Details of "Fast-Track" Property Developments Aren't Always Easy to Find

When developers apply straight to An Bord Pleanála for “fast-track” permission to build big housing, shared-living, and student-accommodation blocks, they have to set up a website with the plans – so the public can easily check them out.

Bartra Capital’s two standalone websites for shared-living blocks in Tallaght and Dún Laoghaire are harder for the public to find than some others, though.

They each have bits of code that tell search engines not to index them.

But the point of the websites is “for the convenience of people wanting to find out the details of what is proposed”, according to a spokesperson for An Bord Pleanála.

So it’s unclear why the websites include these bits of code.

Bartra Capital didn’t respond to queries as to why the websites were had these instructions not to be indexed, and if that hinders the public from easily learning more about the plans.

What does An Bord Pleanála think? “The matter is receiving attention and we will revert back to you,” they said.

Public Say

Since July 2017, developers of blocks of more than 100 homes, and 200 student or co-sharing beds, have been allowed to go straight to An Bord Pleanála with planning applications, after consulting with local authorities.

The idea was to “speed up the planning application process and accelerate delivery of larger housing and student accommodation proposals”, says an An Bord Pleanála overview of the scheme .

William Hynes, director at Future Analytics Consulting, says that the aim of the Strategic Housing Development process was to speed up house-building.

Given “the huge pent-up demand in the system. Obviously there was very little being provided for during the downturn, and with new entrants to the market getting up to speed”, he said.

Like any planning application, the community has the right to engage with these, and they’re doing so more these days than they have in the past, said Hynes.

Orla Hegarty, assistant professor at the UCD School of Architecture, says she doesn’t think speeding up planning was the sole motivation of the Strategic Housing Development process.

The new system is less transparent, reduces public participation and gets around local-authority development plans and local area plans, which An Bord Pleanála aren’t bound by, she said.

“Calling it ‘fast-track’ does not necessarily mean that it is any quicker than the previous system. The other changes are far more significant and have not got the same attention,” says Hegarty.

She points to how some cases have started to end up in the courts, where they could be bogged down for years, as an indicator that the “fast-track” process maybe actually slow development down.

Public Websites

As part of the planning process for Strategic Housing Developments, a developer has to put up a website with details of what they hope to build. The address has to be in its newspaper notice of plans, and the site notice, guidance says.

Members of the public can refer to the websites when putting together submissions about what they think of these big developments – which they have to do within five weeks of when an application is submitted to An Bord Pleanála.

Two of the websites put up by Bartra Capital, showing details of planned shared-living developments in Cookstown Industrial Estate in Tallaght and in Dún Laoghaire, though, have code that makes them less easy to find than some other websites.

Diarmaid Mac Aonghusa, head of the web- and app-development company Fusio.net, said he didn’t know the specifics of this case, so he could only speak generally.

But text files of the type used on one of the websites have “instructors” for search-engine spiders to tell them not to index websites, said Mac Aonghusa.

“We would typically use this while developing a site so that it won’t be found and indexed,” he said. Sometimes, web developers can leave them in by accident.

“It does not stop anyone from seeing the site, it just prevents it from appearing in search results,” he said.

Hegarty, of UCD, said she couldn’t comment on the details of particular websites.

But making developers responsible for posting their own microsites as part of the process does concern her, she says.

“Firstly, there is a question of who is in control of the website, whether people can find the site and navigate the information and if this is the same information that has been submitted with the application,” she said.

If you lodge an application with Dublin City Council, it’s available from the beginning of the application process, and hosted by the council, she says. “Any changes, and submissions by the public, are also available.”

With Strategic Housing Developments, documents aren’t available until much later in the process. “Which gives the public very little time at the end of the process, rather than at the beginning when the application is being considered by [An Bord Pleanála] and there is time for changes,” said Hegarty.

The other issue is enforcement, she says. “When development is not in accordance with a planning permission, it is usually the public who bring it to the attention of the local authority. If the drawings are not on a public website, this cannot happen. The local authorities do not have the resources to monitor all development themselves.”

At the moment, some councils do host documentation themselves too – including South Dublin County Council, and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, where the Bartra developments are – but others such as Dublin City Council don’t.

The developer’s information website has to be kept live for a minimum of eight weeks after An Bord Pleanála has made a decision, guidance says.

At the moment, for example, if you think your neighbour is building something that doesn’t match their planning permission, you can check on the Dublin City Council database, she says.

The record is available for all time and enforcement can sometimes take several years, she says.

While An Bord Pleanála’s publish their decision, they don’t host drawings, reports, and other submissions by the developer. “Where will people be able to check?” she says.

[UPDATE: This article was updated on 9 May at 11.39am to make it clear that some councils do host some strategic housing documentation themselves, but others don’t. Apologies for the lack of clarity.]

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

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