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Locals only policy became law in parts of Republic

East Belfast banners declaring 'local homes 4 local residents' have rightfully been condemned as racist but there are echoes with the Republic where planners have their own 'local only' policies, lrish language tests and a law that says land cannot be sold to outsiders. Southern Correspondent, Valerie Robinson reports

PLANNERS have always struggled to efficiently address the Republic's housing needs and a 'local-only' policy aimed at keeping communities intact only led to controversy and Brussels' intervention.

Fans of the League of Gentlemen may recall how Edward and Tubbs jealously guarded the fictional Royston Vasey's local shop from outsiders to the point of kidnap and murder.

In the south the 1990s first saw an increased interest in rural properties among people living in Irish cities or abroad, pushing prices up in scenic areas beyond the reach of young local couples.

With the Celtic Tiger years came the desire to own a holiday home and that, coupled with speculation on the buy-to-let market and a belief that the boom would never end, sent prices soaring further.

As cities and towns bulged at the seams, developers began looking to farmland to meet the demands of the burgeoning commuter class, and the price of even the smallest sites reached unprecedented levels.

A decade ago a half-acre site would sell for around E 50,000 - that price continued to increase until the property crash.

There were also concerns that lax planning regulations meant that the so-called 'bungalow-blitz' started in the 1980s would see the entire countryside obliterated by one-off, single-storey homes.

In 2005 the Irish government issued guidelines for local authorities, indicating that "persons who are an intrinsic part of the rural community" should be favoured in planning decisions, including farmers' immediate relatives and people whose work was "intrinsically linked'" the area.

Under pressure from government and councillors, who were themselves under pressure from voters, local authorities decided the best way to tackle the needs of local residents while also preventing the over-development of the countryside was to introduce a 'local only' policy.

People who wanted their children to grow up in the countryside suddenly saw their dreams fade if they did not have a strong family link to the area or if they commuted to work.

Desperate couples found themselves poring over genealogy records in the hope of discovering that they were the direct descendent of a late landowner. And they sought out local councillors said to have the ear of planners.

Some even contacted RTÉ's Live-line, telling host Joe Duffy and his listeners of how they felt discriminated against because they were not 'native' to an area, even though they may have grown up just a couple of miles down the road.

In many Gaeltacht areas, potential house builders and buyers had to prove they were fluent Irish speakers as part of an effort to safeguard the language and local culture.

The public outcry by non-gaelgoiri underlined the fact that questionable methods used for teaching Irish in southern schools meant that most people reached adulthood with only a cúpla focail and therefore would never be allowed to live in Connemara.

The situation came to a head in 2007 when an Irish citizen wishing to build in Wicklow went to the European Commission after being refused permission because he was not a 'permanent native resident'.

The commission examined 23 local authorities, including Carlow, Clare, Cork, Donegal, Fingal, Galway, Kerry, Kildare, Kilkenny, Mayo, Meath,

Monaghan, Laois, Longford, Louth, Limerick, Offaly, Sligo, Tipperary North and South, Wexford, West-meath and Wicklow.

It warned the Irish government of its belief that 'local only' policies breached articles 43 and 45 of the EC Treaty which guaranteed freedom of establishment and the free movement of capital.

EC officials also pointed out to the then environment minister John Gormley that most EU citizens could not claim former residency or family links and were not fluent Irish speakers.

In September 2008 county managers were issued with new guidelines taking a more relaxed approach to 'bone fide' applicants with no family or financial links to an area but who could prove they would be of benefit to the area.

The government, however, held firm on the Irish language rules, saying that they were "justified and proportionate".

The economic downturn would highlight another problem - enurement or 'no sale' clauses imposed by some local authorities, particularly Galway County Council and in the Connemara region.

The clause means that people are not allowed to sell their home to 'outsiders', those who do not meet certain criteria, for a specified period of time, usually seven, 10 or 15 years.

Senator Lorraine Higgins last year told the Seanad that the clause was "in effect, controlling to whom the property owner may sell a property".

Seeking flexibility, Ms Higgins said: "People have become unemployed and need to move house to follow employment opportunities. Some are in negative equity and seeking to limit their losses.

"At best, the people concerned are prevented from selling their houses in the wider marketplace and, at worst, these clauses are preventing people from moving on with their lives."

Agnes Kilgarriff of Galway Real Estate told The Irish News that she recently dealt with two cases where sales were effected because one property had a year left of its enurement period, while a would-be buyer had to be turned away even though a second property had just months left before its 'no-sale' period ended.

Ms Kilgarriff said she hoped that the county's new development plan, which comes into effect next year, would be more buyer and seller-friendly.

"The clause makes the market very limited because buyers have to fit certain criteria. It is not an open market situation," she said.

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