Sunday 29 June 2008

'College planners' could turn West Connemara into a national park

COUNTY Council policy could turn West Connemara into a 'National Park' missing one vital commodity - people. The planning agenda for rural County Galway is straightforward enough - keep the number of houses built out in the countryside to the lowest number possible.

Get the people to live in the towns and villages. Increase the size of Galway city substantially and let West Connemara drift into a national park. That summary would be strongly contested by the planners in County Galway and they would point out that rural Galway is getting a fair crack of the whip.

The arguments will soon start again. For Galway County Council will soon be preparing the new County Development Plan which will be the planning 'bible' for all of this county - outside of the city - during the period 2009-2014.

Galway County Council will bring their first draft of the new County Development Plan before county councillors in about six weeks time. You can be sure the document will contain the statement 'proper planning and sustainable development' more than once.

When this statement is brought down to everyday use, it means that most people should live in villages, towns and in Galway city - and that rural housing should be cut back. Where is this philosophy and policy coming from?

Somewhere in the documents and policies relating to planning you will find this statement: 'To maintain the open character of the Irish countryside'. If you are to preserve this 'open character' you would need to cut down on buildings.

It's a policy that is supported generally by the professional planners and is obviously the 'gospel' in the training colleges. It is also supported by groups like An Taisce, the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland, planners organisations, the Green Party and more. So what's the idea and is there sense to it? It depends on where you are coming from. The planning fraternity and the groups that are pushing for this agenda will say that 'one off houses are contrary to the principles of 'proper planning and sustainable development'.

So why is that? Spoiling views and causing pollution? Well, for a start, they claim that houses clutter the countryside, spoil the views, and also lead to pollution because of so many septic tanks.

They also claim that it costs a huge amount of money to spread out services such as water, electricity etc. to houses far apart from each other. The constituency that support the villages and towns model of living also say that 'one off houses in the countryside leads to more travel and cars on the roads because people have to travel to towns to work.

If they were living in the towns, the journey times would be shorter and the amount of pollution would be lessened. They would all sound like logical enough reasons for putting people into villages and towns and cities.

All you would have in the countryside would be those who were farming. The arguments in favour of this urbanisation of this county and this country can be stacked up to a logical case. But there is another picture. A pioneering Irish American businessman, Mark McCormack once wrote an iconic book entitled 'What they do not teach you at the Harvard Business School'.

In simple terms, he was saying that the academic teaching of business could be a million miles away from the real world of day to day reality. Somebody could also probably write a book entitled: 'What they do not teach you at the Planning Colleges'.

The Irish Rural Dwellers Association has been pointing out for some years that there is little emphasis on rural issues in the planning colleges.

But there are realities in the Galway countryside and throughout rural Ireland that seem to escape the champions of 'proper planning and sustainable development'.

We have a long time attachment to the soil - even though, in places like Connemara, it might sometimes not be much more than a few acres of bog and rushes.

And people in rural Ireland have a strong attachment to parish and to community. And many of them continue to want to live in rural communities - close to families, their traditional schools, GAA clubs etc. And many want to live out in the countryside - not in villages. That may not fit nicely into the 'proper planning and sustainable development' argument.

It means more houses in the countryside and more septic tanks. But attachment to traditions, attachment to communities, attachment to the countryside and a desire to maintain family connections to an area are very real.

You could call it the heartbeat of rural communities. But fitting heartbeats into little 'sustainable' planning boxes does not work. And it seems there is little real account of all of these matters in the broader planning regimes.

But hold it there! Plenty of permissions say planners. The planners would have an answer to the above scenario. The planners would pull out the statistics from their computers and point out that a high percentage of the planning applications granted in County Galway are for 'one off houses in rural areas. And they are right - to an extent.

But large housing schemes contain a high number of houses and they involve only one planning application also. Therefore there could be a lot more houses involved in one application in a village or town than - say 50 - planning applications in a rural area.

But even allowing for that, the planners will say that a high percentage of applications for 'one off houses in rural areas are granted. The reality is that the county councillors are mainly to thank for that. Remember 2002? The County Plan presently in place in Galway was put together in 2002 and 2003. It was adopted in May of 2003. There was uproar amongst Galway county councillors when the first draft of that plan was placed before them by the County Council management.

The focus of these Draft Plans in 2002 would have made it far more difficult to get planning permission in rural Galway. Such was the uproar that Councillors from all political sides got together - a rare occurrence - paid money from their own pockets and employed consultants of their own to write a new plan.

The main issue was the right to build a house in rural Galway. The councillors claimed they reversed, to some degree, the tougher policy being proposed by planners about rural houses.

The Government's 'Rural Housing Guidelines' issued in 2005 also strengthened the hand of those who want more scope for 'one off housing in rural communities. But the battle goes on. There is no better example than Ardaun in this county.

Ardaun ... and the 'National Park' Ardaun is the new town in the minds of planners that would extend from the east of Galway city to Oranmore. It would eventually have a population of anything up to 20,000. In reality, it would house much of the projected increase in the population in County Galway - both City and County.

Planners are all for it. Many county councillors are against it claiming it would drag people and developments in from the rural areas. But Ardaun fits into the 'proper planning and sustainable development' category.

And the seven year 'no sale' ban on rural houses in the country areas closer to the city is put there to further deter people from building in these communities. There is no other reason.

And what about the often expressed view that the agenda for Connemara is a 'National Park'? This is a somewhat broader policy than the County Plan alone. Sheep and cattle off the hills for half the year, a stated policy of eventually stopping turf cutting, SACs coming in the way of road developments, electricity lines and houses for people in the community.

Again, the people in favour of this conservation will make a strong case. But the end result is a step closer to a 'National Park' in the areas west of Oughterard and west of Casla. The County Plans have been rowing in with this policy in Connemara. Only a limited category of people can get planning permission due to environmental rules.

And with a fast decline in the population in West Connemara people are the most needed species - that is if the area is to develop.

It would appear that the Council planners only want a maintenance population 'out west' - and a maintenance population will not sustain communities. So is the policy to have less 'one off houses in the countryside, a preponderance of people in villages and towns, the development of Ardaun and a maintenance population in West Connemara?

It could be stated in other language... and it probably will be again in the new County Development Plan. The words will include 'proper planning and sustainable development'.

Mairtin 0 Cathain
Connacht Tribune

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