April 18, 2005
One-off housing is simply a response to pester powerPosted in Sunday Business Post · 10 comments ·
ï¿½Mummy, mummy, mummy, I want a Kit Kat.ï¿½ ï¿½No, darling, you can’t have a Kit Kat, have an apple instead.ï¿½ ï¿½Why can’t I have chocolate?ï¿½ ï¿½Well, because too much chocolate will rot your teeth, make you fat, possibly leading to obesity, heart problems and diabetes.ï¿½ ï¿½What’s diabetes?ï¿½ ï¿½Diabetes 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.”
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 ï¿½to govern is to choose’ï¿½. 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 ï¿½rural bus coalition’ï¿½ 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 ï¿½isolated ambulance platform’ï¿½, which is running another candidate for ï¿½immediate ambulance access for the dark-side-of-the-mountain’ï¿½. This flamboyant candidate is threatening the goofy scion of an interbred fourth generation local political dynasty.
Within weeks the local TD is in the Dï¿½il demanding ambulances for all and within a month or so you get the ï¿½remote school access project’ï¿½ 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 ï¿½polluter pays’ï¿½ 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 ï¿½constitutional right’ï¿½ to be bussed to the local ï¿½educate together’ï¿½ 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.