We’re not properly planning for the future

One-off housing is not a big issue in relation to climate change but it is arguably a contributor to the rapid decline in the fortunes of rural Ireland, writes Michael Clifford.

A YOUNG couple whom I know are staking out their future. They have received planning permission for their first home, about three miles outside the Midlands town where they were reared.

Word has it that a local politician — who shall go unnamed — “got” them the planning permission. What exactly this politician “got” is unclear, but the main thing is that a perception has gone out that something was done, for which this individual deserves reward at the ballot box.

When I asked a relative of the young woman why they didn’t choose to live in the town, she looked at me like I’d two heads. “Why would they do that,” she said.

Property in the town is relatively cheap. Gutting a premises, extending it, hiring the imagination of a Dermot Bannon, all of this can now be done within a relatively tight budget to produce a dream home. But urban living is not what it once was in other respects. 

For one thing, you might as well be raising kids in the country as they won’t encounter many their own age in an urban setting.

The town in question is similar to many around the country — hollowed out.

Some shops remain, others are shuttered. Some people still live there, but few below pensionable age. Some fronts are boarded up, others derelict.

There is nothing unusual in this couple’s desire to live out in the country. In their shoes, I would have done the same when I was at that stage of life’s curve. 

My parents did precisely the same thing when they were starting out in the 1960s. To that extent, little has changed in the desires and attitudes of those who want to live out beyond the boundaries of towns and villages.

Meanwhile, the world has changed. Weekly, we hear how our way of life is having dire consequences for the planet, insect life, biodiversity. 

People are already leaving the scorched homes in eastern Africa, refugees from climate change. Weekly, new reports emerge to illustrate how the environment as we know it is fast disappearing. Science is regularly bearing uncomfortable — and even unpalatable — truths about how the way we are living is not sustainable.

These realities have prompted much breast beating. On Thursday, following a vote in the Dáil, the State became the second country in the world to declare a climate emergency.

If one were to arrive here from Mars — go back, go back, we’re on the way out — one might think such gestures signal a willingness to respond in kind.

Yet few want to accept that fundamental changes are required if the planet is to be passed on to the next generation in any sort of health at all. Everybody is now talking the talk, but the stomach simply isn’t there to walk the walk.

All of which brings us back to our friends living in splendid isolation out in the country. One-off housing is not a big issue in relation to climate change but it is arguably a serious contributor to the rapid decline in the fortunes of rural Ireland. 

Anybody interested in how to tackle the threat of climate change should examine how the threat of rural decline was tackled and do exactly the opposite.

Officially, one-off housing has long been recognised as being contrary to the public good. The potential for environmental damage, the implications for scattered populations, issues around transport, education and security all arise. 

That’s apart from the visual impact. (Obviously, one caveat applies to those who work that land, but this is a relatively small cohort of those who live in one-off housing).

Most recently all of this was given voice in the 2040 National Planning Framework.

“An increase in the proportion of more compact forms of growth in the development of settlements of all sizes, from the largest city to the smallest village, has the potential to make a transformational difference.

“It can bring new life and footfall, contribute to the viability of services, shops and public transport, increase housing supply and enable more people to be closer to employment and recreational opportunities, as well as to walk or cycle more and use the car less.”

That’s the official word. Unofficially, all bets are off. Caveats, loopholes and even the old trusted word in an ear have been deployed over the decades to ensure that the old practices continue. Countless political careers have been built on an ability to “get” planning permission for those who want to be alone.

Woe betide the politician who would bear the bad news that things must change if the future is to have any future at all. In such a milieu, nobody was any way inclined to shout stop.

Now, we’re at a stage where over a third of homes are of a one-off variety.

Meanwhile, the old settlements have been changed beyond recognition. In a planning system that is effectively free-for-all, multiple towns have been hollowed out. As the population ages, concerns over rural isolation, security and health for those in the country are far greater than should be the case. The type of vibrancy that any community needs has been completely diluted.

This week’s National Broadband Plan illustrated another aspect to the reality that has been reaped. The biggest issue with the €3bn plan is bringing the fibre optic highway to the most isolated homes. One estimate is that 80% of the cost will go towards 20% of the homes.

In some areas, if the low take-up continues, the cost of connection will be €20,000. Is that value for money for rural Ireland, not to mind the State? What effect will such a splurge have on the political capital of rural Ireland as a whole when it comes to looking for other resources?

So it goes in our political culture where leaders follow the votes and nobody wants to be the bearer of uncomfortable truths about how we are living.

So it goes with the approach to climate change. Mr Varadkar makes all the right noises on international stages. His Government — and most of the body politic — nod gravely and put their signatures to documents that say we must change to save the place for the next generation. They all talk the talk. 

Yet, ultimately, these are tomorrow’s problems and tomorrow is measured in election cycles and expected political career spans. So the future will be somebody else’s problem.

Planning in rural Ireland was largely dictated by a culture to ensure that people were given what they wanted today irrespective of the cost tomorrow. The same approach is now being applied to the threat of climate change. Make us pure, Lord, but just not before the next election, and all going according to plan, the one after that as well.

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