Planning the land war
The Irish and the Jews share a fascination with the ‘land’. In Ireland today, most of us will settle for a plot to build a house on, a sense of ownership. The Irish have the highest rate of home ownership in Europe. The Jews’ love of the land is rooted in their psyche. It runs deep. It is the blood in their veins. It is the sound of their prayer. It is part of their faith. They believe they have a divine right – literally – to the land, the land of milk and honey, handed over to them after their long trek from Egypt. They believe the land was bestowed on them by God. They are the chosen people.
In Ireland, sometimes we think we are the chosen race of the Creator. Many have dined out on the term ‘an island of saints and scholars’ when it suited. Today, while the Jewish land question is being fought out under the cedars of Lebanon, our main land question was raised by Michael Davitt and the Land League in the late 1800s. The romantic notion is rising to the top as we commemorate the centenary of Davitt’s death but murder and mayhem was a feature of the Land League struggle. Michael Davitt eventually adopted the non-violent approach to life.
Today, thankfully, there is only verbal warfare over land in this country. The towns and cities are being over-run with tax incentives for the rich, pushing up prices and making it more difficult for the Mr or Ms Regular Person to own a home. Similar schemes operate in some rural areas. Houses have become a commodity. One of our basic needs as human beings – shelter – has been prostituted. Unwittingly and unknowingly, our very own Babylon has been created. A price has been put on her head and she will go to the highest bidder, making money for her paymasters, the developers, government and those who can afford to buy. Coupled with this scenario in this country is the issue of planning permission. Most of it centres on planning permission. It is back to the plot of land and the sense of ownership. The question is where to build. Without this licence you have nothing. Applying for it is easy, securing it is another issue. Attempting to build in a rural area requires extra skills for any sane person.
Imagine having to ‘prove’ to a planner that you have a ‘housing need’. This is the latest buzz term in planning circles. Yet, despite the seeming annoyance caused by this, rural Ireland will lose out if all it can facilitate is holiday homes and houses for people who live in the parish but because of work, do not contribute to community life. Living in a community, no matter how rural, means responsibilities towards that community. That is why so many of the tax incentive schemes are so morally wrong. They were nothing more than money-making rackets designed to benefit a few political lackies at the expense of local communities. The temptation now for ‘officialdom’ is to tip the balance the other way, thereby affecting genuine people who want to live in rural Ireland.
Various politicians have been ‘growling’ over rural planning issues. Council officials state that the refusal rate is about 4%. Quite so, but that excludes planning applications that were withdrawn after the applicant was informed that a refusal was imminent. Planners have become the target, yet they believe they are just doing their job. They are conscious of the ‘legacy’ attached to their decisions, with consequences for generations. There are strange ‘buildings’ masquerading as houses, just as there are exemplary examples of good planning.
The ongoing row over rural planning centres on the balance between implementing the County Development Plan and guidelines issued in April 2005 by Minister Dick Roche from the Department of the Environment and Local Government, called Sustainable Rural Housing. Some councillors claim that the planners’ interpretations of these guidelines are too literal. They accuse the planners of keeping to the spirit of the guidelines as proposed by the Minister. He states that 40% of the Irish population live in rural areas. That rises to 70% in some counties.
The Minister states: “All planning authorities should take immediate steps to review their development plans with a view to incorporating any changes necessary to ensure that development plan policies are consistent with the policies set out in these guidelines.”
He also states: “Different policies are needed, for example, for areas with declining populations as compared with areas in which there are overspill issues associated with proximity to large cities or towns.”
In policy terms, under the National Spatial Strategy, it was important to distinguish between ‘housing needed in rural areas within the established rural community by persons working in rural areas or in nearby urban areas (rural generated housing), and housing in rural locations sought by persons living and working in urban areas, including second homes (urban generated housing)’.
“Implementation of the rural settlement policy framework of the National Spatial Strategy must be followed through in the planning process at local level.”
The policy aims of planning authorities are summed up as: “The importance of encouraging development needed to sustain and renew established rural communities in both smaller rural towns and villages and wider countryside areas; the need to ensure that the planning system guides residential and other development to the right locations in rural areas in the interest of protecting natural and man-made assets in those areas; and the need to analyse the different types of economic, social and physical circumstances of different types of rural areas and to tailor planning policies to respond to these differing local circumstances.”
Section 2.4 Guiding Development states: “The planning system seeks to encourage and support appropriate development at the most suitable locations. Objective policies and unambiguous criteria will both aid persons preparing applications for permission to carry out development and build wider public support for the planning system.”
The guidelines also refer to the link with the Development Plan: “It is therefore vitally important that the development plan sets out a clear policy framework relating to rural settlement and that other relevant parts of the development plan are consistent with this policy framework. … this framework must be grounded in national policy, other planning guidelines made under Section 28 of the Act and must be supported by an appropriate analytical base. The framework must also be linked to other key elements of the development plan such as the housing strategy made under Section 94 of the Act … Section 10(2) of the Act sets out a number of objectives which development plans must include. Many of these mandatory objectives address issues of relevance to the consideration of housing proposals in rural areas…”
The Guidelines mention rural area types, house types, holiday homes, second homes, landscape, natural and cultural features, natural resources, siting and design, transport, roads, boundaries, water quality, occupancy conditions, design, etc.
The war of words over land and rural planning can be resolved with the review of the County Development Plan if ALL councillors read the Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines….for a start.