The 'View from the Hills' is not so clear

A chara,

Recent inclement weather conditions must have clouded your columnist Máirtin Ó Catháin's 'View from the Hills'. In last week's edition, under a provocative headline which proclaimed that 'No sale housing clauses are no joke' he went on to make the following bald statement:

"The proposal from some Connemara county councillors now to double the term of 'no sale' clauses to 15 years in all Gaeltacht areas has come as a big surprise."

There are three inaccuracies in the above sentence which I would like to correct:

(1) I assume the 'proposal' he refers is the policy document, called Neartú Gaeltachta, adopted as part of the Local Area Plan for the Gaeltacht at a council meeting held on November 26. I happened to be in the council chamber when the proposal, prepared by the management, was circulated, discussed, and voted on. A proposal from the builder Josie Conneely (FF) to reduce the period of enurement in the Gaeltacht from 15 years to seven years only got the support of one other Connemara councilor, Seamas Walsh (FF). When it came to the vote only four councillors in total, none of whom is Gaeltacht-based, actually voted in favour of reducing the period of enurement being proposed by the management.

(2) The second inaccuracy in Máirtin Ó Catháin's piece is his reference to a 'no sale clause'. If Máirtin had been present for the debate on the proposed policy or if he taken care to read the documentation issued subsequently and available to the public, he would have seen that there is no mention of a 'no sale' clause in the Neartú Gaeltachta policy document which was adopted. The policy adopted should in effect make it much easier for the following categories of people to get planning and to own a home in the Gaeltacht areas west of the Corrib: local people, returning emigrants and families, people working locally, and Irish speakers who might wish to live in and contribute to the strengthening of a Gaeltacht community. In order to ring fence the housing permitted in the Gaeltacht, it is proposed to limit the occupancy of these houses to the above mentioned categories for a period of 15 years.

(3) The Gaeltacht planning policy, which Máirtin Ó Catháin attacks in his column, does not apply to all Gaeltacht areas, as he stated in his piece. It doesn't apply to the large Gaeltacht area east of the Corrib. I'm surprised at Mr Ó Catháin not knowing that.

The adoption of the Neartú Gaeltachta policy attracted cross party support after a full and open debate on how best to deal with the statutory requirement of the planning authority to protect the use of Irish as a community language in the Gaeltacht area. The period of 15 years is the length of time, laid down by the planning board in recent decisions for language enurement clauses, not only in the Conamara Gaeltacht but in other Gaeltacht areas in Kerry, Waterford, and Donegal. That's where the 15 years came from, not from "some Connemara councillors" as Máirtin would like to have us believe. Mr Ó Catháin seems to be under the illusion that it would be good policy to have less protection for the Irish language in the Galway Gaeltacht areas which are under threat, than that afforded by An Bord Pleanála and adopted as good practice by other Gaeltacht planning authorities. After all 15 years is about all the Gaeltacht has left unless radical measures are taken, according to the recent Sociolinguistic Report on the State of Irish in the Gaeltacht.

I admire Mr Ó Catháin's style of campaigning journalism but at times it gets in the way of accurate reporting and can lead to distortions, be they deliberate or otherwise, which can cause unnecessary alarm to people. I've had to correct Mr Ó Catháin's excesses in the past on Radio na Gaeltachta, in Foinse, the Connacht Tribune, and in the Galway Advertiser, with regard to the issue of planning policy in the Gaeltacht.

Honest robust discussion from Mr Ó Catháin on how best to deal with the statutory requirement of the planning authority to protect the use of Irish as a community language in the Gaeltacht area would be most welcome. Blatant propaganda, intended to frighten the lives out of people, only serves the interest of greedy speculators and developers who would prefer to be able to extract higher prices in an open market without any restrictions, to the long term detriment of Gaeltacht communities and their indigenous language.

I applaud the courage of the councillors, who by adopting the Neartú Gaeltachta policy have taken an important step in developing a set of realistic, sensible, and workable planning policies, that might enhance the chances of Irish surviving as a community language in those few remaining Gaeltacht areas where it is still the everyday language of a majority of the community.

Adh mor,

Donncha Ó hEallaithe
Aille, Indreabhán, Conamara.

Galway Advertiser January 7 2008

'No sale' housing clauses are no joke
The limit on "no sale" clauses -- where such clauses are applied -- is now seven years. Galway county councillors agreed on that limit two years ago. This decision by the councillors in 2006 came on the heels of the Government's guidelines on building in the countryside. These "no sale" conditions have been controversial in County Galway for a long time.

The proposal from some Connemara county councillors now to double the term of "no sale" clauses to 15 years in all Gaeltacht areas has come as a big surprise. Many councillors have fought against the ban on house sales on the open market for years -- and some of the strongest objections have come from Connemara. Many Galway county councillors have called for an upper limit of seven years on "no sale" clauses. Indeed following a Bord Pleanála case about a house in Carnmore last June, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs Minister Éamon Ó Cuív entered the debate and said that all "no sale" clauses on stand alone houses in Galway should be brought down to a maximum of seven years.

"No sale" conditions in the planning system mean that you cannot sell your house on the open market. There are a lot of these clauses in force in County Galway. Some people have a lifetime/eternal clause on their houses, others have 15 years. Yet more have 10 years. The latest one is seven years and this has come about as a result of the Government's policy on rural housing issued two years ago. The trend has been to shorten the number of years that a house would be saddled with a clause like this.

Keeping houses down and Irish up

These "no sale" clauses have been widely used in Connemara and in parts of South Galway for some decades past. The idea is to keep the number of new houses in these rural areas down to the lowest possible number. But "no sale" clauses were introduced in the countryside around Galway city -- in all directions -- four years ago. It was a highly controversial move that caused a big row. That was a 10- year clause but now the newer clauses in these areas are down to seven years since the county councillors shortened the term.

There have also been clauses of varying lengths in force inside village boundaries in the Gaeltacht for the past four years; this applies to groups of houses in larger schemes. The idea here is the protection of the Irish language. What is significantly different about the latest move by some Connemara councillors is that it is proposed to attach a 15 year long clause to all planning permissions for houses in the Gaeltacht -- in villages and in the countryside and wherever. Three Connemara councillors -- Josie Conneely, Séamus Walsh, and Connie Ní Fhatharta -- have gone on the record strongly saying they do not want any increase in the number of years in "no sale" clauses. The other four Connemara councillors -- Ó Cuaig, Ó Tuairisg, Welby, and Kyne, are in favour of doubling the "no sale" clause on all houses to 15 years.

Leaving aside the reasons for these "no sale" clauses what are the practical effects... or the possible practical effects?

Máirtín Ó Catháin

Máirtín Ó Catháin looks at issues affecting county Galway and the west of Ireland.

House worth less money

Well your house is almost certainly worth less in monetary terms and you could be badly caught if you wanted to sell. The banks know that. They will not give a mortgage where these clauses are in effect until the county council gives them a "letter of comfort". This letter means that if the owner is not paying her/his mortgage the "no sale" clause can be removed and the bank can sell it right away on the open market. In a changing world other issues are becoming important... such as equity release schemes. In these cases people who are getting older can get a loan based on the value of their house that will give them extra cash in their more senior years. Note that Mick Lally, or "Miley", is involved in advertising these loan arrangements. But the banks, or financial institutions, want to be able to sell the house on the open market to clear any debts if needs be. One company dealing in this business has said openly that they would be highly concerned about any "no sale" clauses. Further issues have come up about the making of wills or the changing of property to family members. The "no sale" clauses have become a serious hold-up in some cases. Deputy Noel Grealish fought a big case about this last year. The costs of nursing home care will become an ever bigger issue in the coming years. One very important stipulation here is that it is highly advisable for people to have transferred their property to some immediate family members at least five years before entering a nursing home. A will is not enough. If the transfer is not done the value of your home could be used in paying for the nursing home -- the house could go. Any "no sale" ban could be a hindrance here if there is no family member who is "qualified" under the planning regulations to receive the house. It could become very messy.

Broader impact?

On a broader scale, organisations like the Council for the West and Comhdháil na nOileán want to bring people back to this region. In an increasing number of cases people who are retired have come back, or are thinking of doing so. Now a longer "no sale" clause could be a big factor with people who are in their sixties or seventies. Seeing a long spell ahead of you when you could not sell on the open market could be highly worrying for a father and mother in that age group. It has also happened that the council has put "no sale" clauses on the houses where there was an application for an extension, a dormer window, etc.

Putting "no sale" clauses on houses in villages, as is happening inside the Gaeltacht, could have other implications for business and employment. Say somebody wants to buy or build a premises for a new business in a Gaeltacht village. Naturally you will make a full assessment of money matters. For instance, how do you get your money back -- insofar as possible -- if things go "belly up" in the business... or if you have to get out for some reason? Could you get planning permission to turn your business premises into apartments and recoup losses? Well if there is a "no sale" ban on houses and apartments in a village you will be hit with that. And in a village where there is little movement of population, like many villages in west Connemara for example, what are your chances of selling? Indeed, you might find it hard to sell without any "no sale" clause and there is evidence of that. With a "no sale" clause it could be much more difficult. It certainly is hard to find a balance in cases like this -- between protecting the language and giving scope for development. And some of the worst hit areas economically and socially in the county are in Gaeltacht areas far removed from Galway city. It's real world stuff.

There will be argument and counter argument.

But what is clear, though, is that "no sale" clauses are a serious matter... or a potentially serious matter ...for people affected by such a clause.

Galway Advertiser January 3 2008