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Campaign for a home may lead to jail - Tangled web of priorities surrounds rural planning

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Breanndán Begley outside his mobile home in Baile na bPoc. Photo by Declan Malone

Breanndán Begley outside his mobile home in Baile na bPoc. Photo by Declan Malone

Breanndán Begley outside his mobile home in Baile na bPoc. Photo by Declan Malone

In the coming weeks famed West Kerry musician Breanndán Begley will submit yet another application to Kerry County Council seeking planning permission for a small house on his land in Baile na bPoc.

The application will begin the 13th year of his quest for planning permission, which so far has yielded nothing but frustration and the threat of jail and massive fines over a 'log cabin' style mobile home that he lives in on the site.

The mobile cabin, built on a truck chassis, was intended to serve as a temporary home while Breanndán went through the process of securing planning permission for a permanent house on his site. However, the cabin was deemed an unauthorised development by Kerry County Council and for most of the five years that Breanndán has lived there he has faced the threat of jail or a fine of up to €12.6 million or both for failing to comply with orders to remove it.

Until he has a new house to move into, Breanndán will neither abandon his temporary home nor pay any fine. This leaves jail as the remaining option and it holds no fear over him. "I'll willingly accept my artist in residency in Mountjoy. I have a few things I want to compose," he told The Kerryman.

The jail threat is just one of many low points in Breanndán's long-running campaign to secure planning permission for a modest house on land that was farmed by his father and grandfather before him in Baile na bPoc. It has been a campaign, marked by frustration and failure, that has left Breanndán at a loss to comprehend the logic of the planning system.

The musician, television presenter, adventurer and former teacher couldn't have imagined the saga that would unfold when he first applied in 2008 for planning permission for a house designed in the style of the cottages to be found on the Great Blasket Island. He felt confident that he met the aspirations and requirements of the Kerry County Development Plan when he submitted his initial planning application. He was a native of Baile na bPoc and a native Irish speaker seeking to build on his own land in a gaeltacht area. He planned to build a house that was in keeping with the vernacular architecture of the rural area and there were no objections to the application.

But things didn't work out as Breanndán hoped and so began a debilitating routine of planning applications that were modified and re-modified followed by refusal after refusal. At the end of it all he can't understand why he won't be allowed build in a village that had a population of 235 people before the Famine and is now reduced to a mere dozen or so locals. He even has a map from 1840 showing a house on "the exact spot" where he wants to build. Neither can he understand why one small house can make such a difference when the landscape of West Kerry is peppered with houses, over a third of them holiday homes in which a light rarely glows.

"They turned me down because the [planning application] notice was too high, because it was too low… because the notice was hand-written rather than printed... There was a problem another time because I had a caravan parked on the site," he recalls.

"I was told that I had failed to prove I was from the locality. I had to get a letter from the Parish Priest, who was the same age as myself, to say I was a local," he added.The great irony in this is that Baile na bPoc is known to the world outside the narrow confines of West Kerry because the Begley family of famed traditional musicians come from there. However, Breanndán still had to get a letter from the priest.

As the tedious cycle of application and rejection dragged on Breanndán put up a mobile home on his roadside site in June 2015, believing this would require no planning permission. He didn't go for a conventional mobile home but instead built what looks like a wooden cabin mounted on a truck chassis. The structure, which was designed in consultation with environmentalist Duncan Stewart, is entirely passive - water comes from a well, sewage goes to a bio-toilet specially imported from Sweden, it needs only minimal heating and it's designed to blend into the landscape. In fact it is so well concealed in a hollow scooped out of the sloping field that it is almost invisible from the road.

The mobile was intended as a temporary stop-gap until Breanndán got planning permission for a permanent house, and because it was mounted on a truck chassis that could be towed he felt confident he was on the right side of the planning regulations. However, Kerry County Council deemed the structure an 'unauthorised development' and ordered Breanndán to remove it.

Last March Breanndán sought planning permission to retain the mobile home, including with his application a petition signed by dozens of locals as well as a raft of letters of support from the arts and cultural community in Ireland and abroad. There were no objections to the application for planning permission, but again it was unsuccessful.

The council planning officer who examined the application stated that "the proposal is for the retention of a living unit/log cabin type structure located on what appears to be a moveable base/trailer on a site located in a Rural Area within the line of Protected Views and Prospects. The applicant has had two pre planning meetings, both with negative outcomes and has submitted four previous applications for a dwelling on site all which have been refused permission mainly on grounds of visual impact. One such application …. was appealed to An Bord Pleanála who also refused for reasons relating to visual impact… A refusal of permission is again recommended."

The Council accepted the recommendation and in May informed Breanndán that his application was refused, principally because: "The structure would be unduly obtrusive on the landscape and would seriously injure the visual amenities and natural beauty of the area. The proposed development would extend and consolidate the pattern of and set a precedent for undesirable ribbon development of an excessive density and of a suburban nature in an exposed and sensitive rural setting. The structure would therefore interfere with the character of the landscape, which is necessary to preserve in accordance with … the Kerry County Development Plan.

In June Breanndán appealed the council's decision to An Bord Pleanála, stating among other things that the impact on the landscape would be eliminated, that he had a genuine housing need, that his place within his community was deep rooted, and that his contribution to and preservation of the cultural and linguistic heritage of Corca Dhuibhne was well documented.

In August the appeal to An Bord Pleanála was withdrawn and in November Breanndán submitted a new application seeking permission to build a permanent stone-fronted cottage and to remove the mobile cabin. That application was withdrawn after the council pointed out a technical failure - the site notice had got wet and was illegible. In the next week or two Breanndán will submit a new application in the hope that he will finally get permission to build in the townland where his people have lived for generations.

"This world of planning is all new to me. All I want to do is build a house that I can live in. An áit a tsaolaíonn and t-éan is a fearr leis a bheith [A bird prefers to be in the place where he was born]," he says.

Breanndán's experience has left him with the view that the council's planning policies have room for improvement - to put it politely. He can look out from Baile na bPoc and see houses scattered across the landscape, farm buildings that stand out against the skyline, houses that got planning permission in areas prone to flooding, and it makes no sense to him that a wooden cabin, let alone a house built in the style of a Blasket Island cottage, could "seriously injure the visual amenities and natural beauty of the area".

"Kerry County Council has about ten arms and they're all pulling against each other. What's suffering as a result is not the tourists, not the cows but the Kerry people," he says.

Tangled web of priorities surrounds rural planning

Throughout West Kerry houses dot the landscape, ribbon development is widespread, mini housing estates stand out on hillsides, over a third of the houses are holiday homes with vacant windows staring out on the majestic scenery. It's not easy to discern any plan or pattern; the houses might just as well have fallen randomly out of the sky.

Some of these houses pre-date planning regulations, some come from the time when county councillors could use the power of a Section 4 Motion (later called a Section 140 Motion) to force a planning application through the system regardless of the views of planning officials, many more were built during the boom years.

Yet, even though the sprawl of houses across the countryside might give the impression of a planning free-for-all, the kind of difficulties Breanndán Begley has encountered in his efforts to build a house on his own land are familiar to many in West Kerry where planning remains a contentious issue.

Since the Local Government Reform Act of 2014 curtailed the use of Section 140 Motions, planners have been freed from councillors canvassing on behalf of their constituents. Planners now refer to the Kerry County Development Plan 2015 - 2021 as the basis for their decisions and it takes a successful appeal to An Bord Pleanála to force a change of tack.

While planning applications can by rejected for a very wide number of reason, two are frequently cited in West Kerry: 'injurious to the landscape' and 'extending an undesirable pattern of ribbon development'.

In an area as scenic as West Kerry it's difficult for any house to have no impact on the landscape and even though the County Development Plan provides design guidelines for blending houses into a rural setting, following the guidelines is no guarantee of success with a planning application. Meanwhile, the ribbon development that planners now want to avoid was previously allowed spread across West Kerry to such an extent that it's difficult to find any roadside site that doesn't add to it.

Both the impact on the landscape and undesirable ribbon development were cited by the council when it rejected Breandán's planning application last year. However, retired consulting engineer Jim Ryan, who supports Breanndán's planning application, believes that in coming to this decision the council is failing on another commitment: to "promote the use of Irish within the wider community and provide linguistic support for the gaeltacht as an Irish-speaking community".

"The County Development Plan includes aspirations about maintaining and developing gaeltacht areas. But how can you foster these areas when somebody like Breanndán can't get planning permission on his own land?" he said.

Jim Ryan also argues that Breanndán's house would fall within the existing settlement of Baile na bPoc and therefore should not be considered as an extension to ribbon development.

Set against this the County Development Plan points out that, "the difficulty for the Planning Authority is that the rural landscape can only accommodate a certain number of such houses before irreparable and irreversible damage is done…"

It would seem that Breanndán Begley's hopes of living among his own people are bogged down in the very uncertain ground between this harsh assessment and the council's aspirations about supporting rural (gaeltacht) communities. And he is not alone, but the difference between Breanndán and others who have gone down the same road is that he isn't giving up.

Kerryman