Planning for diverse rural communities


Tim Lucey, Chief Executive of Cork County Council, discusses how the National Planning Framework can provide for a sustainable balance of growth in a county where rural and urban settlements are integrated through policy.

Outlining that rural is about more than open countryside, Lucey points out that Cork county is made up of 317 settlements, within which just 29 are main towns. According to the CSO definition of rural: (population residing in all areas outside clusters of 1,500 or more inhabitants), 48 per cent of the county is defined as such.

Offering a brief overview of the county’s high-performing economy, Lucey explains that recent statistics put Cork as having the highest level of productivity in the State at €105,000 per person, per annum. This is favourably comparable and above the likes of London (€104,000) and Dublin (€101,000). As well as this, population growth rates are similar to Greater Dublin Area, there are no unemployment black spots in the county administrative area and the cost of living is 14 per cent lower than in Dublin.

Under the NPF, the definition of a rural population is actually lower (10,000) than set out by the CSO and defines 67 per cent of Cork County as rural. Lucey explains that this will have implications on how the Council delivers infrastructure and accesses investment, the €3 billion Regeneration and Development outlined in the NPF offers a “great opportunity”.

Lucey highlights that, to date, the success of the county has been down to ‘a whole of county’ vision in forming an implementing the various economic strategies, recognising the integration that exists between rural and urban economies.

Housing

One example of this, is in the policy approach to one-off housing. Taking on the guidance from central government, Cork County Council built upon this with detailed analytics and research of rural area types.

Their analysis allowed them to identify six distinct rural housing policy types and provided a foundation for housing policy. This means there are strict guidelines for areas such as the Metropolitan Cork Greenbelt area, but the guidelines are more relaxed in ‘structurally weak rural areas’, where population growth is required.

Population growth in Cork between 2006-2016 hasn’t followed the same trend as the likes of Dublin, where most people have been drawn to the city. Failure to secure the level of big investment needed may be the reason why Cork City has actually recorded the least population growth (5.4 per cent), when compared to the other four Cork planning regions. In comparison, the Greater Cork Ring Strategic Planning area has seen a 19 per cent increase and the West Cork Strategic Planning area is up 6.3 per cent.

The challenge for sustainable rural housing, Lucey states, is in infrastructure development. Currently the County’s core strategy is to add 50,331 houses to the current allocation. However, it’s estimated that investment capacity only exists to deliver 44 per cent of this figure. Similarly, there is challenges in Water and Waste Treatment Capacity (WWTP). Of the 317 settlements in the county, 18 per cent have WWTP capacity and only 31 per cent have drinking water capacity.

“This requires a new model of funding for water infrastructure in this country. Unless we can deliver those 50,331 households in our existing 317 settlements then there is going to be considerable pressure on one-off rural housing, In addition, unless there is an approach to addressing this and accelerated investment into Cork City then the Cork economy will not be enabled to deliver on its incredible capacity for economic growth.”

Lucey explains the need for a balanced analysis of both rural and urban areas, implying that each has the potential to complement the other.

Discussing a new policy environment since the NPF announcement he states that rural planning should not be solely viewed as having an important supporting role for cities and metropolitan areas. Instead, rural issues should be treated as strategically and nationally important.

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