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They get more attention, but NIMBYs usually lose out in the end to YIMBYs

The Journal found a lot of objections against housing projects across Ireland – but most developments were cleared to go ahead anyway.

‘OVERDEVELOPMENT’. ‘TOO TALL’. ‘Out of character with the surrounding area’.

Anyone who has ever glanced at planning decisions for new housing projects will almost certainly have read these words.

They invariably come from local residents, who are very likely to be objecting.

The impact of so-called NIMBYs (not in my back yard), is often bemoaned by the likes of developers and politicians, who see it as residents objecting to new developments which could inconvenience them or impact on the desirability of the area.

The contrast is YIMBYs (yes in my back yard), who identify as those in favour of new housing projects. Many do so with the ultimate aim of boosting supply and making homes more affordable.

In 2021, then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin claimed Ireland has a ‘culture of Nimbyism’, and more recently urged homeowners to consider the plight of those seeking to buy houses before objecting to new developments.

A portrait of the objections faced by developments

As an experiment, The Journal decided to examine a housing project in seven of Ireland’s main urban centres.

These were the four Dublin local authorities, Cork City, Galway City and Limerick City and County – in other words, areas where the need for more homes is well-recognised.

When developers apply for permission to build new housing, local residents may submit observations.

The purpose of this exercise was to look at the submissions and see how many were in favour of the project and how many were against.

Across all seven housing projects there were a total of 138 submissions from local residents, not including businesses.

Of this number, 117 were some form of explicit objection calling for the developments to be rejected.

Of the remaining 21 submissions some 15, while not calling for the projects to be rejected, asked that they be scaled down in terms of height or density.

The remaining six raised smaller, less serious concerns, normally about the traffic impact on the area or on nearby trees.

Six of the seven projects examined were proposed apartment developments. These ranged in height from four to six storeys.

The objections tended to be similar, with almost all citing concerns around height and density.

Typical observations could be found lodged in relation to the project examined for the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area.

Here, a developer proposed building 137 apartments in blocks of up to six storeys at sites known as Glenina and Karuna, near the Sandyford Road.

A sample of the observations from local residents includes:

Never in our wildest dreams/nightmares could we have envisaged that a development of such a scale would be deemed in keeping with the Sandyford Village environment.
“I believe people have to live somewhere, but they don’t have to live on top of each other, why are we not building houses?”
“We are beyond devastated with the proposed height and density, which is uncharacteristic for the local supposedly rural area. [It] is downright offensive to propose such a monstrosity. Our lives will be negatively impacted emotionally and financially [it] will devalue our homes. We are in favour of new homes, but never envisaged such towers on our back door.”

While ultimately approved after being appealed to An Bord Pleanala, this was on the condition that the project would be scaled down from 137 to 116 homes.

Of the seven projects examined, four were granted permission but then appealed to An Bord Pleanala.

Of the remaining three, one is yet to be decided, one was granted and one was rejected.

Who is doing the objecting – and why

Regarding the nature of the observations, perhaps the results of the experiment are unsurprising. Those who are most likely to be in favour of a housing project going ahead – young people living at home, those on the social housing list – are unlikely to make submissions.

Councillors and housing experts have suggested this could be due to the fact that they are less likely to have the time, knowledge and resources to do so. Or that, not owning property in their area, they feel less invested in it. The reasons are not exactly clear.

However, what is clear is why people object. Some of the concerns are legitimate. Ireland has an unfortunate reputation for building homes, promising services will arrive later, and then not delivering them for years, if ever.

This strains local infrastructure, with everything from more traffic to school waiting lists running to years.

However, the obvious solution for this should be more services, not fewer homes. Denser housing could actually help existing residents.

More density makes it easier to justify services such as higher-frequency bus routes, while more footfall in smaller areas can improve the viability of local businesses.

Existing residents could use new housing projects as an opportunity to improve their area, rather than trying to scrap developments altogether.

The population is increasing, these extra people have to live somewhere, and higher-density urban developments limit urban sprawl.

Despite attracting significant attention, the impact of Nimbys is often overstated.

Councils make decisions based on their local area plans. If projects conform to the standards of these plans, chances are good they will be approved.

This is borne out by the fact that of the projects examined which were decided, five of six were cleared to go ahead, despite near-unanimous objections.

At a larger scale, there are currently tens of thousands of apartments in the Dublin area alone which have received planning approval, but where construction has not yet started due to a variety of reasons.

But even with all that in mind, it’s unlikely that thousands of residents would spend their time and money lodging submissions if they were all pointless.

Some submissions progress to objections to An Bord Pleanála and judicial reviews, which have a tangible impact in terms of delays.

But the likely effect of most of the objections is in the intangibles, such as how local area plans are drawn up, and how density and height are perceived by councils in the first place.

In local authorities such as Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, many parts of the local area plan mention height limits of five storeys.

Anyone reading through council decisions will find that while they stick to local area plan guidelines, there is often an innate cautiousness where density and height are often reduced.

In short – those who engage most in local planning matters tend to be overwhelmingly against new development. While many of their points are understandable in isolation, on a wider scale it would be welcome to see residents recognise that higher density could help to improve services in their areas.

For a generation desperate for new housing, they can say nothing and leave the soft power with those pushing for less density, less height, for plans to always be scaled down. Or they can make their voices heard.

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