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How to promote community and quality in development

Imagine a world where development improved the environment and the community. What would it look like?

Ireland is enduring a predictable housing and homelessness emergency, the fruit of building 2000 houses last year (though 15,000 were claimed) when, according to Davy Stockbrokers, up to 50,000 need to be built every year.

Now Fianna Fáil, in the unprepossessing figure of Barry Cowen, like Banquo’s brother, has proposed “a VAT holiday for a sunset period for the construction sector”: a sector that corruptly enriched many of his former party colleagues.

With so much at stake and the danger that once again quantity will prevail over quality, it’s time to work out how construction might enrich our society.

Imagine a world where development improved the environment and strengthened communities – and so served the public interest, the long-term public interest. Imagine a world where developers were heroes – and not just in the property supplements.

What would such a system look like?

All we would really need is proper plans and proper standards promoting quality of life and protecting the environment, overseen by the right people, especially local people.

To facilitate progress a structure could be devised to ensure that the privilege of tax incentives went – and went only – to developments that served the long-term interest of the public rather than the short-term interest of the developer i.e. to sustainable development which took account of the socio-environmental effects, not just the economic effects, of development. Such structures are beginning to emerge as adjuncts to the local authority system.

We need incentives for sustainability, penalties for the wrong development in the wrong place, roundtable input, Framework Plans with teeth and a Monitoring Mechanism – of relevant Indicators.

The Detail

Scrap all development-based grants, taxes and tax-incentives (including government subsidies for site-infrastructure) in these areas and replace them with tax incentives awarded in proportion to marks scored on a scale of say fifty criteria, each marked out of ten. 500 marks in total. Top marks and a development would attract the maximum tax incentive.

The existing system of planning permissions would remain – schemes would need to constitute proper planning and sustainable development. However, a sizeable, increased planning fee which might be described as a levy, for community and environmental infrastructure, could be exacted, at least outside areas of urban underprivilege. In areas of urban decline, brownfield sites, no levies would be demanded as these areas all provide maximum scope for sustainable development.

The fee would be set sufficiently high that low-scoring development would be considerably less profitable than it is at the moment. Perhaps the distribution of a proportion of windfall land-rezoning (as opposed to development) profits to first-time buyers, or to subsidise high-quality social housing, would also concentrate minds. Of course, the last government scrapped the windfall tax introduced by the Greens.Unlike the discredited incentives applied in the Upper Shannon region and measures such as those that lined Dublin’s quays with excrescences, these would not be subsidies for any old development but incentives for sustainability.


Criteria for tax incentives might include the following, made up to around 50 in number.

A. DESIGN

  • Flair
  • Sympathy to setting
  • Complementarity to existing positive character
  • Quality of exterior materials (durable, attractive and well-detailed)
  • Use of sustainable materials and energy efficiency
  • Intelligent orientation and provision of sunlight

B. FACILITIES

  • Provision of private and semi-private open space
  • Provision of private sports/leisure facilities
  • Provision of residents’ creche
  • Provision of storage space

C. COMMUNITY IMPACT

  • Suitability of mix of commercial, retail and residential; and, for residential schemes, of mix of bedroom numbers and social mix
  • Provision of public open space
  • Provision of sports/leisure facilities open to public
  • Landscaping
  • Encouragement of human activity on street
  • Provision of community linkage programme including provision of jobs and housing for local people.
  • Minimum intrusion into privacy of adjoining schemes

The success of the area’s development should be monitored, at the outset and regularly, under headings like local crime rates, unemployment rates, pollution levels, population mix, uses for which planning permissions are being granted, open space, perceptions of quality of life etc. If these indicators show a problem the roundtable should revise its plans.


Roundtables

The future of planning should rest with “roundtables”. These are “cross-sectoral partnerships”, facilitated by planners, comprising ten or fifteen people including local authority officials, County (or City) Councillors, developers, shopkeepers, environmentalists, community groups, trades unionists, tourism representatives and others. The rainbow in fact. If you can get agreement among these people you may well be looking at sustainable development.

If you can get the membership to be truly representative of their sectors you can insulate decisions against criticisms and create a genuine feeling of democratic participation in planning and development.

Once an area was designated, the roundtable would draw up a detailed Framework Plan. This Framework Plan would specify that development permission would never be granted for certain sites in that area – for example, areas of special amenity, beauty spots, green belts and (for demolition of) protected structures (listed buildings). It would also specify what sort of development should take place and where and at what densities and heights.

So, all sectors from development to community to ecological would be involved in deciding which sites in an area were suitable for tax-incentivised development and for what sort of development.

As we have seen the development agreed upon is likely to be sustainable and to have local support. This constitutes win-win – or sustainable development, in practice.

Complementing the cross-sectoral roundtable should be a body of experts, whose function would be to certify that specific projects should qualify for tax incentives. A body called Temple Bar Renewal played a role a little like this, though less wide-ranging, in Temple Bar in the 1990s. But tax incentives would only be awarded if two criteria were satisfied – a) compliance with the roundtable’s Framework Plan (failure to comply means no tax incentive) and b) their score under the fifty criteria (which determines the size of the tax incentive). It is desirable also that not-for-profit development initiatives, including for integrated social housing, should be particularly encouraged.

Otherwise…more of the same junk, anyone?

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