PERHAPS Goldsmith had foreseen the effects of the Section 23 tax incentive when he penned his epic ‘Deserted Village’. Perhaps a lot of us claim to have foretold the dangers. It’s easy, after all, to be a prophet in hindsight.
Regardless of who introduced it or who heralded its potential pitfalls, its consequences are now being felt. In Achill more acutely than in most places. There the term ‘absentee landlords’ has been re-introduced to the vernacular, referring to the number of holiday homes that lie strewn across the island - and lie unoccupied for the greater portion of each year. When the Section 23 form of tax relief was introduced in 1997, under the Taxes Consolidation Act, Achill was one of the areas designated for the scheme. The idea behind the scheme was that developers would be tempted to build in areas where houses needed to be built and where developers would not normally consider treading, in return for generous tax breaks. It seemed like a laudable idea at the time. And for a long time after. With housing scheme after housing scheme coming on-stream, there was a perception of regeneration in places like Achill, and there was a steady flow of jobs from the construction work involved.
But it was a double-edged sword (and many would argue that both sides pierced the heart of the island). Because, while there were positives in the short term, it created a monster that is now wreaking havoc in the long-term.
According to the island’s new Strategic Development Plan, 2007-2013, the ‘absentee landlords’ problem is one of the main threats to the future development of Achill and the realisation of its vast potential. The island’s peripheral location, its dwindling population (particularly in the 25-44 age category), the lack of capital investment in the area and the dearth of community facilities are all limiting factors too in its advancement, but the issue of hundreds of houses lying vacant for 90% of the year not only creates an eerie deserted village-type atmosphere, but also threatens local B&B businesses and, most significantly of all, prices many local people out of the housing market in the area.
Having created the monster through legislation, surely it would now be appropriate for the lawmakers, either at local or national level, to try to redress the issue, instead of giving it the elephant-in-the-corner treatment.
Instead of holding their breath in anticipation of such a move, however, the good people of Achill are seeking to deal with the difficulty in their own way, while pressing on with other matters too. Having identified the problem of vacant houses, they have also proposed a solution of a kind: to develop off-season training courses and activities in the holiday homes, thereby creating employment. Who says it isn’t possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?
There are plenty of other interesting aspects of the plan too, the first being its compilation in the first place, under the auspices of Comhlacht Forbartha Áitiúil Acla, and under the chairmanship of Pat Kilbane. That enough people and community organisations in the various villages that comprise the parish of Achill were willing to work together to develop a plan for the island’s medium-term future is testament to the kind of community spirit and get-up-and-do-it attitude that exists there. Never has Achill allowed its limiting factors to hold it back, never has it whinged about a lack of support. Instead, it has recognised that, in return for possessing one of the most beautiful natural landscapes and locations in the world, it must be proactive in promoting itself. Relying on others to do everything for them has never been the wont of Achill people, and never will be, one suspects.
Having carried out a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, a set of strategic objectives and recommendations for achieving these objectives was drawn up, and this forms the basis of the plan going forward.
Achill will do all in its power to fulfil the objectives of its plan in the years to come. A little bit of help in dealing with issues beyond its control wouldn’t go amiss.