CLARE is faced with “a premeditated depopulation of the countryside” unless pressure is put on organisations including Irish Water to provide essential services, according to a member of the local authority.
Councillor Cillian Murphy made his remarks at the January meeting of Clare County Council after warning that tracts of land are at risk of being de-zoned under a new National Planning Framework (NPF), if services are not provided within the next seven years. The Fianna Fáil member tabled a series of detailed questions about the forthcoming development plan for Clare which will be in effect up from 2022 to 2028. He noted that the NPF outlines a tiered approach, whereby lands that are unlikely to be serviced within the period of the plan are recommended to be de-zoned for development. He was sharply critical of “a lack of ambition” for rural Ireland on the part of the State, and said organisations like Irish Water, instead of being instructed to provide vital services, were being given “a free pass”.
Councillor Murphy asked the council if terms of the NPF will apply to Clare’s forthcoming development plan, and whether or not the authority has undertaken as assessment of lands which are at risk of being de-zoned.
In a written response, Director of Services Liam Conneally said the council was obliged, in drafting the new plan, to have regard to the NPF. He added that “it will be a considerable challenge for us to facilitate growth in un-serviced towns and villages while complying with the NPF objectives”.
Thanking the director for his reply, Councillor Murphy outlined that “the NPF tells us that there will be a two-tier approach to the zoning of land. Tier One is serviced, zoned land, that is land currently zoned for development that has access to existing services. Tier Two [is] serviceable zoned land: land that may not have all the services in place, but will do so within the lifetime of the plan.
“To comply with this directive, our planning department is going to have to look at existing settlements, look at the lands currently zoned for development within them, assess whether they are currently serviced or will be serviced by 2028, for such things as roads, footpaths, public lighting, mains water, waste water connections, surface water and drainage. “Provision of some of those services is not under their control. Critically, Irish Water would have to come in to provide water treatment to these towns and villages between now and 2028. If they don’t, these lands should be de-zoned, according to the NPF.”
Referring to Mr Conneally’s reply, Councillor Murphy added: “I admire the director’s diplomacy because I don’t think it’ll be a challenge, I think it’ll be an impossibility. Rolling over and accepting it would demonstrate a staggering lack of ambition by this council for the future sustainability of our rural, coastal communities.”
The Fianna Fáil member noted the high rate of refusals of planning permission in rural areas. “The message is clear for many years, ‘Move into our towns and villages’. We are told, ad nauseum, that rural Ireland hinges on regenerating our existing towns and villages, and yet, rather than instructing Irish Water to deliver the basic infrastructure to ensure those settlements will grow, we’re giving them a bloody free pass and what we’re doing is de-zoning the lands instead. This can only be described as pre-meditated depopulation of the countryside.”
The West Clare members said the one of the only positives from the pandemic was the chance of bringing people into rural Ireland. “Covid has been a blight for many reasons, it does offer a ray of light for rural, coastal communities as the capacity to work from home has been embraced,” he said. “Thousands of people have started to query where their home can be and, of course, the answer to that is, ‘anywhere’. It’s a fact borne out by a recent survey of estate agents in Ireland, showing a huge increase in demand for rural homes as those who were working and renting in the city no longer need to do so. The present shift in work practices is as significant as the Industrial Revolution and it can be the primary driver for the balanced regional development we have been hearing about for so many years. This shift in work practices actually also calls the work practices of the National Planning Framework (NPF) into question. Does it now actually support us or prevent us in taking advantage remote working provides in delivering future growth for our communities, who deserve to be supported by the State through proper and judicious intervention in the delivery of services that will enable them to thrive in the future?”
Councillor Murphy said that the only “chink of light” pointed out his colleague Councillor Ian Lynch was the word “should” in relation to de-zoning. “This ambiguity, I think, opens the door,” he said.
“I’m concerned about the lack of ambition being shown by the State or a semi-state company could negatively impact on our ambitions here in Clare to ensure our rural, coastal communities can grow and thrive,” he added. “I know many of my Municipal District colleagues feel the same way. I will not in future ratify a County Development Plan that proposes to de-zone any land in any town or village in our county and I would hope that my colleagues would support me in that.”
Mr Conneally’s reply outlined how the Forward Planning Team is now concluding the Chief Executive’s Report following the first stage of public consultation on the Clare County Development Plan 2022-2028. The reply outlined that this will be provided to members on January 15 for their consideration and that “following instruction from the members the CE will commence the drafting of the Draft Plan itself, a copy of which will be made available to the Elected Members in Q2 of 2021.”