Scattered rural dwellings have costs that are externalised (i.e. passed on to the wider population). These costs may not be obvious and can hence remain hidden, unattributed to the character of rural settlement. As a consequence, these costs are rarely engaged with by proponents of a permissive approach to dispersed rural housing. The typical and well-rehearsed response of such proponents is that a widely scattered settlement pattern is ‘traditional’ and a characteristic feature of Irish heritage. Regardless of where one comes down on the question of whether a dispersed settlement pattern is in fact a natural expression of cultural preference or simply a quirk of our recent systems of land tenure influenced by public policy, the imposition of an historic settlement system on a 21st Century society goes to the heart of the issue.
In the 19th and early 20th century, Irish rural dwellers were almost overwhelming poor with a low life expectancy, lived in poorly built thatched cottages, had no running water or flushing toilets, were subsistence farmers and imposed almost no demands on the State. In the 21st Century, modern rural dwellers legitimately require a whole range of costly and complex services including healthcare, social services, education, paved roads for transport, electricity, telecommunications and sanitary services, all of which are much more costly to deliver at lower population densities.
The questions which must justifiably be asked are:
- How do we continue to ensure a high quality of service provision to rural families at least cost to the taxpayer?
- How do we insulate rural families from rising costs and create a viable rural economy to sustain rural populations?
- Is increased scattered house building unwittingly compounding the problems faced by rural communities?
In 1976, the then An Foras Forbartha published a report which demonstrated that widely scattered houses cost the State between three and five times more to service than closely knit dwellings (An Foras Forbartha, 1976). These findings are as relevant today as they were >35 years ago. The only difference being that the cost differential is likely to have significantly widened due to increasing labour costs and the greater range of complex, costly services now provided by the State.
More recently, UCD revisited the issue in a report prepared for the EPA. The report concluded that:
“On balance, it does seem that the social costs of scattered development far exceed the benefits. However, of at least equal relevance, is that the two sets of costs and benefits are quite different by definition. One set is mostly social. The other is private. If we restrict the argument to the prevailing nature of development as separate from the case for rural development per se, the arguments in favour of permitting people to build almost however, or wherever, they like, would appear to be unproven. It is, though, clearly inequitable that private benefits should be allowed to dominate the wider public good.” (Scott and Brereton, 2010)
The fact that the prevalence of widely scattered rural housing presents additional costs in terms of infrastructure and service provision should not be controversial. It is self-evident that dispersed development is more costly in terms of maintaining minor roads, supplying electricity, school transport and postal services etc. Very little of this cost is recouped directly from the homeowner. In most cases, whether borne by government or utility companies, the costs are ultimately passed onto the wider population to become a hidden external cost.
On the other hand, the case for the social benefits of scattered dwellings for maintaining local communities, including services such as pubs and shops is, at best, unproven. It does not follow that simply building more dispersed houses maintains local communities. The relationship is far more complex and less inevitable than many lobby groups simply presume. A simple example is that stricter drink driving laws have undermined the viability of the rural pub trade due to the fact that it is difficult to get to pubs without a car. Rural pubs would be less dependent on the use of cars by their customers if settlement was more concentrated i.e. people could walk.
The survival of facilities such as local shops, pubs and post offices is more certain where people live in the same nucleated communities as where these facilities are located. Given the range of shops and services offered in large towns and cities (often on the outskirts) and the fact that most employment is provided in larger settlements, it is more likely that once people are in their car they simply bypass local shops and services in search of greater range and value. On this latter point further research is needed but given the increasing absence of local shops and services in rural areas, the evidence would strongly suggest that this is the case.