Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Questions (42)

Martin Ferris


134 Mr. Ferris asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs his views on whether the current planning regulations need to be revised to meet the pressing need for housing in rural communities. [3368/04]

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Oral answers (3 contributions) (Question to Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

Overall Government policy on housing in rural communities is set out in the national spatial strategy, NSS, which was published in November 2002. The rural settlement policy framework contained in the NSS aims to sustain and renew established rural communities while strengthening the structure of villages and smaller settlements to support local economies. In that way, key assets in rural areas are protected to support quality of life, and rural settlement policies are responsive to differing local circumstances.

My colleague in Government, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, accepts that it is vitally important that there is certainty and consistency in the implementation by planning authorities of Government policy regarding rural housing through their own development plans and in the operation of the development control system under planning legislation. That is the purpose of the guidelines under the Planning and Development Act 2000 which the Minister, Deputy Cullen, intends to bring forward to deal with this issue.

I gather that those are at an advanced stage of preparation and following ministerial consultation the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government hopes to issue them as soon as possible.

The decline in rural Ireland in recent years, particularly in the west and south-west, has been alarming. Does the Minister agree that contributing to that decline are the difficulties in some areas for local people in getting planning permission? Does he agree that another contributing factor is that when there is a shortage of supply and an increase in demand, it is almost impossible for local people or working-class people in rural areas to compete in the market? I speak in particular of scenic areas, where the number of holiday homes is increasing. Does the Minister agree it is of enormous importance that he come up with some form of imaginative scheme to help working-class rural people and those who were born into single-room rural cottages and do not have land of their own? Owing to the escalating cost of sites, effectively any couple trying to build their own home needs two mortgages, and in many instances the price of the site can exceed the cost of the building. Is some form of imaginative scheme — perhaps an interest-free loan over 25 years towards the purchase of the site, administered through local government — not needed urgently to reverse the decline?

It is well known that I believe that in rural areas outside those areas subject to major urban pressure, those with a connection with the place or who live there permanently should be accommodated. All that is clearly spelt out in the spatial strategy. The spatial strategy is there, and we do not need any housing guidelines to lay down the basic rules. Let us be clear about it. It states that near the big towns and cities where there is urban influence, people with a connection with the place, either through background or employment, full-time or part-time, should be accommodated with rural sites. It goes on to state that in the BMW region, away from areas of urban influence, anyone who will live permanently in a house should be accommodated. It therefore rules out overspill from the towns and cities into areas adjacent, as well as second homes.

We must all be up-front about this. By designing the spatial strategy as we have, particularly in the scenic areas that the Deputy mentioned, we have excluded the very wealthy person who wants to build a second home from competing in the market. According to the spatial strategy, they should not be at the races. That was done for two reasons, the first being the obvious one of preserving the countryside, since one wants to ensure that those houses that are granted permission go to locals. The second one was the social reason that the Deputy has just propounded, the market for young local people buying sites whose parents do not have farms and have no connection with planning, and their right to planning permission. Those people should not be wrongfully priced out of the market by having to compete with holiday home owners.

From the point of view of the person selling, we have limited the market, but for a local buyer we have ensured that he or she does not have to compete with holiday home owners. I am glad the Deputy has raised this matter because at many meetings throughout the country people on the one hand want to get top dollar and to be able to sell to the outsider while on the other they complain that those same outsiders are pricing their children out of the market. We can have it one way or the other.

I was part of a council which adopted this policy long before the spatial strategy. Priority to build houses in rural areas and in scenic areas should be given to local people or to people who have moved to an area, live in it permanently and have a job in it, and not to people to have second homes. That is the best social policy we can follow.