Michael Clifford: One-off housing too hot to handle as the planet burns

The environment may be in peril, the climate in crisis, all bets off as far as how we’ve lived for decades, but stay away from the political hot potato that is one-off rural housing
Michael Clifford: One-off housing too hot to handle as the planet burns

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a desire to live in a one-off house in the country. Many among us – including this reporter – would love nothing more. But there is copious evidence that the cost to the many far outweighs the benefit enjoyed by the few. File picture

The portents for grown-up discussions on climate change are not good. 

Already, some politicians are staking out their own pet issues which are to be ring-fenced from any upheaval at a time of projected transformational change. 

The environment may be in peril, the climate in crisis, all bets off as far as how we’ve lived for decades, but stay away from the political hot potato that is one-off housing.

On Monday in this newspaper, Paul Hosford reported that Fine Gael and the Green Party are on a “collision course” over one-off housing

The report referenced an address by junior housing minister – and FG TD – Peter Burke to a recent Macra na Feirme meeting in which he said that a quarter of all new homes should continue to be built outside rural towns and villages.

“Rural housing has traditionally made up 25% of all housing output in this country and there are no plans to change this whatsoever,” Mr Burke told the gathering. 

“While we need to ensure there is a minimum threshold that is met to avoid irresponsible policy, there continues to be capacity within our national planning framework to allow for those who live and work in the countryside to build their homes close to their family and their place of work.”

Splendid isolation

The message was clear. Others may have to make huge adaptions to how they live and work over the coming years, but those who can afford it shall continue to be allowed live in splendid isolation. 

The cost that this form of dwelling has on the environment, health, policing and other services will be absorbed by others. In terms of rural home planning, everybody can continue to pretend we are still in the 1970s.

Contrast the status quo with the plight of the urban dweller. The current thinking is that higher density housing will be required for large towns and cities. 

The day of the semi-detached three-bedroom home in the suburbs is drawing to a close. We all have to adapt to new forms of living.

Meanwhile, out in the country, it’s a question of drive on and let the devil take the hindmost.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a desire to live in a one-off house in the country. Many among us – including this reporter – would love nothing more. But there is copious evidence that the cost to the many far outweighs the benefit enjoyed by the few.

The cost of one-off housing for greater society was first raised in a report by government agency An Foras Forbartha in 1976. 

The report, Urban Generated Housing in Rural Areas, contrasted the cost of close-knit housing with dispersed housing.

It found the postal service to the widely dispersed, or one-off, homes to be three and a half times more expensive than that to the urban centres. 

Waste collection was two and a half times greater and phone and electricity between two and five times more expensive. Footpath and public lighting provision were 11 to 13 times more expensive.

Nothing was done in response to the report and it might well be posited that was as it should have been at the time. 

The State was still in the shallows of moving from an agrarian society to an urban one. The farming lobby had huge political power. 

And, apart from that, beyond the monetary cost, there were few voices pointing to any long term damage that would accrue due to the largely free-for-all policy. 

Bungalow blitz

Bungalow blitz, as it was disparagingly named in some quarters, was filed away under “sure what harm is it doing anyway”.

In 2001, the Department of the Environment documented the full extent of one-off housing for the first time. 

A study revealed that between 30% and 40% of annual home completions were single houses in the countryside. 

In recent times, the level has dropped to about 25%, but proportionately in terms of population shifts to urban centres, it still represents a huge figure in a modern European economy and society.

In the meantime, all else changed. The flight from the land has accelerated over the past 30 years. Smaller towns and villages have emptied because those who remain in rural Ireland prefer to live out on their own. 

Small schools are maintained, effectively put on life support, rather than face consolidation in nearby towns and villages. 

The population is growing old, amplifying rural isolation, demanding more health services. 

And all the time, politicians from the heartlands manage to simultaneously decry how rural Ireland is being ignored, while demanding more one-off housing, as sure a way as any to scatter communities and further weaken rural bonds.

Today, the argument for the maintenance of this way of life is fraudulent. 

As mentioned by Peter Burke to Macra na Feirme, it is based on facilitating those who work the land or want to maintain family ties. 

Agriculture, the biggest form of employment in the rural economy, contributed 0.94pc to the Gross Domestic Product of Ireland in 2020. 

The number of those working in agriculture, only a fraction of whom actually live on a farm, is under 12pc of the workforce. Yet one in four houses built in the State are one-off.

The reality is that there are two driving forces that dare not speak their name behind the drive to continue building one-off houses. The first is plain old lifestyle. Who wouldn’t want to have their own homestead if they could afford it? Nobody acknowledges this to be the case.

Price of land

The other factor is the price of land and few bob to be made by farmers from selling sites. 

This is a little earner at a time when eeking out a living from the family farm has never been as difficult for some, but by no means all, who work the land. Again, this is simply not acknowledged because it would not suffice as a proper basis to continue with the regime.

All the signs now emanating from the main parties are that there will be no leadership in addressing this anomaly. 

Of course, one-off housing is not central to addressing the most urgent aspect of climate change. But it is symbolic of a way of life that has been based on the pretence that no real harm is being done by continuing it in order to sort out a few votes. 

If the general attitude is that this is too hot an issue on which to do the right thing, then what hope is there when it comes to the really big issues that will demand transformative change?

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