TOPICAL ISSUES DEBATE ON PLANNING REGULATOR AND NORTH/SOUTH FRINGE

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan

A few weeks ago, Gannon Properties Limited submitted proposals for a large development of 1,950 residential units and 22,728 sq. m of commercial development in 15 blocks, up to 15 and 17 storeys high, in Clongriffin, which is part of the north-south fringe of Dublin city and Fingal county, and of the Dublin Bay North constituency. In general, much needed new homes are very welcome but, astonishingly, in this case 1,130 of the proposed apartments are intended to be build-to-rent. In the housing area in question, up to 9,000 individuals and families are waiting for accommodation on Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council housing lists. A remarkable feature of the application is that approximately one quarter of it has been sent to Dublin City Council, with the rest sent directly to An Bord Pleanála.

The applications are the latest in a litany of such applications for the north-south fringe over the past 20 years. It was more than 20 years ago that high density proposals for the north fringe were first mooted and a few days before Christmas of 1999, in true developer style, a plan for a massive development of the north fringe district was lodged with Dublin City Council.

Eventually, the Dublin City Council planning department managed to produce a north fringe framework development plan in 2000 for an initial major new urban district of up to 8,000 homes stretching across Belmayne and Clongriffin in Dublin city to the coast and the south Portmarnock district of Fingal. Development of the region has been stop-start and highly erratic, with the failure of the two planning authorities, Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council, to work closely and developers like Gannon Homes, Stanley Holdings and Helsingor to deliver sustainably much-heralded infrastructure, including public transport, schools, health centres, childcare facilities, community and amenity spaces, shops and a Garda station. It took nearly ten years to build and open Clongriffin DART station and even longer for the first two primary schools for the burgeoning population of the area. Clongriffin town centre is still waiting for a supermarket and other much-needed commercial and professional services. At the western end of the new main street of the district in 2006, Stanley Holdings pulled out of a section 183 agreement with Dublin City Council for the long-promised Belmayne and Clare Hall town centre.

As the Minister remembers, the north and south fringe was also bedevilled with problems of pyrite contamination and insulation difficulties and it took years for the successful remediation of affected structures to be effected down to 2015. The taxpayer and Dublin City Council ended up bearing the €40 million net cost of totally rebuilding Priory Hall, which straddles the central section of the main boulevard of the north fringe. Since the crash, the north and south fringe has seen large tracts of derelict lands being hoarded by developers and constituents fear it could take another ten years to build out the region and provide the critical services we desperately need.

Given the above history, I would like the support of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to call on the planning regulator to carry out a review of all aspects of the planning of the north and south fringe and examine the history of this development and other urban regions in Ireland and exemplars abroad. We have seen exemplars in countries like Sweden of similar size but built with all essential services each step of the way. Unfortunately, that has not happened with the north and south fringe. Under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018, which passed through the House not too long ago, the new Office of the Planning Regulator can review the performance of the functions of An Bord Pleanála and planning authorities such as Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council. The regulator is also tasked by the same section in the Act to oversee the delivery of effective planning services to the public by planning authorities and to conduct research for the Minister. The north and south fringe is a very striking example of why developer-led planning is really bad for our new urban districts. As the distinguished journalist, Mr. Gene Kerrigan, of the Sunday Independent stated, it is why “housing is too important to be left to developers.”.

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy John Paul Phelan)

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to explain the role of the Office of the Planning Regulator. As he is aware, the final report of the Mahon tribunal recommended the establishment of an independent planning regulator and legislation for such a regulator was in train for a number of years. The Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, was established in April 2019 under the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2018.

The OPR is responsible for the independent assessment of all local authority and regional assembly forward planning, including development plans, local area plans, regional spatial and economic strategies etc. It will provide statutory observations during the drafting of statutory plans. In cases where the OPR finds that a local authority’s plans are ultimately not consistent with relevant regional or national policies, including the provisions of the national planning framework, the OPR will recommend the use of ministerial powers to bring plans back in line with statutory requirements and best practice.

The OPR is also empowered to review the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or An Bord Pleanála in the performance of any of the planning functions under the planning Acts, including assessing risks of maladministration or corruption. The OPR can initiate such reviews at its own behest, at the request of the Minister or on foot of complaints or submissions from members of the public. In performing its functions, the OPR will take into account the objective of contributing to proper planning and sustainable development and the optimal function of planning under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended.

As the Deputy has outlined, the north Dublin and south Fingal fringe straddles two local authorities, Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council. The Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly has adopted a regional spatial and economic strategy, which will be implemented by way of a review, or variation, by local authorities of all relevant development plans. Given the timing of the county development plans in Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council, I understand they are proposing to vary their development plans to take account of the regional strategy. In this regard, they have up to 26 weeks from the date of adoption of the strategy to initiate such a variation, which is up to early January 2020. Any variation of county development plans will be considered by the OPR in line with its functions under the planning Acts.

Notwithstanding this, it is the function of a planning authority to plan for its own administrative area in accordance with national planning policies and guidance. In this regard, Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council have adopted particular plans for this general location, and some were mentioned by the Deputy. These plans were adopted by the elected members of the relevant local authorities in accordance with the requirements set out in the Planning and Development Act 2000. Moreover, development plans are statutorily reviewed every six years. I cannot prejudge the contents of a future development plan but in view of the strategic nature of these lands to the orderly development of Dublin, I expect that the relevant development plans would consider the appropriate future development of this area.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan

I welcome the Minister of State’s comments about the regional, spatial and economic strategy, as well as the involvement of Fingal and Dublin city councils. As the Minister of State knows, many times over the past two decades I asked successive Ministers responsible for environmental matters and taoisigh to make an order to declare the north and south fringe a strategic development zone to ensure some basic level of consultation with residents and citizens of Dublin Bay North. I specifically remember doing so with a former Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, and a former Minister, Mr. John Gormley. On my own proposal as a Dublin city councillor in 2005, then city manager Mr. John Fitzgerald finally established the north fringe forum, which has generally met quarterly since. It lacks the statutory powers of a strategic development zone to enforce stakeholder and developer engagement. I believe that as part of his review of planning in the north and south fringe, the planning regulator should also examine why the north and south fringe never received strategic development zone status. What was the reason for it?

As I indicated in my earlier speech, homes are desperately needed in Dublin Bay North, where approximately 7,000 households are waiting to be rehoused on the Dublin City Council side and up to 2,000 are waiting across the DART line in the Howth and Malahide housing area of Fingal County Council. In the Part V documents for the major plan that has now gone in, fewer than 200 apartments are to be allocated for social housing. Astonishingly, no fewer than 678 units of 1,030 apartments in the strategic housing development section 1 are build-to-rent units, and 1,130 apartments in the whole development are build-to-rent units. What is the plan in this regard?

The Downey planning reports for Gannon Properties list 26 major planning applications and a remarkable 126 applications, mostly made from Gannon companies, for the Clongriffin district of the north fringe since the turn of the century. Many of these applications were never followed through to construction, of course, and there is still extant planning permission for several areas of the current planning applications. That is why even a decade ago I called on Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council to establish a clear five-to-seven year planning and construction timetable so that the urgently required infrastructure could be built. The blizzard of unbuilt projects with planning permission, the history of land hoarding and the failure to provide essential social and commercial services for a district that is expected to have an ultimate population of more than 50,000 should now be examined in what might be the first major and urgent review by the new planning regulator.

Deputy John Paul Phelan

I cannot comment on individual planning applications but I fully understand the points he is making. We are into new territory now as the Office of the Planning Regulator has just been established, having been spoken about for years. One of the key points at the centre of its establishment was its independence from the Department and politics. It is the result of the planning tribunal report.

Deputy Thomas P. Broughan

The Minister may ask the regulator to do research.

Deputy John Paul Phelan

I was going to get to that point. I will speak to the Minister and, as the Deputy noted in his opening comments, there is a balance to be struck. We want the office to be completely independent but it does allow for research. I looked at a map of the area in question and it is large. The Deputy has represented it for years and it has the potential to change utterly the landscape out there. It could provide sustainable homes and communities for thousands of people.

I will discuss the matter with the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. I reiterate that it is open to individual local authorities, members of the public or community groups to request that the Office of the Planning Regulator carry out the work to which the Deputy refers. The regulator was famously independent in his previous role in the Custom House. I am sure that he and those working with him will ensure that legitimate issues raised by individuals or communities will be thoroughly examined without fear or favour. We wish to ensure that the office is completely removed from the world of politics. I will discuss the issue of research with the Minister. I encourage the Deputy and the community representatives to apply directly to the Office of the Planning Regulator.