Ever since the collapse of the Celtic-tiger in 2008, almost every aspect of political, economic, social and environmental governance in Ireland has come in for some degree or critical retrospection. This critique has largely taken two forms i.e. to what extent did our governance contribute to the circumstances we now find ourselves in; and how can it be reformed to get us out of them? For reasons which will need little explaining to regular readers of this blog, planning governance has quite correctly been fingered as a major cause of our current problems and since 2010, on paper at least, has been the subject of significant reform efforts.
One issue, however, which has clearly evaded any form of genuine rational analysis, has been rural settlement policy. For decades, this political hot-potato has been gingerly fumbled by populist governments and manipulated as local political currency. The 2005 Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines, which were intended to bring some clarity to what exactly the policy is, are a near perfect illustration of ‘win-win-win’ policy fuzziness leading to highly incoherent implementation across the country. According to Census 2011, the stock of ‘one-off’ dwellings in the State currently stands at 433,564 (26.3% of the total housing stock) with 417,094 (96%) located outside towns or settlements. Remarkably, one-quarter (104,000) of these dwellings have been constructed within the past ten years and since 2001 councils across the country have collectively granted planning permission for 174,000 new dispersed dwellings. 52% of the total stock of vacant housing units are located in rural areas.
While the number of planning permissions for ‘one-off’ dwellings has fallen from the heights of over 23,000 per annum in 2004, in 2012, 60% of all planning permissions in the State were for single dispersed houses. This is despite the clear intention of national policy to direct new housing development into settlement centres. While it is true that this high proportion is as much to do about the collapse of the multi-unit development sector, the absolute numbers are, nonetheless, striking. Since 2010, 14,500 new ‘one-off’ dwellings have been granted planning permission as compared to 14,900 multi-unit houses and 11,100 apartments.
The divisive debate over who should be permitted to self-build in the countryside tends to take place in abstract purity, completely divorced from both the public and private economic, social and environmental costs. Dispersal is considered a completely normal and benign feature of the Irish cultural landscape and recourse to statistics and facts will typically fall on deaf ears. Several intrepid commentators have from time to time poked their head above the parapet to question the wisdom of the spatial patterns taking hold across the country only to be instantly shot down with an emotive barrage of ‘anti-rural’ polemic. While politically, this is certainly an issue best ignored in the customary Irish fashion, in official policy circles at least, the very serious cumulative problems and hidden costs presented by Ireland’s highly dispersed settlement patterns have long been acknowledged.
Now, without being directly attributed, this legacy is manifesting itself in contentious and costly disputes over such issues as the development of large wind energy and grid infrastructure projects; the closure of rural post offices, schools, pubs, hospitals and garda stations; rural cost of living, car dependency, lack of public transport and social isolation (and even drink driving laws); the challenge of an ageing society and the obesity crisis; climate change targets; septic tank charges; and deficient rural infrastructure, such as broadband and roads. These issues will no-doubt continue to become more acute as government pursues an austerity agenda in parallel with spatially blind productivist policies (e.g. National Renewable Energy Strategy, Grid 25, Food Harvest 2020). To date there has been no acknowledgement whatsoever that rural Ireland is a finite, congested and contested space where multiple sectoral policies are operating at cross-purposes and which simply cannot continue to accommodate the competing demands being placed upon it.
The dominant common-sense is that anyone who questions the wisdom of the unfettered right to build anywhere in rural Ireland is somehow ‘anti-rural’ and has a ‘pro-urban’ (i.e. Dublin) agenda. I would offer the counter-narrative that, far from maintaining local populations or providing an economic stimulus, it is in fact settlement dispersal which is a key driver of rural economic decline, out-migration, housing vacancy, isolation, higher costs for rural families and the under-provision of critical infrastructure, employment opportunities and public services, particularly in peripheral rural regions. Furthermore, the often phoney debate on this issue, reinforced by the popular media, assumes there are homogenous ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ spatial entities. I grew up and spend the most part of my life in a 1960’s ‘one-off’ bungalow. However, my parents, like great majority of my neighbours, are not rural. They instead would be more aptly classed as ‘rurban’, commuting long distances daily to work in urban centres. Data from Census 2011 is indicative of clear spatial trends towards acute counter-urbanisation and ex-urban sprawl where householders are electing to self-build in ‘rurban’ locations in search of larger family dwellings, higher quality affordable homes (unlike some of the disastrous build quality in urban locations), a rural environment and a perceived better quality of life close to kinship networks. Of the 417,094 ‘one-off’ dwellings located outside of designated settlements, 350,000 (84%) were located within 5 kilometres of a town. Just 1% of occupied ‘one-off’ houses did not fall within a 10 kilometres radius of any town in 2011, and the majority of these were built before 2001. These trends are tacitly supported by fiscal policies where ‘one off’ housing has always been an unspoken component of national housing policy and where the government has conveniently shirked its responsibilities in this area.
While the horse has largely bolted and our costly spatial legacy is now ‘locked-in’, I would argue that questioning settlement patterns of rural Ireland remains relevant and is entirely consistent with a ‘pro-rural’ agenda. The government’s decision to establish a Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA) is explicit recognition that large parts of rural Ireland have been unequally affected by the recession. However, the diffuse spatial structure of rural areas and its impact on economic opportunity continues to be utterly ignored. If we are ever to have a possibility of providing a counter-balance to the accelerating dominance of Dublin, Cork and Galway and provide some basic level of spatial equity then the challenge for regional planning is to deliver workable and socially acceptable alternatives to the current failed model of ‘one-off’ dispersal.