April 18, 2005

One-off housing is simply a response to pester power

Posted in Sunday Business Post · 10 comments ·
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�Mummy, mummy, mummy, I want a Kit Kat.� �No, darling, you can’t have a Kit Kat, have an apple instead.� �Why can’t I have chocolate?� �Well, because too much chocolate will rot your teeth, make you fat, possibly leading to obesity, heart problems and diabetes.� �What’s diabetes?� �Diabetes is one of the fastest growing ailments in Ireland and doctors say it is related to bad diet and specifically too much sugar.

“Diabetes can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to other illnesses and it affects your circulation. Obesity will have an emotional and psychological element to it. For example, in your early teens you will be slagged at school and possibly bullied.”

“This might make life more difficult for you than it already is.”

“Carrying too much fat might prevent you from playing sport or just running around with your friends. Although you don’t realise it now, its better for you in the long term if Mummy does not give you chocolate and sweets every time.”

“OK Mum.”

If only dealing with pester power was so easy. It is incessant and parents can – in one split second – go from dealing with a sweet, loveable little darling to being faced by a tantrum-throwing creature resembling Damien from The Omen, all triggered by a Barbie Magazine, a hair clip or even face paints. Yet, all adults can see the logic of adult supervision in the above encounter between mother and child.

In many ways, running a country is similar. It is a fine balancing act – a bit like exercising adult supervision – between the squabbling and conflicting demands of every lobby group, vested interest, voter or even parishioner.

In an ideal world, politicians would act like concerned parents, always looking to the longer-term implications of today’s decisions and understanding the basic premise of pester power, which is that today’s path of least resistance might lead to serious problems tomorrow.

The economy displays similar characteristics. Like the human body, it is a fragile ecosystem with sensitive and interrelated functions. Nothing works in isolation. This is why the government’s decision on one-off housing last week is so misguided and is the ultimate expression of political irresponsibility.

Minister Dick Roche has been bullied and he has bowed to political pester power in the same way as a jaded mother buys peace at home with a Kit Kat, knowing well that the rapid ingestion of sugar will only lead to a short-term kick that will soon wear off.

The decision on one-off housing will cost us a fortune in the years ahead. A lot of the coverage has focused on the possibility that some of our natural beauty spots will be tarnished by bungalows. For this column, bungalow blight is not the issue.

The main reasons for opposing this retrograde move are political, economic, and environmental or resource-based.

On the political front, Napoleon once stated accurately that �to govern is to choose’�. It is crucial that a government is not seen to be continually compromising.

It needs to make hard choices and to stick to its convictions. A government without conviction is a government without credibility. It has to stand for something.

If it changes the planning laws and guidelines too frequently and in response to pestering from lobby groups, the credibility of all directives, laws and decrees will be tarnished. In short, no system can work without a set of rules and if the rules are bent too often the entire system is undermined.

Farmers, developers and individual owners of land will interpret Roche’s latest move as a green light to chance their arms, leading to a further blurring of planning regulation. Of itself, extending development may not be a big deal, but the related economic ramifications certainly are. Let us be very clear: if we have one-off housing, we cannot have a functioning public transport system, public health service, public education system or postal system, never mind universal access to broadband or cable.

Think five years hence, with thousands of houses dotted willy-nilly around the country, neither in villages nor towns. A rural movement starts complaining, in marginal constituencies, about the lack of buses or other public transport infrastructure.

You then get the airwaves blocked by the rather innocent-sounding �rural bus coalition’� that is running a candidate in the local elections on the rural isolation ticket. Suddenly you have local TDs promising hourly bus services to the back end of nowhere to facilitate the people that built their one-off houses at the end of the valley in 2006.

The success of the rural bus coalition spawns the �isolated ambulance platform’�, which is running another candidate for �immediate ambulance access for the dark-side-of-the-mountain’�. This flamboyant candidate is threatening the goofy scion of an interbred fourth generation local political dynasty.

Within weeks the local TD is in the D�il demanding ambulances for all and within a month or so you get the �remote school access project’� calling for school buses to travel the 30-mile round trip to pick up little Saoirse from halfway up Errigal and drop her to school for nine o’clock.

It’s the same story with postal services as well as water, sewage, telecom and roads infrastructure. The more you spread the population, the higher the cost of providing all these services.

But do you think a variation of the �polluter pays’� concept would be applied to price these extra services – where the more remote you are, the more you pay for basic utilities because it costs more to get the services to you? No way.

There would be uproar, constitutional challenges and entire Liveline programmes devoted to the �constitutional right’� to be bussed to the local �educate together’� preschool.

So who pays? The worker who has abided by the laws, who has bought a place in a town or a village and who is not lucky enough to inherit land. You pay.

Your bills and taxes will be increased to pay for the lobby group that shouts the loudest.

The combination of a weak political system, opportunistic land owners and pushy local candidates means that the silent suburban majority – the backbone of this country – gets shafted again.

Looking forward, there is another argument for centralised, high density living, as opposed to a sporadic, scattered, one-off pattern – the price, supply and availability of oil. Ireland is one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world and suburban sprawl and one-off housing depend on cheap petrol.

However, we may have passed the period of cheap fuel. Global oil production is set to peak in 2011 and we are unlikely to find anymore of it. Demand from China and India is set to sky-rocket and this week we have seen tension over fuel between China, the second-largest oil importer in the world, and Japan, the third-largest.

Switching back home, the cost of one-off housing will be equally badly exposed if oil prices remain where they are or begin to creep upwards. One-off housing means commuting because, as far as I am aware, we are not talking about one-off offices, one-off supermarkets, one-off schools, one-off shopping centres, one-off restaurants, one-off cinemas or one-off factories.

The houses are designed for people to commute from. If the price of petrol goes through the roof, these people will be looking for subsidies to get from their one-off bungalows to work.

Like doling out sweets in response to pester power, the government’s move is short-term, ill-conceived and will only do damage in the long run. When we suffer the economic equivalent of hardened arteries, liver failure and diabetes, just remember none of these ailments are one-off.


  1. Eamon

    The arguments against “one offs” are compelling and make
    good economic sense. However most people build one off
    houses for two reasons a) they cannot afford to buy homes
    in our cities & towns and b) improved quality of life . It
    is the affordability issue that is the strongest of these
    arguments. I would prefer to live in the city where I work
    but I cannot afford to do so, therefore I am forced to
    build some 20 miles away. If I had a choice in the matter
    I would stay in town & avoid the 2 hour daily commute

  2. Tony Hammond

    We are hardly talking about major capital investments here -
    we are talking about – houses.

    People purchasing such properties will be well aware of the
    remoteness and pay accordingly according to financing and
    future credit in thier income or savings.

    Should people to be prevented from making such ‘mistakes’ as
    you have put it? Perhaps we should live under a centrally
    planned state of ‘masters/parents’?

    The ability to be aware of the hidden risks, choise your
    range of food accordingly, eat sweets and yes, risk diabetes
    BUT enjoy running your own life through your own choices, is
    better than the grimness of cold soup served by your
    ‘master’ running it for you.

    In the normal ‘free’ world – If it turns out to be a wrong
    decision they will find it too remote etc… they will take
    a bit of a hit, adapt and get on with life. Big Deal. If oil
    rises into the stratosphere they will adapt to cope with it.

  3. Adrian

    If london had the population density of dublin the northern
    line would have to go as far as aberdeen. Now that would be
    misery!
    The planners who planned london had the advantage that the
    natives couldnt afford cars at the time. If they lived 30
    miles away they would be really late for work! The city was
    built tight.
    Modern cities are sprawling and clogging because of cheap
    cars.Furthermore, tails (voters, are wagging the political
    dogs! If the leaders lead the voters sack them.
    Solution: give professional planners power, free of
    political interference. (in the same way central banks
    control interest rates)
    Its not simply about individual choice, its our collective
    environment so lets keep it functional. DuuuuuuuuH…..

  4. john bennett

    another excellent article
    At last this issue is now being properly debated. Ireland
    has long had a problem with terrible planning and political
    interference in areas where politics should not be. In the
    past even with terrible planning there wasn’t that much
    damage done because the money simply wasn’t in the country.
    This country likes to portray itself as a modern
    progressive country with a young educated workforce.
    However we still have a parish pump national and local
    government who are not able to cope with the modern high
    growth economy we now have. In many ways this country is
    too democratic there are many things such as planning and
    infrastructure which should be free from political
    interference just as they are in other countries. Another
    example of this is the construction of the LUAS, Mary O
    Rourke and Seamus Brennan interfered in the construction
    process such as deciding what streets it should be on in
    the city centre when this should have been left to experts.
    You would never hear Tony Blair interfering in the
    construction process on the London Underground etc.

  5. Martin

    Your article hit the nail on the head.The easing of
    planning restrictions on one-off houses has nothing to do
    with proper planning or rural development. The decision
    was taken with one eye firmly on the next election. The
    government will do absoutely anything to get back into
    power, expect another SSIA scheme or something similar.
    I think Eamon made an interesting point ask anyone
    commuting from Kildare Meath or even Carlow if they would
    like to stop spending long hours in there cars commuting
    to and from work, if they would live in dublin if they
    could afford it i think the overwhelming majority would
    move to dublin. Given Ireland dependence on the car as the
    primary means of mass transport, the economy could be in
    for a severe shock if the price of oil was to jump
    sharply,as was predicted reciently, resulting in increased
    expences for commuters.
    Surely it is now time for this government to open its eyes
    and realise that if ireland is to remain prosperous it
    must change from a car dependent state to one where public
    transport is the main means of mass transport. Its time
    for Trainspotters to start pestering!

  6. Paul

    David,

    I am glad you wrote this article because I saw you on Q&A
    pushing the same line. I live in Co. Cork in a one off
    house on a 4th generation farm of our family. The key
    word in my last sentence was family. Family values in an
    area are very important for the community. You only have
    to look at large crime rate in Cities across Ireland to
    see that family value has been seriously lost in many
    areas across the board. Dotted around my townland are
    ruins of demolished sites of houses of yester year.
    Families just died off or emigrated. These were the
    people who had to suffer the economics that you talk
    around in this article. The reason was then that the
    country had no money,was backward, no job and so on.
    But lets fast forward 50 years. Today people live in my
    area and travel to the city to work. Not a burden to the
    tax payer, in fact the complete opposite. Actually paying
    for the extra services in cities which are badly needed;
    not just for their local bus. You say they don’t build
    one off factories, or cinemas etc.. but you ll be amazed
    to know that these services already exist in the local
    towns which incompass these rural houses.
    I believe that this article is so far wide of the mark
    that its in space! In your TV shows sometimes you make
    reference to your trips to Co. Cork etc.. Well you clearly
    did not speak to the locals. Visit the little villages
    and pubs and see how people really live in rural Ireland.
    Go to a gaa match.. Whats so bad about living in the
    country side, that you can’t go to McDonalds at 2 in the
    morning; What about the west of Ireland would you leave
    the people go out of Ireland because they can’t build a
    house; just like the Irish language did. Agriculture is
    still the largest industry in Ireland. Where are farm
    workers suppose to live or indeed farm owner’s sons, or
    farmers who would “like to chance their arms” !! save
    their lively hoods or indeed retire. Why cant people of
    all sectors from Irish society live together in the bliss
    I call home. Is oil going to run out or is it just a
    propaganda machine for fat cats getting richer. If the oil
    crises happens like you say it will, then it won’t matter
    where you live in Ireland you’ll still be mucked.

    By the way love your show and hope you might revisit this
    issue sometime with a more open mind.

    regards..

  7. joe

    just like to respond to the comments from paul from cork.
    i too live in the countyside, its not a farm however in
    fact where i live there is no “working farms” just people
    sitting on land claiming payments reps and dividing theyre
    land into plots to sell. these guys are now using their
    site money to compete with each other to see who can buy
    the newest 06 suv, as for community spirt now that
    farmings gone it doesnt exist people stay indoors or else
    are at work in a town in our case letterkenny, my own
    experience as a teenager growning up in a one off house
    was bleak without transport i was stuck friends and
    amenities far away watching neighbours twice a day you get
    the picture, one more thing where i live now walking along
    the main road is perilous with an upsrge in commuter
    traffic going in the direction of letterkenny (one hour
    away!)this is a serious risk for kids playing given that
    one of houses are close to the road. i wont list the
    other arguments against one off houses as most people are
    familiar with them.

  8. Maria King Schiro

    Needless to say, as a returned emigrant, former New York political intern and, yes, rural planning applicant, in scenic Connemara, I take strong exception to any ivory tower based ban on rural one off housing.
    For, sustainable urban dwelling? As my birthplace, California, USA applied the cliche: “Been there; Done than; Got the Post Card!”
    In other words; urban living is just fine when employment; education; healthcare and social fabric enables it.
    However, as a woman whose maternal roots arise from, and exist in the high scenic amenity that is West Connemara, County Galway, I can only state the obvious: it is far more sustainable for single, environmentally aware, community and National affairs lobbyists, such as myself, to be granted planning permission (on family owned land, and to continue to develop niche markets for sustainable crafts and crafty social advocacy) in this beautiful area that has suffered from net De Population, since the lifespan of my great grandparents, than it is for me to attempt, as I did (from the years 1998-2000 and 2004-2006) to cover unaffordable urban based mortgages in cities such as Galway or Kilkenny.
    Why don’t the anti-rural development lobbyists recognise that a move out of the major cities of Ireland, by eccentric intellectuals such as myself, in fact supports sustainable living? That is, freeing up valuable house units in our Irish cities, for the highly educated, cash strong, but property poor urban dwellers?

    I remain, a gadfly in County Galway.

    Maria King Schiro
    Aughrusmore
    County Galway

  9. Ronan Fleming

    Dear David,
    please allow me this opportunity to nullify almost all your points against one off housing.

    Water, sewage, telecom & many bus services have already been privatised in Britain. I expect we will follow. Perhaps the school bus can stay public. Therefore, bar the school bus, what we decide we want, we can pay for it. It’s not going to be a public burden.

    The price of oil in the future. Well if you really want to be farsighted, lets all have electric driven cars powered by nuclear power stations. Anyone who can see the nuclear power station gets free electricity. Read James Lovelock’s book, ‘The revenge of Gaia’. Lovelock, a founding member of Greenpeace, adovcates that the only way to avoid excessive co2 emissions on a large enough scale, quickly enough, is to go nuclear. Please separate in your mind, nuclear power, from nuclear war. They are not the same thing. Nuclear power is the safest fuel per kilowatt hour of electricity production. There are safer reactor designs than the ones used in Chernobyl. Why don’t you write a proper article on this instead of a hastily cocked up poorly structured, ill-thought rant.

    It is our choice to live in the countryside. Choice being the operative word. You can choose to live in the city, more pleasure to ya.

  10. Sharyn Belkin

    Replying to post from MARIA KING SCHIRO from Aughrusmore, County Galway. I am an old childhood friend from Los Angeles (in the early 1970s) trying to locate her and her sister Laura. If anyone knows how to reach her, please contact me at sharyn@lockeandco.com
    Many thanks -

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