OPINION: Treating our most basic resource as a patchwork of separated areas for diverse uses creates conflicting objectives, writes MICHAEL STARRETT .
TIMELESS, MYTHICAL, wondrous and unique: the Irish landscape is rightly seen as uniquely precious by our overseas visitors. Yes, it is all those things. But it is also characterised by a variety of flaws and challenges whose importance lie far closer to home. We all live, work and play in this landscape, and it contains all our natural and cultural resources. Surely something so significant therefore deserves to be looked after in the best way possible, and be the subject of coherent, integrated management and planning. It sounds obvious and simple.
Yet the reality is that key elements of the landscape are treated as so many silos, with their separate protective frameworks. For example, housing, agriculture, infrastructure, forests, water, tourism and environmental protection are each treated as isolated objects, very often yielding contradictory and conflicting objectives because of unclear and overlapping laws.
Current legislation also contains what many now see as a problematic division between rural and urban areas.
All these landscape subsets are handled without any co-ordination, and the resultant damage is everywhere to be seen. From haphazard rural housing policy to incoherent urban sprawl, and not forgetting the rash of disconnected housing estates spawned during the Celtic Tiger era. You can also add controversies about motorway routes and rows about rights of way. Such aberrations demand a better approach to managing our landscape.
Ireland urgently needs a comprehensive landscape legislative framework. The commitment in the current programme for government to develop a National Landscape Strategy is therefore very welcome. But we need to go further. We need a Landscape Ireland Act. Not an Act to stifle development, or to fossilise our environment, but an Act that focuses on overall landscape planning, management and conservation.
There is also a need for existing legislation to be amended to recognise the importance of landscapes; for example, the current National Monuments Bill recognising cultural landscapes, and the need to ensure that a definition of landscape is added to the new Planning Bill 2009. It almost beggars belief that even our planning legislation contains no definition of landscape. However, while these changes represent an important step in the process of recognising landscapes in law, they continue the sectoral approach and do not achieve the overall knitting together of activity that a specific Act could achieve.
Such an Act would legislate for efficient and effective ways to conserve and manage all our landscapes – rural and urban. It would provide means for the determination of landscape types, identifying values, the state of conservation of the landscape, and propose quality objectives with which to be complied.
It would put an agreed set of measures in place to secure meaningful sustainable development through actions taken for conservation and management purposes. Such actions should not be prescriptive, but could focus on areas like land management, tourism, education and recreation.
These actions will bring economic and social benefits to an area. Identified measures would recognise and address the needs and aspirations of all stakeholders – people living in towns and villages, farmers and other rural dwellers, and visitors to our landscapes.
One need only reflect on the current farm incomes crisis, the decline in rural tourism, and the damage done to countless urban and rural landscapes during the Celtic Tiger era, to agree there has to be a better way; one that can be embodied in integrated, sustainable landscape management. This would also allow us to develop and work to an agreed set of objectives for different landscapes. It would include a development programme to keep each landscape diverse, dynamic and healthy by associating it with a diverse, dynamic and healthy local economy, featuring sustainable communities, farming, tourism and industry; we could take full account of our natural and built heritage.
In this context, the enforced suspension of the Reps agri-environment programme is very regrettable. Farmers represent the largest collective of rural landscape managers in the State and if we are to be serious about our landscapes and natural habitats, our ecosystems, fresh water supplies and the quality of the food that we eat, then we have to encourage every move by the farming community in the direction of environmental sustainability. Investment in environmental management represents sustainable economic policy, sustaining jobs and the environment.
The Heritage Council has played a significant role in shaping both natural and cultural heritage benefits that can derive from such agri-environment schemes. Most recently the introduction of a supplementary measure to support conservation and repair of traditional farm buildings has borne fruit across the country. This is currently worth €1 million annually up until 2013. As with much of the council’s work, it illustrates clearly that relatively small investments in heritage and environmental initiatives can bring long-term economic and social benefits and retain vibrant local communities.
Significant progress in developing models of integrated and sustainable landscape plans are progressing around the country. The forthcoming Heritage Council Landscape Conference will showcase some major initiatives in the Wicklow uplands, the Burren and Bere Island, featuring local community and farming initiatives. However, while these pilot projects are delivering real benefits, they operate in a vacuum, with no long-term legislative or structural framework to sustain them in the future. They are not without their problems and are for the most part based on voluntary participation. The recent changes to Reps highlights on a national scale the weakness of such voluntary arrangements.
The conference will also hear examples from across Europe and Canada on how they have responded to the landscape management challenges they have faced, many of which are very similar to those we face in this country. It will provide a platform for all of those with a sectoral stake in the Irish landscape to debate how we can work more closely together and make the best of where we all live, work and play. Its biggest contribution must surely be to set an agenda for our landscapes into the future and to point us in the direction of the best legislative framework and most appropriate structures to get us there.
Michael Starrett is chief executive officer of the Heritage Council.