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One-off Housing Killed My Cat
By Mark Waters
18, Sep 2003 - 18:04

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OK, this one's personal. One-off housing killed my cat.

For much of my youth I lived in so-called ribbon development housing on the outskirts of Castlebar.  The 'development' consisted of a number of one-off houses clinging to the sides of the busy main road. Each house was individually serviced with its own water supply, electricity supply and telephone line and septic tank. Each had its own access to the main road. Each had its own means of handling refuse disposal. In short, each dwelling was a castle, self-sufficient and living in splendid isolation from its neighbours.

My cat was a beauty; her fur was a kaleidoscope of black, white and gold. We had rescued her from certain death after her mother - a stray- gave birth to a litter in a coal bag outside our house. She grew strong and healthy and one day produced a litter of her own. A few days after, following an unfortunate altercation with a neighbour's dog she decided it would be wise to take her five babies to a safer place. That place was in another neighbour's yard - on the other side of the busy main road.

The arrangement worked well for a few days. The kittens were safe and their mother would cross the road a few times a day to be fed at our house. Then one day the inevitable happened. The cat was killed crossing the road by a motorist who was driving so fast that he probably didn't even notice. We did our best to nurse the motherless kittens but without their mother it was hopeless and one by one they faded away and died.

Our cats paid the ultimate price but we ourselves suffered in little ways every day as a consequence of living in a one-off house. Services were inferior. Our electricity gave out a light that was a pale imitation of that of our friends in town. Our water supply had weak pressure. Our septic tank left our back garden looking like a marsh. Later when the internet arrived it came at a crawl. Our telephone line was so far from the telephone exchange that we would have been quicker driving two miles to the nearest shop and buying the newspaper rather than wait for it to download.

And everything was so far away. Hours of our life were squandered travelling to and from school, to the sports clubs, swimming pool, and the houses of friends and, later on, to and from discos and pubs. Like most of our neighbours we were a single car household and huge demands were placed on the car. Cycling was an option only if you were willing to take your chances on the Russian roulette of the road.

And the road itself was like a knife cutting through the heart of the community. It was so dangerous that you were taking your life into your own hands if you dared to visit your neighbour. So we didn't. We retreated into our castles, and to our televisions, barely connected to the world by our cars - the very things that were imprisoning us in our homes.

This is the legacy of one-off housing and this is the reality of Bertie Ahern's notion of supporting one-off housing as a means of creating viable communities in the west.

One-off housing developments may save the politicians at the next election and they may save the farmers by putting a few euro in their pockets to delay the inevitable day of reckoning before they finally accept that their lifestyle is unviable and unsustainable. But they will not save the farmers' sons and daughters. The farmers cry that their children cannot build on their land and are forced to leave. But it is not the lack of one-off housing that causes the sons and daughters to jump ship; it is the cost of living and the quality of life that the consequences of one-off developments force on them. They leave because to stay means to pay more for poorer services and to suffer boredom, loneliness and a denial of their potential to contribute to and enjoy a fully functioning community.

A community of one-off houses has a serious disadvantage before it even starts out on the road to viability, sustainability and growth. Services cost more money and offer a poorer quality than they do in co-ordinated developments. Scarce resources are spread ever thinner across the landscape. The potential for economic development is limited. Everyone is pulling against everyone else instead of in the same direction.

Co-ordinated development does not provide the solution to all our problems but it provides a more solid foundation from which to tackle them. It gives us the breathing space to fulfil the potential that is often frustrated by a lack of common purpose. The loneliness and isolation of the elderly and housebound, the struggle of the GAA clubs to make the numbers for teams, the difficulty teenagers face trying to get to the disco because it's twenty miles away, the drink-driving roller coaster home after a night at a pub because of the lack of taxis, the difficulty of organising a community festival; these are just a few of the things made more difficult to deal with when we have to first surmount the obstacle of a dysfunctional and disconnected community. 

We delude ourselves into thinking that one-off housing is about freedom and the rights of the individual. But if everyone is given complete freedom and the right to build where they like then no one is free. Everyone is compromised by everyone else. Without co-ordination the friction between individuals becomes so great that we all grind to a halt. With rights comes responsibilities. In the case of property rights these responsibilities are crucial. How landowners use their land has a huge impact on the broader society. It could be argued that many landowners are being so irresponsible in their attitude to the land that its potential for future generations has been irrecoverably damaged.

We delude ourselves into thinking that this is Ireland and that we are different. Dr. Seamus Caulfield, well known for his work with the Ceide Fields, has suggested that the definition of an Irish village is different to that of its British or European counterpart. He says that housing of the one-off type, where dwellings could be up to two miles apart and still be considered part of the village, were commonplace in the west of Ireland for much of our recent history and that planning strategy should take this into account.

But if we accept this argument then we must also acknowledge that many of these uniquely Irish villages were unviable and have all but disappeared and all those that do survive rely on the dubious foundations of farm subsidies and the release-valve of emigration to sustain them. To accept a one-off housing policy and to encourage development along the lines of the allegedly uniquely Irish village is to condemn us to repeat the mistakes of a past which few of us would wish to return to.

We delude ourselves into thinking that our leaders don't have the vision and ability to solve the problem. But we have county development plans and national strategies - developed with strong input from politicians - which are often models of vision, reason and common-sense but which are then totally compromised by the short-term interests of the self-same politicians.

The conflict between the short-term interests of politicians - always with an eye on the next election - and the long-term view of the planners has led to a paralysis that has damaged the integrity of the planning process. Furthermore, when politicians have the power to influence or reverse individual planning decisions it undermines confidence and defeats the whole point of the process. The politicians should only have the power to frame policy. Then they should let the planners get on with the job of implementing that policy.

Support for a one-off housing policy is tantamount to support for no housing policy at all. It shows a lack of any vision or hope for the viability and sustainability of communities in the west of Ireland. The long-term benefit is sacrificed on the altar of blind short-term individualist thinking, a way of thinking that has stifled our potential so often in the past. The archaeologists at the Ceide Fields with justifiable pride state that their discovery proves that there were human settlements in Mayo 5000 years ago. Looking at the settlements around me today it is hard to see that we have made much progress since. 

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