Saturday, October 28, 2006

The cost of land.

We have one of the least densely populated countries in Europe and yet we also have among the highest land prices. This defies logic until you factor in the zoning and planning laws which can turn landowners into multi-millionaires overnight.

The inflated value of development land has enriched landowners, impoverished house buyers and significantly increased the risk of corruption in the planning system.

The controversy over the cost of land for the new prison at Thornton Hall, at c. €200k per acre, surely suggests that it’s time we tried looking at this through the other end of the telescope.

Instead of incremental rezonings to meet anticipated demand for housing and commercial development, which are open to all sorts of political and financial chicanery, we should be rezoning large swathes of the country with the deliberate objective of creating a significant oversupply of land zoned for residential and commercial purposes.

For example, it might become policy to rezone all land within a certain radius of all towns and villages, with specific exclusions for existing public amenities, heritage and cultural sites etc..

The immediate effect of this oversupply should be to significantly reduce the cost of a site, while concentrating future development in clusters around existing population centres. Availability of more affordable sites should alleviate the demand, with consequent political pressure, for ribbon-development. It should also increase the incidence of one-off houses, providing greater variety in the housing stock and, hopefully, removing the anomaly of “town-house” estates in the middle of nowhere.

The creation of an oversupply of rezoned land should not result in a significantly increased number of houses actually being built - normal market supply/demand factors should take care of that.

The benefits to the house purchaser are clear - far greater choice of location and significantly reduced site costs.

Such a policy would have limited benefit in Dublin, given the scarcity of available land. But expansion of development opportunities in the commuter belt and improved affordability would presumably have some knock-on impact on house/site prices.

The only downside I see is the potential cost of provision of water, sewage and electricity services and there might be a need to revise the regulations regarding provision of some of these services. And, of course, the distress caused to those who currently hold development land of hugely inflated paper value, whose bubble would be burst.

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