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To build homes faster, councils will be able to develop social and affordable housing schemes on public land without planning permission, between now and the end of next year.
Councils usually use an internal planning permission process, known as “Part 8” for its own projects, which includes a community consultation process before councillors vote on the plans.
But in December the government passed the Planning and Development and Foreshore (Amendment) Act 2022, which stipulates that a council can develop housing projects without going through this planning process, bypassing input from the public and elected members, if they judge that the schemes are in line with the council’s development plan.
“This planning amendment will enable quicker progress on providing much needed housing – including for the most vulnerable on our housing waiting list,” says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
It will also help accelerate the delivery of cost-rental homes and affordable-purchase homes, and could speed up the process of getting builders on site by three months, says the spokesperson.
There is broad consensus that councils need to build more homes faster, but several opposition TDs queried this change, saying this planning process doesn’t cause major delays.
There are risks in abandoning the planning permission process, says Social Democrats housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan TD. “If social housing is planned well, it works well. Rushed jobs that aren’t planned well don’t work.”
But Bernard Joyce, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, welcomed the change. The Part 8 process is a barrier to the supply of Traveller housing and Travellers are disproportionately affected by homelessness, he says.
“We ask the Minister and Council Managers to ensure Traveller accommodation is prioritised in the new approval process,” said Joyce.
At the Moment
Councils use the Part 8 planning process to build infrastructure such as libraries, swimming pools, bridges and roads, as well as housing projects.
The process takes a maximum of 20 weeks, says a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
“The new measure – which is expected to take up to 3 months off the normal Part 8 planning approval process for LA housing schemes – arises from the housing supply situation currently faced,” he says.
Detailed regulations will be finalised in the coming weeks, says the spokesperson.
But in a Dáil debate on the legislation on 14 December, several opposition TDs said that the real reason for the delays in delivering social homes was the funding-approval process, not the planning process.
Minutes from a central government meeting in November 2021 said that at that time it was taking 109 weeks – so 27 months – of back-and-forth between councils and the Department of Housing for projects to be approved for funding.
“There is no need for such a complex design and approval process between the local authority and Department,” said Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin TD in the Dáil. “It takes too long and the process should be shortened or scrapped.”
However, while it does not tackle this issue, Sinn Féin supports the introduction of emergency measures to speed up the delivery of housing, Ó Broin said, so the party would not oppose the legislation allowing councils to bypass the planning process.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said, “We asked the Minister’s officials if they had any evidence whatsoever that this is necessary. There was none. They were quite frank about not having any evidence.”
The Part 8 planning process works well, said Labour TD Gerald Nash during the same debate. “This provision seems to be a solution in search of a problem.”
The timeline for a long-vacant site, bounded by high stone walls, at the corner of Infirmary Road and Montpelier Hill in Stoneybatter, shows just how long it can take for councils to get from idea to bricks.
In November 2016, Dublin City Council had submitted the first stage of a funding application to the Department of Housing to build 30 homes, says a report from the time. The council had also appointed an architect to design the scheme, it says.
In October 2019, councillors voted in favour of plans to build 38 homes on that site, the culmination of the council’s Part 8 process. Two and a half years later, in Q2 of 2022, the Department of Housing approved the funding for the scheme, which was stage three of a four-stage process.
As of January 2023, more than six years after Dublin City Council started the funding approvals process with the Department of Housing, the council has still not tendered for a builder, according to its latest social housing supply and delivery report.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond in time for publication to questions about why it took more than six years to get the plans to this stage and when it will tender for a builder for the 38 homes.
The Department of Housing spokesperson said it is streamlining the funding-approval process.
Councils can already use a single-stage approval process for social-housing projects costing up to €6 million, he said.
“In January, the Minister published a review of the pre-construction processes for social housing with a set of practical actions that will streamline the approvals and other pre-contract processes, while ensuring cost value-for-money,” he says.
What Are They Planning to Build?
It is not clear how many homes the government intends to build outside of the Part 8 planning process, and whether it will mostly build houses or apartments. But they plan to start soon.
“It will be our desire that many of these developments will commence in 2023,” said the Minister for Housing, Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien, in the Dáil debate.
The legislation says that the housing projects must be in line with the local development plan.
O’Callaghan, the Social Democrats TD, says that TDs were told this change was to facilitate building modular housing.
“I get the sense that there is desperation,” he says. “They are so far behind on their delivery that they are planning to ram through a whole lot of modular housing without proper planning.”
There is no evidence that modular housing encounters any fewer defects or issues than any other type of housing, he says.
He expects that the changes will only speed up delivery by a few weeks, he says. Homes are needed fast, but dropping the community-consultation phase means losing out on valuable local knowledge, says O’Callaghan.
“They really just don’t value planning,” said O’Callaghan. “They don’t understand that when it is done well you solve a whole lot of problems in advance.”
The legislation might also, though, be used to smooth the way for the construction of Traveller accommodation.
For years councils have failed to meet their targets for providing Traveller accommodation, leaving escalating numbers of Traveller families living in overcrowded situations and forced into homelessness.
Travellers “have been grossly affected by the lack of social housing supply, discrimination in those settings and in emergency provision, and the lack of appropriate family size dwellings”, says Joyce, director of the Irish Traveller Movement.
Eight-hundred Traveller families are doubled up with extended family in accommodation meant for one family, he says.
In July 2019, a government-appointed expert group on Traveller accommodation recommended that the law change so that Part 8 would be suspended when it comes to homes for Travellers.
“The use of this mechanism requires the approval of councillors which they regularly fail to provide,” the report says.
Removing Part 8 would mean that the construction of Traveller accommodation is no longer reliant on approval by councillors, the report says.
“Until now there was no government intervention to accelerate local authority delivery or rectify impediments in the planning process onerously impacting on Travellers, such as part 8,” says Joyce.
But it is unclear how much, if at all, councils will use these changes to power ahead with delivering much-needed Traveller housing.