Lifestyle of rural dwellers imposes more costs on wider society


OPINION:Many living in the countryside still think they should be exempt from taxes or charges

WHEN KERRY and Dublin played against each other in a number of all-Ireland finals in the late 1970s the Dublin fans on Hill 16 displayed a banner with the message “Come on the taxpayers”.

At the time PAYE workers paid 70 per cent income tax, while the majority of farmers and many of the self-employed paid very little, if any.

The current protests in rural Ireland against inspection of septic tanks and property taxes and in support of cutting turf in protected bogs suggest that many who live in the countryside still think that they should be exempt from paying any taxes or charges.

The arguments of the protesters and their supporters in Leinster House, particularly Mattie McGrath and Luke “Ming” Flanagan, are specious, and it is surprising they are not being more vigorously challenged by the Government.

Many people who live in rural areas pay significantly less tax than urban workers, yet their lifestyle imposes greater costs on society.

The majority of farmers pay no income tax, and most of their income is derived from payments from the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy, which has been accurately described as an efficient means of redistributing income from low-income consumers to wealthy farmers.

While they have received most of the EU funds allocated to Ireland, farmers, who are often described by their leaders, without a hint of irony, as “custodians of the rural environment”, have been the source of most environmental pollution in rural Ireland.

Some 30 per cent of rivers and lakes in Ireland are moderately to seriously polluted. Much of this pollution is caused by run-off from farms.

Yet in 2010 the government capitulated to farmers by negotiating “derogation” from the nitrates directive, which allows farmers to spread chemical fertiliser within two metres of watercourses.

The few farmers who have been charged with pollution offences have been given derisory fines, while taxpayers funded the cost of cleaning up the pollution.

Many rural dwellers peddle the myth that living in a rural area is somehow less damaging to the environment or uses fewer resources than living in a town or city.

Most people in rural Ireland live in “one-off” houses, which are the least environmentally sustainable form of housing.

This has been known to governments since the 1970s.

Most rural households are totally car-dependent and in many cases require several cars. The car journeys undertaken by motorists who live in rural areas and commute long distances to their work lead to high CO2 emissions in rural areas and make walking and cycling on many rural roads impossible.

The cost of maintaining the very extensive network of rural roads, in the absence of a local property tax, falls on all taxpayers.

Even the cost of connecting one-off houses to the electricity grid is subsidised by urban electricity consumers, as the owners of one-off houses do not pay the full cost of connection.

The low density of rural housing increases the cost of providing education and health services.

The cost per pupil of maintaining small rural schools is higher than in large schools, and many valuable educational activities cannot be provided in small schools.

Rural parents are rallying to oppose the closure of tiny schools that were built for an era when children had to walk to school, even though most of the current pupils are driven there.

Providing integrated primary medical care for low-density rural populations is difficult and most rural GPs work alone without the back-up of a primary care team.

This results in many rural people having to be hospitalised to avail of medical care that can be provided at primary care level in urban areas.

The numerous protests at the “downgrading” of rural hospitals show a wilful disregard for the fact that specialist consultant care cannot be provided in small hospitals.

In a scene reminiscent of a Monty Python film, a group of protesters from Galway descended upon the Dáil pushing a man seated on a toilet.

It was later revealed that one of the protesters, from Connemara, had used an old car as a septic tank but saw no reason why it should be inspected.

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan capitulated to the protesters by reducing the septic tank inspection charge to €5, so that the cost of inspections will be largely borne by taxpayers.

It is time the political representatives of urban taxpayers forcefully reminded the toilet-riders and turf-cutters that if humanity is to have a future on this planet, it must be an urban future because only densely populated communities can be economically provided with services from the planet’s dwindling resources.

Seán Byrne is a lecturer in economics at Dublin Institute of Technology

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