5 reasons why residential land zoning is unnecessary red tape

Housing Red Tape

Land zoning is basically a bunch of categories that specify what land could be used for. It allows for planning the development of our towns and cities. While I would prefer a system rather than a plan – more on that in a later post – land zoning is a reasonable way to appropriately segregate land uses. However, I really see no benefit in restriction of housing by having it included as a category. It should be assumed, much like agricultural use, that it is a defult possibility for land which is not zoned in some other way.

Land Zoning Map
Various land zonings make up a town – Claremorris, Co. Mayo. Much of it is a reflection of the town’s natural development, even before zoning was a thing.

Very simply, there are many hurdles to overcome when finding the ideal site for a new development. Land zoning shouldn’t be one of them. We should remove all references to Residential Zoning from developments plans, local area plans and any other plan. Here are 5 reasons why zoning maps shouldn’t include residential use.

1. We all need a home

Simply, just as shelter is a basic human need in the real world, so should it be regarded as such in the planning of land zoning. Residential usage should be always considered as a possible “default” for land. When zoning for other uses is applied to land, such as retail or industrial, those designations should obviously hold as it does now.

2. Isn’t Planning Permission enough control and oversight for residential development?

Why do we need the double lock of zoning and planning permission for something which is a basic human need and so, so badly needed right now. Even if land is zoned, planning permission is still required. The planning process should be sufficient, especially at this time of crisis.
Normal market forces and costs would prevent spurious applications. But wouldn’t it be great to get the numbers up? We see so many developments fall down due to what some perople characterise as NIMBY-ism. Did those developments meet the requirements of zoning? If they did, and they still fall, what is the point of stipulating densities etc in zoning?

Some people advocate for quality over quantity. Buildings to live in have to reflect a decent way to live, not just address a need for volume right now. Sure, we need volume, but we also need to create places conducive to well-being and a sense of place. Are not planners the right people to assess this? Just because, for some reason, some land has not been zoned. Should it be therefore deemed inelligible? I don’t think so.

3. Site value, supply and hoarding

By artifically limiting the supply of sites suitable for residential development, we increase the cost of acquiring it. If all land was potentially suitable, subject to development norms and best practices, we would immediately reduce costs and increase supply of suitable ground.
Having certain lands designated for housing and not others promotes hoarding of landbanks, right when we need the most throughput with as few bottlenecks as possible.

4. We never seem to get it quite right

I’m old enough to remember land being de-zoned for residential use. (Spoiler, even my eldest son is old enough, if not to remember, he was certainly present when this was happening.) It was popular not long ago to see our Celtic Tiger housing boom as a folly – the demand characteristics of which would never be seen again. Amazingly, in such a short time thereafter, demand for housing reached unprecedented highs. Even though a development plan lasts for only 6 years, in my opinion they are far too restrictive and are as about as responsive as an oil tanker in terms of reaction to change.

With a residential zoning being the default, this would cease to be an issue.

5. We have many developers who just need a nudge

The heavy lift required for many developers to find a site, compete on price and take the risks required for planning permission is all too much for many. We have such huge hurdles at the beginning of the process. Making all lands potentially acceptable for housing would allow developers to see opportunity everywhere. This does not mean we need to condone irresponsible development – we just don’t need to limit ourselves by whatever ink found its way on to paper in times past.

There you have it. I believe there are far more negatives to zoning for residential land use than there are positives. We could even keep the specifics of residential zoning if it is desireable to designate a specific area for housing only. Just don’t slow things down be having residential zonings being required or even preferred as part of a planning application. In theory that might be great. Like many things though, in practice, things can be quite different.

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