Minister Coveney addresses the Irish Planning Institute's Annual Planning Conference

Published on Friday, 07 Apr 2017
Aire Síomón Ó Comhánaigh

The Castlecourt Hotel – Westport, Co. Mayo
Friday 7th April 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to have been invited here to speak to you at the Irish Planning Institute’s Annual Planning Conference in beautiful Westport – a heritage town which is celebrating its 250th year as a planned town.

Westport is a popular, successful place and its residents take great pride in the town, having won numerous Tidy Town awards and more recently the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live’ competition.  We should also thank Mayo County Council, its Planners and its Architects’ Department who have had no small part to play in its success, through their unceasing work to protect and nurture this fine historic town.

This year’s conference is themed “Reimagining the Planning System” and it offers us an opportunity to reflect on what has passed, and how far we have come, but also causes us to look to the future and to the next reforms we need to make all of Ireland, whether rural or urban, in so far as possible, a successful and sustainable place to live and work.

The economy is the acknowledged engine of growth.  Without a strong and growing economy it is hard to re-imagine the kind of Ireland that we want to create.  If this country is to grow, we need to facilitate that growth in a way that is sustainable – so that people can move around with or without a car, live in vibrant communities near where they work or are educated, and so that all parts of society, from rural Ireland to inner city communities, feel a part of the growth story and are given the opportunity to share in the success and wealth that will be created.

However, we are only beginning to emerge from the worst economic crisis in living memory and are still suffering the fallout of a broken residential property sector and a severe housing and homelessness crisis.

We also face the uncertainty of the next two years of Brexit negotiations which may adversely impact on our trade with our nearest neighbour as well as potentially negatively impacting on the day-to-day lives of border communities, depending on how the EU-UK negotiations proceed.  However, Brexit will also offer up opportunities as Ireland may become a bigger platform for international trade and services than it already is.  The business opportunities are immense if we firmly maintain a business friendly economy and if we deliver the infrastructure, both social and economic, to realise that potential.

The ESRI’s latest economic projections forecast a baseline sustainable growth rate for the Irish economy of 3% per annum between now and 2025.  Depending on the final form that Brexit takes, this baseline scenario may vary upwards or downwards but will remain positive.

With GDP continuing to grow at over 3% per annum and with over two million people in employment, as unemployment has already fallen below 7%, there is now every reason to be confident about the prospects for the economy.  However, we have to act now to address the current and emerging demand for homes, and to avoid the housing supply problem itself becoming a drag on economic growth.

Therefore my role in government right now is not only to plan for (reimagine) the future but also to tackle the present: to rebuild the broken residential property sector and to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis through the planning system, and by other means.  The members of this institute therefore have a central role and a strong voice in influencing and driving the successful and sustained growth of this great country of ours.

Rebuilding Ireland
The Government and I have made it our number one priority to resolve the housing and homelessness crisis. Under our plan, ‘Rebuilding Ireland – Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’, we have set out a broadly based and comprehensive set of actions to do just that, to increase housing output to at least 25,000 homes per annum by 2021 – a doubling of 2015 output levels.

We cannot implement this plan in isolation.  We will need both collaboration and assistance from all of our partners involved in housing provision, including members of your Institute.  In other words, planners working both in the public and private sectors have no small part to play in achieving these targets.

In order to meet the objectives of ‘Rebuilding Ireland’, the Action Plan sets out a broad range of well-resourced actions, under the heading of five Pillars, designed to increase housing output, particularly at more affordable prices, to encourage the delivery of more and better rental options, to keep people in their homes and bring vacant and under-utilised properties back into full use.

Last year housing output grew by 18% to 15,000 homes and this year commentators expect output to reach 18,000 homes.  We are moving in the right direction but the supply shortage continues to put pressure on the entire housing system.  The supply mix is still off kilter, with too great a proportion of one off housing and not enough apartments in our cities.

What people want to see most flowing from this Action Plan is increased delivery of housing on the ground.  In this regard, ‘Pillar 3’ of the Plan (Build More Homes) includes the following key actions most of which will be implemented through the planning system:

Doubling of output to deliver over 25,000 units per annum on average over the period of the Plan [2017-2021], aided by:

  • Opening up land supply and low-cost State lands;
  • The creation of a Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF) with €200m available to allocate to targeted projects;
  • The National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) financing of large-scale “on-site” infrastructure for developers, complementing LIHAF
  • Prioritising large ‘pathfinder’ sites in key urban locations to release housing more quickly
  • Planning reforms – with amendments to planning legislation to require large housing development applications (Strategic Housing Developments of 100 housing units, or 200 student bed spaces, or more) on land zoned for such development to be lodged directly with the Board to give clear ‘line of sight’ for significant housing delivery; a new streamlined Part 8 process for planning authority development; and improving support for on-line planning application facilities.
  • Putting in place a National Planning Framework and land management actions – with multi-tenure developments on State lands.
  • Efficient design and delivery methods to lower housing delivery costs
  • Measures to support construction innovation and skills

With reference to amendments to planning legislation, most of you will be aware of the Strategic Housing Development provisions in the Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Act 2016, as enacted in December.  Strategic Housing Development (SHD) fees have since been published by An Bord Pleanála in advance of the commencement of the SHD provisions, which I intend to commence in parallel with the publication of related SHD Planning Application Regulations in early May.

In the meantime, and given the gravity of the current housing challenges faced principally in urban parts of the country, with output needing to double in the next two or three years to ensure optimum supply, I have instructed planning authorities, by way of circular, that all planning applications for scheme housing or activity relating to potential applications such as pre-planning consultations, must be afforded the highest priority.

LIHAF

  • The Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF) is another recent initiative of (Pillar Three) Rebuilding Ireland, the Government’s Action Plan for Housing & Homelessness which has specifically invited local authorities to identify key sites which have the best chance of delivering large volumes of housing where demand is greatest, as soon as possible.
  • The objective of the LIHAF is to address the serious problem of infrastructural blockages in key housing delivery sites, where the absence of public infrastructure was in effect stalling the development of otherwise suitable sites.
  • Under LIHAF we are therefore investing heavily in critical infrastructure; €226million will be spent on roads, bridges, parks and this will be supplemented by funding from Irish Water for sewerage & water supply and from the National Transport Authority for critical road infrastructure on large strategic sites nationwide.
  • Commitment by Local Authorities was shown by the fact that we were very much over-subscribed by four times the amount of funding available. While we would have liked to be in a position to be able to fund many more of the proposals received, I was very happy to be able to approve 34 of the proposals under LIHAF.
  • The public infrastructure being provided to support 34 sites under LIHAF has the potential to deliver almost 23,000 housing units across the country by 2021.  There is also further potential for approximately 46,000 additional housing units on these sites in the longer term, bringing the projected yield up to 69,000 homes over the next ten to fifteen years, crucially in areas where the supply shortage is critical.
  • In the Dublin area, up to 14,000 additional housing units will be provided up to 2021 with a long term potential yield of over 37,000.
  • In Cork, over 3,000 housing units will be provided up to 2021 with a long term potential yield of almost 10,000 housing units.
  • In the rest of the country, an additional 6,000 housing units will be provided by 2021 with a long term potential yield of about 22,000 housing units.
  • There is a strong focus on affordability in the projects being funded under LIHAF. Local authorities were specifically asked to focus on affordability in considering what proposals to put forward and have received commitments from housing developers with regard to affordability.  It is expected that local authorities will work quickly to deliver public infrastructure which in turn will ensure that significant housing can be delivered in the period up to 2021.  The substantial increase in housing supply should ensure that the house prices are competitive.

Possibility of further LIHAF funding

  • I know some Local Authorities were disappointed that their proposals did not get the green light last week [including Mayo].
  • I said to them last week that I am seeking additional funding for LIHAF under the Capital Review 2016-2021. In the event that we secure more funds, local authorities will be able to re-submit proposals that did not receive funding or more importantly advance other new proposals that would meet the evolving LIHAF objectives and we will keep working towards making these proposals happen.
  • I am convinced that, where we can demonstrate that measures like LIHAF are having the desired effects, the Government will continue to support excellence in planning, investment co-ordination and delivery of the places people want and need to live in.

National Planning Framework
In addition to the imperative matters set out in ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ which are being addressed through initiatives such as LIHAF, the planning system must also ask the longer term question – ‘What will Ireland be like in 20 years’ time?’

It is a fundamental question that no one can answer for sure, but based on what we do know now, we can make informed and strategic choices now about what kind of challenges and opportunities we will face in the future.  For example, we know that there will be more of us – as many as one million additional people in Ireland, and we will be on average older, with the number of people over 65 double current levels.  But where will they live?  Where should they live?  How will they access the services they need?  How will they move around?

We can expect this and many other changes in the coming years, so it is essential to set out an overall long-term plan for the country.  If we want our country to be the best it can be, we must ensure that development and services are located where all of our people can best be served.  In other words, that the right development can take place in the right places, at the right time.

Public Consultation – NPF Issues Paper
In this regard, I have recently sought the public’s views on the issues that should be addressed in the forthcoming draft National Planning Framework (NPF), which will succeed the National Spatial Strategy.

In additional to projected population increases, the NPF will address emerging trends such as:

  • Over 500,000 more people will be at work, a lot of which will be high skilled jobs that are increasingly tending to cluster in and around cities;
  • At least 500,000 extra homes will be needed - to be provided close to services and amenities; and
  • How we manage existing development to ensure that we address major environmental challenges such as protecting air, water quality, biodiversity and climate change, and transforming our energy and transport systems away from a dependency on fossil fuels towards green energy.

The NPF will also address the growth trends that, unless managed differently, around three quarters of the extra population and related homes will locate on the eastern side of the country, much of it clustered around, but not necessarily happening in, our capital city.  This will further exacerbate a massive and increasingly unmanageable sprawl of housing areas, scattered employment and car-based commuting, presenting major challenges around lop-sided development, under-utilised potential, congestion and adverse impacts on people’s lives, health and the environment.

In fact, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that a lop-sided approach to strategic national development would irrevocably harm Ireland’s broader prospects from the economic, social and environmental perspectives.  Therefore, the NPF will address the question of the expansion of Dublin as the primary engine for the growth vis-á-vis enabling credible nationwide counter-balances to emerge.

As well as considering what future we want for our people and communities, the NPF review process will have implications for the types of infrastructure that we may need in the future, how we relate to our environment and how we adapt to the pressures and costs of climate change.  We must also consider interactions with Northern Ireland and our wider marine territory.  It will be critical to identify what needs to be done to ensure that we can put a coherent plan into practice and to achieve success.

The NPF process gives rise to a series of emerging policy choices, which have been set out in the published ‘Issues Paper’.  At the outset, it is useful to reflect on a range of broad but interrelated considerations.  These include:-

  • Where the additional future population will live.
  • How the needs of an ageing population will be accommodated.
  • The types of housing that will be needed.
  • The sort of communities that will be created.
  • Where future jobs will be located and what type of jobs they will be.
  • The services and amenities (e.g. education, health, leisure, shopping etc.) that will be required to meet people’s needs.
  • How people and goods will move around.
  • What strategic infrastructure will be required & how it will be prioritised.
  • How key environmental challenges will be addressed, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the consequences of climate change (e.g. flooding) as well as transitioning to a low carbon sustainable economy and society.
  • How our governance structures will need to adapt to address national challenges.

In considering the NPF process, it is important to note the following factors which differentiate it from the National Spatial Strategy:  The NPF will:

  • Be a statutory document, approved by the Oireachtas, having been subjected to statutory environmental assessment;
  • Be backed by Government, both in terms of the Executive and across Departments and Agencies;
  • Be aligned with and supported by public and private investment;
  • Be a strategy as opposed to a ‘wish list’, that will involve hard choices;
  • Address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
  • Include an economic dimension, but not be solely based on economic considerations;
  • Include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.

The NPF process is a key opportunity to influence the spatial pattern of development throughout Ireland for the benefit of the Country as a whole, over the next twenty years and beyond.

The hard evidence and trends tell us that, if we don’t plan to do anything differently and continue as we have been over the past twenty years, we are almost certain to get more of the same over the next twenty – with congested roads and city centres, ever expanding suburbs and a sense of a Country characterised by an over-heating East Coast and under-utilised potential regionally.

Other proposed/ ongoing amendments to the Planning System
In addition to the implementation of ‘Rebuilding Ireland’, including the roll-out of programmes such as LIHAF, as well as the publication of the NPF in 2017, you will be aware of other significant responsive innovations in the planning system which I am progressing.  While I do not have time to go into these in detail this morning, it is worth briefly listing them:

  • Finalisation of Wind Energy Development Guidelines;
  • Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy;
  • Planning & Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 – Committee Stage: 12th April, enactment June/July – including the establishment of the Office of Planning Regulator etc.
  • Transposition of EIA Directive;
  • Exempted Development Regulations – broadband, flood relief works, change of use of vacant commercial to residential use;
  • Draft EU Commercial Peat Regulations;
  • New Urban Renewal Scheme;
  • Co-ordination of implementation of Vacant Site Levy;
  • Publication of further Planning Bill H2 2017 to provide for legislative changes recommended in ABP Review Group Report;
  • Revisions to Rural Housing Guidelines.

Many of you will also be aware of the commitment in the Programme for Partnership Government to commission a “root and branch” review of the planning system with the aim of reducing the uncertainty and length of planning processes. Noting the significant changes being implemented in the planning system by ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ including the introduction of new planning application procedures for ‘Strategic Housing Development’, having regard to the forthcoming Planning & Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 which will establish the Office of Planning Regulator, and having to the ongoing consultation work for the National Planning Framework, it would be sensible to commence this “root and branch” review once these significant changes are more established.

Conclusion
I note that the NPF team has received a submission from the IPI on the NPF Issues Paper, among the hundreds of other submissions received.  In this regard, there will be a further opportunity for the Institute to share its views once the draft of ‘Ireland 2040 Our Plan’ has been published later this year.  I therefore look forward to further engagement with the Institute and the various structures for planning at national, regional and local levels not only relating to the NPF but otherwise relating to the implementation of the Government’s ambitious and innovative programme for planning in Ireland in the years ahead.

As with the members of your Institute, I want to ensure, above all, that Ireland continues to benefit from a responsive, effective and high quality planning process that will guide our path to a more sustainable future, looking after the longer term interests of our economy and of our local communities. 

I wish you every success over the remainder of your conference.

Thank you.