As the old adage goes “every cloud has a silver lining” and as the darkness of Covid 19 begins to lift, we as a society must take full advantage of the opportunities presented in our country post-pandemic. It was John F Kennedy who famously captured the opportunity of a crisis, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger-but recognise the opportunity”.
As Minister with responsibility for Planning, I have seen a narrative taking shape, questioning the capacity of the cornerstone of our planning policy, The National Planning Framework (NPF) and its ability to deliver for our citizens in a post-Covid Ireland. False and misleading narratives stating that our Local Authorities, particularly in rural areas, must reduce their zoned land capacity and that there is an imminent ban on one-off rural housing have been passed around like snuff at a wake. However we must stress-test these narratives against fact.
Let me first deal with our capacity as a society to accommodate and encourage more remote and blended working approaches, which the government recognises as a key opportunity we must now grasp.
An obstacle to our society accommodating this demand that has been robustly but mistakenly highlighted is the lack of zoned land for residential development outside our cities. History tells us that if we do the same thing over and over again, we cannot expect a different result. So let’s look in the rear view mirror for a moment. In 2008, we had sufficient land zoned in Ireland to accommodate a population of ten million people when we were still half a million short of five million. Vital infrastructure such as water, waste-water, and capacity of our schools, recreational and childcare facilities could only play catch-up as who could predict where development would actually take place? Where it did, the ghost estate phenomenon revealed that much of it was simply in the wrong location.
A critical component of planning policy is to deliver housing in the right place underwritten by vital infrastructure to deliver sustainable communities. In this case, less can be more. We need more zoned land in the right location with accessible infrastructure on its doorstep. And less in areas where we belatedly ask the State to intervene, placing huge demand on our resources at a time when our economy is restricted.
As many in Dáil Éireann pick up the loudhailer to say there isn’t sufficient zoned land outside our cities to absorb latent demand, again I draw on the facts. Almost every single one of our local authorities must increase housing output, and 22 out of 31 local authorities have to increase their housing output by more than 100% per annum over the next six years – they must double what they have been delivering in recent years and provide enough zoned land to do so. What may be a shock to some at the epicentre of the lack of zoned land debate is that ten local authorities must increase housing output by more than 250% per annum! And that is just to meet the demand identified by the ESRI and accommodated by the objectives of the NPF. As the saying goes “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. We can be assured the axe is sharp, it’s time to deliver on the capacity we have under current plans in the right place backed up by essential public infrastructure. We must ensure planning permissions granted for housing will be delivered to create communities of homes, enabling good quality of life for future generations.
Let me also address the eternal debate of one-off rural housing. Rural housing has consistently accounted for 25% of our annual housing output and some 5,000 new homes per annum in recent years, but some will assert that it’s an endangered commodity, an argument which has emotive roots. As someone from a rural constituency and raised on a family farm, I want to put on the record that the Government recognises the importance of rural housing and its value both to our supply and to sustaining rural communities. I also know its development must be based on need and not create licenses to build unreservedly.
I recently reviewed the figures for successful one-off housing applications, county by county, and noted a success rate above 80% in almost all locations. I would hope that these facts speak for themselves. As a former Auditor, naturally I have reviewed the statistics for the withdrawal of planning applications and this figure was immaterial to the debate. Again perspective is required and too often absent from this discussion. There has been no change in policy, no major shift in the National Planning Framework away from rural housing. I expect it to continue to play a vital role in the accommodation of our people for years to come, and nothing I have seen or heard in Custom House over the past year has negatively affected my outlook on this.
The dark clouds of Covid 19 rolled in in March 2020 and changed our lives. As we now emerge from this unprecedented period, we must grasp the golden opportunities it has presented for a more sustainable society. In the highly charged political arena that is the 33rd Dáil, repetition makes an assertion seem true, regardless of whether it is or not. Our National Planning Framework stands ready to provide the pathway to a new, better and sustainable normality.