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A Suburbanised Countryside – Delusional IFA Rural Planning Policy

‘It is a far far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to set sail on the troubled seas of thought’  J.K. Galbraith.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the stranglehold that the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) exerts on Irish society is their unabashed propensity to scaremonger (most recently in respect of proposed CAP reforms) and to publish ‘policy documents’ which are entirely irrational and, moreover, plain daft.  Few other reputable lobby groups would have the gall to try and pull such stunts off without at least checking the facts. However, as they are the exalted representative organisation of Ireland’s landowning class and the largest store of real wealth in Irish society (even if Irish primary agriculture currently contributes less than 3% of Irish GDP) reputation is irrelevant to the IFA who are rarely challenged and very seldom fail to gain media coverage for their unthinking propaganda. Given the political power wielded by the IFA, the very fact that Irish agriculture is doing well at present (due to global factors and not any domestic policy intervention) must be a continuing source of quiet relief to the current Government. They may pray that global commodity prices remain high to help soothe the introduction of required initiatives in the EU-IMF deal including property taxes, water metering, a tripling of the carbon tax and, separately, septic tank charges. If agricultural prices fall they may have a significant angry foe constantly on their coat tails.

Take for example their recently published policy document entitled ‘The Irish Countryside: A Place For Living, Working and Enjoyment’. The document, which appears to have been at least co-written by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association (IRDA – No Website) and states:

‘Our traditional pattern of homes spread across rural Ireland has created a living countryside that sustains rural communities. It ensures that rural depopulation does not emerge and that a balanced age profile occurs in the countryside. This in turn maximises the number of people participating in education, sports, social activity and commerce in the local community.’

As a means to an end and other factors set-aside, perhaps this might be fantastic if it were true but there is absolutely no evidence to support this statement. The recently released preliminary result of Census 2011 confirms the trends of the previous inter-censal period. Despite record rural one-off house building in the past decade [+166,000] population decline in many rural DEDs has continued unabated (See Map 3).

A schoolchild association between additional rural house building and preventing rural depopulation may lead one to the simplistic conclusion of the creation ‘of a living countryside’. As usual the reality is much more complex. The proliferation of one-off housing in recent years masks significant spatial variations (It also ignores high vacancy rates in rural areas). Increased personal mobility (private car use) has skewed the vast majority of new one-off house builds towards the wider hinterlands of cities and towns. Far from creating ‘a living countryside’ we have created ‘a suburbanised countryside’ where new residents are simply seeking a rural idyll (the average size of a rural one-off house is a very large 252 sq.m) and have little or no functional connection to the rural locality. But for the presence of a large town or city within convenient commuting distance these dwellings would simply not exist i.e. they are urban generated rural housing. This point is well made in the excellently detailed 2010 EPA Report ‘Sustainable Rural Development – Managing Housing in the Countryside’ and is clearly visible from spatial mapping. Interestingly the local IFA in Laois understand this conundrum and in a recent submission to the Laois County Development Plan review stated that farmers should be allow to cash crop their road frontage but new (non-farming) residents must be forbidden from complaining about the pong of agricultural activities like slurry spreading!

The IFA will no doubt respond that it matters little as to why they are there as long as farmer’s (landowner’s) sons and daughters retain preferential pedigree property rights to build freely and to benefit from the significant de facto state subsidisation. To that I would say – study the concept of ‘Economic Rent’ i.e externalisation. An Foras Forbartha found in their (buried) 1976 report that it costs the State (tax payer) between three and five times more to service a one-off dwelling than an urban dwelling. The EPA report referred to above also concluded that there are very considerable social or external costs to scattered rural residential development. Fingal County Council’s 2010 Development Plan also concluded same and I have synthesised all of the economic and other costs on this website. The IFA will counter that rural tax payers also subsidise urban areas. The extent of the cross subsidisation flow from urban to rural in respect of rural housing is too great to cover in this blog post however it suffices to say that society exists to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number and not for narrow and privileged sectional interests.

 The IFA Report goes on to state:

 ‘However, families who chose to live in the Irish countryside encounter many difficulties including: inflexible planning regulations, the poor state of rural roads, inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, and they share concerns regarding proposed septic tank inspections and charge’

This again is an interesting statement given that in the past decade 166,000 one-off houses were granted planning permission – the highest since records began (See Table 42). In 2006 there were just under 400,000 one-off houses in the State and the 2011 Census will probably (conservatively) confirm 450,000. In County Donegal, for example, 17,000 one-off houses were granted in the past decade amounting to 85% of all planning permissions (3,200 are currently vacant and 2,800 are holiday homes). With just 15% of all planning permissions relating to urban areas it is not apparent that Donegal County Council operates a restrictive regime. The truth is generally alarmingly simple for a person with a semblance of a ‘local need’ to gain planning permission as the statistics bear out. It is usually a matter of getting a letter from the local parish priest or joining the local GAA. The cases where a planning authority tries to impose some token of order (i.e. common good) are usually those which gain most prominence in media and political circles. There are currently approximately 128,000 family farms in Ireland. The statistics show that there was at least one house granted per farm in the past ten years.

 Interestingly the IFA report states at the outset:

 IFA Countryside is dedicated to being the effective voice for rural Ireland by campaigning on rural issues, providing real cost-saving benefits and offering valuable support services for all those who live, work or simply enjoy the Irish countryside.’

Ironically it seems lost on the IFA that it is because of Ireland’s unique dispersed settlement pattern which is causing the poor state of rural roads, inadequate telecommunications infrastructure, and condemning so many rural households proposed septic tank inspections and charge. For example, in recent years the Government spent €500 million per annum on our 92,000 km of non-national roads (just €5,400 per km) – an amount which is surely unsustainable in an era of austerity. With the high loading factor on our local road network due to our dispersed housing trends and high private vehicle use it is likely that quality of rural roads will continue to deteriorate (particularly if harsh winters persist). Moreover, even if you are pre-programmed not to accept the high costs to society of dispersed settlement patterns (and borne by all tax payers) even the private cost of living for rural householders has been shown by recent research to be significantly higher than for urban households primarily due to the unavoidable cost of private transportation. With petrol prices predicted to inflate significantly (by as much as 30%) in coming years and well flagged increases in carbon taxes rural living costs are likely to get significantly worse. The continued proliferation of dispersed housing will ensure that these costs are borne both privately but also, more inequitably, publicly. IFA policy is therefore condemning more and more people to a life of increased poverty and reduced standard of living.

 Most alarmingly the document goes on to state:

 ‘The stated objective of the planning appeals body, An Bord Pleanála, is to refuse more and more applications for single dwelling family homes in the countryside. This position is further supported by the lack of any representation of rural Ireland on the Board of An Bord Pleanála.’

 For An Bord Pleanála to have such a ‘stated objective’ would be entirely ultra vires, illegal and this statement is therefore completely false (They don’t by the way). All Board members are appointed by Government after being nominated by professional panels. To call for a Board member to represent rural interests is strange given that there is no one on the Board that represents urban interests (unless you believe that all planners and engineers are de facto urbanists!).  The purpose of the Board is that they represent no interest and adjudicate impartially based on proper planning and sustainable development. The IFA might also be reminded that less than 7% of all planning applications in the State are adjudicated by the Board. 93% are adjudicated by planning authorities which have been by and large favourably disposed towards one-off houses and implemented the carte blanche set out the Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines 2005 (an average of 17,000 per annum since 2000. It was the uncontrolled proliferation of one-off houses over the past decade for persons who are not intrinsically linked to the countryside (i.e. farmers selling sites) which has now made it increasingly more difficult (and more expensive due to inflated land prices) for bona fide rurally generated housing needs to be met particularly in the context of stringent new Water Framework Directive legal obligations.

 Finally, the document goes on to recommend:

 ‘The Sustainable Rural Housing – Guidelines for Planning Authorities must be revisited to favour rural housing and should be put on a statutory footing. The Guidelines should oblige local authorities to grant planning permission for families who wish to live and work in their local community, and for sons and daughters of farmers who have an intrinsic link with the rural area.’

 While the Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines are already on a statutory footing (S.28 of the Planning & Development Act 2000) and clearly already favour rural housing, to oblige local authorities to grant planning permission to persons of a certain family lineage trumping all other considerations (e.g. water, traffic, landscape, biodiversity, design etc) would again be illegal (in fact, unconstitutional) (see An Blascaod Mor Teoranta v. The Commissioners of Public Works) and ill advised. It is precisely because this approach was adopted in the past why Ireland is consistently in the dock at the European Court of Justice including for the aforementioned absent septic tank regulatory regime. Interestingly, the IFA are also seeking publicly funded grant assistance where deficiencies are discovered in septic tanks (further public subsidisation which is highly likely given the cowboy culture which existed until recently in the site assessment industry) and for the EPA Code of Practice for Private Waste Water Treatment Systems to be set-aside putting the State at further risk of substantial ECJ fines (which would also be covered by the tax payer).

 It upon reading such documents that one must be thankful that we are still governed at arms length by the EU environmental law and not subjected to the irresponsible vagrancies of IFA political pressure.