State is incapable of strategic planning for house location and so must look to Europe
Following the recent episodes of severe flooding, we need to consider how the Irish planning system can be reformed in order to protect families from further misery. While the spectacle of modern houses marooned in rural water-land evokes sympathy, it also creates frustration at the failed planning system that allowed those scenes to reach crisis point.
For many years, map-based data has shown us where these inundations are likely to occur. Yet, too many county councils did not guide housebuilders away from these waterlogged places. Those seeking locally inspired progress will remain frustrated.
We need to make this an EU issue. The case for wider reform is supported by the recent Paris climate summit and it is hard to understand why obvious remedies are not already being implemented.
Planning authorities have a duty of care to the wider community because the common good is at the heart of the Irish planning code. In too many cases this ethos has been neglected or ignored. Reasons for this failure include political patronage, managerial incompetence and sheer inertia.
Following so many repeated flooding episodes, it is reasonable to penalise those councils that place political patronage above the common good. There should likewise be a sanction for gross inefficiency and the predictable destruction that follows it. It is no longer acceptable either that misguided parochial attachments should be allowed to trump the pursuit of good planning.
It is easy to identify errant councils that have persisted in granting planning permissions for random housing in areas clearly quite unsuitable. Most Shannon-side counties have fostered a settlement strategy dominated by random single houses. We need hardly be surprised therefore that so many of those homes end up waterlogged in wet ground.
Did these councils expect the wells to stay unpolluted, or the septic tanks to function underwater? We should admit that some rural councils evince aspects of dysfunctionality, proving again how smaller local authorities, with modest in-house expertise, have to be amalgamated to achieve rational functionality.
The Minister for the Environment has power to bring in the necessary reform, ie directing each county council to show in its development plan those areas liable to flooding, with an associated policy clearly stating all random housing will be expressly excluded from those identified lands. Anything less should be regarded as a failure of proper planning and sustainable development. In a reformed code, only bona fide farmhouses would be permitted there, and no compensation would be expected by the occupants if flooding episodes occur subsequently. This reform is necessary on public health grounds as well as for the safety of people concerned. It is time for the Minister for the Environment to issue the necessary directive.
While this obviously needed reform would be warmly welcomed, experience suggests it may not be forthcoming. It must be regretted that the Custom House has been not associated with evidence-based innovation since the 1980s when the then minister closed down its research wing. The absence of that research has spurred developer-led planning such as the ghost estates that should have ended with the Mahon tribunal. However, an adequate strategic framework is still missing. When an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease occurs, the location of farm animals is controlled. Why is the plight of human beings not considered more urgently before severe flooding?
Each flooding episode reminds us how tardy the Irish political establishment has been in dealing with this issue. For this reason we need to seek reform within the wider context of the EU. A precedent is provided by the growing influence of the EU habitats directive. Likewise, Irish citizens have recourse to the European court system, so why not have recourse to a Euro-environment reform agency to secure the sustainable location of houses?
This coming year is likely to see a chorus of Irish people encouraging Britain to remain within the EU. If we really believe in the EU project, it must be made amenable to purposes such as flood control and the planning reform to accompany it.
Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant