Social Costs

  1. Ireland, despite its very small size, is amongst the most private car dependent countries in Europe and the World. The average car in Ireland travels 24,000 km per annum. This is 70% higher than France and Germany and even 30% higher than the United States of America. Rural travel accounts for some 80% of all vehicle miles travelled in Ireland each year. Our extreme car dependency primarily arises from our highly dispersed settlement pattern; the consequent high costs of providing reliable and efficient public transport; and historical public policy favouring road transport.
  2. Aside from the obvious implications car dependency has on continued intractable oil dependency; the national balance of payments; road infrastructure and maintenance costs; and, greenhouse gas emissions, Ireland is experiencing a massive increase in health conditions such as obesity and related illnesses. Ireland has amongst the highest rates of obesity in the western world and in many studies we are second only the USA. Obesity is a ‘symptom of society’ and is a direct result of a sedentary lifestyle. Recent studies show that one in five Irish adults is obese. Some 61 per cent of the Irish population is overweight or obese and the numbers rise every year. As a result, over half the Irish population is at an increased risk of developing a chronic health condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer unless we make it easier for people to address their activity habits. More worryingly, research also shows 26 per cent of seven-year-old girls and 18 per cent of boys are overweight or obese. Obesity is blamed for an estimated 2,000 premature deaths in Ireland each year, while the indirect cost is estimated at €400 million.
  3. The National Obesity Taskforce made a range of recommendations for Government, the health and education sectors, planners and the food industry to implement policies to curb the dramatic year-on-year increases in obesity in Irish society. A key recommendation of the Taskforce is that planning policies must be proactive and encourage spontaneous increases in physical activity in adults and children and deliver environments that support healthy food choices and regular physical activity including adequate walkways and amenities, and ensure public transport provision is explicit in the planning process.
  4. The majority of one-off rural housing in Ireland is urban generated with no direct economic connection to its immediate rural hinterland. This has resulted in a huge increase in long distance and time intensive commuting which has reduced community cohesion and reduced time available to citizens to interact and engage in useful social, recreational and community activities. Studies indicate that every ten extra minutes spent commuting carries with it a ten per cent reduction in social interaction. A recent study has found that Irish parents spend longer commuting than their European counterparts. The study also found that the most important factors in domestic happiness are the length of parents’ commuting time and working hours.
  5. The average age of the Irish population is expected to increase rapidly over the period up to 2020. The absolute number of persons aged over 65 is expected to increase from 436,401 to c.700, 000 in 2020. The geographical distribution of older persons will be in non-urban areas particularly in the west of Ireland. It is predicted that 211,000 persons over 65 years of age will live alone. Isolated one-off rural housing and an aging population will therefore contribute significantly to levels of loneliness and isolation which has become serious problem throughout rural Ireland together with increasing public costs in delivering important social services to these persons.
  6. There are almost 400,000 one-off rural houses in Ireland. However, the agglomeration of dispersed households can never reach the critical mass necessary to deliver critical social and community services necessary and required by contemporary society. For example, the Government’s strategic planning for the health service provides a commitment for medical centres of excellence in order to efficiently deliver the quality of services necessary e.g. cancer services. A short list of well-placed centres will receive public funding for expertise and equipment. Each designated centre is to have a minimum population within its catchment area with specialist services will be shared by several counties. For example, despite, massive public opposition, there will be no cancer specialist centre in Sligo or the entire northwest of Ireland. This is simply because the highly dispersed nature of the population can not justify its provision. This is one of the clear examples of where deregulated planning policies which promote ex-urban sprawl ultimately have a highly negative impact on society.
  7. The high level of road fatalities in Ireland has been a persistent topic of discussion in recent years. Seven out of every ten deaths in 2008 occurred on non-national routes. 71pc of the 279 fatalities in 2008 occurred in rural areas. One-third of road deaths are young people under 25. A staggering 95pc, or 265 deaths, happened on single carriageway roads (where most one-off rural houses are constructed) and mostly in rural counties. There are also in the order of 5,000 non-fatal vehicle collisions per annum (7,800 causalities) of which 2,646 are outside built-up areas. The proliferation of individual vehicular access points are considered to be a major contributor to road traffic hazards. Aside from the huge human tragedy of road deaths for families and communities, the National Safety Council estimates that the economic cost of each road death is €1 million. The total economic cost of road collisions is estimated to be in the order of € 1.3 billion per annum. The Government has invested massive resources in tackling road safety in recent years through the Road Safety Authority (RSA). However, it stands to very simple logical reason that increased car dependency in rural areas will contribute to road fatalities and collisions. The proposed significant cut to the allocated non-national road budget is likely to increase road deaths.
  8. One-off rural houses, no matter how large and elaborate, contribute nothing to Social & Affordable Housing for others as they are exempt from Part V of the Planning & Development 2000 Act. Instead they reinforce social exclusion by isolating themselves from the social and affordable housing provided by others in the cities, towns and villages. Despite that fact that 56,186 (22%) of the dwellings constructed in Ireland since 2001 were one-off rural houses, each of these new dwellings contributed nothing to Social & Affordable Housing. As a result, urban dwellers are taxed twice – they firstly contribute directly to Part V through their house purchase price and then subsidise rural dwellers for the Social & Affordable housing which they do not contribute to. This is a highly inequitable situation and has far reaching implications for public policy and contributes to the disparity between the purchase price of dwellings in urban and rural areas.
  9. Much of the focus by interest groups and public representatives in recent years has focused on the decline in the range rural social services provided by the State e.g. doctor services, postal services, Garda services, library services, social welfare services etc. and how best to improve the declining level of services to rural areas who of-course require and deserve the same level of social services as urban dwellers. Proposals for modest reform to the rural postal services for example, such as clustering delivery points, have hitherto proved too sensitive. The debate however ignores the intractable and very simple fact that the provision of social services by the State to dispersed rural residents will always be more expensive. Inefficient spending reduces the amount available per capita head of population thereby reducing service levels. Ireland currently has some of the least funded, least effective and most inefficient public service provision in Europe and policies to enable the further proliferation of one-off housing will exacerbate this highly unsatisfactory and unsustainable situation. The compact walkable settlement is the single residential form that will deliver secure environmental and social sustainability for residents in both urban and rural areas
  10. A striking feature of rural Ireland in the last thirty years has been the marked decline and depopulation in rural villages. Throughout Ireland villages, many of which are defining of our national architectural, cultural and social character and an important resource; and which previously provided important local services and acted as the hub of rural life are characterised by vacancy and decay. This is largely due to the huge proliferation of one-off housing and increased car usage which has allowed people to shop in the nearest big town or city and thereby bypassing the village. This phenomenon serves to further undermine social cohesion and results in a self-perpetuating ‘vicious circle’ of rural village decline and one-off housing proliferation which can only be halted by positive public policy.
  11. National policy with respect of the provision of schools in the planning system identifies that all developments in excess of 200 dwelling units should demonstrate school capacity. However, a lacuna is the cumulative impact of development over time and its impact on school capacity. For example, most schools are located in urban areas and serve both the urban area and the large rural hinterland. However, no assessment of strategic school capacity is undertaken with respect to the cumulative impact of one-off rural dwellings and this will serve to continue to place huge pressure on our education system.

 

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