23 March 2006 Edition

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Fears for rural way of life

BY Aran Foley

Six County Environment Minister Jeff Rooker's new Draft Planning Policy, which all but prohibits new single dwellings in rural areas, has come under fire amidst fears that it may have a detrimental effect on rural communities. Fears have been expressed that this will drive up the price of houses.

Sinn Féin Environment Spokesperson, North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan said: "It seems that the department is intent on making rural planning extremely difficult if not impossible. I understand entirely the need to protect our rural environment but this can and should be compatible with protecting our rural way of life"

He went on to say that the new legislation that may well drive up the cost of houses, will make it harder for young people to remain in rural areas. "Everyone agrees that the planning service needs overhauled. The purpose should be to make its decisions more transparent, understandable and more accountable. What we don't need is a planning bureaucracy, where the opinions of local people and their elected representatives are discarded", he said.

Sinn Féin is seeking a special meeting of Omagh District Council to be convened to discuss the proposed planning legislation. Omagh Sinn Féin Councillor Seán Begley said the new legislation amounted to a permanent moratorium on natural indigenous growth. "The impact of these proposals will particularly hit young people and young families. They will have a knock on effect on the viability of schools and hospitals if not the entire fabric of the rural way of life.

"For many this will be seen as the imposition of an English model of rurality on the Six Counties, a model which disregards the unique economic, social and cultural way of life of communities here"

The Planning Policy Statement published on 16 March is the first in over ten years and comes after a reported 400% increase in rural planning applications since the early to mid 1990's. Although it has to undergo a three month public consultation process, the planning services are to adopt it's recommendations immediately. Introducing it Jeff Rooker claimed that the number of new applications due for this year would be equivalent to a town the size of Ballymena. Increases in rural traffic posed a pollution risk he said.

The move is welcomed by Friends of the Earth campaigner Lisa Fagan who said it would help deal with 'bungalow blight' in the countryside but she accepted that there would be stiff public opposition to the plans. She claimed that poor sewage, adverse visual effect and destruction of local habitat were some of the problems associated with a surge in rural dwellings.


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