Planners and families hoping to build a house left in limbo by lack of clarity over ‘locals only’ rules
Families looking to build their own homes in the countryside face further months of uncertainty as new rural housing guidelines will not be published until November at the earliest.
Councils are currently revising their county development plans, but the Department of Housing says it cannot give guidance on how they should allow for the new guidelines.
Planners say they are in “limbo” and while it is expected it will become harder to get planning permission for one-off homes, there is confusion over whether ‘locals only’ restrictions will be tightened, abandoned or replaced with some other criteria.
Mixed messages from government ministers have not helped. Junior Planning Minister Peter Burke and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue have defended current policy which supports a right to build for people with local connections.
But the National Planning Framework (NPF), which falls under the remit of Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien and is enshrined in Rural Development Minister Heather Humphreys’ Our Rural Future policy, requires a move away from one-off permissions.
The Green Party is also seeking guidelines that deter one-off housing.
Single rural homes make up one in three of all dwellings nationally and their proliferation on dispersed sites has happened alongside the emptying of small towns and villages now blighted with dereliction and lacking critical mass to support essential services.
Single houses are reliant on septic tanks, with pollution of local waterways a persistent problem, and residents are car-dependent and often isolated in their older years.
A return to town- and village-centred homes and clustering of new homes close to existing settlements is seen as vital to restore services, reduce car dependence, develop community renewable energy schemes and other climate action measures.
But with a housing shortage and exorbitant rents, many people are looking for options outside the regular housing market.
And after decades of one-off houses being facilitated, an expectation has formed in many farming communities that relatives will be able to build on family land.
Planning regulator Niall Cussen, in trying to steer councils away from perpetuating the practice in their new county development plans, has suffered personalised attacks by public representatives.
Governments have grappled with this issue since 1997 when guidelines were introduced that created a presumption against permission for one-off homes, for all the reasons laid out above.
After a public backlash, the restrictions were relaxed in 2005 to create a presumption in favour of permission once a ‘locals only’ or ‘local need’ criteria was met.
A working group was set up in May 2017 to review these criteria following an EU court ruling that cast doubt on their legality, but the work is still ongoing.
In opposition, Darragh O’Brien hounded the then housing minister Eoghan Murphy about the slow progress.
Mr O’Brien now says the matter has been complicated by Covid and the move towards long-term working from home which is creating more demand for homes in the countryside and broadening the kind of jobs carried out there.
‘Locals only’ rules specify that jobs should be in farming, forestry or otherwise intrinsic to the rural community.
“The guidelines are very much dated. A lot has moved on in terms of policy and context,” says Dr Conor Norton, lecturer at Technological University Dublin and president of the Irish Planning Institute.
“What’s needed as fast as possible is to get proper up-to-date guidance that reflects those new national priorities and objectives.”
Fergus Merriman, a chartered building surveyor who lives and works in the Co Clare village of Feakle agrees, saying the current “limbo” is unhelpful, but he says a clampdown on one-off homes will be unpopular.
“There’s going to be blood on the streets over it because every farmer is going to say, I have miles of road frontage, I could have a house every hundred yards – why is the value of my land going down because of this policy?”
Seamus Boland, chief executive of Irish Rural Link, says government policy has never been clear on the issue, with reliance on rules and regulations to discourage one-off housing rather than a strategy to provide alternatives.
“Planners have not redesigned villages so that it is attractive for people to choose to live there,” he says.
“A redesign would look properly at architecture, open spaces, transport and amenities.
“Living on a half-acre in the middle of a rural area has major disadvantages, especially for long-life living, but the current choices are not much better.”
Mr Merriman knows this from personal experience. When he moved to Feakle 20 years ago, he bought a semi-derelict house to do up, something which isn’t always the simplest option.
While permission for restoration is easier to get than building new, he says landowners are often reluctant to sell old houses because losing the site may reduce access to their fields.
Restoration can also be as costly as building new, and there are particular challenges in restoring a town- or village-centre dwelling, especially if it involves change of use from an old shop.
“I get an increasing number of younger people looking to find houses in the country but rural agents are struggling to find anything affordable.
“Anything under €150,000 is gone and when you’re looking at prices below that, you’re looking at a pile of stones with a tree growing out of it.”
But he also believes that with proper policies, it would be possible to incentivise restoration over new builds – as long as commercial development guidelines are also revised.
“In many places there’s a big sign on the road and it reads: straight ahead for new exciting retail development and turn left for vacant village. That’s a planning policy that has to change.”
Dr Norton says public mindsets must also change. “One of the key issues that we have to grasp is the difference between housing preference and housing need,” he says.
“We all have preferences but if those preferences can’t be sustainably met, we simply can’t follow that sort of course,” he said.
The Department of Housing says the new guidelines will distinguish between areas experiencing “significant overspill development pressure” and “remoter and weaker rural areas where population levels may be low or declining”.
“Funding and other measures to support new homes within towns and other rural settlements are being progressed in tandem with both the Housing for All Plan and Town Centre First policy, which will be launched in the late summer and autumn respectively,” it said.
Publication of the guidelines, however, “is not expected before November”.
Mr Cussen, the planning regulator, is on annual leave but his office says it will continue to review county development plans even without the benefit of the guidelines.
“In all our assessments, the Office of the Planning Regulator makes recommendations and observations with a view to ensuring that the plan sets out an overall vision for the proper planning and sustainable development for the area that is consistent with national and regional policy,” it said.
“The vast majority of our recommendations have been implemented, pointing to better planning outcomes.”
Planning is only part of the equation, however. Dr Norton says that politics will be the critical factor.
“As planners, we will continue to draw attention to this and have been doing so for many years but I don’t think we’ve been successful in shifting the political viewpoint. It won’t be planners I’m afraid who are going to be able to move this along.”