Friday, March 05, 2021

House size of Ireland's urban-generated rural dwellers jumps 29%

In 2019 Ireland had one of the lowest urbanisation rates among the 36 mainly rich countries of the OECD think-tank for governments. The Irish rate was 63% of the population compared with the OECD rate of 81; Belgium 98; The Netherlands 92; Denmark and Sweden 88; New Zealand 87 and Finland at 85.

The biggest houses in Ireland are being built on standalone sites in the countryside while nearby villages are dying. According to Census 2016 so-called one-off houses in rural areas accounted for 26% of total national occupied dwellings of 1,698,000.

Meanwhile, Dublin land for house building is both ├╝ber expensive and artificially scarce.

In the period 2005-2016, all member states of the European Union "with the notable exception of Ireland, recorded falls in farm numbers" (Eurostat) — selling sites to urban dwellers is a useful bonus for the Irish farmer.

Farmers with road frontage have a lucrative business to add to their EU Common Agricultural Policy benefits and one of the legacies of the dysfunctional Irish planning system can be attributed to parish pump politics. At least an Irish government acknowledges  the collateral damage but there is no guarantee of change:

"In many parts of rural Ireland, where a significant majority of housing output is in the countryside, this has contributed to spatial and social imbalance and the decline in population of smaller settlements. As a result, many key services have closed, in part due to population decline, leaving more marginalised and vulnerable citizens without access to those services."*

The well-off inhabitants of the big houses both receive public subsidies and incur damages to the environment:

  • Pollution: According to Census 2016 the total of one-off houses was 443,000. There were a total of 463,000 septic tanks and individual sewerage treatments. "The proportion of unpolluted river water in Ireland fell from 77.3% in the 1987-1990 period to 68.9% in 2013-2015. The percentage of slightly polluted river water increased from 12% to 20% between these two periods, while the proportion of moderately polluted water increased from 9.7% to 11%." (CSO);
  • Services: Compared with a cluster development of several homes, the cost of an electricity connection for example would be a multiple of the average cost and only a small part would be recovered. Broadband is being subsidised for all rural one-offs whether new or old. An Post has to deliver mail to all homes. "In Ireland, 30% of the population live outside of cities and towns and the relatively scattered and widespread distribution of the rural population in Ireland is reflected in the extent and the characteristics of the distribution system. Ireland has four times the European average of length of network per capita. The ratio of overhead lines to underground cables is 6:1 (ESB Networks);
  • Car Dependency: This is high and the extra traffic on secondary roads results in higher maintenance costs. "The number of private cars in Ireland was 283 per 1,000 of the population aged 15 years and over in 1985. This number grew every year until 2007 and 2008 when there were 539 cars per 1,000. The rate fell to 521 cars per 1,000 of the population aged 15 years or over in 2010 before recovering to 558 in 2016" (CSO);
  • Public Transport: The dispersed population and declining villages impact the poor in particular when public transport is restricted because of losses;
  • Energy use: The recent one-off builds have almost double the floor space of a semi-detached house. "Households and industry are the next biggest sources of energy-related CO2 emissions. Households were responsible for 24% of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2018 and industry for 21% (SEAI);
  • Drinking-Water: "It is estimated that there are 170,000 household wells in Ireland which supply water to individual private households. These wells are exempt from regulation and the responsibility for looking after these wells rests with the householder. It is estimated that up to 30% of the household wells in Ireland are contaminated by E. coli arising from animal or human waste" (Environment Protection Agency).

Big houses

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) defines one-off houses that reflect urban sprawl into Irish rural areas as "occupied detached houses with individual sewerage systems" and over 300,000 of such units have been built in the past 50 years. The owners typically work in cities or significant towns.

In the period 2001-2017 CSO planning data show that the floor size of these one-off detached houses jumped by 29% to 240 km² (square kilometres) or 2,583 sqft compared with Houses (detached houses and including the rural one-offs) rising by 13.4% to 169 km²; the average apartment size rose 11% to 87.8 km², and the size of Multi development houses (semi-detached and terraced units) just rose 1%.

In 2010, the grimmest year for Ireland of the Great Recession, the average new one-off size jumped to 250 km² (2,694 sqft) — a rise of 34% on the 2001 dimensions.

The abolition of residential rates (property tax) in 1977 also incentivised investment in big houses. Now the cost of a deep energy retrofit can range from €30,000 and €80,000 according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), and there is a public subsidy of 35%. 


An Foras Forbatha (National Institute for Physical Planning and Construction Research), which was established in the early 1960s with United Nations assistance, in 1976 produced a report titled 'Urban generated housing in rural areas.'

It was not published and consistent with the Kenny Report of 1973 on the price of Building Land, recommendations were ignored.

In the Foras Forbatha report, the urban generated dwellers were individuals who worked in the nearest town or city (a mother may have worked or not) and lived in a single rural house in preference to living in a suburb or built-up rural environment. A survey found that most had a car and a quarter of the panel had 2 or more cars.

[Almost all major activities take place in the nearest town or city...Occasional shopping takes place in the nearest town or city...Commuting to activities is mainly by private car...In Ireland, the basic objective of Local Authorities is to gather new urban generated houses into towns and villages. Recent ministerial circulars have advocated a much more 'liberal' approach to the problem pointing out that "proposals for residential development should be granted if at all possible."]

The authors noted, "Some form of clustering, preferably based on existing settlements, is considered essential if a satisfactory solution to the problem is to be provided."

They found that postal delivery to the widely-dispersed housing was 3½ times more expensive. Waste collection costs were 2½ times greater. Phone and electricity connections were between two and five times more expensive. Footpath provision and public lighting were 11 to 13 times more expensive.


A 1997 public report, 'Sustainable Development: A Strategy for Ireland ' noted that "Growing demand for housing in the countryside from people working in cities and towns is generally unsustainable because 1) being separated from all other activities which the householder normally has resort to, such as work, shops, schools and entertainment, one-off housing is a large utiliser of energy; 2) most one-off houses are served by individual septic tanks, raising concerns for groundwater protection; 3) there are increased roads and transport costs; 4) there is a negative impact in terms of the urban fabric of towns."

In 2001 Frank McDonald, environment editor of The Irish Times, reported on a paper produced by staff at the Department of the Environment, which cited figures "that the 448 villages with less than 1,000 in population are losing out because of the concentration of new residential development in their hinterlands over the past 15 to 20 years, according to the paper."

Climate change challenges in residential sector

The Building Energy Rating (BER) system administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) requires that since January 2009 a BER certificate and advisory report is compulsory for all homes being sold or offered for rent. A BER cert is also required for new dwellings that apply for planning permission on or after 1st January 2007.

SEAI says there are approximately 1m homes in Ireland — 50% of the housing stock (occupied and unoccupied) — with poor insulation and inefficient heating systems and there were almost 924,000 unique domestic BERs (one per dwelling) completed in the period 2009 to the end of December 2020.

A 2020 Irish Government report stated:

"Ireland’s homes are still an outlier in European terms. Ireland’s energy consumption per dwelling is among the highest in Europe and the typical Irish home emits 7% more energy and 60% more greenhouse gas emissions than the EU average. This is due to larger than average homes which are typically poorly insulated and heated via carbon intensive fuels, such as oil. Approximately 51% of the Irish housing stock assessed for their BER have a rating of D1 or worse, while just 7% have a rating of B2 or better ...the majority of detached homes are located in rural areas, leaving them away from the gas grid thus encouraging the use of less efficient fuels such as oil, coal and peat.

Ireland had the highest carbon emissions per dwelling in the EU between 2000-2010 and again in 2015. As of 2018, the average Irish dwelling emitted 60% more energy-related CO2 than the average EU dwelling. This is primarily due to the fuel mix used in Irish households which has a high carbon intensity of fuel used, in addition to above-average energy consumption per dwelling. Ireland has a large portion of 'one-off' homes, which are typically poorly insulated and heated by carbon-intensive fuels such as oil."

526 homes have completed deep retrofits under SEAI’s pilot programme to date. The average total capital cost to upgrade a home from an average BER rating of F rating to an average A3 rating is €60,229.

Estimates of the cost of a retrofit in 2021 are in the range of €30,000-€80,000.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) can provide a government grant up to a maximum of 35%. SEAI did provide a 50% deep retrofit grant from 2017 to June 2019.

There are about 1.7m occupied homes in Ireland and there were 6.2m tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from homes in 2018. This equates to about 10.2% of national emissions or 24% of energy-related CO2 emissions.


*'Project Ireland 2040: National Planning Framework' issued in January 2019, notes that "A more flexible approach, primarily based on siting and design, will be applied to rural housing in areas that are not subject to urban development pressure. This will assist in sustaining more fragile rural communities and in overall terms, will need to be related to the viability of smaller towns and rural settlements."

However, national leaders are likely to agree on a fudge with local politicians.

The Limerick Leader reported in January 2021, "Proposals to effectively ban the building of one-off houses in County Limerick have been met with strong opposition from members of the local authority. Work to draw-up the first-ever Limerick Development Plan is now underway and the draft plan will be presented to members after Easter. The final plan, which will run from 2022 to 2028, must comply with national planning guidelines and councillors have expressed significant concerns as to the impact it will have on rural communities and those who want to build in their native parish."

The Meath Chronicle reported in January 2021, "Meath County Council’s planning department has seen an increase in planning applications for one-off rural houses of 44% in the past two years, as people across the county race to get applications in before the adoption of a new county development plan this year.

The Draft Development Plan for the county, due to be adopted by councillors in April, controversially proposes that applicants in many parts of the county should have a minimum of 15 acres before being granted planning permission."

The Irish Examiner reported in August 2020 that in a submission for the 2022-2028 Kerry County Development Plan, the Office of the Planning Regulator said: "The Office notes, with concern, that up to 59% of all new residences constructed between 2015 and 2020 were located in the open countryside outside of any villages or town...At the same time, the majority of towns like Cahersiveen, Dingle, Kenmare, Killorglin, Listowel and Castleisland experienced population decline."


Key Irish housing statistics 1971-2020

Irish Planning Futures — a blog maintained by Gavin Daly, a former government adviser.