Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland
The Context: Environment
Northern Ireland has a wide variety of landscapes; upland and mountain; drumlin and valley; lakes, rivers and coast. These landscapes are an important economic and environmental resource. The most important areas of scenic quality have been designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Most of the countryside has been farmed over many generations and its present appearance owes much to human management. Some activities however, and some forms of development, are detrimental to the maintenance of landscape amenity. For example, Northern Ireland is now one of the least wooded parts of Europe. Its tree cover has been reduced and hedgerows removed. However more broad-leafed trees are now being planted as a result of various environmental initiatives.
Northern Ireland has a rich natural heritage with a wealth of wildlife habitats, including some of international importance. An important part of our nature conservation heritage is being safeguarded by a network of site designations, such as Areas of Special Scientific Interest and National Nature Reserves. There are a number of threats to nature conservation including the adverse effects arising from development and other activities. For example, there is concern about the continued loss of peatland, an important natural habitat in Northern Ireland.
The modern landscape contains many significant man-made features which are evidence of the development of our society. Archaeological sites and monuments, traditional buildings, areas and buildings of architectural and historic interest are part of our heritage and culture. The stock of traditional buildings is being depleted by abandonment, replacement or dereliction. Other features are at risk from insensitive alteration or unsympathetic change.
Most forms of development have the potential to give rise to pollution and to threaten the quality of the environment or human health. There are local problems of air and water quality. Some of these problems are aggravated by the build up of development in particular areas, contributing for example to the potential for pollution of rivers and lakes.
Following the introduction of the Department's rural planning policy in 1978, there was a significant increase in the numbers of applications for single dwellings in the countryside and a consequential increase in the number of planning permissions (up by over 100%). It is estimated that over 25,000 dwellings have been built in the countryside in the last ten years. This is a quarter of all houses built in Northern Ireland in that period. In many parts of the countryside, particularly those close to settlements, there is a buoyant market in building sites and existing dwellings.
The pressures for development have been most intense in the country areas surrounding cities and towns. There is a noticeable build-up of housing along certain country roads convenient to towns and villages, gradually eroding the rural character of the area. In some parts of the region, local pockets of suburban development have emerged to dominate the rural scene. The pressures are strongest in numerical terms close to the Belfast Urban Area. There has been less development in other parts of the countryside situated away from towns and containing poor farmland.