden, the Smart City lead for Dublin City Council, said that the 3D modelling and accessible app resonated well. “And the idea of being able to give quick and easy feedback.”

A Smart Docklands employee was enthusiastic enough about the app to suggest using it in a pilot project for the large patch of land known as the Irish Glass Bottle site in Poolbeg, show emails between Tallon, the CEO of PLACEengage, and Smart Dublin.

That pilot hasn’t happened, though. Given the potential cost for the engagement tool, the council would need to go through a formal procurement process, one later email says.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said via email last month, that no tender has been drafted yet for the engagement tool for the site.

Too Close?

The council’s readiness to collaborate with Hibernia REIT – which hosted the hackathon – is concerning, says Lorcan Sirr, a housing lecturer at TU Dublin.

“I can understand partnerships to a certain extent,” says Sirr. “But Dublin City Council being the arbitrator of planning applications getting into bed with a company that makes lots of planning applications – very valuable ones – is potentially inappropriate.”

Its enthusiasm at trialling an app developed by a property-industry public relations executive is also worrying, he says.

In one interview, Tallon pitched the app as needed to tackle planning objections, which are “slowing down the delivery of vital new homes”.

“Construction firms are geared up and ready to go but are being held up and delayed for years due to planning objections,” said Tallon, in an interview posted on a blog for Mersus Technologies.

PLACEengage would allow people to give feedback at an earlier stage in the planning process to prevent objections being lodged with the planning authority, Tallon said.

Sirr says that this narrative rings alarm bells.

“This is all about wanting something from the authorities,” says Sirr, “which is: let’s find a way that gives the illusion of transparency and engagement that makes the objectors go away.”

Tallon, of PLACEengage, says the idea of the app is to make the planning process more accessible to everyone.

“This means making everyone more informed about any potential development in the local area as I do not believe that the A4 statutory notices on sites are particularly helpful,” she said, by email.

Whether or not the planning process is slowing the delivery of new homes is debatable, though.

As of the second quarter of this year, roughly 5,100 of 19,700 already-granted planning permissions for homes in the Dublin City Council area were being built, show official council figures. (Counting developments or 10 or more homes.)

Leaving roughly 14,500 homes that have already have permission but are yet to be built.

For Sirr, a push for better engagement is worthy, but he objects to the suggestion that time-consuming objections are the problem.

“The language there is not just worrying, it’s wrong. These are observations, they’re not objections. And that gives you the direction of thrust from which these people are coming from,” says Sirr.

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) – which oversees how councils apply planning laws and rules – was also enthusiastic about PLACEengage, the emails show.

They are “really very keen on this whole project and are planning on encouraging all 4 Dublin local authorities to get involved and nominate a site of their own for a pilot of the idea,” reads an email between Smart Dockland’s Taja Naidoo, Carol Tallon and Kehinde Oluwatosin, an urban planner with Dublin City Council.

A spokesperson for the OPR said that it is mandated to support initiatives to increase public participation in local planning, including 3D visualisation.

“Such technologies offer accessible platforms for seeking public input in planning that complement traditional but often lengthy planning documents and two-dimensional maps, benefitting from the public’s increasing familiarity with proprietary mapping and location finding systems on smart-phones for example,” says the spokesperson.

This is especially relevant in a pandemic, they said.

PLACEengage, according to both Cudden and Tallon, is only at a concept stage. The council is, however, collaborating with other companies to reimagine how planning engagement might work.

In Progress

Planning right now involves antiquated processes, says Cudden. “An A4 piece of paper stuck up on a building or a wall that you may or may not see. Where do you go to see planning applications? It’s not the most accessible.”

That’s why the council is collaborating with software engineers Bentley Systems and Microsoft to make accessible 3D models of the city to reimagine how the planning process might look, says Cudden.

These “digital twins” as the models are called would allow people to see what a planning application would look like and give feedback from their phone or computer, he says.

“The future position will be that all new applications will come in in a consistent 3D format,” says Cudden. Bigger applications do this already, he says.

A 3D representation of the Dublin Convention Centre. Courtesy of Smart Docklands.

Cudden says that the pandemic has impacted on how the planning process works. Communities can’t meet to discuss issues they might have with a planning application, he says.

With Microsoft and Bentley, Smart Dublin is exploring the possibility of integrating Microsoft Teams or Zoom-type town halls within the planning process to improve public engagement.

Advantages of the OpenCities Planner – as Bentley and Microsoft call their planning engagement tool – include, they say, speeding up the planning process, crowdsourcing citizens’ feedback and addressing concerns earlier, creating quick 3D visualisations and cutting down on project rejections, complaints and formal appeals.

“A lot of the time in fact engagement happens too late,” says Cudden, “that people are unhappy with the process too long down the process and it would be better to uncover the issues at an earlier stage.”

Dublin City Council has run early, and lengthy, engagement for some of its own projects. There were rounds of talks for a new park in Ballyfermot. It’s also currently asking people about their visions for land at St Michael’s Estate.

Beyond a Visual

Models and 3D visualisations, and prioritising what a building or complex looks like, can mask other considerations, says Philip Lawton, assistant professor of human geography at Trinity College Dublin.

“A lot of the debates can get reduced down to form and visual and that’s a problem and actually if that becomes the dominant narrative it’s leading us in the wrong way,” says Lawton.

Sirr, the housing lecturer at TU Dublin, says that community infrastructure, impacts on transport, and health to name a few also need due consideration.

“There’s much more to a development than what it would look like – there’s the impact it would have on traffic, on health, on schools, on light, on rents,” says Sirr.

Sirr says he worries about who would own the data and tool itself, how it would engage those who don’t want to be, or aren’t, online.

And whether it might be a slippery slope, whereby a minister might say a public hearing isn’t needed if stuff can be put up all online.

“The danger for me would be that this would start to chip away at people’s legal rights,” says Sirr. “You can hear a minister saying, ‘Well it’s all online now. What do we need to have an actual hearing for?”

Then, there’s the wider policy context in which planning engagement is happening.

Lawton points to how a fast-track process for bigger developments – those that qualify as “strategic housing developments” – was rolled out, driven by a narrative that speeding up planning approvals would play a role in tackling the housing crisis.

“But all of this makes the initial assumption that these forms of delivery i.e. that these forms of houses being delivered by the property sector is a good thing to do in the first place,” says Lawton.

Says Lawton: “I’d be really worried that there’d be an assumption of what they’d achieve and from the outset are embedded within a set of processes that are deeply unequal – and that just gets papered over as it gets rolled out.”

The Wider Context

“I think in the absence of a face-to-face meeting, when you have a pandemic, if there was a central thing, maybe you could get the word out wider,” says Anne O’Rourke, secretary of the Santry Whitehall Forum.

But, like Lawton, she points to the background of the strategic housing development process. That’s the main bugbear that her group has with the planning process, she says.

In 2017, then-Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy brought in new rules for “strategic housing developments” that meant developers of more than 100 homes can apply for permission straight to An Bord Pleanála, bypassing councils and culling one round of community input.

“When they go to An Bord Pleanála, the only thing that a community can do is put in submissions,” says O’Rourke. The only way to appeal is to go to court, which they’re looking at now.

That “strategic housing development” route is the one that the Omni Park Shopping Centre Consortium followed, when they filed for permission for their Santry development.

Fitzgerald, of the Santry Whitehall Forum, says that he wrote to the Omni Park Shopping Centre Consortium, asking them to withdraw their application until after lockdown, so the local community had time to meet and weigh in.

But he got no response, he says. “They’re actually taking advantage of the Covid to push stuff through. And they’re being backed up by An Bord Pleanála.”

(The Omni Park Shopping Centre Consortium haven’t yet replied to queries sent Tuesday.)

“We have no comeback on that,” says Louise Lowry, secretary of Santry Whitehall Forum. “Except for a judicial review which the amount of money needed for that is crazy.”

Sign up to get our free Dublin Inquirer email newsletter each Wednesday, with headlines from the week’s online edition, updates from inside the newsroom, and more. It’s a little reminder when we have a new edition out, and a way for you to stay in touch with what we’re up to.

Author:

Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at [email protected]

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

Understand your city

We do in-depth, shoe-leather reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.