Posted tagged ‘countryside’

Rural planning in Ireland

November 15, 2008

Over a cup of coffee in a city centre cafe in Dublin this morning, I got into a conversation with a German couple who were on their first visit to Ireland. They were due to return to Germany this evening, and were spending one last day in Dublin. Over the past few days they had, they told me, visited seven counties in different parts of Ireland. But what had struck them most – more than the weather, the pubs, the people, the craic – was the proliferation of small houses around the countryside. Indeed, they suggested, it was arguable whether Ireland still has something you could call a ‘countryside’ at all; rather, it just seemed a somewhat more sparsely laid out conurbation. And they thought this was shocking – in Germany, strict planning laws absolutely rule out the construction of residential dwellings outside of town limits except for active farmers.

I assured my new German friends that this was an issue that had been, was being and would be extensively debated in Ireland. Many articles have been written on the subject – this is an example – and it has also been a hotly debated issue in Northern Ireland. But we have no consensus in the matter, and some politicians have continued to adopt the position that people should have a right to build properties in the countryside.

There are many issues raised by this – to do inter alia with the provision of services and facilities, transport access, schooling, waste and sewage, to name but a few – but one we should also take into account is that visitors to Ireland find our planning practices inexplicable and find the results inimical to a good rural experience for tourism purposes. Not only have we been building everywhere, we have done it with buildings that are visually totally inappropriate, with bungalows derived from goodness-knows-what-style all over the place.

It is time, I think, that as a country we take a firm stand on this. If we want all of Ireland to be a sprawling housing estate, then let us say so. And if not, let us do something about it before it’s too late.


Living off the land

September 6, 2008

This blog is coming to you from the middle of the Irish countryside, on a farm belonging to my family. Although almost all of my professional life has been spent in cities and towns, I am really a country person. I love the absence of traffic noises, the clean air, the open sky, the natural colours. There is, at least for me, an opportunity in the countryside to get closer to the essence of what we are.

No matter how sophisticated and urban our environment may be, most of us are not many generations away from rural origins. The countryside, rather than the towns, defined society until fairly recently, and it was there that most people lived and worked. Urbanisation was the product of the Industrial Revolution, and with it came the need for much more sophisticated production and distribution of food. Despite that, agriculture remained what was essentially a cottage industry until the second half of the 20th century, and in Europe at least large scale production of food was the exception rather than the rule.

When my family arrived in Ireland in 1961, a 100-acre farm was thought of as quite big, and certainly big enough to provide a reasonable family livelihood. But that is all gone now. A farm of 1,000 acres is really too small now. Farming is an industry, and uses industrial tools worked on appropriate scale. And that’s how it needs to be, however much we may regret it. Feeding the world is not something that can be achieved by the use of medieval methods only somewhat assisted by modern technology; it needs to be done effectively, efficiently and economically. The small farm is increasingly an anachronism and in reality cannot survive.

What this does however raise is how we can maintain a rural environment in such circumstances. It is often pointed out that farmers are not just producers of food, they are stewards of the countryside and maintain it for the benefit of society. But if farmers cannot make a living from traditional methods, who will keep our countryside alive for us?

There is more to this than the aesthetic joy we get from what we see when we leave the city – our rural areas are not just a theme park; they serve important purposes in an ecological context, and losing the countryside would have serious environmental consequences. We need to wake up to the fact that we cannot maintain traditional agriculture, but we do need to maintain the countryside, and we need to know how we are going to do that. Allowing towns to spread out and sprawl loosely over the land is a disaster, but that is where we so often seem to be going.

It has been argued by some historians that if we lose a sense of the rural, we can no longer understand history, because we have no link any more to the society that existed for so long and which defined most of the generations before us. We need to become much more concerned with this, and we need to do something about it.


PS. An analysis of the future of small-scale farming can be seen here and here.