Hugh Wallace
Hugh Wallace, Director, Douglas Wallace

Architect HUGH WALLACE tells Mimi Murray that Housing for All is yet another lofty document that claims to have all the answers when the real problem is a broken planning system that the government won’t address.

Housing for All is an ambitious government plan to deliver 33,000 residential units a year up to 2030. While it has been welcomed by many, others are more sceptical of what the plan can deliver or achieve in that time.

Director of Douglas Wallace Associates and judge on RTE’s popular Home of the Year and presenter of My Bungalow Bliss television shows, Hugh Wallace is in the latter camp. He describes Housing for All as “yet another lofty document” that will have little chance of success unless several factors change or are reformed to speed up the planning process and the delivery of developments.

Planning issues

“You only have to look at the other documents issued in relation to the rural regeneration of Ireland,” Hugh Wallace explains. “My issue with these documents is that they follow on from a series of other lofty documents, and what we need now is action. Moreover, the main problem is a planning process that is broken.

“Our practice would have been involved in a number of projects where we engaged with local authority planning departments and got a direction which we went down. The planner then changed in the middle of the process, and the new planner’s interpretation differed from the last person. So, instead of being able to enter into discussion with the planning department (it’s not permitted under the present planning system), it just went straight to refusal. We could have negotiated a position had we been able to speak with the department. This is just one of a whole series of obstacles in the way,” he contends.

He adds that the when and why planning is required also needs to be reviewed as the system for new builds does not fit with the renewal of older properties.

“If you have a building, particularly in a town or village, that hasn’t been used for years, you should not have to go through planning to put it back into residential use. On top of that, what you have is building control legislation that is for new builds being shoehorned into residential over the shop scenarios, and they don’t match or marry.

“Planning and building control regulations need to change. Decisions need to be black or white with no grey areas. While buildings are treated on a case by case basis, people need to be able to make planning applications with the confidence that to know how planning authorities will treat their submissions. We also need to be able to go into the council and deal with one person who comes back and says this is what you need to do. Instead, at the moment, there are so many bodies involved that the process is failing for everyone. I’m not suggesting there should be a compromise, but there is a balance to be struck. For example, in a building over the shop, maybe you have a higher specification on a fire alarm system. This could be offset against other issues,” he says.

Wallace cites the example of New Ross, where the local authority is doing “a great job” in terms of the public realm, yet he says nobody lives in the town centre, something he wholeheartedly disagrees with.

“If you go to the UK, France or Italy, they are living over the shop in small towns and villages. You have everything in abundance on your doorstep. People need to get over their snobbery about living in these places. We are missing huge opportunities here. There is no need for another semidetached house to be built, and there are so many brownfield sites and building stock available.”

Living Cities Initiative

“The Living Cities Initiatives are a best-kept secret; nobody knows about them. You buy a property and spend €200K doing it up, and you offset this against your private income tax for 10 years. That should be rolled out around the countryside. It’s supposed to peter out this year, which is a disgrace. But when you come to try and do up an old property, a world of bureaucracy falls upon your head, and then you just can’t be bothered,” Wallace comments.

He adds that changing legislation and making it fit for purpose with regard to old buildings would make it more attractive for people to move into cities and towns.

“We need to conserve our cities and their buildings, but this has to be tempered and balanced with the level of conservation work required in every build. It’s about a practical approach. There are buildings on protected structure lists that we know of all around this country that are falling to pieces, yet nobody does anything. But as soon as you go to do something with them, the rigours of the world come upon you. There has to be a balance. That doesn’t mean you’re not respecting or ensuring the valued elements are maintained or sustained,” he adds.

Open up brownfield sites

“In order to beef up the housing stock with the homes that young people and families need right now, we should be looking to brownfield sites,” Hugh Wallace comments. “In other European countries, if you have a plot of land, the local authorities say you can build six floors, that’s where you can build, and that’s where the open space should go. If you submit a plan to that design, you don’t have to apply for planning permission. In development plans in Ireland, when areas are zoned for residential, that is the time when people should object, not after. Then, if a developer complies with the development plan and zoning in terms of height and density, they should not have to apply for planning permission,” he says.

“There are too many vested interests in the pot to ever resolve this, people looking after their own patch while the bureaucracy has gotten out of hand. The planners are as frustrated as everyone else. There are 60,000 more people in Ireland this year than last year. Next year, there will be 60,000 more and every year thereafter. So the requirements for housing are only going to continue to increase in the coming years. But we’re building residential units of the wrong scale and type in the wrong locations, so we’re just kicking the can down the road creating problems for the future. If you drive around Cork or Clonmel, there are plenty of urban brownfield sites, just like other cities and towns. These should be CPO’d and built on, but nobody will ever do that,” he says.

Families in cities

The lack of young families in our towns and cities is evident.

“Schools have posters up about enrolment because there are no kids to go to them. We need young families back in our cities, but young families can’t afford to be in our cities. They are the vibrancy and the future generation. There is hope if people could sit in a room and not have vested interests and not be looking after their patch,” he says.

“We are such a dynamic country in one way, but we are petrified by regulation. Nobody wants to stick their head over the wall because it would be chopped off. That isn’t what happened in the past, and there were mistakes made. Look at the work our councillors and planners did during the 1930s and right up to the 1970s and the social housing that was built – but we’ve lost that ability. There are only so many opportunities to get this right, so we need to be more focused,” he says.

Restore existing housing stock

In terms of new building methods, he says they are and they aren’t helpful when it comes to speeding up the building process.

“A house has four walls and a similar configuration; it’s not a miracle. But if a developer buys a site, by the time he can put a block in the ground, he’ll be lucky if it’s three years, meaning five years until it’s delivered. Meanwhile, there are 200,000 residential units sitting there rotting around the country. Why not bring these empty units up to standard. We need to have a conversation with ourselves about new builds and building in suburbia. Are we honest about climate change and sustainability? If we are, then some of us will have to live in the centre of our towns. We can’t all be in a semi-detached in the suburbs; it’s just not sustainable,” Hugh Wallace concludes.

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