* Sitting Date: 30/01/2018
* Sitting Time: 17:30
Topical Issue Debate
Deputy Declan Breathnach: I welcome the opportunity to debate the need for a relaxation of the “locals only” planning laws which allow people born and raised in an area and wishing to build a one-off house in that area permission to do so and the need for discussion of the EU ruling of last year that the “locals only” planning rule introduced in 2005 breaches articles of the EU treaty which guarantees the free movement of capital and of people.
Prior to my election to this House, I spent 25 years in local government and I know that the matter of rural one-off houses has been the singular issue that has preoccupied councillors, planners and officials at local government level. In raising this issue I want to make it clear that I am not a supporter of bungalow blitz and I understand the concerns of environmentalists in relation to the proliferation of septic tanks and the dangers to the water courses and sources and the need for legislation framing county development plans. However, if we continue to put obstacles in the way of people who want to build in rural Ireland, we face the death of rural communities schools and rural living.
I would like to outline these planning practices to the House. It all started with people living in large towns being told they could not build in the countryside, which is somewhat understandable, followed by people in the countryside being told that unless they are sons or daughters of farmers and so on they must live where water and sewerage is available. Those who want to live in smaller areas are directed to centres where there has been no investment in roads, footpaths, lighting, making it almost impossible to find houses or sites to build on. The latest strategy is such that even if a person is lucky enough to identify a possible site, the planning authorities do their level best to nobble the application based on site line distances, soil type, the 400 m area requirement in relation to land between one house and the next. People are being told they cannot build on a mountain, near the sea, close to a motorway, a national primary route, a secondary route, a flood plain, which is understandable, or close to an infill site. Also, there must be a 400 m gap between a group of three houses. In my own county, if a person lives in a village that has water and sewerage he or she will never have the opportunity to purchase a site there. All in all, we are closing off opportunities for those traditionally and generationally entitled to remain in their local areas. In not allowing them the opportunity to aspire to live in the area of their choice we are in contravention of the European Court of Justice ruling in the Flemish decree case.
In May 2017, planning authorities were advised by the Minister of State, Deputy English, that they should not amend rural housing policies in their development plans until the guidelines have been revised. This is not good enough. People are champing at the bit to get permission to live in their local areas. It is my contention that within reason houses can be built in most areas with proper infrastructural and environmental guidelines.
Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government (Deputy Damien English): I thank Deputy Breathnach for raising this matter, which is an important issue for many people living in rural Ireland. I also thank him for the opportunity to provide an update on the review of the 2005 planning guidelines for sustainable rural housing, issued under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. Like Deputy Breathnach, as a former councillor and a Deputy, I have represented people on planning issues, including in regard to one-off house building. I agree with the Deputy that it is important to many parts of our counties and certain rural areas that we allow one-off housing and we continue to do that under certain conditions. The impression is often given that no one-off house building is being permitted but the majority of housing built in the last number of years has been one-off housing, with an average of 6,000 one-off houses per year in rural areas over recent years.
In many of the counties I have been visiting they comprise the majority. What we are trying to do under Rebuilding Ireland is bring back some scale to housing construction. I am thankful that in the past 18 months, since we launched the action plan for housing, there have been many more larger housing developments, with one-off rural houses, which are important also. We need both if we are to deal with the housing supply issue. I acknowledge that for the Deputy this is about the people who want to build in their local area. The Government wants to achieve what he outlined and we allow for it in all of our action plans for housing and rural action plans.
Like all statutory planning guidelines issued under section 28, the rural housing guidelines are intended to be applied on a consistent and uniform basis by all planning authorities. Under the 2005 guidelines, planning authorities are required to frame the rural housing planning policies in their development plans in a balanced and measured way. The aim is to ensure the housing needs of rural communities can be met, while simultaneously taking account of the principle of sustainable development and avoiding excessive urban-generated housing and haphazard development, particularly in those areas near cities and towns that are under pressure from urban-generated development. The guidelines further aim to ensure sites being developed for housing in all rural areas are suitable with regard to vehicular access and wastewater disposal and also from landscape and design perspectives. In addition, the guidelines outline a number of criteria to be taken into account in local authority development plans for the purpose of assessing whether planning applications for rural housing are intended to meet a rural-generated housing need. These local needs criteria primarily relate to planning applicants having familial or occupational ties to the rural area in question.
In 2007 the European Commission issued an infringement notice against Ireland in regard to the 2005 rural housing guidelines. It was subsequently deferred pending the outcome of a related European Court of Justice case against Belgium, generally known as the Flemish decree case. In that regard, the Flemish decree linked the sale or transfer of property in certain Flemish communes with the condition that there should be a sufficient connection between the prospective property buyer and the relevant commune. This had the practical effect of precluding non-locals from purchasing property in the Flemish communes in question. The European Court of Justice eventually gave its judgment in the case in 2013 and ruled that the Flemish decree constituted an unjustified restriction on fundamental freedoms under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, in particular that it breached Article 43 of the treaty on the freedom of movement of citizens. Further to this judgment, the European Commission re-engaged with my Department on the 2005 rural housing guidelines. Arising from this and further subsequent engagement between my Department and the European Commission, a working group comprising senior representatives from my Department and planning authorities was established in May 2017 to review and, where necessary, recommend changes to the 2005 guidelines with a view to ensuring rural housing policies and objectives contained in county development plans complied with the relevant provisions of the EU treaty. The working group concluded its deliberations in September 2017 and my Department is now consulting the European Commission on the matter, with a view to issuing new guidelines to planning authorities as soon as possible after the finalised national planning framework is adopted and published in the weeks ahead.
When the revisions to the guidelines are finalised and issued to planning authorities under section 28 of the planning Act, planning authorities and, where appropriate, An Bord Pleanála, will be required to apply the revised guidelines in the performance of their statutory planning functions under the planning Act, specifically in the assessment and determination of planning applications and appeals in respect of rural housing proposals. Pending the issuing of the proposed new revised guidelines, planning authorities were advised by way of circular letter issued by my Department in May 2017 that the existing 2005 guidelines remained in place and that they should not amend the rural housing local needs policies in their development plans until the revised guidelines had issued. This has resulted in thousands of people receiving planning permission to build houses in rural areas. It does reflect the need for local ties.
Deputy Declan Breathnach: I thank the Minister of State for his response. He said he would revise the 2005 guidelines speedily. When will the working group which was established in 2017 and comprises senior representatives from the Department produce the report? When will we see the recommendations and changes required? Will the Minister of State update me on his plan to issue the revised guidelines, giving dates and times? We need speedy action on this issue which is of major concern not only in my county but also across the country. It should be remembered that anybody who is seeking planning permission in a rural area would be contributing to the community through the local school or football club, by becoming involved in the locality or by bringing business to local shops. Therefore, planning departments need to be more positive towards new families who will add value to an area.
The latest debarring in my county is such that if an applicant lives in a village that is connected to the water mains and has sewerage, he or she cannot aspire to moving to the country area, of which he or she is part. I understand the difficulty with the proliferation of houses, but there are possible solutions. If a family can show lineage or a connection to a local village and its hinterland, through legal documentation, birth certificates or school attendance records which were sometimes used in the past, they should be allowed to seek to live there and not be debarred from realising their dream, that is, to have a house in what they consider to be the countryside.
I ask the Minister of State to tell us the timeframes involved. There are numerous people affected. I have assisted people who live in villages and bought sites to make a planning application. They now have a site that is valueless because they are being debarred from having the opportunity to build. We need action.
Deputy Damien English: I understand the Deputy’s concerns. The Department is consulting the European Commission on proposed revisions to the statutory housing guidelines. The working group completed its work last September and we have been in negotiations with the European Commission since. I hope that in the months ahead we will be able to bring clarity to this issue. Through the national planning framework, we hope to outline the direction we will take. Through the discussion at the various committees here and with councillors all over the country, we will agree to change the wording to allow for economic and social ties in the case of one-off housing.
From my review of the planning guidelines for rural houses and the application of the guidelines in my county, I believe once the site criteria pertaining to transport, vehicular access and drainage are satisfied and there are local ties, to the school or football club, as the Deputy said, generally planning permission is granted. I accept that when somebody is moving from an urban area such as a town or village to a rural area, it is complicated. All of us want to make sure, however, that people from a rural area can live beside their family and from what I can see, that generally does happen. We are trying to respect that trend and continue it.
The national planning framework will set out the direction we will take. We will receive clarity from the European Commission in the months ahead and be able to provide an updated position for the Deputy. I will keep him abreast of developments as time progresses. I acknowledge that his concern is genuine. We do try to recognise people’s social ties to an area, in addition to their economic ties. It is not the case that there is a block on housing. I have seen a figure of 6,000 one-off rural houses per year. This was quite a high number during recessionary times, when nobody was involved in construction. It is probably wrong to say no one-off houses are being sanctioned, but I understand the case the Deputy is trying to raise and hope we can deal with it.
Through the national planning framework, we are trying to target villages that have experienced decline in recent years and make it possible and affordable for people to build in them. In the past, even buying a site in a village area cost a lot of money and it was not practical to build a house there. We want to make it practical and try to strengthen the system to give people a chance to live in a rural village or other rural area.