A Timely Debate on Rural Housing Policy?

Finally with the catalyst of proposed introduction of the septic tank charge we may have the genesis of a long overdue informed and genuine debate on Irelands highly dispersed settlement pattern. For years many have tried and failed. Back in 1976 the then An Foras Forbartha wrote a prescient report on the public and private costs associated with a proliferation of one-off housing showing that dispersed housing costs between three and five times more for the State to service. Cheered on by the Ireland’s  ‘Tammany Hall’ political class, unrelenting in their constituency pandering, low-level corruption, cronyism and zero-sum opportunistic politics, this empirically based report was shelved and An Foras Forbartha later quietly abolished for daring to question this ‘honey pot’ of electoral capital. This is the same political class who brought us, among other things, deregulated casino capitalism, the property bubble, industrial schools, disastrous planning, decentralisation, ghost estates, the HSE, a balooning budget deficit etc. All have one thing in common – a chronic near-sighted short-termism leading to long term collective disaster and massive costs to society.

And so it has proved once again with one-off housing. As the excellent recent Irish Times article notes, organisations like An Taisce (who have developed a habit of being proved right time and time again) were pilloried from high for also daring to suggest that we may be storing up huge problems and costs for the future and that the quality of our shared water resources must be prioritised over individual property rights. This sound advice was rejected in favour of endemic political populism and cryptosporidium .

Evidence from County Cavan, where, without any controversy, an inspection system has been in place since 2004 with a registration charge of 100, suggests that 25% of private of septic tanks fail with remediation costs of between 2,000 and 5,000. If this was replicated nationally the ultimate bill could be anywhere between €250 million and 625 million. I suspect that the failure rate in vulnerable regions (mostly in Karst limestone regions in the west of Ireland) will be far higher and the ultimate bill could run to over a billion euro. Tens of thousands of these unsewered dwellings permitted by planning authorities (often under pressure from Councillors) would not comply with current EPA standards and should never have been granted planning permission. Remediation cost per dwelling could run to €10,000. This is yet another example of the disastrous consequences of Ireland’s laissez faire planning regime.

Today, with rising fuel prices, many rural families spend more on petrol than fuel and rural poverty is rising and will be unable to shoulder this cost. A hardship fund will need to be established to remediate faulty septic tanks for those who cant pay. This will require the hard pressed Irish tax payers to foot the bill again. At the same time the Irish tax payer is pumping billions into our urban waste water treatment plants through the Water Service Investment Programme (again under massive threat of fines from Europe). Exchequer funds are being spent on huge wastewater treatment plant upgrades in cities, towns and villages while people are choosing to live in unsewered rural areas.

With over 90% of new housing development now unsewered one-off dwellings – will this serious misuse of tax payers money prompt a rethink of current rural housing policy?

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One thought on “A Timely Debate on Rural Housing Policy?

  1. Instead of a hardship fund to engage in septic tank remediation, would it not be more sensible to have the local authority buy the house (at market value) and demolish it as part of the slow road to eliminating one off rural housing.

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