Thursday 23 November 2017

Not local enough: rule draining life out of the countryside

People across rural Ireland are being banned from building their dream homes in order to protect the local environment. But are planners going too far

Denied: Cork hurling legend Donal Og Cusack
Denied: Cork hurling legend Donal Og Cusack

Graham Clifford

They're still scratching their heads in Cloyne. How their local star Donal Óg Cusack, who won three All-Irelands between the posts for the Cork hurlers, could have been denied planning permission for a modest four-bedroom house just a few kilometres from his home place sent shockwaves throughout the East Cork parish.

Cusack was denied planning permission because he was deemed to be an 'outsider' by Cork County Council. It invoked a contentious 'locals-only' policy to turn down the application despite the fact that the site for Cusack's proposed new home was just one kilometre from his home village. The pundit, and current selector with the Clare hurlers, is appealing the decision to An Bord Pleanála.

In Cloyne, one local told me: "We're disgusted. Like no one stopped Charlie (Haughey) having his own island, where was the local need there? And no one stops the wealthy bankers who destroyed our country from having multiple homes across the globe. It's always the little guy who pays the price. It's just plain wrong."

The controversial policy of only granting planning permission to locals, where there is a need for a home, means thousands of would-be homeowners have to look elsewhere to build. And those looking to have that dream holiday home can forget about it entirely. The policy does not extend to people who have lived in an area for seven years.

Decisions are made in the context of the locally prepared development plan in line with the Department of the Environment's 2005 Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines for Planning Authorities. Each county determines if there is specific 'local need' and how they define it can be different from county to county.

The plan is to control uncoordinated dispersal of settlements as Seán O'Leary, executive director with the Irish Planning Institute, told me: "Dispersed settlement patterns undermine rural towns and villages."

The policy, championed by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government, has been criticised by the European Union, legal experts, the construction industry and others for its discriminative nature - yet it continues in most Irish counties.

Seán O'Leary told me: "The 2005 Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines for Planning Authorities must be reviewed and updated in light of changes that have occurred, particularly having regard to environmental issues since that time." Those changes can't come quickly enough for many.

"We couldn't believe it when they told us we couldn't build on land my wife's family had owned for generations," says 27-year-old salesman Michael in Wexford.

"It was six miles down a back country road from where my wife, Karen, grew up. We were told that the land was not local to my wife's family which was just rubbish. We appealed the decision but failed and are now looking to buy a house locally instead. We'll probably have to move to the nearest town. It's no wonder rural Ireland is dying."

And in North Cork I come across a young couple who were denied planning permission on a site just five miles from where each of them grew up. They chose the location equidistant from each other's family homes so they could be close to their parents, but the county council refused permission and An Bord Pleanála upheld the decision.

Across rural Ireland, from Donegal to Waterford, there are scores of such examples.

In Kinvara, south Galway, civil engineer Joe Byrne tells me that in his local area, many young couples have seen their dreams destroyed by these strict planning regulations.

"Already we have landscape sensitivity and habitat categories which makes getting planning permission difficult, but the 'locals only' policy complicates matters further. Some farmers can't even build on their own land. There is a real lack of joined-up thinking and we need some form of derogation from these myriad of overly strict planning rules."

Joe, also a local Fine Gael county councillor, said he fears the impact for areas such as his own will be severe in the future.

"The influx of new people into areas such as Kinvara has led to a renewed vibrancy here but if people can't build, how can this continue? We have two national schools but looking ahead 20 years, I'm not sure they can both exist."

Not everyone agrees though.

In Waterford, a county councillor there has called for 'special planning treatment' for the Ring Gaeltacht area because it has, what he calls, "too many blow-ins".

Cllr Séamus O'Donnell told Review: "We had a case recently of a local man who wanted to build a house and the county council had approved permission but an outsider, from another country, objected to An Board Pleanála and they decided to turn down the planning. I find this appalling. This is a rural Gaeltacht area; we need to protect that for generations to come. I believe our planning policy should allow Irish people to build here but not those from other countries."

For An Taisce, conservation is key - though they say they do appreciate and understand the plight of those living in rural Ireland.

Charles Stanley-Smith of An Taisce told Review: "Urban sprawl into the countryside is a major problem in terms of climate change because of extra driving and the extra costs of service provision because of its dispersed nature. Small towns and villages should be supported because they provide services within a walkable community."

And he said during the boom many tried to find their way around the 'locals only' planning issue.

"An Taisce recognises the genuine needs of farming families. Though, during the heady days of the tiger, we dealt with an application for a farmer's five-year-old daughter."

Cork County Council told me that in 2015 they refused 118 applications for one-off houses. While there are many reasons why these refusals occurred, the 'locals only' policy inevitably was the cause of the downfall of many.

Back in Cloyne locals are still perplexed. They can't believe their cherished son has been treated in this way.

Indo Review

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