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?

A timely move

I was just about to write a post similar to this and then it appears in today’s Irish Times!

ACCORDING TO the polluter pays principle, those responsible for damaging the environment are required to meet the clean-up costs. The concept of civic responsibility is equally well established.

But after 90 years as an independent State, a mentality persists that regards government regulations in defence of the common good as unwelcome and unjustified interference. Arising from that attitude, plans to protect public health and the environment by registering and inspecting septic tanks are being strongly resisted in rural Ireland.

Protesters from Galway West, hurrahed on by former minister Éamon Ó Cuív, described the legislation to safeguard public health and minimise water pollution as “an injustice to rural people . . . an insult”. Apart from the emotional rhetoric, they suggested that three-quarters of all septic tanks in Connemara would not meet standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. That is a startling figure. It points to a complete breakdown in proper planning for one-off housing. If the projected 75 per cent failure rate is not part of a scare campaign, inspections would cause problems not just for householders but for those who encouraged free-for-all planning.

Various EU directives forced successive governments to address issues of pollution and the protection of drinking water quality. But the issue of sporadic, low-level pollution caused by some farming practices and neglected septic tanks was largely ignored. It has been two years since the European Court of Justice ruled that Ireland was in breach of its obligation to protect public health and inspect septic tanks. Legislation before the Oireachtas has been designed to respond to that ruling while avoiding financial penalties.

Ireland is unusual in that one-third of the population lives in the open countryside. It is a matter of choice. During the boom years, one of the most common complaints was that planning requirements for one-off rural housing were far too restrictive. Politicians encouraged the notion that property conveyed rights, but not obligations. An Taisce was pilloried for attempting to maintain basic planning standards, as were fishery boards that objected to damage to water quality. Many ageing septic tanks have rarely, if ever, been serviced. They pose an immediate threat to their owners and neighbours. Remedial work should be conducted on the grounds that the polluter pays and of basic civic responsibility. This legislation is both timely and proportionate.

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.

The Cost of Ignorance – Fingal Councillors at it Again!

Text of email issued to all Fingal County Councillors

Dear Councillor
It is extremely disappointing to hear of the recent Council meeting regarding the Fingal County Development Plan and the Motions put down by certain Councillors with respect to one-off rural housing which dominated large parts of the meeting and agenda. In these straitened economic times where the focus should be solely on the major economic, social and environmental issues of the day it is very disheartening that pandering to the vested interests of the minority who are fortunate enough to have access to land are put ahead of the common good of the majority of the residents of County Fingal. Despite all we have been through and the new enlightenment on the role that our malleable land-use planning system had in the property bubble and crash, it is difficult to accept that near-sighted parish pump politics is alive and well in County Fingal.
You may have noticed the report by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice found referenced in today’s Irish Times which found that the cost of living for a rural dwellers is significantly higher than for urban dwellers because of higher transport costs. These costs are likely to increase over time as oil and carbon prices inflate over the medium-term resulting in significant poverty and social inequality issues together with further funding burdens to the Exchequer at a time when we can ill-afford any additional COST inefficiencies. Furthermore, at a time when the State is managing an asset portfolio of Eur 81 billion in development land through NAMA that we could countenance the siphoning off of housing demand to unzoned unserviced rural locations.
This State is currently pumping billions of Euro of tax-payers money into infrastructure in zoned and serviced urban areas, including though the Water Services Investment Programme. There is an onus of responsibility on local authority members to ensure that this investment by the tax payer is maximised for the greater good of society as a whole.
The European Court of Justice last year ruled against Ireland in relation to private on-site waste water treatment systems (ref. case C-188/08). The Court found that Ireland has failed to fulfill its obligations under that Directive. The result of this ruling is that all private waste-water treatment systems in Ireland will be required to be subject to a monitoring and licensing regime adding further financial burdens to rural dwellers.

I would recommend that before considering the development plan further you also might read the following key reports.

IPI President Responds to Marian Harkin’s Bogus Analysis of CSO Data

Text of Letter from IPI President, Gerry Sheeran to The Irish Times (to be published)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The following is the text of a letter sent by IPI President Gerry Sheeran to the Editor, The Irish Times on the subject of one-off rural housing.  The letter is expected to be published 3rd March 2010.


Marian Harkin, MEP in her letter (26th February) states that my press release in The Irish Times of 13th February does not remotely represent the true figure for one-off houses in the countryside. She said the figure I was using was for Aggregate Rural Areas which included houses on individual septic tanks in towns with a population up to 1,500 as well as in rural areas. The Census does have a figure to measure individual houses in Aggregate Rural Areas but it is not the figure I have used.

The Census 2006, figure that I’ve used is for one-off houses given in Table 42, Volume 6 and the census states “One-off houses are defined as detached houses in rural areas with an individual septic tank or other individual sewerage treatment system”

The figure I gave for the current amount of one-off houses in the State was 450,000. This consists of 396,486 one-off houses given in the Census, 2006. Since that time (and given that it takes approximately a year to complete a house from the grant of planning permission) 73,000 one-off houses were granted planning permission in period 2005-2008. Taking a conservative estimate that only about 55,000 of these were built gives the figure of 450,000.

In any case, disputing marginal issues in statistics cannot mask the proliferation of one-off houses in the State from 156,000 in 1971 to the current amount. Since the Government issued in 2005 “Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines” to deal with this issue, planning permissions for one-off houses have continued at an unsustainable level. Apart from the environmental and social cost of the proliferation of one-off houses, there is economic cost in that it costs 3 times as much to service rural houses compared to those in villages, towns and cities in terms of road infrastructure, electricity, telecommunications, post, water supply and school transport. These costs, embedded in the various utilities, are paid for by the whole community.

The National Spatial Strategy, 2002-2020, deals with the demand for rural housing in 3 different types of rural areas ranging from those under pressure from and peripheral to cities to weak rural areas suffering population and economic decline. Even in regard the weak rural areas the NSS states” The long term answer to strengthening structurally weak areas requires the strengthening of the structure of villages and towns in these areas” There is a serious problem with the decline of many rural areas and this needs to be addressed by a coordinated package of measures and a review of the Government’s “White Paper on Rural Development, 1999”. Certainly, allowing a proliferation of one-off houses, most of which are for those working and commuting to cities and towns, is not a sustainable policy response.

I have stated that rural housing is required for those involved in essential rural activities and those who have a very close connection with the land. I would agree with Marian Harkin that there are serious deficiencies in water and sewerage in many of our towns and villages. This needs to be addressed along with the provision of a proportion of serviced sites in our towns and villages where people can build individual houses.

It is important that the development of our rural areas isn’t ad hoc but is evidence based and plan led. Rather than being confrontational, I would welcome discussion among the various stakeholders to achieve this.

Gerry Sheeran
IPI President


One-Off Ireland Responds to Deputy Andrew Doyle’s Dail Comments

Andrew Doyle TD - Fond of Political Opportunism

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.