One-off rural housing is frowned on by planners but is politically sensitive. Is it time for policy change?
One-off houses in the countryside are controversial. From a planning perspective they are frowned on and regarded as unsustainable development. A dispersed settlement pattern increases the cost of providing services such as broadband, electricity and ambulances, and leads to car dependency. They also denude villages and small towns of the critical population needed to ensure the survival of shops and services. This diminishes the social life and viability of rural communities. From the perspective of those building them, however, one-off houses allow families to reside near relatives. Also, one-off houses can be provided very economically as usually there are minimal site costs and much work can be self built. They also allow farmers to live on their land, with obvious time saving and security benefits. This, however, applies only to the person actually farming the land.
As a result there is some passion attached to this issue and there is little political will to prevent one-off houses being built. Allowing one-off housing is basically a democratic choice, which is made by local authorities through the planning process.
A saving to the State?
A former economist colleague of mine, Bob Jennings, researched the phenomenon in the 80s. He concluded that one-off houses saved the State considerable amounts of money that would otherwise have had to be spent providing council housing. He pointed out that in many cases the people building the houses had access to land but were of limited means. If they had not been allowed to self-build on their own or a relative’s land they might not have been able to afford to buy houses in towns and would have turned to councils for their housing.
Council, or as it is now termed social, housing is still needed, a fact now recognised by Government. The likelihood is that much more will be needed in future than has been provided in the recent past.
Contributing to development
Rebuilding Ireland, the Government plan to end the housing crisis, sees a large role for Part V, a measure in the Planning Acts to provide for what is called inclusionary zoning.
This is a tool to achieve mixed communities and avoid the mistakes of the past where social housing was provided on large mono-tenure estates.
Under Part V, developers have to come up with an arrangement under which 10% of the housing units to be developed will be available for social housing and the sites provided at existing use value rather than development value, a significant cost saving to local housing authorities. This is intended to achieve a social balance in new developments. It is also intended that some of the cost to the State of providing infrastructure and the benefit of zoning is captured by the State.
Part V does not apply to one-off houses and consequently developers of such houses do not contribute to the provision of social housing as it is extracted from urban housing. They also avoid inclusionary zoning.
In effect, this makes it even more attractive to self-build one-off houses relative to housing provided in schemes that are nearly all bought by those unlucky not to have access to land.
Surely it is not fair that those building one-off houses make no contribution to social housing and effectively remove themselves from what is regarded as good social policy while imposing costs on the rest of the community who have to pay extra taxes to support uneconomic dispersed settlement patterns.
Rather than exempting one-off houses, the Government should apply a tax to redress what is really unfair property development.
Head, School of Surveying and Construction Management, Dublin Institute of Technology