Dear Deputy Doyle,
I refer to your recent contribution to Dail in respect of the Planning & Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 in which you stated:
‘Of late, one would come to the conclusion that dispersed rural communities were responsible for climate change, road infrastructure being shot to pieces, and a burden on all infrastructure. However, when one considers the crime figures and social cohesion it is difficult to sustain the argument that the social fabric in dispersed rural communities is not as good if not better than any big urban settlements where people live on top of each other and need public transport.’ [Dail Record]
Quite apart to it being difficult to sustain arguments contrary to your opinion, the viewpoint you expressed demonstrates a startling and disturbing lack of understanding of very basic planning principles and the interaction between population dispersal and the social and physical degeneration of Ireland’s towns and cities. All empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that housing and development sprawl undermines the vitality and viability of urban centres and is a key causative factor in the creation of social exclusion and acute social marginalisation in urban areas. The embedded costs of which you speak (e.g. crime, Garda resources, drug addiction, alcoholism, youth pregnancy, family breakdown etc) which are burdened on the State as a consequence of spatial sprawl are shared by the whole of society, including one-off rural dwellers. Indeed the President of Irish Planning Institute, Mr. Gerry Sheeran, made this very point in an article in the Irish Times as recently as Saturday last.
Building a one-off rural house in Ireland is an opportunity which, while widespread, is a luxury which is afforded only to a select sub-section of Irish society i.e. those who have free access to land or have the financial means by which to purchase it. In his Dail contribution to the Planning & Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 your colleague Deputy Phil Hogan described the measures included in the Bill as ‘social engineering of the worst kind’. The reverse is in fact true. The current status quo in respect of the continued proliferation of one-off rural housing and ex-urban sprawl in Ireland is highly inequitable, results in increased gentrification of rural areas and entrenches deep social divisions in Irish society while simultaneously undermining our towns and cities. Studies from all over the world have highlighted the direct linear causative relationship between development sprawl and car dependency with social exclusion, inequality and marginalisation.
Data from the CSO clearly shows that there are over 400,000 one-off rural dwellings in Ireland and that the average size of all one-off dwellings is 250 sq.m. This is over twice the size of the average urban dwelling. While the residents of one-off rural dwellings may indeed enjoy a heightened quality of life, this comes at a significant cost to everyone else. The cost to the state of servicing each new one-off rural dwelling is at least three times higher to that of an urban dwelling. This was demonstrated as far back in the 1976 report of An Foras Forbatha. As a consequence, urban dwellers in actual fact subsidise rural dwellers and the profligate locked-in costs represent a significant structural handicap to the future economic development of the State.
It is also extremely important to note that not one of the 9,000 one-off houses granted in the first three quarters of 2009 or the 158,000 permitted since 2001 contributed in any way towards the provision of social and affordable housing for others as they are exempt from Part V of the Planning & Development Act 2000.
It should be borne in mind that while rural resources are likely to become increasingly important in the future for employment creation, it is cities and towns which are the key drivers of innovation and economic activity as only urban centres can provide the critical mass of population and scalability necessary to deliver significant and sustained employment opportunities. The vast majority of one-off rural dwellers in Ireland commute to cities or towns for employment and to avail of services. The undermining of urban areas therefore also negatively impacts on rural dwellers.
There is a point in public debate when opinions must diverge from facts and leadership must be provided on issues regardless of their short-term unpopularity. It is extremely worrying that as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security and as a national parliamentarian that you continue to proffer extremely uninformed and irresponsible opinions on spatial development. Ireland is 97% dependent on oil energy for transport and is amongst the most private vehicle dependent countries in the world spending over €5.5 billion per annum on imported foreign oil. Our greenhouse gas emissions for transport are currently in excess of 170% over 1990 levels. As a result we will be required to reduce them by almost 200% in accordance with our EU 20/20/20 obligations. Rural travel accounts for some 80% of all vehicle miles travelled in Ireland each year. The only realistic way to address these significant issues is through a radical rethink of how we use our land.
Every economic and spatial planning policy document produced at EU, national, regional and local level for over twenty years has highlighted the critical importance of curbing spatial sprawl. These policy documents are produced to inform policy makers and it is incumbent on all persons with responsibility in this area to ensure they are not ignored in favour of political expediency.
In particular I would refer you to the most recent (October 2009) Statement on Energy produced by Forfas which stated:
‘Ireland has opted for a policy of land-use planning which has resulted in the sprawl of low-density housing developments. This approach, while socially popular, is not sustainable from an energy, environmental, climate change or quality-of-life perspective.’
I have no doubt whatsoever that in the fullness of time that, as increasingly is the case, your views and those of some of your colleagues on this issue, which is of such acute and particular significance to Ireland, will increasingly be dismissed as deeply flawed opportunism. Unfortunately the reality of politics is that the fullness of time is the next general election and this is time that Ireland cannot afford to waste. If Fine Gael is the party of prudent fiscal management then this pivotal issue cannot be ignored.
Myself and my colleagues would be more than happy to meet with you to discuss this matter further at any time of your choosing.