Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland
The Context: Community
Demographic change is a fundamental element for public policy and decision making. Changes in population and households, in terms of numbers and structure, will affect the demand for employment, the need for housing and the provision of services and utilities.
Northern Ireland has the youngest population of any region in the United Kingdom, with the largest proportion of children and the lowest proportion of pensioners. The birth rate is significantly higher than other regions and equivalent to the average UK rate in the 1960's. Natural increase, i.e. the number of births in excess of deaths, remains substantially higher in the west of the Province than in the east and the migration pattern shows that the population has continued to gravitate, albeit at a reduced rate, in a generally easterly direction.
The Districts west of the River Bann recorded a net outflow of people between 1971 and 1991, those Districts fringing the Bann were approximately in balance during the same period and those Districts ringing Belfast recorded a gain in population.
With the general reduction in migration and the continued high birth rate, it is assumed that the proportion of Northern Ireland's population living in the more rural Districts will continue to grow. This decentralisation of urban population is a trend which Northern Ireland shares with the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. At the same time if the urban regeneration strategy for Belfast is successful, it is expected that the population of the Belfast Urban Area might stabilise at around the 500,000 mark.
Population and household change do not necessarily correspond because of variations in family size throughout Northern Ireland. Viewed over the long term, average family size has declined in Northern Ireland as throughout the rest of Europe, although it has been larger than in Great Britain for many decades.
In every District, with the one exception of Belfast, the number of households has not only increased since 1971 but has done so at a rate greater than the growth in population. The increase in the number of households has tended to be greatest in those Districts within about 20 miles of Belfast, sometimes termed the Greater Belfast Area.
The community's housing needs are essentially a function of population change, changes in household size, and fitness of the housing stock. It is expected that average household size will continue to fall, requiring a larger number of dwelling units to accommodate a similar population. The fall will be most significant in western Districts where existing household size is generally higher.
It has been estimated that some 21,500 rural dwellings are unfit, representing 17% of the rural housing stock or twice as many in total as those in cities or large towns. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been examining ways to improve housing conditions, assess housing need and increase the element of choice to rural dwellers. The need for low-cost home ownership options is regarded as an important housing requirement of the rural community.
The Housing Executive has responded, in its policy document "The Way Ahead", with a variety of housing initiatives. A series of pilot schemes in small rural settlements - the "Crossroads" initiative - are of particular planning relevance. These schemes are based on an assessment of demand which is carried out in liaison with community groups, local public and other representatives. The assessment includes a special needs dimension and the prospects for small scale sheltered housing provision is being investigated at a number of villages.
In order to provide for rural consolidation and regeneration, a particular need has been identified to retain a balanced housing stock in villages. An adequate proportion of family accommodation must be maintained to provide for community stability and potential growth.
The response to dispersed and isolated rural dwelling stock is generally to upgrade this accommodation.