Housing in the countryside has long been a controversial topic.

‘If you are born and bred here, you should be allowed to build’

People born and bred in rural Westmeath are entitled to build a house in their locality and planning laws should reflect this.

That’s according to Cllr Paddy Hill, who was one of a number of councillors calling for a thorough review if and when the National Planning Framework (NPF) comes before the Oireachtas.

Speaking at a recently online meeting on the Draft County Development Plan where councillors agreed to chief executive Pat Gallagher’s recommendation that they remove a number of policy objectives relating to local housing needs criteria to ensure that they are in line with European regulations, representatives from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour said that when it comes to building one-off houses in rural areas, more needs to be done to protect the rights of people who want to build in their localities.

Cllr John Dolan said that when the review of the NPF is undertaken in the Oireachtas, “we have to make sure to protect rural Ireland” and the rights of people to build homes in their communities.

“We don’t want to open the floodgates, but we still want to reserve the right for our children to live in the area they were reared in,” he said.

Cllr Aoife Davitt said that it was important to “stand behind people in our community” who are looking to settle down in their own areas.

“They are an integral part of it and add to their communities. There are a huge number of young people who have returned to Ireland or who stayed here and are really ploughing behind what is happening economically and socially in our county and we really need to be able to facilitate and help them.

“We want to make sure that people who are invested in our communities can live there,” she said.

Cllr Liam McDaniel said that he respected Mr Gallagher’s recommendations, but that when NPF review is complete, it must not become more difficult to get planning in rural areas.

Cllr Paddy Hill said that the architects of the NPF need to go back and “have a look at rural housing and rural development”.

“People who were bred, born and reared in rural Ireland are entitled to live in the area where they were born and reared. If that does not happen, God help our schools, villages, our football teams and everything else, because if we don’t have people living in these areas, then we won’t have an area,” he said.

Cllr Frank McDermott had a more optimistic take on things. He said that with the rollout of the National Broadband Plan, far greater numbers of people will be able to work from home and this could help revitalise rural Ireland. However, for this to happen, people should have the opportunity to build in their locality.

Cllr Denis Leonard said that the NPF is “not democratic”. “Talk about the brain drain that went to America, Canada and England for years, the brain drain out of Westmeath going to Dublin, Cork and Galway because they are the only places you are allowed to build and the only place there seems to be housing.

“We need to resist this because these are the people who coach our teams, look after our Tidy Towns and look after our community organisations.

“These are the people who we need to keep locally and if someone who has grown up and has generations of family in a particular area is not allowed to build in their local town or village or hinterland, then we have lost a huge resource in Westmeath – ie our own people,” Cllr Leonard said.

Proposing that his colleagues adopt Mr Gallagher’s recommendation, which also noted that a national policy review was under way, Cllr John Shaw said that “no one wants to open the floodgates when it comes to rural Ireland” and that a “balanced approach” to one-off housing is what is needed in the coming years.

Cllr Frankie Keena said that it was a wise decision to agree to Mr Gallagher’s recommendations and to see what happens when the review takes place.

Cllr Johnnie Penrose said that he knows a number of constituents from Ballynacargy who are unable to get planning permission for a house just outside their home village.

“There are no houses for sale in the village and here you have two young people wanting to build within a mile of the village and being refused. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Cllr Hazel Smyth had a different take on the issue of one-off housing in rural areas. She said that a “more balanced approach” needs to be taken when it comes to building in rural locations.

“By allowing anyone to build wherever they wish, it does result in higher taxes for all of us because it is quite costly to extend services out to remote rural areas. It also results in our towns and villages dying.”

Cllr Smyth also said that it results in “greater car dependency” and “people being socially isolated”.

Many rural dwellers, particularly the elderly, are “really suffering” during the pandemic. “What we should be trying to do is grow our towns and villages,” she said.