The Politicisation of the One-Off Housing Debate Continues

Marian Harkin - 'Disrepresenting' the facts for political ends.

Marian Harkin’s contribution to the one-off housing debate (Irish Times 26th of February 2010) demonstrates, like so many politicians, not only a startling lack of basic understanding of good planning principles but a worrying inability to read statistical data.

Table 42 of Volume 6 of the 2006 Census of Population records the number of one-off houses constructed in rural areas. One-off Houses are defined as ‘as detached houses in rural areas with an individual septic tank or other individual sewerage treatment system’.  The number of one-off houses recorded in ‘Rural Areas’ in 2006 was 396,000. Table 42 does not use the statistical concept ‘Aggregate Rural Area’ which, as Ms. Harkin correctly points out, includes all small settlements with a population of over 1,500 persons. The CSO maintains quarterly statistics of all one-off houses permitted nationwide. Since 2001, 158,000 one-off rural houses have been permitted in Ireland.

Ms. Harkin points to the ‘grossly inferior water and sewerage infrastructure’ in urban areas as a justification for the further proliferation on one-off housing. As a MEP, Ms. Harkin should be aware that in October 2009 the European Court of Justice (C-188/08) issued yet a further judgment against Ireland in respect to Ireland’s failure to transpose the EU Waste Directive. The judgment referred to domestic waste waters disposed of in the countryside through septic tanks and other individual waste water treatment. Ireland’s own defence argued that, since it is confronted with the management of 400,000 dwellings scattered in the countryside, the practical difficulties which the classification of such waste waters as ‘waste’ would be too onerous. The most recent report of the EPA Water Quality in Ireland 2007 – 2008 clearly shows a sustained deterioration in water quality in Ireland. Indeed, the European Commission successfully argued to the ECJ that there was strong evidence of the existence, in Ireland, of serious damage to the environment in connection with the use of septic tanks, without denial in that regard by Ireland.

Ms. Harkin also maintains that rural areas have a superior quality of life over urban areas. While this may be the case for those select people who are fortunate enough to have access to land or the means to purchase it, the suppressed 1976 report by the then An Foras Forbatha and a further study published by the EPA just this week, concludes that this enjoyment comes at a very significant cost to everyone else. Indeed, in Ms. Harkin’s own constituency there is currently considerable local anger over the failure of the HSE to deliver a cancer specialist centre of care to Sligo. This primarily due to the fact that Sligo ‘City’ does not have a critical mass of population to sustain such an acute facility and, as a result, constituents must commute considerable distance to Galway to avail of these services.

Conveniently Ms. Harkin does not draw any distinction between urban-generated and rural-generated one-off housing. Those of us who are so concerned with the magnitude of this issue in Ireland do not have any issue with respect to bona fide rural generated one-off housing. However, the vast majority of new one-off houses in Ireland are urban-generated and are a product of personal preference and cost. As a result of development sprawl, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions from transport have risen by a shameful 170% over 1990 levels. 80% of annual vehicle trips in Ireland occur in rural areas.  A 25km round trip commute by car would neutralise any advantages gained by energy-efficient house design.

Curbing the proliferation of one-off rural does not mean the death knell of rural Ireland. Indeed the opposite of true. The prudent channelling of future housing demand into our traditional network of towns and villages is the only means to ensure a high quality of life to rural citizens and maintain a viable rural population in an energy constrained future.

Heretofore an informed debate on this issue has been hindered by lack of reliable data. Now that official data is available Ms. Harkin must not be allowed ‘disrepresent’ it unchallenged.


Letter by Marian Harkin MEP (26/02/20)

Madam, – Gerry Sheeran, President of the Irish Planning Institute (Home News, February 13th), misrepresented statistics in furtherance of the ongoing campaign against building houses in rural areas.

He stated that since 1971, the number of one-off houses has increased from 156,000 to 450,000. However, the latter figure refers to detached houses in what are known as “aggregate rural areas”. This means all clusters of population with fewer than 1,500 people. It includes a huge number of towns and villages in every county where many of the houses are detached. The figure does not remotely represent the true figure for one-off houses in the open countryside.

He speaks of 12,000 individual houses completed in 2009 and while that figure is correct, Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown have more individual houses completed in 2009 than either Co Sligo, Offaly, Longford, Laois or Carlow. In fact, the number of individual houses in Dublin city in 2009 is greater than the number in all of Co Longford.

He says the proliferation of one-off housing was undermining rural towns by “siphoning” residential development from them. However, this is incorrect. According to the 2006 Census there was an increase of 51 per cent in houses built between 2000 and 2006 in open countryside in settlements of less than 50 houses. However, in settlements of towns of 500-999 population and in towns from 1,000 to 1,499 population, there was an increase of 145 per cent and 125 per cent respectively. This illustrates that the major increases in private dwellings occurred in small and medium sized towns and not as one-off houses.

Organisations such as the Irish Planning Institute which have an inordinate influence on national planning guidelines ignore obvious realities when advocating their policies.

Their recent suggestions that guidelines should be further prejudiced in favour of urban housing ignore the reality of grossly inferior water and sewerage infrastructure and the fact that so many urban areas are deficient in terms of quality of life.

Their policies also ignore the desirability of maintaining a healthy balance between urban and rural habitations. Although many parts of Ireland have majority rural populations – reflected in active communities, sustainable schools and sports clubs – the Irish Planning Institute (IPI) seems determined to alter the balance in favour of unsustainable urban development. – Yours, etc,



Emmet Place, Union Street,



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