Planning permission for one-off houses looks set to become even harder to get under new Department of Housing guidelines. Farm orgs are lobbying against restrictions, insisting that farmers need to live near where they work, but planning professionals advocate ‘sustainable alternatives’ in towns and villages
It may become even more difficult for rural dwellers to get planning permission for one-off homes after the Department of Housing updates its planning guidelines in the coming months.
Already it can be difficult enough for farmers in some areas, as was recently seen when a farmer had to take High Court proceedings in an attempt to get planning permission to build a home on her farm.
She told the court the planning board did not properly consider that she had a genuine need to live close to her employment. South Dublin County Council had twice refused planning permission to build a house on the 18ac where she farms sheep and operates an equestrian centre.
And more farm families may find themselves in similar positions after the Department of Housing completes its revision of the Rural Housing Guidelines.
Meanwhile those planning to build a house on their farm need to consult not alone the current county development plans but also the drafts development plans which may be about to come into force in some counties as those plans show the latest guidelines for acceptable designs for one-off rural houses.
A spokesman for the department said its own review is designed to “ensure consistency with new requirements and legislation at a national and EU level”.
Following the completion of the draft national guidelines, these will be displayed for public consultation and final guidelines are expected to be issued before the end of this year.
While the spokesman did not elaborate on the issues, a spokesperson for the Irish Planning Institute (IPI), which represents planning professionals, said: “There are urgent reasons to review current policies regarding rural housing which can conflict with the other roles of rural areas if not managed correctly…
“Sustainable alternatives to the construction of one-off housing in the countryside must be put in place.
“The IPI supports the delivery of affordable, appropriately-configured serviced sites for self-build in our towns and villages as one of a number of alternatives to one-off housing in the countryside.”
In contrast the ICMSA argues that there should be no restrictions to one-off rural housing.
“It is essential that planning permission for one-off housing in the countryside is not restricted, particularly for family members and those local to a region,” a spokesman said.
“If rural communities are to be demographically sustainable then we must have the opportunity for young people and young families to live in them and on their own terms.
“Services to rural areas must be improved, including rural roads, water services and waterway maintenance.
“A priority for rural living is the availability of broadband, the poor availability of which in certain areas was highlighted during lockdown. It is crucial that internet services are enhanced throughout the county immediately to enable this.
“Vacant units in towns and villages should be prioritised in relation to urban development to increase housing availability in urban areas and to bring economic activity back to the centres of rural towns.”
Many farmers are adamant that people should be allowed to build on their own land, and claim that more one-off homes will prevent the death of rural communities and their services such as schools and post offices.
Others, though, argue that it’s the dispersal of rural housing which contributes to the demise of small towns and villages.
The IPI says: “There is already a significant housing stock in rural areas. There should be a greater emphasis on alternatives to dispersed rural housing, including the re-use and renovation of existing buildings in rural areas.
“And the building of individual rural houses should be directed away from remote and unserviced locations, save for critical accommodation.”
But while the planning authorities might advise building or redeveloping in a nearby town, that would be feasible only if farming was a nine to five job.
“It’s not and livestock farmers need to live on their land so they can monitor animals giving birth in case they need assistance in the middle of the night,” said Daniel Fitzgerald, of Fitzgerald Construction, a Cork builder who specialises in one-off houses.
The current national planning guidelines try to strike a balance between the needs of rural dwellers and the overall community.
These say that “people who are part of the rural community should be facilitated by the planning system in all rural areas, including those under strong urban-based pressures.
“Anyone wishing to build a house in rural areas suffering persistent and substantial population decline will be accommodated.”
However, they also point out that the development of the rural environs of major urban areas and towns with over 5,000 in population needs to be carefully managed, to assure their orderly development and successful functioning into the future.
They also advise that new rural houses should be sited and designed to integrate well with their physical surroundings and be generally compatible with the protection of water quality in the arrangements for on-site wastewater disposal facilities.
Other requirements include the provision of a safe means of access, and the conservation of sensitive areas such as natural habitats, the environs of protected structures and other aspects of heritage.
In relation to areas that are protected for conservation, it also advises planning authorities to be flexible to housing development while “only consider approving proposals which they are satisfied will not adversely affect the integrity of the designated area”.
The ease with which farmers can attain planning permission varies from county to county and from area to area, with scenic and conservation areas being the most difficult.
Some county councils around the country are in the process of updating their county development plans, which lay out the guidelines of what can be built and where.
Cork County Council’s new plan restricts the number of homes for which a farmer can get planning permission to two per farm.
Nevertheless planning advisers in Cork believe that local planning officials are reasonable about farmer applications when they are made for members of the farm family resident in the area and are in compliance with the planning guidelines.
However, they are less likely to tolerate new applications for sites which they consider unsuitable, especially if the farmer has previously sold a site with planning permission for a profit.
Latest figures from the Central Statistics Office show a continuing upsurge in planning permissions for one-off houses, with 2,081 during the first quarter of this year — the highest quarterly figure since 2009.
It brought total permissions over the 12 months to April 2022 to 7,919, which was 50pc higher than the figure for all of 2020.
Of course not all of those are houses are on farms or indeed rural, as they also include one-off houses in in-fill sites in towns and cities.
The recent upsurge probably reflects the pent-up demand during the Covid lockdown, combined with the desire of more people to have their own space as well as the realisation that they can work from home in remote areas.
It also reflects the increasing costs of buying a home; those with access to a family site can acquire a home at a discount to the equivalent built by a developer in an estate.
However, realising those plans is always another issue as the numbers of one-off homes actually built in 2021 fell by 5.3pc to 4,682.
When it comes to house design, most county councils differentiate between what they consider appropriate in towns and suburban locations and those in the countryside.
For instance they may consider brick finishes on the exterior of houses to be acceptable in suburban houses, but not in rural settings. Likewise with PVC doors.
Mayo County Council rural house guidelines tell farmers to avoid neo-classical, pedimented porches with mock Greek columns and lightweight flat-roof construction finished with PVC, as well as elaborate doors with asymmetry and patterned glass or PVC and aluminium doors.
Wicklow’s guidelines also say to avoid “over-elaborate door styles… overly glazed panels, fan lights… large and fussy porches or canopies, particularly those including mock classical detailing and pillars.”
In the case of dormer homes, the Wicklow local authority prefers rooflights to sit flush with the roof slates rather than mid-roof dormers jutting out from a roof.
While most councils also favour a rendered façade on rural houses, their commitment can vary. For instance Mayo says that artificial stone and brick is not acceptable, and metal and other cladding are not generally recommended.
On the other hand Wicklow suggests slightly more flexibility, saying: “Brick will not normally be considered in any rural location… where the site is well screened or unobtrusive, flexibility in materials permitted will be afforded.”
Wicklow also says rendered and painted white/off-white will be the normal finish required; dashing with a coloured chip/pebble will not be permitted.
Mayo allows more colour. While ruling out bright strong colours and advising against pastel yellows, blues, greys and greens, it says cement-based plaster should be painted and says self-coloured plasters or long-life paints remove the need for regular maintenance.
As well as recommending white and cream white, Mayo indicates that shades of the county’s colours, “deep red or green, may look well where a house is set among trees or where there is a tradition of strong colours in the immediate area.”
While Mayo does not favour hardwood sheeting as it may not weather well, it accepts that it may be suitable in a wooded location.
When it comes to roofing, Mayo also recommends that when corrugated metal sheets are used, this too should be in the county’s red or green.
If you are considering applying to build a rural house, it is best to look at the advice leaflets published by the Office of the Planning Regulator (OCR) and by each county council.
The latter are usually accessible in the county development plan section of the council’s website.
The OCR leaflets are available at www.opr.ie/planning-leaflets/
Its guide advises that applicants should first check the county development plan to see the requirements relating to houses built in unserviced rural areas, and whether the site is in a conservation or protection area or in an area prone to flooding.
The fee for an application is €65 and must be made at the time of the application.
Seek professional advice on whether the design is appropriate to the location and that safe access is available along with water supply and waste water treatment.
If the latter is not available include plans for a sceptic tank and percolation area.
It can also be useful to consult with your local planning authority in advance, to get advice on how your choice of location or designs might be affected by the county development plan.
Before applying you should check what your local authority requires in terms of soil assessment. If your soil or site is found to not be suitable for a conventional sceptic tank you may have to find a more suitable location.
You should also consult ESB to check if it can supply your site with electricity and at what cost.
Advise your neighbours about your plans — if you take on board their concerns you may avoid planning objections.
You may also need to contact Irish Water or your local group water scheme about connecting to the water supply and waste water collection and treatment.
OCR also publishes a brief guide to the planning issues for Agricultural and Farm Development.