'It's like the Celtic Tiger - we knew we were wrong and we kept going'
PLANNING AND THE RING OF KERRY:YOU CAN almost hear Jackie Healy-Rae saying it – “the plannin’ is terrible round here”.
What some Kerry people mean by this, of course, is not that the landscape has been chewed up by haphazard housing, but that it can be damned difficult to get permission to build in certain areas.
The stark statistics do not bear this out. Altogether, there are at least 34,000 one-off houses in the countryside, accounting for more than half of Kerry’s housing stock or seven per kilometre of public road. That’s an awful lot of houses strewn around the landscape of a county that was recently voted the “most scenic” in Ireland.
Kerry’s senior planner Paul Stack has been outspoken about the “incredible damage” done by the proliferation of housing. After an absence of 14 years, he “couldn’t believe what I came back to, planning went out of control”.
“It’s like the Celtic Tiger – we knew we were wrong and we kept going,” he told councillors in July. “Eighty per cent of the visitors to Co Kerry come here for the quality of the landscape and the unspoilt scenery,” he said. “I drove around areas such as the Cotswolds [in England] and to see the tourism product they have in comparison to what we have done to our tourism product is embarrassing and upsetting.”
A recent tour of the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas confirmed that very few places have been left unspoilt by the intrusion of housing – not just one-offs, frequently built to capture splendid views, but also clusters of neo- traditional holiday homes on the outskirts of towns and villages and forlorn, unfinished housing estates.
It’s all evidence that the pro-development lobby generally got its way during the boom, despite the efforts of An Taisce, local planners and others to stop the worst excesses. In Kerry, as elsewhere on the western seaboard, there was, and still is, a visceral resentment of “outsiders” putting their oar in.
The Kerryman recently reprinted an archive report from 1981 in which “an angry Mr Healy-Rae” railed against An Taisce for objecting to planning approvals for one-off houses. “I don’t know what their function is or who set them up, but if I had the power I’d break them up . . . An Taisce has no role to play,” he said.
“I dont give a damn about the law of the land. We are quite open to criticise the law if we think it’s unreasonable,” said the man who later served as an Independent TD for South Kerry. “What the hell does An Taisce know about an application where a man wants to build a house for himself on his own land and why they should interfere?”
In Healy-Rae’s home village of Kilgarvan, where the senior citizens’ sheltered housing scheme is called Healy-Rae Park, there’s a small vacant cluster of holiday homes that was finished too late to cash in on the property bubble. Much larger schemes on the outskirts of Dingle, Killorglin and Waterville are also empty and fenced off.
Healy-Rae’s son Danny, who is a councillor for Killarney, has been one of Kerry County Council’s biggest plant-hire contractors over the years, mainly for road schemes. These schemes were high on the list of his father’s confidential deals to support Fianna Fáil-led coalitions since he was first elected to the Dáil in 1997.
Bends in roads have been straightened, bridges and roads widened to cater for tourist traffic around the Ring of Kerry and elsewhere in the county; these works are ongoing. Worst of all, long stretches of stone parapet walls have been replaced with pre-cast concrete sections in highly-scenic areas such as Coomakista and Moll’s Gap.
The road leading down to Dingle from the Connor Pass was not only widened, but the new gulley running alongside has ugly corrugated heavy-duty black PVC drains protruding above the surface every 50 metres or so. And because the road is now wider, motorists are prone to accelerate – making it more dangerous rather than safer.
Part of the charm of travelling around Kerry is that you have to negotiate your passage with other motorists travelling in the opposite direction on narrow country roads; if the oncoming driver is from the area, he or she will usually know where to pull in, allowing you to pass and it’s all done with understanding.
The ditches were ablaze with fuschia and montbretia; earlier, it would have been gorse. And because this summer has been so wet, the fields are greener than usual. In sheltered areas, such as Kells Bay and Parknasilla, tropical plants still thrive – although cordyline australis took a battering from last winter’s prolonged icy weather.
More alien in the context of Kerry’s landscapes are the suburban-style gardens in front of nearly every bungalow, with lawns and shrubbery but rarely trees that would provide screening and shelter. At the Blasket Islands visitor centre in Dún Chaoin, natural meadows have been sacrificed for the suburban fetish of neatly-mowed grass.
A disjointed mansion, built by singer Dolores O’Riordan, and topped by a tower, can be seen from almost everywhere. Other new houses are less ostentatious, but all stand out in the almost tree-less landscape – because they’re mainly painted white. Had they been built of stone or painted light green for example, they would be less obtrusive.
In Ballinskelligs, three barracks-style terraces of holiday homes occupy a prime site next to the village’s only hotel. Built on the seaward side of the road, and fronted by nothing more than a tarmac car park, they have blotted out scenic views cherished for decades. Here again, as elsewhere in Ireland, greed triumphed over the public good.
But for rip-roaring Wild West sprawl, the townlands of Faha and Firies – some 10km from Killarney – can’t be beaten. As I noted in 2004, whole fields where there used to be sheep or cattle are now colonised by houses, with hedgerows replaced by concrete block walls, post-and-rail fences, elaborate stone walls and neo- classical balustrades.
There is an extraordinary contrast between the raw blanket bog of the uplands and the heavily wooded areas on the approach roads to Kenmare and Parknasilla; it must have something to do with the Kenmare Estate. Other relics of the past include the tunnels and decaying viaducts of the old railway line to Cahersiveen.
In general, Kerry’s towns are far too decorative, with a profusion of hanging baskets and projecting signs; there are so many on Henry Street, in Kenmare, that you can barely see anything. “The towns are like overdressed salads,” an architect friend observed. Some buildings have also been ill- advisedly stripped to reveal rubble stone.
But even in posh Kenmare, the recession is evident from a “for sale” sign on a prime site in the town centre with planning permission for 13,000sq ft (1,208 sq m) of retail. Plans to redevelop the almost post-nuclear derelict hulk of the former Waterville Beach Hotel at Reenroe also came too late to be a runner in the current climate.
The former Great Southern hotel in Parknasilla was refurbished and extended at enormous expense by Bernard McNamara at the end of the boom period. Once favoured as a holiday retreat by Bertie Ahern, it has been rebranded as the Parknasilla Resort and Spa but retains its elegance
Paul Stack believes that the penny has dropped about unsustainable development. Starting in 2009, the Kerry County Council was the first to dezone land designated for housing – under local area plans (Laps) for Castleisland, Kenmare and Killorglin. So far, 1,000 acres has been dezoned, and there’s more to come in Dingle and Cahersiveen.
“Our members bought into the ‘core strategy’ principle before anyone else. They had to vote for dezoning of those lands, and that took a lot of guts,” he says. “We’re singing from the same hymn sheet now, not just because there’s less pressure for housing, but there’s also an awareness now that maybe we need to stop and think.”
The latest draft of Kerry’s “core strategy”, which identifies housing in the county and the land needed to accommodate it, will be put to councillors next Monday. It estimates that land zoned in excess of what’s actually needed amounts to 1,700 hectares, or just over 4,000 acres. How the councillors deal with that will be the real test.
“We have a very strong county manager and team of officials, and the members do listen to us,” Stack says. “We’re spelling out where we’re at now. And in this scenario, we must learn from what we’ve done and don’t continue doing it. We don’t want to continue to perpetrate damage to this county where tourism is the biggest employer.”