Seanad debates

Tuesday, 6 April 2004

Draft Guidelines on Rural Housing: Statements (Resumed).

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, back to the House. Senator Moylan was in possession.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his contribution to this debate. I mentioned on 10 March that most rural dwellers are not farmers and do not depend directly on farming. The backbone of many rural communities is the people who live in the area but commute to work elsewhere. Such people make a major contribution to the areas in which they live. We have to enable people to continue to build houses and to live in such areas, while working in adjacent areas. We will have a major problem if such practices are not allowed to continue. The viability of many important elements of rural parishes, such as schools and sporting clubs, will be called into question if the Minister does not make the changes he proposes. We have to take on board the contribution made by sporting clubs. We will go down the wrong road if we do not allow development and if we do not allow young families and new families to live in rural areas.

The Minister should consider the serious questions being asked by local authorities about people's connections with an area. I am familiar with the cases of people in my home county, whose parents moved from a rural area to a town some years ago after being housed by a local authority. Their families are now in a position to provide housing in rural areas. Such people are often unable to purchase sites adjacent to bigger towns and are forced to move to rural areas to buy a site and to build a house. We must afford such people the opportunity to return to rural areas to build houses. If we are not prepared to allow people to move to the areas from which their parents came a few years ago, we are going down the wrong road.

The Minister may have stated that local authorities are insisting on a seven-year clause in the cases of some people who move out and build. It is hard for a young couple or a young person to commit themselves to live in an area for seven years. They may have to change jobs for employment reasons, for example. The maximum period we should require a family to commit itself to staying in a given area is two or three years. People who would love to stay in an area may have to move to another area for reasons that may be beyond their control.

The Minister spoke about risks to underground water supplies and aquifers as a result of development in rural areas. I am aware that many houses have been built in rural areas by people who received grant aid. At one time, most houses were built under the grant size, but that is not always the case now because houses are getting bigger. The grant became unnecessary as people started to exceed the grant size. When the inspector came to approve the grant aid, in most cases he looked around the house, for example to check whether the attic was insulated or the taps were flowing. Did he check the septic tank, which is most important, to see whether it was constructed in a proper fashion and in accordance with the tight guidelines that had been set out by the Department? I do not doubt that a substantial number of septic tanks were not constructed in accordance with the proper plans.

The construction of inferior septic tanks has caused serious problems to underground water sources in certain areas. We have to be straight, honest and upright about the problem. New systems, such as the Puraflo system, have been approved and cleared. People have to sign contracts stating they will provide a Puraflo system in rural areas before planning can be granted. We now have a real solution to what was a serious problem in the past.

I may have spoken on 10 March about rural parishes that do not have a proper village centre. The Minister and the Department must ensure local authorities insist on a development envelope around the rural village centre, which in many cases may consist of nothing more than a shop, a church, a school and possibly a pub. Local authorities must provide an envelope to ensure new sewerage systems can be put in place at a reasonable cost to service 30 or 40 houses in rural areas. If that is done, we can say to people from a rural village without a centre or serviced sites that we are giving them an opportunity to stay in that parish and to build where it is safe to build and where a family will not require a second car to take their children to school. I hope the Minister will push local authorities to meet their serious obligation to do that.

In fairness, local authorities have provided private sites at subsided rates in some villages and smaller towns. The Department should be thanked for putting in place a system that allows the local authorities to help those who require housing to build their own houses. If we do not provide private sites or give people some help to provide their own houses, people will be placed on local authority housing lists and will have to be housed by local authorities. It can cost local authorities well over €150,000 to provide houses in local authority areas. If people in rural areas have the ability to provide their own houses, we should try to help them by providing some serviced sites.

It must be recognised that the Department has substantially grant aided group water schemes in many rural areas. At least a proper supply of water, from a group water scheme, is now available. Great credit is due to the Department for making so much money available. Great credit is also due to rural communities for taking up the grant aid available to provide group water schemes, thereby enabling people to stay in their parishes and to rear their families there, as well as ensuring that hurling, Gaelic football and soccer teams can continue to exist. This is necessary to prevent the problem that was encountered recently, when two or three parishes had to come together to try to field an under-age hurling team. No children are enrolling in some small rural schools in which a number of children used to enrol every year.

I welcome the Minister's decision. I compliment the Department and all concerned for affording people the opportunity to build houses in rural areas. We must monitor planners carefully, as some of them are taking a strict line and sticking to the letter of the law in respect of planning. They are refusing planning permission if they can find any way of doing so. That is not the intent of these new guidelines. The intent is to loosen the regulations and afford people an opportunity to build homes where they can do so at a reasonable cost and in the areas in which they want to stay.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I look forward to further developments in affording rural people the opportunity to live in rural areas.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. There is no doubt that there is a need to rejuvenate our rural areas and villages throughout the country. The reasons, as outlined by other speakers, are so sports teams can be maintained, schools can be kept open and parishes can be kept alive. We are all in agreement about this. However, will the guidelines announced by the Minister make a blind bit of difference? Many planners have stated they will make little or no difference and many members of local authorities have stated the same.

Previous speakers talked about planners keeping to the letter of the law. I hope nobody is suggesting planners should not keep to the letter of the law. If guidelines are set down, planners, irrespective of the county they are dealing with, must comply with them and keep to the letter of the law as outlined by the Government. There can be no shilly-shallying on this. The guidelines to be laid down must be adhered to.

I am concerned about the guidelines. They seem to be trying to be all things to all men, especially with the local elections coming up. I wonder whether they have any substance. I spoke to Senator Henry before this afternoon's debate and she brought to my attention the meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government of 24 March, at which there were some very good presentations, especially by Professor Convery. His opinion was that people were opting to live in one-off houses because it was often the cheapest option. I do not necessarily agree with that opinion but it is true that for many people it is the cheapest option and sometimes the only one they can afford. This is because of the levies introduced by the Government through the local authorities, especially over the last year. Senator Henry also brought to my attention the presentation at the meeting of a paper by Dr. Donal Daly, who stated that 40% of Irish soils are not suitable for septic tanks and 15% of soils are not suitable for any type of sewage treatment because of the risk of contamination of groundwater which we all know is very serious.

I read the speech of the Minister, Deputy Cullen, at the launch of the draft guidelines on rural housing. To state that the proposed guidelines will promote sustainable housing development is a fabrication. The Minister's stated objectives were to facilitate people who have roots in an area in obtaining planning permission and, in the interest of sustaining population levels, to accommodate any demand for housing in rural areas suffering from population decline. This sounds lovely, but it is an effort to con the people of rural Ireland in the run-up to the local elections, which is part of the culture of this Government. The objectives outlined in the Minister's speech were given with the warning that approval would still be subject to normal planning requirements and good planning practice. In other words, if a planning officer feels an application contravenes planning requirements it will be refused.

If one asks planning officers around the country what the new guidelines will mean, one will hear many different opinions. Many officials say they will not make the slightest bit of difference to the policies which currently operate in many counties. The vast majority of refused rural housing applications were rejected because they contravened the development plan or were not in accordance with good planning practice. This will not change under the new guidelines. It is dishonest to give people false hope that they will obtain planning permission if they have links to rural areas. That is only partly the truth. In the majority of cases, people who have been refused permission in the past will be turned down again. These people will vent their anger on the Government when they realise this.

The Minister stated that he wanted planning authorities to adopt a more positive and proactive approach in dealing with rural housing. Very few on this side of the House disagree with that aim. However, he then stated that planning authorities should act as facilitators in bringing together various strands of opinion on how to deal with rural housing. Surely this is already the case every time local authorities discuss a development plan. Does a local authority not invite comment and consultation from all areas before finalising its development plan? If any local authority does not do this it should be reprimanded. Local authorities are being asked to do what they are already doing.

The Minister also stated he wanted planning authorities to have as constructive an approach as possible in helping applicants through the planning process. This is also something we all agree with, but is this practice not already in place? What is new? We already have pre-consultation before people apply. The Minister included this in earlier regulations. This has all been regurgitated as though it were a magic wand to solve all the problems of rural housing, which is not the case.

The Minister also stated he had made it clear that protecting water quality is a leading consideration in determining whether sites are suitable for development and that the necessary environmental safeguards will continue to be implemented. Most of the people who have been refused permission to build houses in rural areas over the last number of years were turned down because of these safeguards and the need to protect water quality. Again, this is a regurgitation of guidelines already in place.

It is difficult to disagree with the points the Minister makes, but the guidelines are only a smokescreen to satisfy a particular lobby. What is so earth shattering about them? Some people have been hysterical, saying they have gone too far and will lead to endless one-off houses. I do not believe this will be the case. The Minister is trying to cod people into thinking they will obtain planning permission after being refused previously for various environmental reasons. There is no question that even with the new guidelines, these people will be refused again. They are being given false hope.

The Government's policies on planning and the environment seem to change like the weather. The Minister of State said the new guidelines supersede the provisions on rural housing contained in the sustainable strategy document. However, the national spatial strategy's policy is at variance with the decentralisation proposals, so there seems to be a different policy for practically every day of the week. There are no linkages and no cohesive approach, which are so important for sustainable planning. The Minister's aim in planning for rural housing is to confuse people. It is a con trick or sleight of hand — saying one thing while meaning something else. It is typical of the Minister's approach; he can talk a good show but when one examines the substance of these guidelines there is nothing there. The stated policy which the Minister has advanced is even at variance with his own proposed guidelines. It is only a public relations exercise and will be shown as such in the years ahead. History will prove that these guidelines are a wasted exercise. Everything is dressed up but nothing is different. When people in rural areas apply for sites, especially if they are reapplying in places where they have already been refused permission, I suggest that the vast majority of them will be refused again for similar reasons. The Minister has outlined those reasons in the guidelines. The same thing is being put to people as if it is a magic wand for rural areas.

We all want to see proper development and growth in rural areas, especially where the population has declined in recent years in order to give such communities a pride in their culture. We all want to see infrastructural development so that small towns, villages and outlying areas can be built up into living communities with proper facilities, including post offices. The draft guidelines on rural housing may seem to address such problems but history will prove that they only amount to a window-dressing exercise.

4:00 pm

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus tréaslaím leis an Aire Stáit toisc go bhfuil an t-ábhar seo inár láthair agus go bhfuil seans againn ár dtuairimí a nochtadh anseo. Bhí díospóireacht anseo cheanna agus tá sé soiléir go bhfuil tuairimíocht an-leathan. Tá muid ag teacht go dtí an freagra ar an gceist diaidh ar ndiaidh.

I want to declare an interest in this subject because I am a co-founder of the Irish Rural Dwellers' Association and am currently a member of its executive committee. For several years the association has lobbied for such guidelines, although perhaps with some fine tuning. Submissions have been invited over a two-month period and I understand that we have not reached the end of that process. One of the reasons I requested this discussion while submissions are still being considered is so that we would have an opportunity of adding to the debate, which to some extent is organic. We are learning as we go along.

For a long period, many decisions concerning rural areas were influenced from outside the country, particularly through planners and various agencies. The Irish Rural Dwellers' Association contacted the town planning association in Britain and posed a number of questions. We were told that the association had a special section dealing with planning in Ireland, but not for any other country. The association told us that was because it saw no difference between Ireland and Britain. That may be a historical viewpoint but it is fundamental to this debate. Many of the planning decisions we are currently witnessing are more suitable to Britain than here. The whole idea of a village, which is being used as an obstruction for development throughout rural Ireland generally, is based very much on the concept of a village in Britain.

We have had the dispersed village which is traditional to Ireland and which extends over a period of four, five or six miles. If one goes to Kilmaley one will not see the village within a half-mile area. Kilmaley, or other such villages, can extend over five or six miles but the people living there have an identity with their village. The dispersed village was traditional to Ireland and that is what we are still talking about. To have planning guidelines or regulations in place, as was the case, which discouraged that, undermined the very communities that existed in such dispersed villages.

I am delighted with this debate which is helpful and is throwing up questions to which we still need answers. When travelling through west Clare 30 years ago, I remember seeing houses that were locked up or with their roofs falling in. It was evident that the inhabitants of those houses had emigrated, particularly to America. I have been travelling to America over the past 30 years and have met Irish people there. I met people from west Clare and similar rural areas, and invariably they will tell one that they would love to come home. People used to say that rural Ireland was dead and nobody wanted to live there any more, but now people do want to live there.

Members are well aware of decisions to refuse planning, which are hard to understand. I remember canvassing in Cashel during an election when I knocked on a particular door. A young lady with two young children came out of a fine big house which I understood cost €170,000. I said she was lucky to have such a lovely house, and she replied that she did not want to live there, that her parents were farming out the road and were offering her a site but she would not be allowed to build there. She said her parents were getting old and if she could build on the site she could look after them and they could look after her children, their grandchildren, but as things were she was losing and her parents were losing. Society also lost because somebody else will be looking after those old people later on. Worse again, she had to go into town and spend €170,000 for a house, whereas with a free site she could have built her house for €100,000. That is the background to the restrictive issues with which we have had to deal over the years.

The draft guidelines on rural housing are possibly the most important development in decades regarding rural housing. There are certainly issues that need to be looked at, including occupancy. If I invest money in a house and am told that I cannot have access to that money after two or three years, the situation needs to be examined.

Many problems could be solved if theconjunction "and" was changed to "or" in the draft guidelines where reference is made to"people who work in or make a contribution to rural Ireland". If that was done, many people who have raised questions about this would besatisfied. It is only one word but it is fundamental to this issue. If people make a contribution to rural areas by spending their money andparticipating in the community, that would go a long way towards resolving many of the problems.

The people of rural areas invariably have been good custodians of the environment through the years. They are the first to object to anything that would harm the environment in which they reside. They enjoy the environment and want to pass it on to future generations. I am not an An Taisce basher as I pointed out to Senator Norris last week when he made a general comment in this regard. Those who raise questions about An Taisce are not bashing the organisation. However, An Taisce is a statutory body, which is prescribed under legislation, and, for that reason, it must be open to scrutiny. An Taisce has gone down the wrong road and it should concentrate on heritage and national monuments, an area in which it has done magnificent work. The media has reported on deep division within the body on that issue. Members of An Taisce, nationally and locally, believe the organisation has lost its way and has attracted negative attention. Unless the organisation fulfils the role for which it was established, it should be delisted forthwith.

I refer to the composition of An Bord Pleanála. The board primarily comprises professionals but it should be expanded to include representatives of people who are affected by its decisions. Representatives of rural Ireland should sit on the board because they could provide first hand information.

The role of planners must also be examined. Some 25 planners have been recruited from New Zealand. Planners are welcome from all countries and I do not cast aspersions on their professional qualifications but they cannot be in touch with many of the traditional issues, attitudes, practices, precedents and requirements that have been set and have percolated through the planning system.

The problem with the guidelines is the perception that they will make no difference. The Government recognised this well in advance but at least one or two county managers have gone public, saying the guidelines will make no difference. That suggests they have decided not to study the guidelines and get off the hobby horse to realise what the Government and the people want. If that is the case, the Minister of State should ensure nobody will be allowed to circumvent what is required under the guidelines. For example, county managers must revisit their county development plans. However, this should also be scrutinised and they should be in no doubt as to the intention of the guidelines, which is to loosen restrictions that have stifled rural Ireland.

I get outraged on this issue because it involves a human right. All of us are committed to good planning and saving the environment. I sat through a lecture on the septic tank issue given by a university lecturer. He convinced me that so much progress has been made in this area that such tanks should not produce effluent damaging to the environment. I accept the tanks may cost more but this issue has been addressed and the tanks can be monitored. In addition, the normal requirements still apply whereby a trial hole must be dug to analyse what will happen to the water and so on.

If people are pushed into villages, towns and cities, they will also have a grievance. The quality of life in villages, for example, will be changed beyond all recognition. People's quality of life in Dublin has been changed through overpopulation and industry and business saturation. Decentralisation provides that the rural economy will improve and infrastructure will develop while relief will be provided to cities and towns that are overpopulated. If the guidelines are not acted on positively and results not achieved quickly, we will have to revisit the issue in ten years because of the terrible damage that will have been done to towns and cities through the restrictive practices that applied in rural Ireland.

Why can a person living 60 to 80 miles from the site of a planning application make an objection? Very often the same person is lodging multiple objections throughout the country. Serial objectors exist. They know nothing about the communities in which they object but they have tunnel vision, largely because of An Taisce. The objections are upheld by An Bord Pleanála, perhaps because of the composition of the board, and that must stop. It should be required that an objector must live within ten miles, for example, of a site or it should be become exceptionally expensive for serial objectors to pursue their objections.

Submissions were invited on the guidelines and it is intended to revisit them to fine-tune them. That is what consultation is about and it is good but the basic document contains much detail. Issues such as serial objections and occupancy and the composition of An Taisce and An Bord Pleanála should be addressed and the planning authorities must understand the guidelines. The Government should convene a meeting of county managers and planners to explain in explicit detail what the guidelines entail and, if they are not adhered to and it is necessary to revisit them in a more substantial manner, that should be done.

The Irish Rural Dwellers' Association and many farmers are delighted that at long last a courageous, explicit approach has been taken in this area. Land ownership is also an issue. There is nothing wrong with farmers selling a site to a non-family member because they might need the money to put a child through university. They have lived on the land in worse times. While times are better now, they must receive a dividend for their custodianship of the land, which they have loved through the years. Most of them want to revitalise rural Ireland. If a neighbour or friend of a farmer wanted to build a house, would it not be great if the farmer could sell him or her a site? Would it not be good for the community because the future of local schools would be guaranteed and small shops would have an opportunity to expand?

I have a small house in County Clare. Farmers primarily lived in the area but, over the past eight or nine years, more houses have been built. Recently a hairdresser opened and a business opened in another house. The infrastructure is following the population and if that is not good for morale, the economy and the quality of life of the country, I do not know what is. The only show in town are the guidelines and if the Minister will listen to the few points made by Members, I genuinely believe that combined with the submissions this will fine-tune the document, of which we will be proud. We will be delighted to see the results on the ground.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and thank him for his forbearance in listening to the debate. I listened to the wise contributions of Senators Ó Murchú, Cummins and Moylan with which I would find it difficult to disagree. I have no doubt the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, is well intentioned and, as Senator Ó Murchú stated, he intended to loosen regulations. An accurate general view is that planning has become overly restrictive in every county. What is required for the guidelines is strengthening enabling legislation or in the absence of that, them being put in a specific directive form. I agree with Senator Ó Murchú that there is a preconceived notion that these are only guidelines. That framework is built into many county development plans, which is the bedrock for planners. I urge the Minister to strengthen the guidelines further by putting them in specific directive form, otherwise it will be necessary to enact legislation.

All Members have been approached by people experiencing difficulties with the planning process. As councillors or legislators we have to deal with the issues at a certain remove. I was involved in making representations in two cases. In one case, a recently married couple living in an apartment wanted to build a home on a site donated by the groom's parents reasonably close to their home and sharing a common entrance. They experience nothing but difficulties. Having employed a planner who spoke to the planner in the county council and engaged in interminable talks, they were unable to overcome the difficulties and were refused planning permission. I advised them to appeal the decision to An Bord Pleanála and with the advice of an architect and planner, they won the case. The process took two and a half to three years, which has an impact on people. The other case concerns a professional man from Kerry who was engaged in practice in Cork all his working life, but when it came to retirement he wanted to build in his county of origin not too far from his birthplace. He had a site in one of these clusters of 20 or 30 houses and he was also refused permission. The case is ongoing and is still not resolved. One must feel for people in these circumstances. We all concur with the thrust of the guidelines and want people to be able to live in the area in which they have grown up or where sites may be provided by a relative. We are frustrated that planners are putting obstacles in people's way.

I skimmed through the earlier debate and I compliment Senator Paddy Burke on his interesting contribution in which he raised the question of sustainable development. I was delighted that in response to this the Minister said people were at the heart of sustainable development. As Members know, planners believe in clusters and villages and very often, as Senator Ó Murchú stated, the concept of the village can be wider than that as evidenced by Dromtariffe in the diocese of Kerry but in County Cork, which is an entirely rural area with no village as we would understand it. Is one to say that people may not continue to live there?

I accept the Minister's intention is to bring common sense to bear by issuing guidelines but I urge him to put them in specific directive form or they will not have the desired effect. I understand that up to 80 section 140 motions will be on the order paper for the next monthly meeting of Kerry County Council, which will totally dominate the proceedings. People accept this is not a professional way to proceed but councillors are frustrated and believe that until the system is loosened they will have to continue to proceed in this way. Councillors from all political persuasions tell me that individually they have planning file cases on their books. Planning is taking up the time of public representatives and unfortunately it will continue until a less rigid approach is taken.

Senator Ó Murchú referred to the occupancy clause. I am not sure of the constitutionality of the occupancy clause although I accept that some county councils have taken legal advice and have been told it may proceed in this way. However, there is variance between three and ten years. The country is too small for such variations and the Minister should bring uniformity to bear and for that reason I urge him to put the guidelines in specific directive form. We all subscribe to rejuvenating the countryside. In Glencar valley there was once 260 houses and now there is only 130, which explains the reason for so many section 140 motions in County Kerry. I sympathise with councillors in this matter. They would welcome the guidelines if they were in specific directive form. They feel nothing is being done for them in a practical sense as the points are already set out in county development plans. There are many outs in the guidelines. As drafted, they include phrases such as "subject to normal planning requirements and good planning". Some councillors argue that the guidelines could be used to make it easier to refuse permission. As Senator Ó Murchú said rightly, none of us believes that was the intention. The intention was to loosen up the system as it had become overly restrictive. Sadly, the new guidelines might not make much difference to current policies if they are allowed to stand. They must be strengthened.

Many useful points have been made during the debate. In large valleys like Glencar, although there is nothing particularly problematic there, and others in the south and west of the country, one can see large multicoloured structures. They can appear jarring given the green-grey landscape and mountain backdrop. We should have an official, general policy to provide for stone facing given the amount of useful local stone throughout the country. If it was operated by local authorities individually, each might implement such a policy differently. We need not have multicoloured house fronts which fail to fit in with the landscape and can mar the beauty of the countryside. We can overcome problems in this regard. I encourage the Government to introduce an official policy of stone facing for rural housing. We have all heard of people who have witnessed the result of disastrous planning between Galway city and Connemara. If local stone product had been used, we would not encounter half as much criticism.

While I am loath to criticise anybody, Senator Ó Murchú's comments about An Taisce made an impression on me. There are good and bad people in every organisation and An Taisce has brought much deserved criticism on itself. It is divided internally. Until An Taisce puts itself right and introduces agreed structures, there is a case to be made for not having a prescribed body. While I do not want to consider the matter in too much detail, there are serial objectors, as Senator Ó Murchú said, who are like serial knockers. Perhaps a restriction needs to be imposed on them by providing for a distance limitation. In Killarney objectors from more than 25 miles away brought cases to An Bord Pleanála regarding permissions the local authority was prepared to grant but which the board refused to allow.

A new framework is required in this area but it must be very specific. Guidelines will not fit the bill. I have no doubt that planners have been taking a rigid view. While I welcome the thrust of Senators' remarks, I urge the Minister of State to ensure that changes are made in specific directive form as he must if they are to have the desired effect. Otherwise, there will be too many loopholes in conditions and planning practices. Reference has been made to practices regarded as normal due to custom, but these could vary from place to place. I urge the introduction of strengthening legislation or a specific directive.

Photo of Kieran PhelanKieran Phelan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. His Department deserves a great deal of credit for introducing the guidelines. The public has reacted positively to the measures which have been announced. Despite the negative criticism of the scheme from some quarters, the vast majority of people can see the value of the guidelines. My colleagues and I have been working to resolve this issue for some time due to the circumstances we have faced on the ground and the dissatisfaction the public has voiced.

Ireland has a strong tradition of rural dwelling. About one third of the population lives in what can be described as the "countryside". As planning policy stood, family members were being forced to move away from their homes and the areas in which they had grown up. It was contributing heavily to the decline in rural populations as people were forced to move to more urban areas. How could rural areas be expected to thrive and grow under such arrangements? It was clear that steps needed to be taken to support the development of rural communities.

The majority of rural dwellers are not farmers nor are they directly dependent on farming. Less than 8% of the population is engaged in this activity. Despite this fact, planning permission for one-off housing was being restricted to farmers although people in this sector were affected also. I know a number of farmers in Laois who were unable to build homes for their children on their own land. This is incredible. I doubt too many other countries would have allowed such a state of affairs to develop. Thankfully, we have addressed the issue and can look forward to people returning to rural areas. We can expect people who wish to be part of rural communities to be able to live among them. Teachers and those involved in forestry, the marine and other rurally-based occupations are the kinds of people who must be allowed to live in rural areas if such areas are to survive. Whereas we should be encouraging them, until the new guidelines were introduced they stood little chance of being able to build homes in rural areas.

I note with approval the measures contained in the guidelines to help areas suffering from population decline. Planning authorities are required under the new guidelines to ensure that any demand for housing in rural areas suffering from population decline is accommodated subject to standard planning practices. This will stem the flow of people out of areas and encourage development. People will know they can build and raise families in these areas. It is welcome that people will no longer be required to have roots in a local area to receive permission to build. Declining rural communities will no longer have a severely limited pool from which to grow. People from all over the country and beyond will be able to build homes and breathe life into declining communities. In stronger rural areas, development will strike a balance between providing for local people and encouraging the development of smaller towns and villages. I agree with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, who said that such a step is necessary to ensure the provision of a balanced range of choices in new housing development.

I noted with interest certain criticisms of the proposals when they were first announced. I was particularly bemused by the criticism that the Government intended to cover the countryside in concrete. This was never the case. The Minister's measures will permit the countryside to develop. The guidelines were introduced because of the Government's respect for rural life. We wish to stop the decline of rural communities and to enable people to live in and develop rural areas. No one wishes to see large scale development blighting the countryside which is why the guidelines simply allow people with links to local communities to build in rural areas which already have a healthy level of development. In areas of decline, there are opportunities for those without links to the community to establish homes. Neither measure will result in over development.

The Government realises that natural beauty is essential to the country. It is one of our greatest resources. However, there must be a balanced approach. Under the previous policies, we would have been as well off putting areas aside and preventing people from visiting them and disturbing the scenic beauty. That is how ludicrous circumstances were becoming. The primary purpose of the areas in question is to have people living in them rather than admiring them. The guidelines protect people's right to live in rural areas while ensuring the correct balance is struck to permit the countryside to thrive for many years to come. Senator Ó Murchú, who is a nice man, said An Taisce should be de-listed. From the dealings I have with it over the years, it should be abolished because it has no idea what is happening on the ground.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and the opportunity to discuss this important issue. As somebody who represents a largely rural area in County Kilkenny I am familiar, as are all the previous speakers, with the difficulties experienced by people in obtaining planning permission in rural areas throughout the country. I have to admit, however, that I am not convinced that the guidelines as published by the Minister, Deputy Cullen, will do anything to seriously improve the situation. I regret that because there is much room for improvement in that regard.

As soon as the guidelines were published I contacted the planning section in my own local authority in Kilkenny, Kilkenny County Council, to discuss the implications of the guidelines in terms of its development plan and rural housing policy and I was told in no uncertain terms by the staff of the planning authority that the guidelines as published by the Minister would have no effect whatsoever because the wording in the guidelines is already largely contained in the county development plan in Kilkenny. It is fair to say that particular wording is contained in many of the development plans already in existence throughout the length and breadth of thecountry.

My response to the guidelines from the Minister is in light of the fact that much of what is contained therein is already contained within development plans throughout the country. If problems are being experienced in getting planning permission in rural areas of Kilkenny under the current development plan, those problems will not be resolved by the publication of these guidelines. That is regrettable.

I agree with what most of the previous speakers said about the planning guidelines. SenatorMoylan in particular was correct when he spoke about the effect the difficulties in getting planning permission is having on rural communities throughout the country. He spoke about the difficulties for rural schools and villages in terms of facilities like post offices, Garda stations, sports clubs, etc. which are having difficulty in continuing in operation. He is correct in that regard and unless some action is taken, the decline in numbers in these rural areas will continue. I do not believe these particular guidelines will have any positive impact, other than in specific areas where population is declining.

In the past few years more obstacles have been put in people's way when it comes to development in rural areas. I speak particularly about the recent large increases that have taken place in development levies. In my own county of Kilkenny and in various parts of the country there have been significant increases in the development levies which will, in effect, provide an extra stumbling block for people who want to build a house in their own rural area. It is rather unfortunate that these development charges have been hiked up across the country because this is another negative impact on the future development of rural Ireland. I genuinely believe, from the small amount of activity on the ground, that those people who support and have supported the large increases in development levies will get a firm clip around the ear when it comes to the local elections in June. I await that development.

From speaking to a number of planning officials and councillors I understand that in certain situations the new guidelines published by the Minister may further hinder development in rural areas. I am talking specifically about the removal of hedgerows to get suitable sight lines for access to sites in rural areas. I am told that under the wording of the guidelines as published by the Minister this may make the current position even more difficult. That is not something that could be welcomed in any way.

The major problem I encounter on a daily basis with the planning process is not necessarily that it is difficult to get planning permission in a rural area but the major inconsistencies that exist from county to county and even within counties with regard to planning and development. Throughout the country we see large, obtrusive developments getting permission yet we are all familiar with people in our own areas, with genuine need, who apply for permission to build modest dwellings but who find it difficult or impossible to get that permission. The major problem for planning in rural areas is inconsistency, and I hope these guidelines will bring a new level of consistency to planning decisions throughout the country. We will have to wait and see if that happens.

Most people who speak on this issue say that if people have a genuine connection with a rural area they should be accommodated but that the curtain should be drawn at that point. I do not agree with that. There is something positive to be said about new people coming into areas. It is important in any area, whether urban or rural, that there would be an influx of new people from time to time. The Cathaoirleach will know, through his involvement with sportingorganisations, the importance of getting new people into areas. We might have a few Limerick hurlers on the Kilkenny team if we were to get some new families from Limerick into County Kilkenny.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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I should not interrupt but we would welcome them if they were to come the other way.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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The Cathaoirleach is disobeying his own rules.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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In fairness, the notion that in order to build in a rural area one has to have a cast-iron connection with the area and that permission will not be given otherwise is too restrictive. Some provision should be made for attracting new families into rural areas but that is not catered for in these guidelines.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has decided to publish the guidelines. If I were to be cynical, which I have been accused of being by different Government Senators from time to time, I would say that the upcoming local elections on 11 June might have something to do with this but I welcome the fact that it now appears to be part of Government thinking that something needs to be done about rural development and planning. I cannot see any significant improvement in my local area of Kilkenny as a result of what is contained in these planning guidelines in terms of the difficulty people are experiencing in gaining planning permission. That is regrettable.

I urge the Minister to go back to the drawing board to ensure that people who have genuine links to rural areas and those who want to build houses in rural Ireland, which fit in with the character of the area, are accommodated. As many Senators said, we have a tradition of rural living. A large proportion of the population has always lived in rural Ireland. In the previous century there were many more people living in rural areas than are living in them now, and rural areas can sustain that level of development. I urge the Minister to re-examine the possibility of introducing planning and development guidelines that will have a positive impact in rural areas.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher. Like other speakers I welcome the Minister's initiative to facilitate rural people to get planning permission in their home areas. I believe this will make a difference. As Sligo County Council had difficulties in recent years, we established a five-person committee to review our county development plan to make it somewhat easier for local people to get planning permission. In addition to local people and farming families, it was also important to look after farmers finding themselves in financial difficulty to allow them to sell sites to get out of financial trouble or to upgrade their farms or milking parlours to allow them to stay in business. We have implemented much of what is proposed in the new guidelines into our county development plan. While this has worked well, it was not enough, because in the event of an objection, An Bord Pleanála was able to refuse, as it did not conform to national guidelines. The Minister's proposals will resolve thatproblem.

It is wrong that someone living 30 or 40 miles away has a right to object to those seeking planning permission to build a house for themselves and their family. It should not be acceptable to object unless the planning application has an effect on the objector's property or home. I am aware of two cases, one a small housing scheme with six houses and the other a single house, where the county council had granted planning permission and the inspector from An BordPleanála agreed. However, the board of An Bord Pleanála refused to grant permission. If the board takes the trouble to send an inspector to review a planning application and the inspector recommends granting permission, I cannot understand why the board should overturn that decision. They are faceless people, probably not based in the county, who have not seen the sites and may not know where they are.

In response to what Senator John Phelan said, Sligo County Council has applied development charges of €2,000 for water services and €2,000 for sewerage services, and a €800 development charge.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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The people in Sligo are very lucky.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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The councillors would not accept anything else.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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The Senator should tell his party colleagues in Kilkenny.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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It is the councillors' decision.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I know it is. Fianna Fáil councillors in Kilkenny pushed it through.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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For those building in an area without a sewerage service, the €2,000 sewerage charge does not apply and if they use a well the €2,000 water charge does not apply so all they pay is the €800 development charge. Perhaps we were fortunate that the councillors held the line and ensured——

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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That Fine Gael pushed it through.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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I assure the Senator that we have very good active Fianna Fáil councillors on Sligo County Council.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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Fine Gael is the biggest party on Sligo County Council.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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We are discussing guidelines on rural housing, not the performance of councillors.

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
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The point is that the council decides the charges. I have a brother with a valuable site in Portmarnock on which he hopes to build a house. He told me the service charge in that area on a five-bedroom two-storey house is €63,000, which is unbelievable. However, once that house is built it would be worth €1.5 million. It is inevitable that there be differences in every county. However, Sligo is a nice place to live and a cheap place to get planning permission.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in this debate and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, for attending. He is very assiduous in coming to this House and is very cheerful about his duties here. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, on introducing the guidelines.

Of all the duties we have as Members of the Oireachtas, planning issues take up the most time and give rise to the greatest disbelief, upset and tensions within families who simply cannot understand why they cannot get planning permission. These guidelines will open the way to give planning permission to people who should have got such permission long ago.

I have spoken with some colleagues who agree with my thoughts about planning officials. Occasionally local authorities are blighted with planning officials who believe their mission in life is to impose their wishes on the people of the county and have a doctrinaire approach to development, particularly on the question of where houses should be located. Over the years I have spoken to several such officials and two or three stand out in my mind. They had definite socialist principles and were so far to the left that they met themselves coming back. They wanted to impose doctrinaire principles on the planning department that had not previously been heard of.

These planners did not believe it appropriate for a son, daughter, nephew or niece of a farm owner to build a house in the vicinity of the farm. I like the concept in the guidelines of getting together the elected officials, the county manager and planner and local organisations to work out a formula to drive proper planning procedure. We all know that it is not appropriate to have a two-storey house on the side of a lake and that proper sewerage and water facilities need to be available to a potential development site.

Senator John Phelan made a very good point about breathing new life into an area, which I will address shortly. However, there are endless refusals for decent relations of landowners who want to build a house to live in. It is impossible to explain these refusals to them as they get so irate. At the same time they may be able to point to a monstrosity up the road, which was built having received long-term planning permission some time ago before the planners got stricter. This gives rise to the most awful misunderstandings and tensions, which I can fully understand. It is extraordinary that a rural dweller with a chance to get a site at a reasonable rate from a relation to build a house for his or her own use cannot do so. The land belongs to the people, not nameless or faceless people, a term often used, with dogma written on their foreheads whose only wish is to implement whatever ideas they were imbued with in college. The land is for living on and for arable use. People should be permitted to build houses on their land, to live there and to raise their families in decent circumstances. Not everybody wants to build a mansion. Given the cost of building nowadays, I do not know anybody who could afford to build a mansion. Most of the people with whom I have dealt with on planning matters are seeking to build simple houses, usually bungalows. We have all heard about bungalow blitz but that is not relevant now.

Members of the Oireachtas and members of county councils are faced every week during their clinics with at least three dissatisfied people who have been refused planning permission and one or two hopefuls. Senator John Paul Phelan is correct that many rural areas would benefit if people wishing to live in rural Ireland although they have no ties to a particular area, one of the first priorities of the guidelines, were allowed to do so. We have discussed the issue of population decline in rural areas for some time and how we can invigorate such areas. That can only happen if we grant not an over-abundance of planning permissions, but a decent amount of them. There has been a great deal of bad planning in urban authorities. One only has to recall the rows of local authority housing, something from which, thankfully, we have moved away. Such planning was not considered a blight but the unfortunate person living five miles outside a town wanting to build on his site was unable to obtain planning permission.

The guidelines will illustrate to the local authorities and, hopefully in time, An Bord Pleanála, that what the Minister, in conjunction with the Minister of State, has commenced is the right way forward. However, it will require goodwill and co-operation from local authorities to make it happen. The Minister will not encounter problems with the county councils because councillors have been seeking this type of development for a long time. It is important we open up the gate a little so that people do not continue to receive the usual letters as regards planning permission. One often questions, having read such letters, how a particular person could have been refused planning permission. The situation has worsened in the past four or five years in that it has been much more difficult to obtain planning permission.

People lucky enough to have visited another country will be aware of developments there in terms of where people live, yet when one travels around Ireland all one sees is empty fields with no housing. How this impacts on local schools was also mentioned. We are all aware of the pupil-teacher ratio in terms of the retention of teachers. It is right that a specific requirement be laid down in that regard. However, if rural schools are to remain in existence and if people are to have an opportunity to obtain a great education in their local school we must increase the population in these areas.

I recall when I entered the Department of Education in 1987 — I am sure the Minister will remember this — the pupil-teacher ratio changed. The local parish priest in one of the rural areas surrounding where I lived told the people at mass one Sunday to hoist up their buggies the next day, to put every child in the house into them and to enrol them in the local school regardless of whether they were of suitable age.

While I applaud the Minister's work in this regard I hope it will be followed through. Sometimes people have good aspirations and ambitions, as this document illustrates, but often they are not followed through. I am aware the consultative process will not be finalised until the end of April. However, the Minister has clearly stated that he does not wish local authorities to wait until the end of April to finalise the process; he wants them to review the guidelines and to come up with ideas for moving forward. I believe the consultative process is necessary. I agree with Senator Scanlon's point regarding President McAleese, although the issue does not arise in the context of her presidency. Apparently, a man in Cork objected to her building a house in Roscommon. I have never heard anything quite as daft. How could a person living in Cork have a bearing on the decision regarding the building of a house in Roscommon? He could not say he was living near it and that the chimney smoke would affect his eyes or that the traffic would cause him trouble. However, he took it upon himself to arbitrate on where a person should be allowed to build a house. I am aware a revised plan has been submitted and that the build will go ahead.

I wish the Minister luck with the guidelines which have been debated on two separate occasions in this House, bearing witness to the enormous interest in this issue. I look forward to the Minister of State's closing comments.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all Senators for their valuable contributions on 10 March and today on the draft guidelines for planning authorities on sustainable rural housing. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, regrets he is unable to attend the debate this afternoon but I assure Members I will brief him fully on their contributions. The views expressed will be carefully considered before the guidelines are issued in their final statutory form. Senators' contributions were practical and many sensible suggestions were made. This is so because we are the people dealing with constituents' queries on a daily basis. As Senator O'Rourke stated, the receipt of a letter of refusal of planning permission can be devastating for an individual or family.

It is gratifying to note the widespread welcome given to the publication of the draft guidelines particularly in rural parts of the country. I do not accept, contrary to statements by some commentators, that an acceptance of the importance of affording people in rural areas the opportunity of building their own homes means the Government is not fully committed to the principles of sustainable development.

Sustainability must be about people. Surely the most sustainable rural area is one that affords its indigenous population the opportunity to build a home in their own area. The guidelines are explicit in a manner never before witnessed. Reasonable proposals on suitable sites for persons who are part of and contribute to a rural community must be accommodated. The guidelines are a giant step forward in defining what are reasonable proposals and suitable sites. I strongly believe it is reasonable that the housing requirements of persons with roots in or links to a rural community should be accommodated by the planning system. Beyond that, the guidelines clearly flag the importance of and provide guidance on the planning for housing in areas where the population is declining, carefully managing the development of sensitive areas and areas under pressure for development and housing policies which strengthen rural areas generally.

The guidelines make it clear that a housing development in rural areas needs to be of good quality in its location and design and should complement rather than dominant its surroundings. They stress the importance of applicants, their agents and the planning authorities taking a collaborative approach in ensuring that the choice and location of site together with the design and development approach chosen is harmonious with the physical environment surrounding the site.

The guidelines also make it clear that protecting water quality is a leading consideration in determining whether a given site is suitable for development. Therefore, the development plan must clearly flag those areas where ground water quality is a critical issue and where particular requirements may apply. The Minister indicated earlier that he is considering the necessity of additional measures to ensure that septic tanks and other waste water systems are regularly monitored and maintained.

Of course, in that regard we all know we have a duty of care. The guidelines are intended to progress what has become a very polarised debate. The role of the development plan as the mechanism to bring all parties to the table is stressed, for example, the councillors who make the plan, the planners who advise on it, and the public whom it serves. Adopting a development plan on a shared basis with ownership by all interests is the way to progress the debate.

I do not accept the guidelines will detract from the policy thrust of the national spatial strategy. The critical mass and population of Ireland's major urban areas, such as those identified in the national spatial strategy, is growing fast. Between 1996 and 2002, the fastest growing areas were towns with a population of 3,000 and upwards and the main cities. Many of those growing areas are the gateways and hubs identified in the national spatial strategy.

The rural housing guidelines emphasise the importance of managing rural development trends carefully and areas under significant influence from nearby urban areas to ensure the compact and sustainable growth of such cities and towns. The guidelines will underpin the policy objective of the national spatial strategy. As is standard practice for guidelines of this nature, they are being issued in draft form before finalisation. However, in view of the issue's importance, the Minister has requested planning authorities and An Bord Pleanála to take the guidelines on board and put in place the measures necessary to implement them with immediate effect. I reiterate the Government's commitment to the sustainable development of rural areas. The new guidelines reflect that and seek to promote and support the viability of rural communities. The guidelines will bring greater clarity for planners and applicants alike and should help ensure that inconsistencies and rigidities in rural planning are eliminated.

There were references to the various local authorities and whether they might implement those. However, all variations to development plans made to reflect the guidelines will be submitted to the Department, and if they do not reflect the guidelines' provisions, we will raise those issues with the relevant local authorities. Of course, An Bord Pleanála will have to have regard to the guidelines under the provisions of the Planning and Development Act 2000. If the guidelines are not implemented by the planning authorities, the option would be open to the Minister of issuing a statutory policy directive under the Planning and Development Act 2000, with which authorities would be legally obliged to comply. In other words, we will be monitoring developments very closely and will take steps if necessary.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Have those policy directives already been invoked under the Planning and Development Act 2000?

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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The structures and provisions are in place, but I am not sure whether they have been effected hitherto. However, I assure the House that it will happen regarding the planning guidelines if they are not incorporated or taken on board. That should not be necessary, and this approach uses a carrot rather than a stick, but if it is necessary to issue such a directive, we will not be found wanting.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Tomorrow at 11 a.m.