Opinion: People living in rural Ireland cannot blame Dublin for the empty towns and villages

BACK WHEN THE government formation talks were taking place earlier this year, you probably remember how the term ‘rural TD’ was regularly used in the media; a person distinct from other TDs, one who was keen to solve rural Ireland’s development issues. Many people would agree with the ambition. It is essential that balanced regional development happens in a coordinated way, in a manner that makes sure our cities remain competitive in the world but that rural Ireland continues to have vibrant and healthy communities.

In most countries there has been a continued move to urban areas. Cities are getting larger, while rural areas face depopulation in many cases. Ireland is not an exception. Rural Ireland faces considerable challenges, its small towns and local villages most of all. Such villages and towns historically may once have been market towns, serving the farmlands and countryside around them. They contributed to the strong sense of community that is so unique to Ireland.

The village and small town is the spine of rural Ireland – or at least this was often the case in the past. However, recently we see more people moving to live in individual houses in the countryside, leaving many rural villages to face decline. It is a sad sight to pass through such villages, with empty townhouses and boarded up shops, and people rightly fear for their post offices, their services and their garda stations in these areas.

Unfortunately however, every rural house cannot be accompanied by a school, a bus stop, or a post office. Once a village falls below a critical level of population, or if we don’t reinforce our settlements by building in and around their boundaries, it is often hard to keep such services. Rural communities need to appreciate this.

The problem with one-off housing

Rural constituents and at times their TDs point to Dublin for answers. Yet we ignore our own role in this unfortunate trend. Little can be done to stop the move towards the cities, but in Ireland it appears that people have also been abandoning their rural towns and villages in favour of a house in the country.

When writing this short article I studied the census data for some counties in 2013. In Roscommon 100% of new units (although a small number in total) built in the county were classified as ‘one off’ dwellings. In Kerry and Cork, counties largely dependent on their landscape for tourism, approximately 75% and 66% of all new units respectively were ‘one offs’. Although this may include detached houses within settlements, the figures are still high.

For rural Ireland to overcome its challenges, its spine of rural towns and villages need to look to the past, where the local economy of the market towns helped them survive. We need village and small town renewal, but what decision-takers need to realise is that this is almost entirely dependent on people living in these villages and towns. With current levels of planning permissions in rural Ireland mostly being for one-off houses, the challenges facing regional development are stark, and any efforts at village renewal will be redundant.  I have great concern for places that do not benefit from tourism, in particular. However it may be an inconvenient truth, but those of us from rural Ireland cannot point to Dublin or Cork, and blame those ‘inside the M50’ for our decision to vacate our small rural towns in favour countryside living.

People need to return and live in these villages and small towns

Farmers and other people who live off the land (through forestry, for example) need to dwell there, yet a continued preference for large country homes seems to be now the most desired option for many. The issue of one-off housing has been well documented (groundwater, road safety, tourism impacts, etc) but its effect on smaller rural settlements is also very worrying.

Development plans for local authorities do try and seek development in settlements and measures such as grants for retrofitting older townhouses as well as masterplans that identify sites within and/or on the edge of settlements can help, but generally the preference for a country home is often too strong, and unfortunately it can be a controversial political issue.

Rural areas have a limited population, and this is set to get smaller, as the move to cities continues. To scatter what is left of it in fields throughout our countryside seems like the worst possible course of action. I hope that people will continue to live in our rural towns and villages so that in places like Mountmellick or Newtownforbes they can continue to use the local shop besides driving to the nearest large town’s supermarkets from dwellings outside such settlements. It will also ensure that in Rathmore and Ballyhaunis there are enough people living in these towns in order to retain their train stations. To save rural Ireland, we need to save its villages and small towns, but for this to be successful their people need to return and live in them.

Shay Kelleher is a regional and urban planner who works in local government having previously worked internationally and in planning consultancy. The views expressed are personal.


Stopping rural decline

Sir, – John O’Dwyer (Opinion, July 25th) raises interesting points about the decline of rural Ireland. His observation that the rural population has actually risen at the same time as rural businesses are diminishing, draws the unavoidable conclusion that traditional rural businesses and modes of living and are simply not meeting the needs of contemporary rural people.

Rural Ireland has become in large part a dormitory for urban workers. A multitudinous scattering of close communities living in small dwellings in village and town centres or in farms has morphed into a sprawl of one-off houses, whose occupants frequently commute long distances to work, and who think little of driving to do their shopping and other business in large regional towns.

The kind of rural Ireland O’Dwyer and others want to save is very different to the place rural Ireland has actually become, and none of O’Dwyer’s suggested actions will change this.

We would all love to live in large detached houses, but this style of living isn’t conducive to preserving the thriving small towns and villages that have traditionally characterised rural Ireland. A return to density in small-town urban living is required to get residents interacting and spending locally. To do so, rural councils must make it less attractive to build one-off houses, perhaps via higher development levies, and incentivise living in rural centres, perhaps through reduced property taxes.

Rural areas should be lowering barriers to inward migration and actively promoting themselves as great places to live. Instead, prejudice and fear, stoked by opportunistic politicians, has led many rural councils to impose barriers to inward migration, particularly by limiting planning permission for houses to those with family ties. It is glaringly obvious that if the movement of new people in is discouraged, while natural movement out is continuing, then local centres will inevitably stagnate and decline.

Politicians who peddle the populist myth of a “rural-urban” divide are actively contributing to the acceleration of rural decline, not working to end it. Rural voters would do well to remind them of that in future elections. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 7.

Irish Times 27 July 2016


Flooded homes arise from political patronage and incompetence

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.

Waterlogged houses

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.

Developer-led planning

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

The Rural Question

Ireland after NAMA

The problematic of rural Ireland and the rapidly emergent conditions of an increasingly urban-focused economic recovery has recently hit the headlines and moved front-and-centre in the concerns of both the media and government. RTE aired the “The Battle for Rural Ireland” documentary featuring the forlorn parents of emigrants and boarded up rural towns followed by the all too familiar, and equally depressing, ‘debate’ on Claire Byrne Live. The column inches of newspapers have similarly carried numerous commentaries on the flatlining rural economy and rural depopulation with the chair of the government’s CEDRA commission, established to champion rural development, decrying the painfully slow progress in implementing its rural job creation strategy.  Dr. Brian Hughes on this blog and in the national media has been to the fore in arguing that the notion of balanced regional development is a fallacy and that “the future is urban” – something…

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New rules will remove requirement for one-off homes to be inspected

PUBLISHED28/07/2015 | 02:30

Planning and Housing Minister Paudie Coffey
Planning and Housing Minister Paudie Coffey

One-off homes and house extensions will be exempt from regulations introduced just last year to prevent shoddy building work, it has been confirmed.

The Government will today announce that from September these properties will not be subject to a formal sign-off from a building professional to ensure they are built in line with the building code.

However, they will be subject to inspection from local authorities, according to Planning and Housing Minister Paudie Coffey.

The regulations, introduced in May 2014, will also be extended to local authority housing developments and will be required for all multi-unit developments comprising two or more units.

The move to exempt one-off homes comes amid concerns that the cost of inspecting a property was too expensive, with suggestions that complying with the regulations costs up to €16,000, and was adding considerably to building costs.

Last year, some 5,171 homes – almost half the total constructed in Ireland – were one-off.

“I am satisfied that the new arrangements will level the playing field for individuals and families planning to build or extend their own home,” Mr Coffey said. “They will no longer be held to ransom by excessive quotes for design and completion certificates. Owners who wish to invest in statutory certification may of course continue to do so and I believe many will do so where reasonable and affordable prices can be obtained.”

Under existing regulations, each home under construction is obliged to be inspected by an “assigned certifier” – which includes an architect, engineer or quantity surveyor – to ensure that building regulations are complied with. If a problem arose, the certifier was held legally responsible. However, the regulations will be changed from September, exempting one-off homes and extensions.

At the same time, however, a rigorous inspection regime will be rolled out in the local authorities to prevent a re-occurrence of the Priory Hall development, which had to be abandoned on fire safety grounds.

Property owners may be asked to demonstrate that what they have built is in line with the regulations, and these homes will be subject to inspection. At least 15pc of all new builds, including one-off units, housing developments and commercial buildings, will be inspected – including those funded by local authorities, which are currently exempt.

Education courses will also be developed to allow people become assigned certifiers.

The move comes despite industry sources cautioning against removing the requirement, given that so many one-off homes eventually come back on to the market. The lack of certification means that the purchasers of these properties might not be afforded the same protection as someone buying a home in a development.

Meanwhile, the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) will today announce that the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund will provide up to €500m to finance property development. Up to 90pc of the development costs can be borrowed and repaid on commercial terms.

The fund has indicated it will invest up to €1bn into commercial developments, social housing, private housing and student accommodation.

It will also work with Nama to identify projects.

Irish Independent

Ireland too rural for ambulances to meet response targets

Ireland is too rural to support an ambulance service to compare with the service in England and to meet official targets for response times, according to a confidential report.

Ireland’s “high rurality”, and the fact Irish people are less than half as likely to call an ambulance than people in England, means the cost of running the service in Ireland is significantly higher by comparison, the report commissioned by the Health Service Executive states.

The report questions the policy of the National Ambulance Service (NAS) of bringing all patients to hospital emergency departments and says many other countries adopt an initial “see and treat” approach to patient care instead of simply taking them to hospital. In England, up to 50 per cent of patients are dealt with in this way.

The report says Ireland’s ambulance is not directly comparable to English services. Even if fully resourced and operating to international best practice standards, the service “cannot possibly achieve” prescribed targets for response times.

Under these targets from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa), 80 per cent of Echo (potentially life-threatening) calls for emergency assistance are supposed to be dealt with by a first responder within eight minutes. Last year, in total just 26.6 per cent of such calls were responded to within this time. But in rural areas, just 6.6 per cent of calls were responded within the eight minute target time.

Lightfoot says Ireland’s much greater rural population has “major implications” for the ability of the National Ambulance Service to meet the same response times as its English equivalent.

In Ireland, 40 per cent of incidents are in a rural area, compared to 12 per cent in England. The report says the reason the number of ambulance calls per head in Ireland is only 40 per cent that in England may be down to easier access to GPs.

Pointing to the “very large gap” between current performance and targets, it says “because of the rural nature of the area NAS serves, we do not consider these targets are achievable”.

Drive times
In many cases, ambulance stations are not well located for the communities they serve. As a result, the average drive times in urban areas are nearly 10 minutes, compared to four minutes in high-performing services in other countries.

Providing extra resources would result in very little improvement in performance in rural areas, according to the report, which identifies 100 locations where less than one emergency call is made per week. It says solutions, such as back-up community first responders using a defibrillator are required.

Improvements would cost significant amounts of money; hiring an extra 290 staff would cost €15 million a year and take three years to implement. Even then, improved response times may not yield a commensurate improvement in clinical outcomes for the majority of patients who are not time-critical

From The Irish Times