It is well known that Mayo last won the All-Ireland in 1951 and recent final defeats have become infamous, cutting a deep scar in the local psyche even prompting superstitions that the county is cursed. Now it seems, in an effort to ensure no stone is left unturned, Mayo county councillors are doing their bit by proposing a radical solution. The recently endorsed amendments to the Draft Mayo County Development Plan aim to socially re-engineer the county back to the conditions of the early 1950s! The proposed amendments put forward by the councillors state that ‘the sustainability of rural communities will only occur if rural population densities are restored to 1951 levels and this objective should be supported by Mayo County Council.’ While emigration and depopulation certainly have had a negative impact on the sustainability of rural GAA clubs, I am sure that the selection of 1951 is mere coincidence (or is it?) but I could not resist the tongue-in-cheek anecdote.
All joking aside, I have been following local planning policy in Ireland for a while now and have come across some bizarre objectives inserted into development plans at the behest of councillors. In 1951 the population of County Mayo was 117,181 with the 2011 equivalent at 82,808. Mayo councillors are therefore seeking to increase the population of the rural part of the county by 35,000 people. This is despite the fact that, according to the Draft Plan, the total (and now extremely optimistic) additional population target for the entire county by 2020 is 17,500. The majority of this new population growth is supposed to be directed to the linked Hub of Castlebar-Ballina in accordance with regional policy to deliver sufficient critical mass to drive employment creation and prevent emigration.
To achieve these historic demographic and settlement conditions, all of the controls on ‘one-off’ dispersed rural settlement are set to be stripped from the Draft Plan and largely abandoned. This includes all statements (presumably inserted by the Planning Department) criticising the unsustainability of the continuation of current patterns of population dispersal and vacancy levels and their costliness in terms of infrastructure provision, water quality and quality of life. Instead mawkish statements, unsupported by any evidence, have been inserted in favour of the ‘tradition’ of dispersed settlement patterns as a valued part of ‘local heritage’ and even that the decline in rural housing represents a threat to sustainability and therefore significantly more people should be encouraged to live in rural areas.
County Mayo in the 1950’s (Source: www.mayo-ireland.ie)
Even sensible policies of the original Draft Plan which sought to encourage those seeking to self-build a rural dwelling house to first examine the feasibility of purchasing a vacant house have been deleted. According, to Census 2011 there are over 12,500 vacant and unoccupied housing units (including holiday homes) in rural Mayo which ironically would be more than sufficient to repopulate rural areas to 1951 levels! The Council’s own independent Environmental Assessment of the proposed amendments states “With respect to population, it is not clear if it is sustainable to restore the rural population to 1951 levels. This material alteration to the Settlement Strategy is predicted to result in significant effects on landscape with mitigation not deemed feasible… is considered to weaken control and management of housing in rural areas and consequently is also considered to have significant effects …. with no likely mitigation to reduce, offset or prevent these effects.”
1950’s Ireland has long been regarded as the decade of ‘doom and gloom’, the ‘worst decade since the famine’ and the ‘lost decade’ where approximately half a million emigrated. Roughly three out of every five children who grew up in 1950s Ireland left at some stage and these trends were particularly severe in the west. Dispersed settlement patterns were driven by small farm holdings where people lived in no small amount of poverty, poor housing and without public services, and the State, including local government, dedicated insufficient effort to developing new industries to fill the gap created by the irreversible demise of the small farm rural economy. While the drivers of modern dispersed housing are incomparable, sadly the conditions of the 1950s, which are described in John Healy’s 1968 book ‘No One Shouted Stop: The Death of an Irish Town’ chronicling the catastrophic economic decline of his hometown of Charlestown, County Mayo, are now re-occurring. Clearly, early 1950s Ireland is not a time to aspire to for the future planning and development of Mayo.
Of course, we have been down this road before in Mayo and they have form on this issue. The previous 2008 Development Plan was thrown out by the then Minister and further action from central government will again be required here. I have no doubt that many councillors are well-intentioned, even if unwittingly misdirected, in their blundering attempts to reverse rural decline. However, most concerning is that despite the significant recent emphasis on the need for evidence informed planning, very little, if anything ever seems to be learnt. It is as if we are so ideologically attached to the idyll of the detached rural house that we cannot see how damaging the self-inflicted cumulative effect is on regional development. The conspicuous spectre of abandoned and vacant housing and mass emigration from both the 1950s and the present should be proof enough that randomly building scattered housing is no solution to economic and population decline – in fact it serves to worsen it. After all isn’t the very definition of madness doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? Mayo seems cursed to repeat the mistakes of the past. There are alternatives. Someone needs to shout stop.