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The Environment

The Government's vision for the future of rural society as outlined in the White Paper is based on the maintenance of dispersed, vibrant rural communities. Achievement of this goal is dependent on an approach to rural development which is environmentally sustainable.

The rural environment is a major asset and provides economic, recreational, social and cultural benefits and opportunities. However, rural areas do not always capture a fair return for society's use of the environmental, cultural and heritage resources. At the same time, demand for these resources is increasing with growing income levels.

Sustainable development must aim among other things to reduce pollution and congestion arising from commuting by car and has as an objective the location of jobs in close proximity to residential settlements. An optimum settlement pattern, which is a key goal of the strategy outlined in the White Paper, is ultimately a sustainability issue. The objective is to encourage smaller urban centres to become more self-sustaining in economic and social, as well as environmental, terms. Planning policy for rural areas must aim at encouraging economic development while conserving local natural environments. The forthcoming Planning and Development Bill, 1999 will further update and enhance existing provisions in this regard.

Conflict can arise between different interests at local, regional and national levels. Society must balance the need for economic development and job creation in rural areas with the desire to protect the amenities and cultural heritage of the countryside. Local authorities have a major role in the planning and development system in seeking to promote orderly development and to balance the competing needs. Increasingly, however, there is a regional perspective which will be provided by the work of the Regional Assemblies and the Regional Authorities.

The long term well-being of rural communities is particularly dependent on sustainable use of local resources. Taking advantage of environmental assets such as clean air and water, unspoilt landscape, natural resources, high concentration of inland waterways, natural habitats, etc., while at the same time protecting them requires a co-ordinated approach and the integration of environmental concerns into all rural development policies and programmes.

The Government has endorsed "Sustainable Development; A Strategy for Ireland" (1997) which addresses all aspects of policy which impact on the environment.

In that context, the Government is committed to the implementation of rural development policies which are formulated within a sustainable development framework and to ensuring that the rural development policy is implemented on the basis of sustainability, that the environment is protected, that natural resources are exploited in a sustainable manner and that conflict is resolved in consultation with rural community interests.

The National Sustainable Development Partnership, 'Comhar', was established in February 1999. Its terms of reference are to advance the national agenda for sustainable development, to evaluate progress in this regard, to assist in devising suitable mechanisms and advising on their implementation and to contribute to the formation of a national consensus for sustainable development. Comhar is an important advisory body with broad representation from a range of sectors across Irish society.

The Government has, over the past two years, introduced a comprehensive package of measures to improve environmental infrastructure through

  • the Rural Water Programme; the settlement patterns and topography of rural areas means that private group water schemes will continue to be major providers of domestic and farm water supplies outside of built up areas. Group schemes are particularly dependent on the efforts of rural communities to protect the watercourses that serve as their sources. Groups themselves will have to assign a high priority to the installation of treatment equipment to improve the quality of the product to their members. It will be increasingly important in the future to pursue a planned approach to the development in all aspects of the management and operation of rural water supplies and to integrate the public and private networks to optimise efficiency and quality. The Rural Water Programme seeks to achieve consensus, through the National Rural Water Monitoring Committee, between public and private sectors on the strategies to be implemented in that regard. The Government is providing the grant and subsidies needed to support the objectives of the Group Water Programme,
  • the Rural Towns and Villages Initiative which, over the next four years, will provide substantial investment in essential public water and sewage services to smaller urban settlements to combat depopulation and to encourage development,
  • The Town Renewal Rural Scheme which will increase the attractiveness of small towns as places to live and will enhance their environment and amenities.

There is likely to be increasing emphasis also on spatial development and land use implications for rural development in the context of the European Spatial Development Perspective which was adopted by EU Ministers with responsibility for Spatial Planning in May 1999 and under which a number of policy options for a new urban-rural relationship are put forward.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, Ireland has a legally binding target to limit the increase of a basket of six greenhouse gases to 13% above 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government is currently preparing a national greenhouse gas abatement strategy to ensure that Ireland meets its Kyoto Protocol in the most environmentally and economically sustainable manner. The strategy will ensure that the burden is shared as equitably as possible across all sectors, including the agriculture sector. As pointed out by the ESRI in "National Investment Priorities for the Period 2000-2006" (1999), afforestation can make a positive contribution towards meeting the Kyoto targets.