Writing off the Irish countryside

 

AS the time come to write off the Irish countryside? Must we now accept that the whole phenomenon of urban generated housing in rural areas has gained such a stranglehold on the landscape that there is not much point anymore in shouting stop?

There were some people who thought that merely by highlighting the pervasiveness of this problem in 1987 it would make prospective bungalow builders come to their senses. But so many facts have been created on the ground since then that it's clear this was a fatuous hope.

Many visitors to Ireland particularly from continental Europe, continue to be astonished by the seemingly endless ribbon of housing which lines the approach roads to cities and towns, even more so by the often ostentatious bungalows which now litter the countryside.

To some, it must appear that Ireland has no planning laws at all, that anyone can build whatever they like, wherever they like. Of course, there are laws. But there is no consensus on the need for them in a society where people want to make their mark on the landscape.

It has often been said that the Irish are not really an urban people. And this unusual trait helps to explain why the suburbs of Ireland can now be found strung out along nearly every rural road. Bungalow Bliss is not just the title of a book; it encapsulates our social aspirations.

Throughout the 1980s, official figures show, just over half of the total national output of new private housing consisted of bungalows in the countryside. In other words, for every house built in an urban or suburban location, at least one other was built in a rural area.

Incredibly, the Department of the Environment did not begin to include separate figures for bungalows in its annual housing statistics bulletin until 1995. But an examination of the available data would suggest that their proportion of the annual output has been falling in the 1990s.

At the beginning of the decade, they accounted for nearly a third of all private house completions, compared to just 22 per cent last year. It is, nonetheless, a fact that more than 50,000 spanking new homes have been shovelled into the rural environment over the past 10 years.

As a result, the clear distinction which ought to exist between town and country has become increasingly blurred. This is particularly true of the West of Ireland, where the spread of bungalows has been relentless, compromising the very landscape which once made it so attractive.

The ostentatiousness of so many of the new houses is intended to show that their owners have "arrived", that they have "made it" and established their place on the social scale. Indeed, this is emphasised by the preference for manicured lawns and showy suburban shrubbery.

John Moriarty, a Connemara born writer, believes that the brashness and vulgarity of so many of the houses built in rural Ireland suggests that their owners are "taking revenge on the land" for all the years of foreign overlordship, poverty, dispossession and famine.

This helps to explain why the Irish vernacular tradition of housing, particularly thatched cottages, has been so comprehensively rejected in favour of imported idioms derived from Spanish haciendas or the antebellum pastiche of Southfork, the Ewing home in Dallas.

The latest phenomenon is what might be described as "Lotto winners' houses" - larger and even more vulgar than what went before and usually plucked from the luxury end of pattern books like Bungalow Bliss.

Connemara's coastal strip, stretching from Barna through Spiddal to Inveran and beyond, has been pretty well destroyed. It consists of an almost unbroken line of houses, some on the seaward side of the road and it won't be too long before the remaining gaps are filled in.

Like most local authorities in the West, Galway County Council's planning policy is quite liberal. Almost 90 per cent of all planning applications are granted, with less than one per cent refused on the grounds of "ribbon development", according to a 1995 report.

In Donegal, the very existence of Glenveagh National Park as a protected landscape seems to have led to the declaration of an "open season" for bungalows in the rest of the county. Certainly, few other parts of Ireland have suffered so much over the past 30 years.

Letterkenny, the county's largest town, has become an octopus with tentacles spreading out all over the countryside. Houses have been built everywhere, standing on the brow of hills as much as tucked away in the valleys, yet Letterkenny itself has only one or two coherent streets.

Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh, a town of comparable size, has fared much better in looking after its landscape. But planning in Northern Ireland is centrally controlled and does not have to contend with county councillors seeking to get planning permissions for their constituents.

In Donegal, they do this by trading in Section 4 motions - the device used by local politicians to secure permission for developments which would otherwise be refused on planning grounds. It's a "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" arrangement among the councillors.

And though the planning regulations now require that Section 4 motions must have the support of three quarters of all elected members, there is still not much problem in putting them through - especially when the undying gratitude of individual constituents is at stake.

Considerations, such as the need to protect designated high amenity areas, to prevent pollution of ground water supplies by seepage from too many septic tanks, or to safeguard the public purse are seen as quite irrelevant. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of clientilism.

Yet it should be obvious that the proliferation of urban generated rural housing not only damages the landscape and threatens ground water supplies, it also puts additional pressure on public services such as roads, school transport, public lighting and garbage collection.

Some county managers have refused to implement the more obviously outrageous Section 4 motions, even defying councillors to take them to court. But these brave attempts to defend designated high amenity areas against unrestricted development are few and far between.

THE Government's Sustainable Development Strategy is also opposed to bungalow blitz. In general, it says, there "must be a presumption against" urban generated housing in rural areas for a variety of reasons, including "the need to preserve outstanding landscapes".

Some local authorities are also attempting to stem what is essentially a sprawl of suburban housing in the countryside by laying down conditions in planning permissions for new houses specifying that their owners must be engaged "wholly and exclusively" in agriculture.

This is designed to overcome the ruse of farmers seeking permission for a new house on their land ostensibly to provide comfortable shelter for a son or daughter and then selling on the site to someone who simply likes the idea of living in a hacienda in the middle of nowhere.

It is an open question whether the courts would uphold this type of constraint. Although nobody has yet challenged ownership conditions - perhaps because they are simply ignored - it could be held that they infringe the constitutional right to private property.

The problem in Ireland, as one planner put it, is that we have turned this right to private property into a presumptive right to develop land, whatever the public interest may require. Anyone who owns a piece of land feels that they have an almost god given right to develop it.

"These are my effin' thistles and I can do what I like with them" is the phrase used by Leo Hallissey of the Connemara Environmental Education Centre to sum up this psychosis. And, of course, it's much more profitable to sell sites for bungalows than it is to grow crops.

The planners do have some arrows left in their armoury, however. They can refuse permission for houses on the road frontages of national primary or secondary routes on the grounds of "traffic hazard" without running the risk of incurring claims for compensation.

Preventing the creation of driveways - along national routes makes obvious sense in terms of road safety. And with the National Roads Authority spending millions to improve these routes - by providing hard shoulders - the fewer houses there are in the way, the better.

Where major roads have been realigned, rendering old meanders redundant, there is evidence of an "open season" for new houses along the left over lay bys. Indeed, these have become the latest pressure points for the suburbanisation of the Irish countryside.

The chocolate box village of Adare in Co Limerick, for example, doesn't have a noticeable ribbon of development along its main route, the N21. But the minor roads in every direction are littered with houses, most no doubt owned by commuters who drive into Limerick every day.

People prefer to live miles out in the countryside, utterly dependent on cars, rather than in the heart of Irish towns where they would be within a couple of minutes' walking distance of the corner shop.

It is interesting to speculate on what will happen to the current generation of bungalow builders as they grow older. Bus Eireann could hardly claim that it provides anything like a comprehensive local bus service, so how will they get around when they reach a ripe old age?

Yet nearly every town in Ireland has its share of derelict buildings and sites crying out for rehabilitation. The main street in Newport, Co Mayo, for example, is scarred by the inescapable fact that its principal vista is terminated by a row of roofless, boarded up houses.

Urban decay of this type is the flip side of Bungalow Blitz. The doctors, lawyers and shopkeepers who were once quite content to live in towns began moving out in the 1960s, as homes in rural areas became more fashionable, even de rigeur, and left a trail of decay behind them.

The upper floors of many historic buildings, once alive with families, have been turned over to storage or simply not used at all. And if this trend continues, Irish towns will lose their most important feature - the informal streetscape formed by an accretion of buildings over time.

Greater affluence, including the availability of cars, has made it possible for people to live in a rural setting and commute to work in nearby towns. So, too, has the massive EU funded road building programme which has given them easy access to new motorways.

Jack Fitzsimons, the author of Bungalow Bliss, which has sold more copies than the most popular cookery books, says that what he offered people was a real alternative to the homogenised suburban housing areas created by planners, road engineers and speculative developers.

But Mr Fitzsimons was also tapping into the cult of rabid individualism which is still part of Ireland's postcolonial psyche. Indeed, by choosing to live in the countryside, it is as if the bungalow builders have consciously reverted to the dispersed pattern of Celtic settlement.

Seamus Heaney once reminded architects that every time they designed or built a new building they were, "in a profound metaphorical sense, recreating the world". It is an awesome responsibility which few, if any, of those building houses in rural areas have considered.

But even if every bungalow was designed and built with such profound considerations in mind, their very proliferation would still overwhelm Ireland's landscapes. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we will just have to accept this as a price to be paid for being Irish, as part of what we are.