Evidence to the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas
Introduction: An Taisce’s role in this process
An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland, was founded in 1948 with the aim to promote “ The conservation of the physical heritage of the Irish nation subject to the common good’ An Taisce, translated, means ‘Treasure’ and the treasure to be protected is the Irish environment, its landscape, air, water , wildlife, buildings, which all add up to Ireland’s heritage. One way to provide this protection is to hold property (usually donated) in trust for the Irish nation. At present, An Taisce holds and maintains 16 diverse properties, including Mongan Bog, Co. Offaly; Kanturk Castle, Co. Cork, Booterstown Marsh, Co. Dublin and the Boyne Canal, Co. Meath. We also hold in trust 6,500 acres of wild mountainside in Co. Donegal and 34 acres of the Burren, Co. Clare. An Taisce is listed as a Prescribed Body under the Planning and Development Acts, the only such body that is not state sponsored. Local authorities are obliged to consult An Taisce on planning applications in amenity areas or which affect protected structures or the natural environment. This is probably the most misunderstood part of An Taisce’s functions. The organisation can assess and comment on proposed developments (as can any member of the public) but cannot make planning decisions, i.e. the right to grant or refuse permission is confined solely to the local authority and An Bord Pleanála. An Taisce’s right to appeal a planning decision is basically the same as any other interested party and grounds of appeal are based on protection of the ‘Treasure’ described above. An Taisce welcomes the setting up of CEDRA as a valuable initiative to review the long-term vision for rural Ireland and the path needed to reach that vision. The goal of rural policy is to build a sustainable economy that does not damage the ecosystems on which we depend and provides a good quality of life with balanced development throughout the country.
In response to the invitation to identify key challenges and provide evidence, An Taisce’s experience has led to the conclusion that the conflict between different land uses in rural Ireland will be one of the main issues for the future. In particular the dispersed settlement pattern makes many of the other potential forms of development, whether it is renewable energy, tourism or agriculture, difficult to site, increases costs to rural families and undermines potential for job creation. This will without doubt impede the progress of any rural development strategy and it is likely that little can be done in the short or even medium term to unpick this legacy.
In the longer term it should be possible to strengthen the structure of rural towns and villages which will be essential to underpin the opportunities for rural development, creating a better economic environment for business who need good quality, affordable infrastructure and for those citizens and entrepreneurs who may be involved in establishing new business who need a good quality of life with a range of social amenities only possible where there are sufficient populations.
To summarize the recommendations:
A regeneration strategy for rural Ireland should focus, first and foremost, on the creation of a vibrant rural society which underpins job creation on a long-term basis – services, quality of life, infrastructure, sustainable population, age vibrancy, environmental quality etc. If such conditions are not created any short-term job creation will be ephemeral.
There should be a clear focus on comparative advantage and the sustainable development of rural natural resources and increased local food production, with particular emphasis on greening the economy.
Greater cross-sectoral policy development implementation through improved governance structures and greater and efficient alignment between public investment and spatial planning.
The National Spatial Strategy and the Sustainable Rural Housing Guidelines must be reviewed without delay to further restrict the development of housing in the open countryside and to promote a programme of serviced sites to assist in redirecting the demand for dispersed ‘one off’ housing from the open countryside into small towns and villages, including through tax incentives.
A properly constituted house insulation programme should be implemented and initiative is put in place to promote alternative energy for householders, such as biomass and small scale wind or hydro is promoted. Anaerobic digestion of farm wastes should be incentivized to provide gas for heating.
Research into Integrated Constructed Wetlands should be intensified to provide more effective waste management for rural households and businesses.
A major timetabled and sectorally targeted strategy to enhance local food production for surrounding catchment areas.
The strategy for outdoor recreation and activities should be reinvigorated and more effectively implemented.
A programme of cycling and pedestrian routes should be introduced to reduce car dependence in rural areas and the associated carbon emissions and unpredictable costs
A major public education programme and extra resources for NPWS should be adopted to bring about better protection of important habitats and species.
Guidelines should be prepared and published on the criteria to assess applications for rural development to ensure that such projects do not contribute to the economy at the expense of society and the environment on which we all depend.
In all these aims, community, landowner, public sector and non-governmental organisation partnerships should be promoted.