Elaine Loughlin: One-off housing bans are stopping families from building communities

The generations of a family can offer invaluable mutual support, to the benefit of the entire community — but our efforts to prevent ribbon development may be driving them apart
Elaine Loughlin: One-off housing bans are stopping families from building communities

IN the midst of a housing crisis, government policy is blocking people from building their own home, with their own money, on their own land.

Allowing one-off homes in rural areas may not solve the emergency, but it seems bonkers to stop development at a time when there are 62,000 people on the social housing waiting list.

A broad stoke countywide approach to rural dwelling means areas just a field or two outside large urban centres such as Dublin and Cork — where one-off housing should be largely discouraged to stop ribbon development — are treated the same as other parts where the population is in marked decline.

The thorny issue of land, and more specifically who can build on it, has been causing a stir up and down the country as local authorities finalise their new development plans.

Planners aim to deliver sustainable development in the light of the homelessness and affordability crises — and the European Court of Justice ruling that the 'locals-only' Flemish Decree is in breach of citizens' rights.
Planners aim to deliver sustainable development in the light of the homelessness and affordability crises — and the European Court of Justice ruling that the 'locals-only' Flemish Decree is in breach of citizens' rights.

A proposal that would require people to own at least 15 acres in order to get planning permission resulted in an explosion of applications to Meath County Council.

While the plans have since been watered down, there has been a 61% jump in applications in the past year as people scrambled to submit planning applications before the rules changed.

In Limerick, the draft development plan covering 2022 to 2028 has been met with fierce opposition by some councillors who say it would simply force rural families into towns and villages that do not have waste treatment systems to deal with the current population.

The type of soil, road infrastructure, and the environmental impact of building in remote areas, are often cited as reasons for stopping the building of homes, but many argue that the technology has solved these issues.

While costly, it is now possible to build a passive house, powered by wind and solar that uses reed bed wastewater treatment systems. The past year has shown us that working from home is doable, and electric cars can take us further and further without the need for a charge.

Of course, you would have to search hard for anyone who currently lives this sustainably, but this lifestyle, while a stretch, is attainable.

A controversial restriction in the world of planning is the “local needs” clause, which some claim is discriminatory.

The rule, in some counties, means that if you weren’t lucky enough to grow up on a farm that you now intend to take over, you are effectively condemned to a life of suburban sprawl.

Housing minister Darragh O'Brien will deliver updated rural housing guidelines — which will address the ECJ ruling on the Flemish Decree — to local authorities later this year. Picture: Moya Nolan
Housing minister Darragh O'Brien will deliver updated rural housing guidelines — which will address the ECJ ruling on the Flemish Decree — to local authorities later this year. Picture: Moya Nolan

The European Court of Justice has already ruled on this after it found that the 2009 Flemish Decree breached citizens’ right of free movement. However, a Department of Housing spokesperson said that the Flemish Decree made the purchase or long-term lease of land in certain areas conditional upon there being a “sufficient connection” between the prospective buyer or tenant and the local area and, as such, “effectively restricted significantly more than development rights in respect of new housing”.

Housing minister Darragh O’Brien is working on revised rural housing guidelines for planning authorities, which will address the requirements of EU law highlighted by the Flemish Decree case.

“Given the complexity of the issues involved, the need for environmental assessment and both internal and external consultation, I would expect updated guidelines to be available later in 2021,” he said.

But even when people are deemed to have local needs, they can still be stopped. In Leitrim for example, 87% of the soil does not meet percolation standards, and is effectively off-limits for any construction.

In a stark and emotive open letter, members of Ballinaglera GAA Club said this is “sucking the lifeblood from communities”, and young people don’t even bother applying for planning permission as they know they will be denied the opportunity to build a house in their community.

“The practice of footballers travelling home long distances to train and play for the local GAA club is well known. But increasingly the current generation of young farmers also have to travel from the local town to farm the lands on which they were born and reared, but unfortunately are no longer allowed to live on."

Galway East TD Sean Canney said the benefits to the community of extended families living in rural clusters is being disregarded. 

'We had the family support and still have that family support and security.' So says Galway East TD Sean Canney describing the mutual support across generations a family gets when they can live close to their parents' homes. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
'We had the family support and still have that family support and security.' So says Galway East TD Sean Canney describing the mutual support across generations a family gets when they can live close to their parents' homes. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

“We built our house beside my parents’ house, my brother was next door, we had the family support and still have that family support and security.

“When my mother was getting older we were able to look after her for a number of years. 

"When our children were small, we had the support of her to babysit while we were shopping or even with schooling, the children would go in to her afterwards for a few hours until we came home from work,” he said: 

These things seem to have all been disregarded in terms of the benefits it brings to communities

While the Government is encouraging people to settle in villages and towns, Mr Canney said this policy is not backed up by the provision of the proper wastewater treatment systems required and so small housing developments are being turned down.

“You have a case where you cannot build in the village, and there’s pressure on you not to build in the rural areas,” he said.

There is a workaround but, as always, cash is king.

There are no limits on who can purchase a vacant property and there is a strong argument that giving these homes a new lease of life would be a far more sustainable option.

But the cost of buying what are often near ruins can add as much as €200,000 more onto the build price when compared to a virgin field.

Labour TD Sean Sherlock points out that there is a “crowding out” of local people who want to remain in their own localities, as they cannot afford to buy, but do not meet the criteria to build: 

You could live all your life in the town of Mallow, not be able to buy a house in Mallow, a site could become available for which there’s no impediment to planning, but you won’t get planning on that site because you’re not from the greenbelt, and therefore you’re excluded.

Mr Sherlock said the new nearly zero energy building standard (Nzeb) regulations dramatically reduce the environmental loading on rural construction.

Creating local clusters in rural areas, which is how families have settled for generations, would save communities and would mean “local schools would not have to fight for 0.5 of a whole-time equivalent to the teacher”.

A more nuanced, thoughtful approach to one-off housing that does not discriminate but encourages community, environmental, and economic sustainability is now required.

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Did you know?

In non-Covid times, many foreign dignitaries are welcomed to the Dáil each year and are usually acknowledged by the ceann comhairle when they enter the visitors’ galleries. 

However, it is rare that they make an address to members in either the Dáil or Seanad chambers. When such addresses are made, they are usually by heads of state or government. 

Some of the more famous Dáil speeches include those given by US presidents John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. 

Nelson Mandela also addressed the Oireachtas just several months after his release from prison, and more recently Jean-Claude Juncker spoke to the House.

Political week ahead

Tuesday

• Sinn Féin is using its Dáil time to bring forward a motion on pyrite and mica-related remediation issues in Donegal and Mayo.

• European commissioner Mairead McGuinness is to appear before the Seanad special select committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union Bill where the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as the post-Brexit relationship, will be discussed.

• After the Mother and Baby Homes Commission snubbed an invitation to appear before the children’s committee last week, members are expected to discuss their next steps.

They are also scrutinising the Information and Tracing Bill and will also hear from Tusla chief Bernard Gloster; Adoption Authority of Ireland chairwoman Patricia Carey, as well as special rapporteur on child protection Conor O’Mahony.

Mr O’Mahony last week criticised the mother and baby homes commissioners for refusing to attend the committee, so his contribution should be interesting.

Wednesday

• The joint committee on finance and public expenditure is set to continue its ongoing probe of an €81,000 pay rise granted to secretary general of the Department of Health, Robert Watt. Public expenditure and reform minister Michael McGrath will be questioned on the process and procedures around the pay of senior public servants.

• Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan will speak about rapid antigen testing in relation to aviation and travel when he comes before the transport committee.

• Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue will take questions in the Dáil on the CAP negotiations.

Thursday

• The impact of climate change on the environment has been well documented, but the budgetary oversight committee is now set to look at the financial cost of climate change when members hear from OECD representatives.

Friday

• The Seanad is to debate and scrutinise three bills related to housing.

While you are here, why not sign up to our 'On The Plinth' political newsletter? Delivered direct to your inbox every Tuesday. Sign up here exa.mn/OnThePlinth.

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