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It comes amid a national move away from one-off housing. File photo. Shutterstock
development plan

'To hell with the countryside': Fears in Galway about impact of proposed cap on one-off housing

A new County Development Plan is set to come into effect during the summer.

GALWAY COUNTY COUNCIL has received a wave of planning applications for one-off housing amid concerns that it will soon be significantly more difficult to build such homes in rural areas.

National guidelines mean Galway’s upcoming County Development Plan for 2022 to 2028 may limit the number of one-off houses that can be built in the countryside, instead shifting the focus of development towards towns and villages.

The drafting of the plan is coming towards the end of a 99-week preparation process, which all local authorities are required to carry out when creating the six-year programmes.

The development plan is due to be finalised in early May and the changes within it will come into effect six weeks later in June.

The plan will dictate planning policy for the entire county with the exception of a 50 square kilometre area around Galway city, which is overseen by the city council. 

But councillors from across Ireland’s second-largest county have told The Journal that locals have expressed concerns that the plan will make it harder for people to live where they grew up and will cut off many people’s only viable opportunity to afford a home. 

A recent council meeting was told that the local authority’s planning department needs to hire additional staff to cope with the rush of applications before the current development plan expires.

The same meeting also heard that the scramble to build new one-off homes has resulted in many hurried applications that didn’t provide all the information required.  

The local authority’s planning portal shows many recent applications for one-off housing marked as ‘incomplete’ and dozens of instances where the council has requested further information from applicants. 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to examine the financial, climate and spatial planning impact of one-off housing in rural Ireland. Support this project here.

What’s happening with the quota? 

Concerns that it will be more difficult to get permission to build a one-off house largely stem from a recommendation from the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) that a quota of 911 be placed on the number of one-off houses that are allowed to be built over the course of the six-year life of the plan.

No such limit was contained in Galway’s previous development plan.

As new development plans are introduced by local authorities around the country, different restrictions on one-off housing are being applied in accordance with the housing situation in the county. 

This is reflective of a national move away from one-off housing and councils in other parts of Ireland have run into similar issues adjusting to the new focus.

Statistics on the number of one-off homes built around Galway in recent years suggests that the limit of 911 homes could be reached well before the new six-year plan elapses.

The latest full-year data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows that 465 one-off houses were granted permission in 2020 and that another 481 were granted in 2019 – a total exceeding the number of new homes that would be allowed under the new plan.

The stats for the first three quarters of 2021 also show that 437 one-off homes had already secured permission last year.

Meanwhile, projections from Galway County Council suggest that 628 one-off dwellings are needed every year to meet the county’s housing needs.

That would equate to almost 3,800 homes over six years, meaning the 911 figure would satisfy only a quarter of the county’s need over the course of the development plan.

Councillors report being told by planning officials that 1,500 applications for one-off homes are lodged each year.

“If we have a core strategy that says only 900 or thereabouts houses can be built in six years, obviously we’d run into a major problem very shortly,” Fine Gael councillor Joe Byrne told The Journal.

“The council could say ‘well we’ve reached our quota, we’re not granting any more one-off houses’.”

In a bid to overcome this potential scenario, an amendment passed by councillors removed the quota, stating that limiting one-off housing is not in compliance with the National Planning Framework objectives. 

“Anyone who has an economic or social need under our National Planning Framework is entitled to build their first family home in rural Ireland. You cannot put a number on that,” Byrne said.

The fear that’s out there at the moment that one-off rural housing is coming to an end, we need to dispel that and categorically state ‘that won’t happen’. 

“But if you allow only 911 one-off houses in county Galway, what happens when Galway County Council have granted 911 planning applications and all of a sudden an application comes in and it’s deemed invalid because they have met the quota?” the Kinvara-based councillor added.

“​​Someone can say ‘hold on, I meet the requirements for economic or social needs so I cannot be invalidated and my application should be considered’. My argument is that you cannot put a number on that.” 

Minister to intervene

However, the council’s vote to remove the quota is unlikely to be the end of the matter, as the planning regulator says it will ask the Minister for Housing to intervene if the plan doesn’t adhere to national guidelines.

The OPR makes submissions to local authorities at different stages of the plan-making process with observations and recommendations regarding how a plan should address national and regional policies.

If a local authority adopts a plan which is not consistent with the regulator’s recommendations it can issue a notice to the Minister for Local Government and Planning recommending that the council be compelled to address the matter.

“The Minister then decides whether or not to issue a draft direction to the local authority compelling them to take action. 

“This commences a process by the local authority, including public consultation, after which the OPR will further consider the matter with a view to recommending, or not, that the Minister issue a final Direction on the matter,” a spokesperson for the OPR said.

Minister of State for Local Government Peter Burke sided in favour of the OPR when recently asked to intervene regarding the creation of Meath County Council’s development plan after it went against OPR advice on development in flood-risk zones.

In its most recent recommendations to Galway County Council, which were issued last week, the OPR said amendments to the plan were “not consistent with national or regional policies.”

It also said that amendments in relation to rural housing do not take account of national policies regarding climate action and sustainable patterns of development. 

And it claimed that the plan does not meet the criteria for regenerating rural towns and villages, and that it has failed to tackle the issue of ‘urban generated housing’ in the countryside – where people live in rural areas but commute to work in the city. 

As a result, Green Party councillor Alastair McKinstry believes it’s unlikely that the plan will be allowed to come into effect without a limit on one-off housing.

If the Minister decides in our favour, he is essentially committing to change national policy or law… I suspect that the decision will be struck down, and the quota will stand.

“This opens the risk that we will ‘use up the quota’ early in the 2022-2028 period and people with a legitimate need will then be denied,” the Moycullen-based representative said. 

‘Rural in character’

In its latest submission to the council, the OPR acknowledges that Galway county has “historically been predominantly rural in character”. 

This history appears to be coming into conflict with the guidelines set out in the National Development Plan, which favour concentrating development around existing built-up areas. 

The national plan – the so-called ‘planning policy bible’ – commits to allocating 50% of growth to the five largest cities (Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford).

The vast majority of the remainder focuses on towns and villages and one-off houses are the least-preferred option.

Public representatives around Ireland have argued that this focus will negatively impact rural communities. With a housing crisis rumbling on, it’s also noted that it hampers housing supply. 

One-off houses contribute massively to Galway’s housing stock, accounting for 47% of all permissions granted between 2018 and quarter 3 of 2021, according to the CSO.

“I fundamentally believe that if we’re not careful and we have draconian planning measures for one-off rural housing, what we’re actually doing is setting out our stall to close a lot of national schools in the next 15-20 years,” councillor Joe Byrne said.

“We’re definitely going to decimate rural communities. The GAA will suffer, soccer will suffer, sports will suffer because we just won’t have the population. There will be depopulation in those areas.”

Infrastructure and sustainability

Byrne, a construction management consultant, added that a move to develop rural villages will be undermined by a lack of infrastructure in many of these areas. 

He says this will limit the number of houses that can be built because basic facilities, such as wastewater treatment, simply can’t cope with the stress that would be placed on them.  

“That’s the real story,” he said. 

While McKinstry and Byrne disagree on the viability of one-off housing, the Green councillor agreed with his Fine Gael counterpart regarding infrastructure.

He noted that a mooted development in Carna, a rural part of Connemara, was scuppered because of a lack of amenities.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t grant permission for an estate as there was no water treatment. We could, however, grant one-off houses for miles around, with septic tanks. This is an environmental nightmare on such a sensitive spot and shows the problem,” he said.

The south Connemara representative said the only housing option many from the area can afford is building on family land, even if they work 50 kilometres away in Galway city.

“We have seen a flood of applications with people worried about getting permission. My concern is that the current fuel price rises are symptomatic of climate change and what we expect (to happen in the future).

People should be more concerned about the risk of building where they will not be able to afford to live.

McKinstry, who is also employed at NUI Galway as a climate scientist, works with the university’s supercomputer facilities to forecast climate change. He argues that one-off housing is unsustainable and resources need to be directed towards villages.

“One-off housing has been a relief valve for poor planning – we have significant numbers of people living in rural Galway but working in the city and outskirts,” he says.

“One-off houses are often cheaper and better than developer-led estates in the suburbs, so people build because they can’t get a decent quality affordable home in a town. 

“They are then stuck commuting long distances and think nothing of driving tens of thousands of kilometres per year. This will not be possible for long, and that is the crisis we need to address.”

McKinstry says the expectation that we can sustain car culture is misplaced and it must be made possible to live a daily life without a car.

“National and EU policy is for a shift away from cars for this reason, but we live in denial that it needs to happen,” he adds.

‘To hell with the countryside’

Other councillors have also voiced dissatisfaction with the planning regulator’s role in the creation of the new development plan.

Fianna Fáil councillor Michael Connolly said “people are very concerned that the OPR will be very restrictive, if they have their way, in devising where and when and how houses can be built”.

“There seems to be a strategy in Dublin to invest in infrastructure in Dublin, invest in infrastructure in the major cities and ‘to hell with the countryside and to hell with the small towns and villages’,” he said.

Athenry-based Shelly Herterich Quinn says she fears the OPR will undo all the good the councillors have tried to do in creating the development plan.

“I was absolutely stunned at how ill-informed the Office of the Planning Regulator was about Galway. This is a very unique county. It has the second-largest landmass in the country and three very different and distinct and differentiated areas,” she said.

“The city and the county are very different. In my opinion, we need and deserve three managers to manage this county. One for the city, one for Connemara and the Islands, and one for the north and east of the county.

“It irks me that the majority of senior civil servants are from the east or south of the country and the decisions coming out of most of the government departments reflect that.” 

A spokesperson for the regulator said it does not create national policy, it merely directs local authorities towards the policies, which are passed by elected representatives in the Oireachtas. 

“We’re here just to make sure that local authorities implement all these really good policies, which will make Ireland a sustainable, environmentally friendly and liveable place,” the spokesperson added.

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