In 2003 FRANK McDONALD andKATHY SHERIDAN wrote an award-winning series of articles about the areas of Leinster colonised by commuters during the boom. Revisiting, they find that much has changed and that - despite all the haphazard planning and half-buit houses - many of those who moved now love their new home
Ghost estates, negative equity and soul-sapping commutes are the legacy of our planning-free property bubble. Cleaning up the zoning mess won't be easy, writes FRANK McDONALD , Environment Editor
The mantra of the boom years might well have been “Build it and they will come.” And for 10 years or more it worked. But the frenzy of construction was bound to come to an end, leaving Ireland littered with incongruous developments – as well as tens of thousands of vacant houses in ghost estates.
In 2003, when we first took a long look at the commuter counties, it was evident that much of this unplanned growth had been fuelled by Dubliners fleeing exorbitant property prices. Getting their hands on relatively affordable houses, even in places they had barely heard of, seemed worth the commute.
The trend of Dublin leapfrogging into Leinster and even, with Cavan and Monaghan, into Ulster ran counter to all planning policies, but this was simply ignored. The complacent view at the time was that the growth of Commuterland would tail off when the houses “out there” lost their value, which they now have.
It was in many ways a plan-free zone. Sure, there were plans aplenty – at local, county, regional and national level. But none of them really meant anything, as council after council indulged in an orgy of rezoning so that landowners could cash in on development values and every county in Leinster and beyond could grab a share of Dublin’s growth.
Local area plans intended to provide orderly frameworks for development were often subverted by councillors and used as vehicles to satisfy the greed of farmers, speculators and developers. And regional planning guidelines that were meant to take a broader view turned out to be paper tigers that could safely be ignored locally.
In 2002 the independent Kildare councillor Tony McEvoy and Michael Smith, then chairman of An Taisce, sought a judicial review of the Meath county plan. The High Court upheld it despite evidence that it didn’t comply with the Greater Dublin strategic planning guidelines and that rezoning decisions were influenced by lobbying from landowners. This ruling by Mr Justice John Quirke exposed the guidelines as meaningless: all the councillors needed to do was to “have regard to” them, which could involve merely giving the document a sideways glance. There was no legal requirement on councillors in Meath, or anywhere else, to comply with regional planning guidelines.
The High Court decision opened the floodgates, with councillors rezoning land to beat the band – more often than not against all planning advice. Field after field on the edge of a town or village was turned into gold, and not a finger was lifted by successive ministers for the environment until Dick Roche quashed the Laois county plan in 2006.
Four years earlier Martin Cullen had declined to use the 2000 Planning Act to rein in councillors in Gorey after they zoned enough land for development to cater for up to 10 times its population.
Asked by The Irish Times in 2003 if this was not in complete defiance of public policy, Cullen said: “Yes it is, in the very narrow purist sense. But it’s not in the context of catering for what has happened in Ireland in the last few years. This massive bubble of young people came through, and where the hell were we going to put them?”
They were “making choices” to live “down the country a bit” and commute to Dublin. “The gamble is that as we develop further on, this will change.”
Of course, it didn’t change. A whole new Commuterland opened up, in some cases encouraged by tax incentives; much of the housing explosion in Longford, for example, happened because the whole county was covered by former finance minister Charlie McCreevy’s misguided Upper Shannon Rural Renewal Scheme.
“The real villain was McCreevy’s decision to go with it, giving strong incentives for investors,” one senior planner said. “All the damage is the result of that. An interdepartmental group was put together to look at the impacts of the scheme, just two years after it was introduced in 1999, and recommended that it should be stopped.”
Its unforeseen consequences were noted by Carl O’Brien of The Irish Times in December 2008 when he visited Battery Court, “Longford’s most prestigious address”, and found about half of the 100 or so houses built and work on the rest abandoned. With no signs of life, it was “eerily quiet, almost like a post-apocalyptic scene from a science-fiction movie”.
There are scenes like this almost everywhere now, as property prices collapse – particularly in Commuterland – and developers go bust, with their unsustainable bank loans going into Nama. Empty houses, shops, retail parks and shopping centres are all grim evidence of how the boom was so grotesquely mismanaged. Few brakes were applied. In some cases the Department of the Environment withheld funding for water and sewerage schemes where land was zoned against planning advice. In others An Bord Pleanála simply refused planning permission where the zoning went against sustainable development.
But these were exceptions in a rip-roaring era that left us with thousands of hectares of zoned land that’s not developed. In Commuterland Laois is tops, with 1,678 hectares, followed by Meath (1,652), Wexford (1,382), Cavan (1,161), Kildare (1,147), Offaly (1,044), Westmeath (977), Louth (948), Longford (910), Wicklow (714) and Carlow (408). “Meath has six or seven times what it needs,” one planning source said. “But it’s a much deeper problem in the BMW [Border, Midlands and West] region, particularly in Longford, Roscommon, Leitrim and Sligo.”
The Department of the Environment is surveying every county, trying to “profile the status” of unfinished estates in terms of the number of houses completed, still vacant or at various stages of construction before the builders walked away. Based on this, the department will formulate a policy response. It is also planning a manual for local authorities on how to deal with unfinished estates.
“This relates very much to Nama, because it will be the owner of a lot of these properties,” the source said. “Its main function is to get the best value for taxpayers, but it will have to make choices. If it finds that there are 100 houses approved, of which only 20 are occupied, 40 vacant and the rest unfinished, including roads, public-safety problems arise. If Nama wants to extract a saleable asset out of that, it will have to resolve issues with the local authority and may have to abandon those parts of an estate that are no longer viable.”
A great deal of putative development land will have to be dezoned, whatever about the distress this causes to its owners and their bankers. This process has already got under way in Co Kerry, where councillors have started to unravel decisions that led to 2,529 hectares of land being zoned – enough to house six times its population. Nationally, for the foreseeable future, planning policy will seek to consolidate Dublin and other cities.
“In the Dublin area, where the ‘completed but not sold’ overhang would meet less than a year’s demand, we’ll be prioritising Adamstown and Clonburris, where the State has put in €500 million in public investment,” the source said. “We have to make sure that we corral whatever emerges from the ashes into locations like that.”
The new Planning Bill should help, given its emphasis on the need for councils to demonstrate that their development plans comply with regional planning guidelines, the National Spatial Strategy and sustainable-development principles. Given that new guidelines are due to be finalised later this year, it is seen as essential that the Planning Bill is enacted before the Dáil breaks for its long summer recess. Only then would county managers and planning officials be able to say that inappropriate zoning proposals can’t be adopted – because now they’re against the law.
Against the odds, the blow-ins bed down
Rather than returning to the city, many of those who lived in the commuter belt in 2003 have been joined by their extended families, writes KATHY SHERIDAN
The sky did not fall in. The commuter towns we explored seven years ago did not explode and die. Blue-jerseyed Dubs failed to storm the capital after a second nuclear winter in Rochfortbridge.
It failed to happen because the view that miserable first-time buyers were being forced from their sophisticated native city into injun territory was always too simplistic. There was nothing homogenous about them, for a start. Sure, some talked gleefully of selling up in Drimnagh, Clondalkin or Walkinstown for fabulous money, getting a house twice the size for buttons 75km down the road and lashing the remainder on a good car.
But privately, in countless cases, there were deeper motives, never articulated for fear of upsetting good former neighbours: worries about children being enmeshed in antisocial gangs, a woman too frightened to walk to the shops, an inner-city school so deprived even teachers were bailing out.
Many of those who landed in Ratoath, then the fastest-growing commuter centre in Leinster, were ready-formed families trading up. Rochfortbridge was alive with Dubs in love with their spacious houses, big gardens, safe neighbourhoods and good local schools.
In Carlow and Gorey middle- class couples who missed Dublin’s variety and cosmopolitanism firmly believed they were giving their children a “country” ethos and freedom to roam.
The vast majority of those we interviewed in 2003 are still there. A cynic might suggest that of course they are; who can sell a house in Rochfortbridge or Carlow now? But how to explain, then, the startling number of parents and siblings who joined those pioneers? Or the offspring who failed to flee to Dublin as soon as they came of age? A couple who fled north Dublin eight years ago now have parents, siblings and offspring – 21 in total – living all around them in Rochfortbridge.
Some are mortgage-free, which suggests free choice. The teenage daughter of a Walkinstown family, who hadn’t quite taken to it when we talked seven years ago, has since married another Dub blow-in and settled in a house only metres from her parents’ home. Her brother has also bought in.
There were casualties, of course. The man who despaired that “in Dublin, house prices are unaffordable, but here is inaccessible” abandoned Gorey a year later for a dormitory town nearer Dublin. The exhausted cries of the baby being hauled out of bed at dawn to be loaded into the car were finally intolerable, and the long-promised commuter train and bypass were nowhere in sight. There was the inner-city girl, now 20, who moved to Carlow at 12 but couldn’t be kept out of Dublin. “She’s just a city kid,” sighs her mother now, as the daughter kicks up her heels in London.
Seven years ago, for an outsider, it was sometimes hard to see an upside. Freedom to roam was not the first phrase that came to mind in the little village of Ratoath, with its rampaging development, negligible amenities, lack of footpaths, poor lighting and thunderous traffic. Neither Rochfortbridge nor Portlaoise had a playground. The lack of a commuter train in exploding Gorey was inexplicable. Water and sewerage capacity was inadequate even at that stage. And for all the talk of great “country” schools, it was clear that no one on high was doing the sums.
In 2010 water supply remains a talking point in Rochfortbridge, where it arrives unreliably, through asbestos piping, and the town still awaits its playground. Ironically, the delay in upgrading sewerage capacity saved places such as Gorey and Rochfortbridge from further developer madness.
AGAINST ALL THE odds, these places have come a long way. Most have magnificent new arts and community centres, fine new schools and booming sports clubs. Transport links have improved hugely. In seven years Ratoath has created an entire new infrastructure.
If there are heroes in this story, they are the community activists, boards of management, parish priests and even some councillors and officials who consulted, raised funds, compiled reports, attended meetings and relentlessly badgered those in authority to live up to their responsibilities.
John Scott, a Glaswegian project engineer who arrived in Ratoath 10 years ago with his wife and two young children, remains astonished at the amount of lobbying required to get a basic essential, such as a school. “The Government tries to delegate responsibility but not authority,” he says.
By contrast, the number of creches, thin on the ground seven years ago, has reached saturation point, says Sonya Duggan of the Kilminchy creche in Portlaoise, and there is no longer a level playing pitch between trained professionals and home-based child-carers. Numbers of children in creches are falling because of job losses and couples finding their own way through the thorny thicket of work-life balance.
In 2003 this was a major source of angst, but even then surveys showed that families with two full-time working parents were not as common as was generally believed. Rochfortbridge and Rathoath had as many stay-at-home mothers as commuters, and quite a few had landed local jobs with child-friendly hours. Nonetheless, many mothers were marooned at home with largely absent fathers.
In Rochfortbridge, at Niamh Gallagher’s Little Rascals creche, the number of children in her charge full time has fallen dramatically since 2003; just five out of 60 now, and in general they arrive later. Sonya Duggan reckons that her full-time numbers are down by half. Many are in for three days a week – “a combination of fathers losing their jobs and parents working out a better work-life balance”.
The difference now is that many fathers are striving for that balance. Some have increased their days working from home as technology improves and managers learn to trust remote workers. Conor McAllister, who lives in Ratoath but runs the Grafton Barber on Grafton Street in Dublin, uses CCTV to monitor the business from home.
Commuting frustrations have also eased. Through the boom years the crisis points were predictable, says Dr Gerald White, a Portlaoise GP, recalling how “the wheels came off” for many commuting parents when someone fell ill. “The exhaustion factor kicked in, and they would come looking for a physical cause.” With the arrival of better roads and public transport, he is seeing a distinct improvement. “Most would tell you the road journey is much simpler. The train service is much improved . . . but now, of course, there are new and different worries. One or both are losing jobs. There’s a lot more pressure.”
Fr Gerry Stuart, Ratoath’s parish priest, who is seeing the new primary schools finally swimming into focus, likes to think that the recession is “a way for the soul to catch up with the body”. It’s as good an analogy as any for what happened to the commuter counties in boom-town Ireland.
THE public has no faith in planning policy across the country because of inconsistencies across the board, the country's most senior planner said yesterday. Chairman of An Bord Pleanala, John O'Connor, launched a blistering attack on poor practice in his own sector. He said the system "lacked coherence" at local, regional and national level.
The board's chairman claimed the current system saw authorities regularly deviating from plans and he urged a reduction in the number of local authorities tasked with deciding planning applications.Calling for a cull, he said there were over 90 bodies with power to grant planning permission and the bloated system needed to be rationalised.
In a speech to an EPA conference in Croke Park yesterday, he also claimed:
l There was a "lack of transparency" in the creation of development plans which outline how an area should develop over a five-year period.
l Land was being zoned in ways not in the common good.
l Housing developments were built without essential facilities and with no regard as to how people got to work.
l Planning authorities showed a "weak adherence" to development plans.
l There was a need to "constrain" market forces.
"There are different policies and priorities in the public and private sector as to what is acceptable development," the planning chief warned. "The local interest is not the same as regional or national interest, and the interest of the landowner is not the same as the common good.
"If we get it wrong at the planning stage we're fighting a losing battle on other fronts.
"I think planning in some authorities is lacking coherence and consistency at national, regional and local level."
Very often objectives in the development plan were not followed through when decisions were handed down, he said.
Planners should adopt a common sense approach.
"We should not have to wait for ministerial guidelines to tell us we shouldn't build on flood plains," Mr O'Connor said. "We need to ensure areas are developed with convenient essential services to reduce the need to travel for the minor necessities of life.
"There should be no question in the future of zoning wetlands and woodlands [for development]. The planning system has not done enough to protect landscapes.
"Development plans often have worthy objectives but the system isn't recognising those. Unless local authorities respect plans, the public and developers won't."
There had been a failure to face up to hard decisions and important issues were being "lost in bureaucracy", he said.
A lack of policy was often to blame, with planners left to fill a "policy vacuum". While not going into details, he said An Bord Pleanala is currently deciding two separate applications for high-rise development in Dublin 4, despite a lack of policy on how tall buildings can go in the capital.
"We have a very fractured planning system, should we not be rationalising? It's important decisions are seen to be consistent, a lot of stress needs to be put on consistency.
"We can do much better if we can refocus."
© Irish Independent Sept 2008
Longford is just one of the many towns that rushed to develop during the boom. Now it is left with a legacy of vacant homes, an empty shopping centre and ghostly quiet housing estates.
A three part series in the Irish Times by Carl O'Brien.
YOU MAKE your way along the deserted laneway as the early morning mist still hovers above the hedgerows. After a couple of miles, the first houses come into view, just beyond the ditch. It is eerily quiet, almost like a post-apocalyptic scene from a science-fiction movie.
There are no cars in the driveways, no people tending to their garden on this Saturday morning, no signs of life, except for a child's bike left at the side of one house.
Wires dangle from the sides of most of the houses, plastic sheeting is still attached to the windows, and water pipes from the empty buildings lead nowhere. Mildew is growing on some of the walls, while weeds are beginning to sprout through some of the fresh tarmac.
"McArt Meadows," reads the sign on the main road, "an exclusive development of 12 luxury homes built to the highest standard", complete with sketches of a bar, restaurant and a manicured green area that were to accompany the development.
"There's been no work done here for over a year and a half now," says one occupant, looking out on a muddy bank where the bar and restaurant were due to be built. "It can feel a bit lonely, it's very, very quiet. There are just two homes with people in them here. But inside it's nice, warm and roomy, which is something." As you make your way closer to Longford town, it seems as if there are phantom housing estates around every other corner.
Off Battery Road, down a narrow laneway and past the tennis courts, lies another. "Battery Court - you'll know you've arrived," the sign boasts, opposite an empty showhouse and glass-fronted sales room. "Longford's most prestigious address for the discerning buyer."
About half of the hundred or so houses are built, with painted walls and neat grass. Directly across the road, the jagged concrete edifice of dozens of other half-finished housing units reaches high into the sky.
There is no sign of activity. You need to be careful on the road, as it hasn't got its final layer of tarmac. On this Saturday afternoon, there is life in just three homes. One resident, a Polish worker who lives here with his girlfriend, is renting, and has just come back from doing the weekly shop. "I am not here long, so I don't know if others are going to move in," he says. "It's quiet, but very dark at night. There are no lights in the houses and no street lights."
But it's not just the houses that are lying empty. There are vacant shopping centres, retail units, business parks all across the county. They sprouted up at the height of the economic boom, aimed at catering to the town's growing population and developing economy. Fuelled by Section 23 tax incentives, the frenzied development appeared to be easy money for developers, investors and home-owners.
Among these projects is the 1,900-sq m Longford Town Centre, which was completed earlier this year. Its glossy brochure aimed at prospective tenants sounds like a relic from another era. "Meet the Celtic Tiger's cubs," it says, proclaiming that the area is densely populated with "young, high income earners who see the town as a key destination for shopping". Without an anchor tenant, it has been sitting vacant behind steel fencing since the summer.
Today, as the town feels the claws of the property downturn, credit crunch and recession, the empty buildings resemble grim monuments to the death of the Celtic Tiger and the over-exuberance of the boom years.
Commuter-belt counties stretching from Longford in the west, Carlow in the south and Cavan in the north are beginning to buckle under the strain of the economic downturn. Their towns and villages exploded in recent years, with populations in some areas doubling or tripling in size. Now, they're on the front-line of the recession, bearing the brunt of layoffs, lenghtening dole queues and a collapse in property prices.
IN MANY WAYS, Longford's story shouldn't be that surprising. For a county that felt abandoned and neglected during the waves of emigration and recession, it suddenly felt its time had come when the economy began to soar. It was damned if it wasn't going to grab the opportunity with both hands.
Places such as Longford, just over an hour's drive to Dublin, were among the areas that looked set to be transformed most dramatically. The population leaped by about 20 per cent during the boom years. Many were young couples, priced out of housing in the capital. Others were families yearning for more space and privacy, and willing to sacrifice the chaotic commuting lifestyle. Foreign nationals also followed the swathes of people into commuter-belt territory. Planning authorities and politicians, who opened their arms to development, fought to have tax incentives extended to the entire country. The message was clear: Longford was open for business. It meant more money for the local authority, more employment in the construction industry, and a bigger population for shops and businesses. Who could possibly lose?
For people such as Thomas Casey, it's as if the boom passed by, leaving a trail of greater problems in its wake. At his bar in Newtownforbes, which still sells hardware items such as Rawl plugs and wire brushes behind the counter, the mood is mostly sombre. This evening there's a man who's on reduced hours from the local meat-packing plant and is looking for more work. There is a father of two who was commuting to Dublin up to last week - before he lost his job.
Casey, 52, says areas such as Newtownforbes were supposed to benefit from the boom and enjoy a bold new era of prosperity. New houses began to arrive less than a decade ago, more than doubling the population and altering the character of the historic village forever. Yet many of the new arrivals are commuters, travelling long distances to work early in the mornings and arriving back bleary-eyed late in the evening. Casey also says that others are on rent allowance and tend to not mix with the community.
"As I see it, the boom was good for some, but not for the rest," he says. "I think village life has been destroyed. People were content to make vast fortunes by selling land and squeezing as many houses in as possible. Now, lots of them are empty and there's no demand. I don't know what's going to happen to them. I don't know who's living here any more.
"They've done nothing to enhance the area. The density of a lot of them isn't right," he adds. "But the big problem is the infrastructure; the sewerage system, which is running at full capacity, needs to be upgraded. I've seen raw sewage going into the water."
The sense of gloom extends to Longford town, where shops already have "sale" signs in the windows in the run-up to Christmas. As if the lack of consumer confidence isn't enough to cope with, it is being hit badly by the cheaper prices in the North.
"It's just an hour to Enniskillen in the car," says a grim Roy Davis, the owner of a local Supervalu and chairman of the traders' association. "It's impacting on everyone. This is new territory for all of us. You used to be able to plan and say, 'well, we'll at least do as well as last year'. But not any more." While supermarkets have lost 20 per cent or more in trade, boutiques and clothes shops are faring even worse. The town is desperately trying to lure shoppers to stay at home with eye-catching initiatives, such as free off-street parking. But it feels like a losing battle. The sight of bright orange Sainsbury's plastic bags being loaded out of car boots is increasingly common.
"It's back to basics for most people," says Charlie Kiernan of Centra in Drumlish, a 15-minute drive outside the town. He is also feeling the pinch from the North. "It's hard to compete with those prices. I'm selling much more things like mince. The days of splashing out on the luxuries are over." Inevitably, like most parts of the country, job losses have hit the area hard. Unemployment is up by about 50 per cent over the past year. The shockwaves felt initially in construction have spread, widening to manufacturing, retail and financial services.
Seamus Butler, whose company Butler Manufacturing Services makes waste-water treatment products, had 40 employees last year. He says his decision to let 12 go recently was one of the most difficult of his career. "It's easily the toughest aspect of all of this," he says. "It's the human side of it all. You see them working, supporting families, it's a decision you can't take lightly. You hope they'll be re-employed or find something. In our case, it's been last in, first out. That means it's mainly been foreign nationals being let go." There are also signs that many of the Poles and central and eastern Europeans who flocked to towns such as Longford are leaving, or at least tightening their belts. At the Net Café on New Street, Alan Brierton has seen numbers using the internet or wiring money using Western Union dwindle over the past few months. Business is down around 50 per cent, he says, and opening hours have been reduced as a result. The lease on the premises is up in a few months' time and he's not sure if the business will keep going.
Kamil Markowski, 28, from outside Warsaw in Poland, thinks many of his compatriots will tough it out as there are still more opportunities around compared with home. "Some are leaving, but I am happy to stay. I can still earn much more than home, while those without work can still get good money." It's not just foreign nationals leaving. The spectre of emigration among young Irish is rearing its head for the first time in a decade. Mostly, the stories are of young men in construction heading to Australia for a year or two, or trying their luck in the UK, US or Canada. Cashel GAA club, which won the county's intermediate football championship in September, has lost about four of its squad to emigration.
"They're mostly gone to places like Australia," says Cllr Sean Farrell of Newtown Cashel. "I'm old enough to remember the emigration from here in the 1980s; to see it returning again, and to see the extent of it, is quite a shock."
QUITE APART FROM the downturn, there is also the gnawing feeling that the boom was squandered particularly badly here. The empty houses, shops and retail parks are daily reminders of the giddy rush to development. Yet, there is little sign of recrimination. The headlong rush to build, fuelled by generous tax incentives, was supported by everyone in authority: the politicians, the planners, the developers.
To borrow the phrase used by journalist and commentator John Healy to describe the death of an Irish village in the 1960s, no one shouted stop.
There were a handful of discordant voices. Parvez Butt, a Green Party candidate in the local elections, says the rampant overdevelopment of the country was obvious to anyone a few years ago.
"The census in 2006 showed that 23 per cent of houses were empty even then. That's a very high figure in a county without many holiday homes," he says. "The problem was that the tax concessions kept the demand going, people were trying to cash in on the boom, which is why we now have this legacy of ghost-town developments. It was a major error of judgment, but not a single elected representative spoke up." Longford's mayor insists that the only people who were irresponsible were the banks, for indiscriminately lending so much money.
"They were the ones giving 100 per cent mortgages, that's how it all happened so fast. We didn't go zoning extra land; the residential land was available anyway and was zoned for a number of years," says Cllr Sean Farrell.
Another unsettling question is what will become of these empty estates, in a market which many predict may not pick up for a number of years. Already, some developments are aging and visibly beginning to deteriorate. Frank Kilbride, who was involved in developing the 12 houses at McArt Meadows, says he hopes to finish off as many of the house as possible next year. "We sold two houses about a year ago, but since then nothing is moving," he says. "They were on the market at €255,000, but now I'd take an offer of €150,000 if it came."
Over at Battery Court, the scheme's developer says he's hopeful the houses will be completed in early 2010, almost three years later than originally anticipated. But even that prediction depends on the level of activity next year.
"We've sold or taken deposits on around 40 per cent of the units," says Joe McGrealy of McGrealy Developments. "A lot depends on the quality of the product and the location, so we're very fortunate in that regard. All we can do is keep the head down, keep working and hopefully get to the other side."
Longford's mayor, meanwhile, insists the area will be able to bounce back, even if there is little sign of a recovery on the horizon, "I agree that in the short-term it might be hard to see things improving. But there is a resilience here, and we're going to do everything to make sure that money is spent in the town and we keep things going. "Yes, we have more houses, but we have people on waiting lists and we have big employers here like Abbott. This all happened very quickly, so there's no reason we can't recover as quickly again."
CARL O'BRIEN, Social Affairs Correspondent
HARD TIMES IN THE COMMUTER BELT:
Engine room of the boom grinds to a halt
BY HIS own admission, Clive Lumley has only ever seen good times. A chartered accountant, he rose through the ranks of a property development firm in Meath, eventually becoming its financial director. The money rolled in, the business expanded and the only way was up. Then the property market crash-landed.
"I suddenly found myself at home, with no job and nothing to do," the 36-year-old says. "The blow to the ego was probably the biggest thing.
"You see your wife heading off to work in the morning. The weeks begin to feel very long. What was worse was because I was in a senior position, there was nothing available on the jobs market."
His home patch of Ratoath was a standard bearer for the boom. Just 15 miles from Dublin, it swelled from a small rural village to the fastest-growing centre in the entire Leinster commuter belt since 2000.
The suburb isn't your typical dormitory town for struggling first-time buyers. Despite rampant development and 32 new housing estates, it managed to market itself as a rather exclusive enclave, with house prices to match. But behind the detached homes with their neatly maintained gardens and expensive cars, there is hidden hardship.
"It began to change last September," says Nick Killian, a local councillor who is general manager of Ratoath's community centre.
"People with no history of unemployment are coming to me regularly, wondering what their social welfare entitlements are. Some are in very expensive houses which they bought for €500,000 or €750,000.
"Now, they're having to adjust dramatically. It's really testing people's dignity."
The full scale of job losses across Co Meath is beginning to emerge as official figures show its towns are bearing the brunt of some of the fastest rising dole queues across the entire State. Live register figures, for example, have jumped by 122 per cent in Trim, 111 per cent in Kells and 94 per cent in Navan.
Much of the reason job losses are higher in Meath than many other areas is that it became the engine room for the construction boom.
Companies supplying the building industry - Kingspan, Gypsum, Kingscourt, O'Reilly Bros - were barely able to cope with demand, while locally-based auctioneering and engineering companies flourished.
But the foundation for the industry was built on sand. Orders have dried up, the firms are haemorrhaging money and hundreds have either been let go or are working on reduced hours.
The statistics, though, only hint at the hardship behind them. For people like Tommie Curran, who works at the Money Advice and Budgeting Service in Navan, the emotional turmoil many find themselves in can be gut-wrenching.
Many clients have been driven to depression or even suicide, he says, as they slip further and further into debt. Trying to get them to admit to the problems is the first step. Clawing a way out of debt through a structured plan is the next.
"Lots of people have problems opening up out of sheer embarrassment," he says. "It's pushing people to desperate measures. There was one man who went into the Boyne, but he was got in time. There are others who haven't been so fortunate." The key, he says, is helping people to realise there is a way out of debt by adjusting lifestyles, realigning finances and agreeing repayment strategies with banks and creditors.
Some aren't even trying to repay debts, though. At a shiny steel-and-glass fronted car sales room in the country, the owner, who declines to be named, says he has several cars which were dropped in for a service which will never be picked up again by their owners.
"I know the next person to come for it will be the repossession company," he says. "One of the cars here hasn't been collected in seven weeks. Others are trying to sell their vans, but no one is interested."
He tells the story of one man involved in construction who bought a van for €25,000 last year. Six months later he tried to sell it for under €20,000. There were no takers. The repossession company eventually took hold of it and sold it at auction for €10,000.
Many whisper that things will get worse before they get better. Gerry Dillon (34) feels like his job is on borrowed time. He works at Geith International, a Slane-based firm which manufactures shovels for diggers. Twenty-five workers were laid off a few weeks ago, while many employees have been put on reduced hours. Its plant in Wales closed last month with the loss of 45 jobs. He wonders whether his will be next.
"Orders aren't coming in, so we're all worried," he says. "A company can't keep going forever without a decent supply of work." Management at Geith did not respond to a request for an interview.
Dillon's girlfriend works for just over the minimum wage at a hotel, while they are paying off a mortgage in the region of €200,000.
They're expecting their first child in March.
"It would be tough for me, of course, but it would be worse for others in there on €300,000 or €400,000 mortgages," he says. "My problem is I came straight out of school and I don't have qualifications, so you'd need to be very lucky to find another job."
Mark Curtis (36), who is married with two children and runs a plant hire firm near Nobber, Co Meath, is also worried. But he's angry, too. His five diggers are lying idle in the front yard with nowhere to go.
"I remember the banks telling me we should buy some more machinery, when I'd be renting them. Now, it's 'what are you going to do to repay the loans?' They have a lot to answer for, if you ask me."
He adds: "The local bank managers who helped provide finance are often taken out of the loop and things are being dictated by head office, so there's room for manoeuvre."
The downturn is stirring up memories for many of the bad old days in the 1980s. But local Meath Fine Gael TD Shane McEntee, who is inundated with constituents seeking help, says this recession is much different.
"The difference back then was that the country had borrowed to the hilt; this time, it's the people who are up to their necks in debt," says McEntee, who's frustrated that nothing - as he sees it - is being done to help ordinary people.
He also says the failure of some banks and financial institutions to pass on badly-needed reductions in interest rates in full will have severe repercussions.
"It's going to drag more people under. Not only are people's businesses at risk, but their homes will be as well. I'm inundated with calls about this."
Even in the teeth of the recession, some businesses and companies are fighting back. In an attempt to dissuade shoppers taking the short journey up the M1 to Newry, town authorities in Trim are offering free parking for the three Saturdays in the run-up to Christmas.
Over in Ashbourne, they are distributing 40,000 gift guides to Christmas shoppers as part of their "stay local, shop local" campaign. In Kells, traders are participating in a Christmas shopping voucher promotion, which can be used in most local businesses.
"The downturn in trade is visible on the streets: we don't have the traffic jams we'd normally have or the shoppers on the pavements," says Jess Olohan of Kells Chamber of Commerce.
"This voucher scheme is an idea we borrowed from Mullingar. It's about targeting customers who are spared the hardship of traffic jams, parking and other charges by shopping locally. Employers can also give a tax-free bonus of up to €250 to employees, so we're trying to encourage them to give vouchers."
Meanwhile, people like Clive Lumley are an example of how patience, determination and hope can help you through the tough times. After about four months looking for work, he eventually found a job and the pressure has lifted.
"I was lucky in that I got a redundancy payment, my wife was working and I don't have children. I just focused, concentrated on going for interviews and it worked out well in the end," he says. "But I worry about moves taken in the budget. I think increasing taxes and Vat rates are crazy moves.
"You need to encourage people to spend money, yet, as I see it, it's walking out of the country at the moment. If we're going to recover, getting the right policies will be a start."
Taking flight to London in search of a job
KEVIN DOWNES rubs his tired eyes as he boards the early-morning flight from London, embarking on another hectic weekend of hurling for his home county of Cavan.
The routine for the county's former player of the year during the championship season is exhausting: up in the early hours of Saturday, flying to Dublin, getting a lift to Cavan, playing a match, flying back to London that night, and playing the next day for his adopted club Tir Chonnail Gaels near Wembley.
It's been this way since he emigrated to London in June. Work dried up in his field of environmental consultancy, one of many sectors hit since the collapse of the construction industry.
"There were lots of people asking me to hang around, but no one could guarantee me a job. All the factories were shedding staff. Often in the GAA there's a builder who might throw you some work, but things were so tight that that wasn't even possible," he says.
He's not sure how long he can keep up with the chaotic commute between the UK and Ireland. In any case, it mightn't be a problem for much longer. As the recession hits the UK, he thinks he'll be looking even farther afield for work before long.
"I'm not alone. There are lots of teams being affected, mostly country teams with tradesmen, carpenters, electricians. Over the next year, every team is going to lose at least a handful of players. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as I see it." The emigration of one of the county's brightest GAA talents is a stark reminder that the spectre of forced emigration may be descending on a young generation which has only ever experienced good times.
Figures show that the majority of those being laid off are aged between 20 and 34 years. On top of that, Cavan, like other commuter belt counties, is being disproportionately hit by the rapid rise in unemployment.
Live register figures jumped by 86 per cent at the social welfare office at Cavan town and 93 per cent in Ballyconnell over the past year, compared to a national average of 66 per cent.
Most of those being laid off are from commuter belt areas in the south of the county such as Virginia, Ballyjamesduff and Kingscourt, which expanded rapidly during the boom years.
And it's to places such as Kingscourt that you go to see the recession at its most visible on the streets, in the shops and on the factory floors.
For the best part of a century this bustling market town, located near Meath, Louth and Monaghan, has been a hive of industrial activity. The rich deposits of gypsum, the main ingredient in the manufacture of plasterboard, gave rise to Gypsum Industries. Other major construction firms followed, such as the building suppliers Kingspan, brick producers Kingscourt Brick, O'Reilly Concrete and Hangar industrial doors.
At the height of the boom, the streets would be congested with articulated lorries, commercial vans and private vehicles. It could take minutes for pedestrians to be able to cross the busy roads. But today, on a cold, wintry afternoon, everything is quiet.
"You can fly through here now," says David Blake (39), who runs Blake's pub on the main street, which has been in the family for three generations.
"The big traffic jams are gone. In the plants, a lot of workers are just standing around doing nothing. There are no orders coming in. They've been letting a lot of people go in dribs and drabs. All in all, well over a hundred have been let go so far, and there's talk of more over the next few months."
His own trade on week days has been hit, with younger men either leaving the area or cutting back on spending. Deli counters at the shops are quiet too, he says, while retail is down across the board.
"The vans which would be going off to Dublin with a few lads have basically stopped," says Blake. "Many of them have headed off to the UK, Australia or the US - anywhere they can find work." These are worrying times for people like Declan Ferry, Siptu's recently appointed Cavan branch organiser, whose days are regularly taken up with crisis calls from employees in firms that are going to the wall.
"It's bad in Kingscourt but, at least for the moment, many businesses are trying to hold their own and trying to ride through the storm," he says.There have been some positives amid an overwhelming drip-feed of bad news, though. A Belgian firm which makes wind turbines expanded its workforce by 70, while another firm is hiring 30 others for research and development into green energy. Otherwise, though, the live register locally continues to head in the wrong direction.
For public representatives, anger on the doorsteps is palpable, no matter of what political hue they are."In the last few months you can feel the frustration and fear in people," says Seán McKiernan, a Fine Gael councillor in his late 20s and based in Bailieborough.
"You see the people you went to school with, the same age as you, maybe with a few kids, and they haven't worked in a few weeks. They're looking out at you from a house which has lost a lot of its value, but they still have to serve a very big mortgage." Some of these people were on very good salaries, he says, buying a second home because everyone else was, but who are now facing an incredibly precarious financial situation.
Many of these young couples are up to their necks in debt, after getting easy credit from almost every available source at the height of the boom.
Anne McKiernan, the co-ordinator of Cavan's Money Advice and Budgeting Service, is seeing them on a regular basis.
Demand for appointments at the office in Cavan town is so strong that a backlog extends right up until mid-January.
"There can be a lot of denial from people who are embarrassed and ashamed at the way they've over-borrowed," she says.
"People are very grateful for whatever advice or support we can give. Their heads can be in such a muddle, even though they have been successful in business.
"They'll often have a large mortgage, three or four credit cards, a personal loan and car loans. They were going to be heading for disaster anyway, but it's all happened very quickly for many of them." When the agency works with these people, dramatic changes in lifestyle tend to follow. First their social life goes, followed by cutting off direct debits for TV or the internet. The car will go soon after, to avoid it being repossessed by the finance company.
"Some people with very nice houses don't even have the money for fuel," McKiernan adds.
As recrimination over the dramatic collapse in the economy continues, some point to grassroots work by the community and voluntary sector as evidence of a more sustainable economic model.
The Bailieborough Development Association Ltd, for example, was established in 1996 by a number of local people who were concerned about the social and economic well-being of the area.
It has established an enterprise centre on the site of an old factory and a childcare service for school-age children, allowing parents to work full-time or undertake education and training. For public representatives like Seán McKiernan, it's a sign of what cohesive communities can do when they come together. Following a major study into the needs of the area, the development association in Bailieborough is going to target the potential to create "green" jobs, as well as research and development.
"There is a lot of frustration that the wealth created over the last few years hasn't resulted in better roads or a better developed tourism sector," he says.
"But communities can do an awful lot for themselves. The thinking in the community and voluntary sector here is, let's address the problems we see ourselves."
(c) Irish Times 6-9.12.08
Dick Roche threatens to scrap Monaghan county plan over unique "Venetian style" developments
New housing schemes will include a free boat, oars, and lifejackets for every buyer.
Minister for the Environment Dick Roche has threatened to scrap Monaghan County Council's development plan because councillors have rezoned enough land to almost triple the population of the county and create "serious flooding" risks.
A letter, seen by The Irish Times , written on behalf of Mr Roche to the manager of the council, Declan Nelson, warns that unless the development plan is changed, the council could be forced to adopt a plan devised for it by the department.
County development plans are initially devised by the council's planners in line with national guidelines in relation to housing, spatial and planning strategies, and are usually amended by the councillors before they ratify the plan.
Last October councillors amended the draft Monaghan County Development Plan to adopt a large number of additional rezonings, against the advice of the planners. ( Whats new.?)
Mr Nelson at this point warned councillors that there was a risk Mr Roche would not allow the plan to stand. A strongly worded four-page letter from the department now confirms Mr Nelson's view.
Fianna Fail Councillors (and a few Fine Gaelers too )are accused of "sporadic and haphazard zoning" at many locations.
A significant number of the amendments are "not in the interests of proper planning" and "an effective balance in reconciling local aims and objectives with national and regional policies has not been achieved", the letter states.
The councillors' amendments "seriously compound an already ambitious level of zoning at over 40 locations". Enough land had now been allocated to potentially increase the population of Monaghan, which stood at 55,800 in 2006, by 100,000. Some villages, which the letter states have "no services or facilities", could see their populations increase by up to 2,000.
On a national strategic level the projected population increase for the county was equal to that planned by the Government for the entire Border region, which includes counties Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Louth, Sligo and Monaghan, up to 2020.
In addition to the population increases, the zonings would create problems in relation to flooding and the provision of essential services.
The letter makes particular mention of Ballybay, where lands "clearly prone to serious flooding" had been rezoned.
At many other locations, including Rockcorry, Doohamlet and Connons, there was "sporadic and haphazard rezoning where random fields in unserviced and rural areas well beyond any reasonable development boundary for villages are zoned for residential development".
Unless the plan was scaled back to reflect these concerns, Mr Roche would "compel the planning authority to adopt a development plan that provides for a strategy for the proper planning and development of the county", the letter concludes.
The sole Independent member of the council, Vincent P Martin, who voted against most of the rezonings, said the Minister's intervention had "averted a planning disaster".
the mayor of Monaghan, Pádraig McNally (FF), who voted for several of the rezonings, said he was disappointed that the minister had chosen to intervene before the plan was finished.
Olivia Kelly (Irish Independent)Feb 2007
TWO councillors facing the first investigation into a local authority by a politicians watchdog "could face a criminal prosecution" if found to have breached ethics laws.
The two Kerry councillors, one of whom is a close associate of Tourism Minister John O'Donoghue, will appear before an investigation next month.
Fianna Fail's Patrick O'Donoghue and Fine Gael's Sheila Casey are both members of Killarney Town Council.
In the first investigation of its kind, the State ethics watchdog is inquiring into alleged breaches of ethics in an attempt to rezone land owned by Patrick O'Donoghue's hotel group.
The outcome of the inquiry by the Standards In Public Office Commission (SIPO) will have wider political implications.
Mr O'Donoghue is a director of the country's tourism bodies, Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland, and he was appointed by John O'Donoghue, the local TD in Kerry South.
Patrick O'Donoghue is the managing director of the Gleneagle Hotel Group in Killarney.
Ms Casey is an employee of the hotel group and the current mayor of Killarney. In recent years, Fianna Fail's ard fheis has been held at the hotel.
The groundbreaking investigation is expected to set off alarm bells among councillors right across the country.
The 20 acres of land council members attempted to rezone was owned by the Gleneagle Hotel group and surrounds the Gleneagle Hotel, Brehon Hotel and National Conference Centre on the outskirts of Killarney.
The rezoning would have changed the status of the land and allowed substantial re-development. Mr O'Donoghue didn't vote on the rezoning and declared an interest but he did lobby fellow councillors on the issue.
Ms Casey both signed the motion and voted for it. Despite opposition from the town manager, the rezoning motion was approved but never acted upon.
The lands are 1.9km outside the town centre, and council management vehemently opposed the town centre move, saying it would undermine a number of current plans for the existing town centre.
The town centre rezoning would have opened the door for high-density housing "and a complete mix of uses", planners said.
After a complaint by the Ethics Registrar of Kerry County Council, SIPO started a preliminary inquiry last September into the councillors to see if they had breached ethics.
This was the first time an inquiry officer was appointed to investigate such a complaint. The SIPO investigator, Paddy Walsh, reported back on the facts of the case and also recommended further inquiries.
This is also the first time SIPO has looked at a planning matter or held a public hearing to investigate the conduct of councillors. The commission is investigating charges they breached the ethics framework of the Local Government Act and the Ethics Act.
Codes of conduct issued to councillors specifically warn them to take "extra care" in planning matters and to be aware of the public perception.
Chaired by Mr Justice Matthew Smith, the six-member Standards Commission also includes Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, Comptroller and Auditor General John Purcell, former TD Liam Kavanagh, Clerk of the Dail, Kieran Coughlan and Clerk of the Seanad, Deirdre Lane.
The councillors are expected to cooperate with the investigation.
SIPO does not impose sanctions; it will report back to Kerry County Council and Environment Minister Dick Roche when the investigation is complete. But if any wrongdoing is found, it will also send the report to the DPP. Conviction for breaches of the ethics legislation, can result in disqualification as a local authority member, fines or imprisonment.
GOLDHAWK was intrigued to see David O’Brien, the Co Meath developer at the centre of the high-profile planning controversy over Trim Castle Hotel, being lauded as a philanthropist and local benefactor by the Minister for Communications and local TD, Noel Dempsey. In fact, the minister was so full of praise for his pal at the recent official opening of the hotel that he failed to mention the breaches of EU legislation by Trim County Council in the granting of permission for the multi-million-euro project.
According to a report in the local press, Dempsey heaped praise on O’Brien and his wife, Lynda, for their "vision and courage" in developing Trim Castle Hotel. The minister went on to reveal that the O’Briens had offered to stump up part of the cash for the purchase of a nearby site that he had wanted to turn into a public amenity.
(Coincidentally, this site was put up for sale by Raymond Potterton and Company, the estate agents where Noel’s brother Loman is a director. Potterton and Loman Dempsey were at the centre of another controversial land deal, in the centre of Navan.This deal has been the subject of a Garda investigation.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the minister made no mention of the report into the matter by Frank Connolly’s now defunct Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI). Nor did he mention the claims, referenced in the CPI report, bymembers of Trim Town Council that they were persuaded against their better judgement to vote for the disposal of the land to the O’Briens’ development firm, D O’Brien Developments Ltd. Nor was there any peep about the objections by heritage officials in
Dúchas to the development of a 4-story hotel so close to such a significant national monument as the Ango-Norman Trim Castle, which had been recently restored at a cost of €4.5m.
Indeed, the former minister for the environment appeared unaware of the more recent investigation by the EU Commission that uncovered serious breaches of legislation regarding the screening of the project to establish whether an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was required.
According to correspondence between the EU Commission and Goldhawk: "The Commission established that the legislation had been breached because no record was made of the ‘screening decision’ (the decision whether or not to require an EIA in an individual case) or at least had not been made available."
The report, seen by Goldhawk, also reveals that the matter was raised with the Irish authorities and, in response, they "stated that they would ensure in the future that the screening decisions would be handled correctly".
Oh goody goody no more strokes from Fianna Fail folks-and greedy will fly.!(courtesy of the Phoenix magazine)
Every road a rat run...
The small country road was one of the joys of the rural Irish landscape.Many have existed for centuries along the lines of pre-medieval pathways.They are bordered by old hedgerows,often as old as the roads themselves,with a variety of indigenous plants and trees such as ash,sycamore,beech,hawthorn,honeysuckle,wild rose,and fuchia..They provided a habitat for a variety of wildlife,including birds,bees ,badgers and foxes.The country road was a place where people walked or cycled to work,to church,or the local village.With the explosion of one off housing they have suffered ,in recent years, indiscriminate and ill-considered road widening, fuelled by a widespread indifference at both public and private level to their aesthetic,historical,and ecological importance. The new barbarians (Fianna Fail) are at the gates.The explosion of one-off housing, now aided and abetted by the recently published government guidelines for so called "sustainable rural housing" means that the visual qualities of the country road will soon be but a memory.The next generation will not know it at all. These policies also have serious social and environmental consequences which have not been addressed. The school bus tragedy in which 5 young girls lost their lives in 2005 is but one aspect of this policy. The escalating cost of school transport provision is now frightening a parsimonious -yet wasteful administration, which never thinks through the consequences of their short term populist policies,pandering to farmers selling sites in outlying areas for upwards of 50.000 euros each. A walk or a cycle along a country road today,could be classafied as a foolhardy act. Most country roads are now busy and dangerous traffic routes as more and more car dependent commuters ply to and fro. A new car dependent society,in the midst of soaring fuel prices.This generation is witnessing the destruction of a unique national asset as Fianna Fail transform the country roads of Ireland into suburban type traffic routes. If the name Charles Haughey enters the history books of our nation as being synonymous with corruption,future generations of schoolchildren will remember that Bert Ahern,s corrupt administration has also managed to achieved the irreversible destruction of our natural heritage, and the unique beauty of our countryside.From Donegal to Dingle, the process is all but complete.
The continually ongoing and unabated practice of ‘stroke’ politics at local government level countrywide,through section 140 motions/planning abuses,by-in many cases-both of our largest political entities;has entirely discredited the planning process in this state.
Let any parties or coalition aspiring to form the next government,as alternative to Fianna Fail,-now place the reform and removal of such powers forever from ‘stroke’ politicians of whatever hue or affiliation,they may be. This honest step may alienate certain landowner and business interests countrywide. The despoliation of our children’s children’s heritage/ inheritance is already in full swing. One third of all new houses are of the ‘one off variety’.It is almost too late to mitigate the damage done by the pander politics of a corrupt political party.
CLARE County Council has refused planning permission to only 10 of more than 300 tax-driven holiday homes applications received since the start of the year.2005 Figures released by the Council show the local authority has granted planning permission for over 220 holiday homes in towns and villages across Co Clare this year.
GREEDY FIANNA FAIL RE-ZONERS/COUNCILLORS FEATHER THEIR CRONIES NEST.
While down Wexford way,ENOUGH land to meet local housing demand for the next 45 years has been re-zoned ,Local fianna Failers/ councillors are still not happy, however, claiming people do not want to live in the kind of high-rise environments being encouraged and built. High-rise building may be appropriate to Dublin, they say, but not Wexford.(Skyscrapers in Wexford,what next?) They have voted to rezone 40 more acres of agricultural land in Coolcotts, Mulgannon and Sinnottstown Lane, for low-density, quality development -against the wishes of county manager Eddie Breen.
They deferred proposals for similar housing at The Rocks due to the legal implications if planning was subsequently refused. Mr Breen claimed there was enough land zoned for housing to last until 2050 and a population of 50,000. The current population is less than 19,000. He said he thought a very high price would be paid if houses suddenly appear at The Rocks. He was thought to be referring to possible legal action over rights of way if the houses were built. Cllr Padge Reck, the Independent Councillor of Wexford County Council, said the type of rezoning already in place was "the wrong type. People will run a mile from high-rise," he said.
Mr Breen said;"There's no justified planning need to rezone more land for
residential development." The planned rezoning will go for public consultation before the final decision.
River pollution 'turning into an environmental timebomb'
IRELAND is sitting on an environmental "timebomb" because of the alarming levels of pollution flowing into our rivers, it is being claimed.
One-third of all rivers are now polluted, mainly from farmland run-off and there is a danger that the crisis could spiral out of control unless urgent measures are taken, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) State of the Irish Environment conference was told yesterday.
The biggest culprits are said to be fertiliser run-off from farmland and discharges from municipal sewage.
Both of these contain deadly phosphorus, warned top EPA scientist Martin McGarrigle.
More than 70pc of our drinking water is taken from rivers.
A survey of 80 different rivers across the country found they were eutrophic, meaning they suffered from pollution caused by phosphorus.
It causes massive algae and plant growth in rivers, which starves them of oxygen.
Trout are either unable to spawn because gravel beds are covered, or die.
Mr McGarrigle said the main sources for the pollution were fertiliser and slurry run-off, municipal sewage discharges, septic tanks and washing detergents.
While farm practices are responsible for almost half of the river and lake pollution, studies are showing that farmers are unnecessarily spreading too much fertiliser.
This is building up in the soil and running off into rivers.
There was also a significant problem with fertiliser spraying of young forest plantations on peatland, which is unable to absorb the phosphorus, which then flows into nearby rivers.
According to Mr McGarrigle one-off houses with septic tanks also pose headaches, particularly where local flooding took place every year.
Half of all septic tanks are not even functioning, he warned.
"This is a timebomb. If we don't work on it now and stop the phosphorus we are in danger of building up an irretrievable situation," he warned.
"It is not hopeless. We can do it," added the EPA scientist.
According to Mr McGarrigle, the key actions that were needed were the widespread implementation of farm nutrient plans and the speedy introduction of new municipal sewage plants which had phosphorus removal facilities. Where these facilities were introduced, there had been dramatic improvements in river and lake quality.
"We have to have proper nutrient management plans for farms. There is too much phosphorus and it is building up," warned the environment expert during the conference in Portlaoise yesterday.
Dr Mary Kelly, the director general of the EPA, expressed dissatisfaction at the finding that 30pc of rivers and lakes nationwide are polluted and that those previously regarded as slightly polluted were now becoming 'moderately' polluted.
However, she said that there had been a huge improvement in the amount of river channel deemed seriously polluted, or dead, and this was to be welcomed.
Farmers have continued to protest against proposed reductions in fertilizer levels, with the IFA insisting they are too strict and will make some farms uncompetitive.
Urban sprawl is 'devastating' rural landscapes
URBAN sprawl has devastated Ireland's former rural landscape, according to the first aerial survey of Europe's changing landscape.
The sprawl - consisting of blocks of houses usually seen in housing estates - has spread to most of the country's small rural villages and towns over a 10-year period.
The housing estates, which are often driven by generous tax breaks for investors, have shot up beside tiny villages to accommodate long-distance commuters working in towns. The Celtic Tiger has also contributed to the boom in second 'holiday' homes.
The extent of the urban sprawl has "surprised" the top scientists at the European Environment Agency (EEA).
The EEA used satellite photographs, which were published yesterday, over the past four years to examine Ireland's landscape and compare it with the picture in 1990.
Ronan Uhel, EEA head of spatial planning, told the Irish Independent yesterday that they were very surprised at what they found when they analysed "before and after" Ireland.
They expected to find urban sprawl around cities, such as Dublin and Cork, and key coastal spots.
Instead the digital aerial map showed how urban sprawl had also extended to most parts of the country, including many hundreds of tiny villages and former rural areas.
The EEA warned the urban sprawl in rural areas will pose major future problems in the provision of roads and infrastructure, such as water and waste facilities.
The digital map allows planners and policy makers to see where fragmentation of the landscape due to road building and infrastructure is getting worse. The fragmentation of land increases the risk of sensitive ecosystems and habitats no longer connecting with each other. The map also shows where major changes are taking place in the field of agriculture.
Mr Uhel said the agency had believed urban sprawl was largely confined to urban areas with big populations and their hinterlands as well as coastal areas. "To our surprise we found it had taken place all over Ireland in the 10-year period," he said.
Mr Uhel said the digital map was designed to allow policy-makers learn from how their decisions in areas such as agriculture and transport are impacting on the land resources and the wider environment.
Meanwhile, the EEA has expressed concern at the number of peat bogs in the west of Ireland now covered by forests.
The digital map shows how extensive areas in the West are now covered in forestry - with much of it planted in the wrong places.
Farmers originally received grants to plant forests on marginal farmland. Instead they planted on bogs.
The agency disclosed there has been widespread plantation of forestry on bogs over a 10-year period from 1990 to the year 2000.
The bogs act as natural filters for groundwater and the forests will severely change the composition of soil, the agency warned yesterday.
The EEA presented the results to officials in Brussels yesterday.
"It looks like a measles epidemic has broken out across Ireland. The satellite images taken over the past 10 years suggest that development in Ireland has been occurring chaotically, with little or no strategic national co-ordination," said Prof Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the European Environment Agency…
"What were once clear and rural areas when seen by satellite are now built up. What were villages are now towns. Small urban settlements have almost as much negative impact on the environment as large towns or cities because they have to be serviced by roads. Roads carve the land up and separate areas of environmental importance from each other. Once this fragmentation begins, our experience tells us that these sites have less chance of survival," Prof McGlade said.
According to Prof McGlade, development funding may be encouraging this pattern by attracting people and business to previously uninhabited sites.
"We certainly have to consider the fact that this trend of urbanisation may actually be encouraged by rural development funding provided under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. We hope that this report will illustrate clearly to all the various departments in Europe that their policies are having effects that may not have been intended," Prof McGlade said.
"We haven't studied the data with great depth yet, but I suspect that either there is no effective national strategy for planning in Ireland or else local authorities all have their own strategies," Prof McGlade said.
The strategy is greed and avarice. Pandering to every speculator in the country, and in particularly, the farming community. The perpetrators are Fianna Fail supporters and the cost is ineradicable groundwater pollution of our drinking water,lakes and rivers.
A legacy for our childrens children.Thanks for that,Soldiers of Destiny.
Finally a letter to the newspapers from a one off householder in a Boreen in Tipperary;
Sir - Does Environment Minister Dick Roche realise quite how difficult it is to have household waste collected in rural Ireland? I am not surprised that sections of the population resort to burning their household waste. I recently moved to an idylic area in rural Tipperary and arranged to have my household waste collected by AES. I was provided with the appropriate bins, paid my annual subscription and then told that the lorry would not come as far as my house as the road was inaccessible for the lorry. If I wished to have my rubbish collected I could bring my bin weekly to a point half a mile from my house.
The reasons given for the lorry not coming to my house were that the road was too narrow, too steep and they would be unable to turn, also that the weight of the lorry made it impossible to negoitate the incline. I was quite happy for the lorry to turn in the large yard at the front of my house. I explained that my neighbouring farmer had no difficulty with the milk lorry accessing his house, nor did we have difficulty in taking a 28 foot by 11 foot mobile home up the lane. Therefore I didn't see why the AES lorry could not access my house. All this to no avail.
Anyway, I gave up - no I'm not burning my waste - I cart my stinking rubbish half a mile every Monday morning and place it outside someone else's house - good job I have a burly husband and a trailer I say. Dick Roche, if you wish to improve refuse collection in Ireland perhaps you might turn your attention to formally legislating the operators rather than continually berating householders for not wishing to pay the collection fees - some of us will willing pay but for what?
Templederry, Co Tipperary
Stroke Politics and Planning
Planning, whether local, regional or national, does not coexist harmoniously with our political system.
It seems the better the plan, the less likely it will be implemented.
The National Spatial Strategy (NSS) and the strategic planning guidelines (SPGs) for the Greater Dublin Area were drawn up to direct and coordinate a plethora of county plans, all aimed at furthering the interests of a small minority of financially-influential individuals in the business and property sectors in the hope of making short-term, locally-focused political and institutional gains.
In 2001,Tony McEvoy,an Independent Kildare County Councillor brought a High Court challenge to the newly-adopted Meath County Plan for its failure to have regard to the SPGs.
After a lengthy hearing, in which the chief author of the regional plan for the Greater Dublin Area gave evidence in his support, the court decided that the words ‘‘have regard to’’ were so devoid of meaning that any legislative measure based on them was a waste of effort.
The judge stated that the law should be reviewed, as this affected a number of important legal measures based on ministerial directives.
The NSS is one such measure.
In a lengthy interview given afterwards in a national daily paper, transport minister Martin Cullen stated that he had no problems with the wording of the act. After all it is vague enough to ignore completely,when it comes to rezoning lands for the Jim Mansfields and other speculator cronies of the "Soldiers of Destiny".
The legacy of Bertie Ahern-far worse than anything C.J.H. ever left us.
A decade of sky's-the-limit prosperity has left a trail of environmental and social destruction in its wake, write Frank McDonald and James Nix in an extract from their new book.
It was like A Tale of Two Cities. The audience in the old Synod Hall on Dublin's Christchurch Place for the Young Environmentalist of the Year awards in May 2002 could not have been more unlike the gathering in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway Races a few months later. Only Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was common to both. The Synod Hall, now trading as Dublinia, was full of enthusiastic, idealistic transition-year students from all over the Republic. Smartly dressed in school uniforms, they were anxiously waiting to hear the adjudication results on their projects, all of which aimed to improve the environment.
Three months later, the Fianna Fáil tent in Galway was a different animal entirely. Bigger than half a dozen hay barns, it was one of the most impressive structures at the Ballybrit racecourse, accounting for nearly a third of its sprawling marquee village. This political mecca became, once again, a vehicle for making money from those who feel that Fianna Fáil is good for the Republic's, and their own, prosperity. For €350 a plate, guests got medallions of beef in a pepper cream sauce and "goodie bags" that included titanium golf balls billed as having "optimum spin for maximum control". Those who paid for the grub included some of the country's leading business people, notably big building contractors, property developers, auctioneers, estate agents and others with a stake in "development". They probably didn't realise that the Taoiseach had told the transition-year students that sustainable development and a clean environment were "fundamental" to his vision of the Republic. And if they had been aware, would it have made any difference?
But could Ahern's notion of "sustainable development" be the same as the definition used by the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission)? According to its 1987 report, Our Common Future, "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs". In other words, a balance must be struck between the resources used by this generation and those placed in reserve for the next. But that's not how the Taoiseach sees it. When one of the authors of this book put it to Paddy Duffy, his former special adviser, that Ahern's definition of sustainable development was "development that has to be sustained", he replied: "Exactly!" In other words, a rip-roaring pace of development was to be maintained at all costs, even at the expense of future generations - the polar opposite of what Brundtland had in mind.
Yet in April 1997, before the general election of that year, Fianna Fáil pledged that "protecting the environment will be the imperative consideration in every economic and planning decision that we make." Though it had historically been "the party of development", it now wanted to develop an economy that was "both competitive and sustainable". Not only that, there was to be a "binding plan for sustainable development" from which no sector of the economy would have the right to opt out. The environment would have to be integrated into all areas of policy, not as an afterthought or as "some form of window dressing". There would also be a "root and branch review" of all economic activities impacting on it.
Seven years on, Fianna Fáil had little to show for its 1997 environmental manifesto apart from the belated introduction, in March 2002, of the 15 cent levy on plastic bags. There was certainly no indication that the environment had been integrated into all areas of policy.
THE CHICKENS WERE also coming home to roost. In July 2004, the European Commission announced that it was taking another batch of legal actions against the Government for breaching EU directives on environmental protection. The Commission accused the Republic of failing to protect nature and wild birds, failing to safeguard shellfish in Irish waters, failing to tackle illegal waste dumping, failing to ratify an EU directive on emissions-trading on time, and failing to stop the continued use of ozone-depleting pesticides on crops. The Commission also accused the Government of failing to protect the Republic's "rich biodiversity" and of failing to deal adequately with "unlawful, environmentally damaging waste operations, and to properly implement other EU laws aimed at providing Europe's citizens with a healthy environment". On the issue of illegal dumping, the Republic is facing possible sanction by the European Court over "unauthorised waste activities" between 1997 and 2001.
An Taisce had predicted in March 2004 that the Republic would find itself hauled repeatedly before the European Court because of the Government's laissez-faire approach to environmental protection, lately highlighted by the new liberal regime on one-off housing in the countryside, which threatened a free-for-all. "How can the Government's new rural housing guidelines be squared with sustainable land use and transport, greenhouse gas reduction, habitat protection and waste and water management - all now covered by EU directives?" it asked. The answer is they can't. The new guidelines were specifically designed to make it much easier for people to build houses in the countryside, ostensibly to overcome an alleged battery of planning restrictions. Yet official figures showed that one-off houses in rural areas accounted for 43 per cent of the 68,819 new homes built in the State in 2003 - up from 36 per cent in 2000. Housing output figures for 2004 were higher again, with nearly 76,954 new homes completed, setting a record for the 10th year in succession. Noel Ahern, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment with special responsibility for Housing and Urban Renewal, hailed this as a "tremendous achievement", saying it showed that measures to boost the supply of housing were producing results.
Incredibly, a third of the Republic's total housing stock was built during the past decade to meet unprecedented levels of demand generated by population and economic growth as well as changing patterns in migration and household formation. According to Maria Graham, principal officer in the housing section of the Department of the Environment, as the Republic's population grew by about 8 per cent between 1996 and 2002, the real driver of demand was an 18 per cent growth in the key household formation age group of 25-34.
At the same time, the impact of population growth and social change, including marital breakdown and more elderly people living alone, means that Irish household sizes have been falling, from an average of 3.28 people per household in 1996 to 2.97 in 2002.
Addressing the National Housing Conference in Limerick in May 2003, Graham said the key issue underpinning current housing policy was "to deliver housing at levels to meet the overall demand and changing needs of a population, and to do this in a sustainable manner".This is not happening, however. According to a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), as many as a third of all new homes built since the late 1990s are out of reach of basic services such as shops, schools and sports facilities, except by car.
GREATER AFFLUENCE, INCLUDING the availability of cars, has made it possible for people to live in a rural setting and commute to work in nearby cities and towns. So, too, has the massive EU-funded road-building programme which has given people easy access to new motorways. The number of people driving to work jumped from 39 per cent to 55 per cent between 1991 and 2002 - a rise of 16 points in just 11 years. Incredibly, the Republic is already among the most car-dependent countries in the world, according to Transport Investment and Economic Development, by Banister and Berechman, published in 2000. Figures compiled by its authors showed that the average car here travels 24,400km (15,250 miles) per year, a figure that is 70 per cent higher than France or Germany, 50 per cent higher than Britain and 30 per cent higher than the US.
These statistics reflect our dispersed settlement pattern and the growth in long-distance commuting. Some time around 2000, the Republic leapfrogged Britain in terms of commuting distance. Census figures show that the average length of trips between home and work increased from 10.8km (6.7 miles) in 1996 to 15.8km (9.8 miles) in 2002, a rise of nearly 50 per cent. Average commuting distance in Britain has seen a more modest increase, up from 13km (8.1 miles) to 13.8km (8.6 miles) over the same period. Clearly, this is something of a trial for the individuals involved, but it has effects on society too.
The social effects of long-distance commuting in the US have been well-documented by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, particularly in terms of their negative impact on "social capital", or traditional community life, involving face-to-face contact with neighbours in local shops, pubs, parks and community groups. Putnam found that long commutes are "demonstrably bad" because they substantially reduce the amount of time people have to get involved. "In round numbers, the evidence suggests that each additional 10 minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 per cent."
Bertie Ahern is said to have" Bowling Alone" on his bedside table and to have read the book twice; he even flew in the Harvard professor to address a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party gathering at the Slieve Russell Hotel near Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, last September. But Ahern's fascination with Putnam has not translated into a commitment by him or his Government to curtail suburban sprawl here.
Clearly, the development of "sustainable communities" cannot be advanced by allowing Dublin, willy-nilly, to sprawl all over Leinster. Yet that is what has been happening at an accelerated pace since the mid-1990s - largely coinciding with Ahern's period as Taoiseach. The village of Rochfortbridge in Co Westmeath used to be memorable mainly for its Bord na Móna model housing scheme, designed by architect Frank Gibney in the 1930s.
What Gibney could never have imagined was that suburban housing estates would appear right across the road to provide dormitories for people commuting 80km (50 miles) to Dublin every weekday. This is a phenomenon that's happening on the outskirts of almost every town and village within the capital's hugely extended commuter belt; in effect, Leinster is being colonised by refugees from Dublin's inflated property prices.
Those who choose to buy the cheaper semi-detached houses in Rochfortbridge - or Dunleer, Co Louth, or Virginia, Co Cavan, or any number of other places - are, of course, condemning themselves to years of commuting by car. Other than at weekends, they cannot be part of a "community" in any meaningful sense of the word.
SO WHAT IS to be done? Will the tentacles of Irish cities and towns reach into the far corners of our countryside, with headlamps illuminating every boreen before sunrise? Or will we confront the central challenge of consolidating urban areas and, in the words of Dick Gleeson, Dublin City Council's chief planning officer, "create good places for people to live and work"? Featureless suburbs will continue to crawl across the landscape as long as the vast bulk of the Republic's housing output is made up of houses of one or two storeys with front and back gardens.
There is a reluctance to bring up a family in an apartment - typical on the Continent - although this is entirely understandable. Basic issues such as where children can play safely must be sorted out first, particularly in urban areas where space could be provided for five-a-side football pitches - but only with good planning. And in the suburbs, instead of having lifeless strips of open space and small rear gardens enclosed by breeze-block walls, why not group houses around a shared space, which would have a children's playground as well as areas where people could relax? It's not as if there are no models.
Examples of sustainable housing that's successful by any social or environmental yardstick can be found throughout Europe, particularly in Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. So why do we always seem to think that we must reinvent the wheel? The National Economic and Social Council, in Housing in Ireland: Performance and Policy, published in December 2004, spelled out the need for "a clear vision of the kind of high-quality, integrated, sustainable neighbourhoods that are worth building". It likened the magnitude of this task to other great challenges the Republic faced and met over the past half-century - the Lemass-Whitaker "opening up" of the Irish economy in the 1960s, and the creation of a dynamic "new economy", through social partnership, from the mid-1980s onwards.
According to the NESC, misguided "self-perceptions" are the root of the problem. "The recasting of policies and approaches in the 1980s challenged the self-perception that the Irish are a creative and convivial people, but not capable of high-grade manufacture of sophisticated objects." Twenty years on the challenge is similar: "Achievement of the new principles of urban development and social integration seem to be blocked, more than anything else, by the self-perception that the Republic is so attached to extensive development that . . . we cannot make quality, sustainable, socially cohesive cities and towns". NESC concludes with a more optimistic view. "Since the earlier perceptions were confounded by the emergence of a prosperous society and a world centre of engineering and information technology, there is no reason why we cannot prove ourselves wrong again."
Chaos at the Crossroads by Frank McDonald and James Nix is published by Gandon (€35, hardback, €25 paperback).
Kildare County Council,s indifference exposes public safety failure and National Roads Authority negligence
An Bord Pleanala has refused permission for a 108 bed hotel and filling station on the N7 at Goffs in Kill, Co Kildare following an appeal by An Taisce on grounds that:
"The proposed development would endanger public safety by reason of traffic hazard and obstruction of road users, because of the extra traffic movements generated by the development onto the very heavily trafficked National Primary Road The proposed development would, therefore, be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area."
The proposal would breach "national policy to control frontage development onto national roads and to preserve the carrying capacity and safety of such roads."
This decision raises questions as to:
1. Why did Kildare County Council permit a development in breach of national road safety policy?
2. Why did the National Roads Authority (NRA) fail to exercise its legal responsibility under the Planning Acts to appeal the decision, leaving An Taisce as the only body to do so?
3. Why did the Mid East Regional Authority fail to intervene with regard to a development contravening Regional Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area 2004
An Taisce considers that a mounting level of permissions being granted on National and Regional Roads establishes large scale failure to consider public safety and the maintenance of the operational integrity of the roads system.
While the NRA intervened with regard to a case in Co Kerry in 2004 and a number of other cases since, it is still largely negligent in failing to exercise its responsibility with regard to preventing development which would undermine the public safety and operational integrity of National Roads. The Mid East Regional Authority has failed totally to intervene in any way with regard to the protection of both National and Regional roads which is an objective in the Regional Planning Guidelines for the Greater Dublin Area 2004.
An An Taisce spokesperson stated: "If current lax planning continues, the long term cost in accidents, congestion and need for further investment in roads compromised by development will be immeasurable"