So far, 2015 has been a bad year for rural Ireland. The HSE has admitted that Ireland's high 'rurality' prevents our national ambulance network from meeting the desired standard.
It appears to have taken the view that the excessive dispersal and isolation of houses makes response times too slow, yielding more severe outcomes.
At around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that half of the country's septic tanks are defective. This means about a quarter of a million domestic sewage plants that may be damaging their surroundings. It will confirm the suspicions of those rural dwellers who ponder why their well is polluted or why fish have disappeared from the local river.
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More recently, Bus Éireann has announced that it is ending about 100 largely rural services, thereby cutting off long-established links with numerous small towns and villages.
These are the latest instalments in a series of news items showing the breakdown of our rural infrastructure. Findings like these are disappointing because this year augured well for Ireland's planning system. We saw the Government's heads of a bill providing for the creation of a planning regulator, as promoted by the Mahon tribunal. The Government also published its 2015 planning policy statement. This document reiterates a commitment to making the system plan-led and evidence-based, ensuring that development takes place in the correct locations. It emphasises sustainable development, making more use of public transport.
These are commendable aims but the announcements by Bus Éireann, EPA and HSE show they are out of touch with the prevailing conditions in the countryside.
Our rural support system is being incrementally whittled away and this can only be halted by a fundamental reform of the planning process.
Many State agencies operate in a manner inconsistent with the official planning policy. A good example of this is provided by the law and order network.
During the past 16 years, 162 district courts have been closed, ie. almost one each month. County Cork lost 18 district courts, Mayo lost 14 and Clare lost 10. Rationalisation is essential but these statistics suggest the demise of district courts as a countrywide service.
We should admit that this retrenchment is the opposite of decentralisation. It shows that the Government's rural planning policy will be ineffectual unless there is co-ordination between State agencies. Poor planning will continue in the absence of an agreed national strategy - a settlement policy that will sustain small towns and villages.
The random spread of housing away from villages and small towns is breaking down the socio-economic support system of rural Ireland. When people move out beyond walking distance, they leave the village behind and drive into some larger town to do their business. This decision is, of course, partly informed by price.
However, the planning code can nurture partnerships to sustain villages and small towns. A reform of the current settlement strategy must direct housing into villages, generating a virtuous circle with a better quality of life, less rural isolation and a more balanced age profile where children can walk to school and their parents can meet neighbours at the post office.
Rural publicans need to keep their customers close-by; pedestrian access will reduce deaths from drink driving.
A new strategy must support sustainability by clustering housing provision within small towns and villages. This is the central policy issue that needs to be addressed by the Department of the Environment. This reform should, however, be given a time limit. Those counties that fail to reform, by acquiring sites for village housing and implementing them within a decade, should be suspended and replaced by an administrator appointed by the minister.
Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant.
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The Residential Land Availability Survey map was created by drawing together zoning maps held by each local authority in the State.
Developed by the Department of the Environment, it sets out individual plots of land in towns, villages, cities and rural areas, and indicates the number of homes permitted on each site.
It took almost two years to develop, and provides planners and developers with an overview of the available land for housing.
It does not include land zoned for mixed-use development, which would generally include some housing provision. Nor does it include derelict sites.
The data is based on the situation as of March 31 last. Stage 1 land is considered not viable for development in the short-term because necessary services such as water are not in place. Stage 2 land has no major constraints. Not all the land has planning permission.