Sunday, 14 January 2007

News on Ireland's first eco-village

A story in the Sunday Times today on Cloughjordan, the eco-village in Co. Tipperary. Colin Coyle writes:

IT’S not easy being green. Residents of Ireland’s first eco-village in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, have been told by the local council they must pay €160,000 to meet their social and affordable housing requirements.

Being a not-for-profit co-operative, the group was hoping to be exempt from a provision that requires developers to hand over 20% of new estates for affordable housing or make a hefty financial contribution instead.

“Our vision is to create a truly social and affordable community, so it’s disappointing that we’re being treated the same as any speculative developer,” said Miriam Kelly, a spokesperson for The Village.

North Tipperary council has ruled, however, that Ireland’s first sustainable village falls within the remit of the planning and development act. “We welcome the scheme, but there is no exemption in the act for this kind of development. Our hands are tied,” said Paddy Heffernan, its director of housing.

The council could have insisted on taking a portion of the village’s building land for affordable housing, but decided that would undermine the project’s communal ethos.

Loosely modelled on the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland and the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, the 67-acre scheme will have 132 houses built by individual members, who will have to adhere to a green masterplan drawn up by Solearth Ecological Architecture, a Dublin firm.

All houses will be built from energy-efficient materials. There will be a communal orchard, organic farm, woodland, market square and enterprise centre, and each household will have an allotment.

When the first planning application for the village was lodged in 2004, prices ranged from €8,000 for a plot suitable for a family-sized apartment to €65,000 for a larger site. Costs have been creeping steadily upwards since.

Kelly said: “The planning process dragged on for almost two years and building costs have also risen in the intervening period. The €160,000 will have to be added on to the asking prices.”

The scheme was scheduled for completion in summer 2006 but the date has now been revised to summer next year. Contractors are expected to begin work in April.

The fledgling community has ruled out challenging the €160,000 bill in court as it would delay the project further.

Jim Casey, a local Fianna Fail councillor, said the planning and development act should be amended to encourage similar schemes. “This is the country’s first eco-development, so we should set a precedent that will encourage, rather than penalise, these schemes,” he said.

Some housing bodies are exempted from the act, according to Bernard Thompson, the general secretary of the National Association of Building Co-operatives. “There is a specific exemption for co-ops but it’s restricted to certain approved organisations. The fear is that if it’s extended to one group of self-builders, what’s stopping other people setting themselves up as a community group and arguing that they should be exempt too?” he said.

Since its inception in 2000, the act has been criticised for being too easy to evade. In 2002, it was amended to allow developers to wriggle out of their social housing commitments by making a financial contribution to the council instead.

Eamon Gilmore, the Labour spokesman on the environment, said: “Of the 90,000 new residential units completed last year, only 1,000 were built under the provisions of part five of the planning act. That provision was supposed to make sure that developers provided up to 20% of any development for social and affordable housing, but the government bottled it when they allowed builders buy their way out of their obligations.”

Ciaran Cuffe, a spokesman for the Green party, said the dilution of the act in 2002 had cost the country about 14,000 affordable homes..

The Department of the Environment said that it was a matter for each council to interpret the act.

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