Population rise may have implications for new county development plan

The 12.9 per cent jump in Meath’s population – from 195,044 in 2016 to 220,296 in the preliminary 2022 census results – may mean that the county development plan will have to be varied, the cathaoirleach of the county council said this week.

Cllr Nick Killian was commenting on the latest census results and he said the biggest priority for the county in the light of the census results was the provision of adequate social housing, followed by expansion of health, education and other infrastructure. The county development plan was adopted by the county councillors last September and came into effect in November. It is currently under challenge in five separate High Court judicial review applications.

Cllr Killian said that one figure in particular had "jumped out of" the census summary – the number of vacant properties in the county, 4,605. At a time when the county had a social housing waiting list of 4,000, it was undesirable to have so many properties lying idle. "I know it is a difficult area for a local authority to tackle because there may be family or historical reasons as to why a property is vacant but I do think that the council has to deal with this in a stronger fashion than before".

He said that the increased population would put more pressure on health services. One aspect of this – the lack of young general practitioners coming into the service – was quite worrying. No new GPs had opened up in his own village of Ratoath in recent years.

Cllr Killian said that in debates on the new county development plan adopted last year, there had been an insistence on basing all projections on the 2016 population but many councillors knew that the population was undergoing rapid increase and that had been revealed as a rise of 25,52. The rise of 12.9 per cent in the population "can’t be ignored" and the county would need extra funding to deal with the many issues flowing from the census returns. That would be a task for the Oireachtas members serving the county, he said.

Independent Cllr Brian Fitzgerald said that in the discussions on a new county development plan, officias in the National Planning Framework and the Office of the Planning Regulator had "failed to listen" when councillors warned that the population figures were rising rapidly. "We are now at 220,000 plus, a figure that was not supposed to be reached until 2026 or 2030. They wouldn’t listen when he pointed this out. It also appears that migration into the county is far higher than projected".

Issues around the accuracy of population trends used in the preparation of the county development plan were referred to in the reaction of Fine Gael whip on the council, Cllr Gerry O’Connor. He said that the very beginning of the deliberations on the plan he had maintained that while he understood officials had to base the draft plan on the 2016 Central Statistics Office but he felt this would "leave us with an inaccurate plan". "Dunshaughlin, according to the County Development Plan, will be allowed grow to just over 6,000 by 2027…the reality is that Dunshaughlin is already at 8.5k in 2022".

He said that the National Planning Framework and the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies are likewise inaccurate and must, as a priority, be corrected immediately. In the current housing crisis it made no sense that serviced, zoned land be dezoned but that was exactly what happened in Meath due to the inaccuracies. This, also, must be reversed, Cllr O’Connor said.

Fianna Fail whip Cllr Damien O’Reilly said that all national policy was now out of date "as was predicted long ago". This included National Planning Framework, NTA Strategy for Greater Dublin Area, Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy – "these flawed documents are only inflaming the housing and affordability crisis". He said that Meath County Council must now start the process of a variation of the county development plan to cater for the needs of the extra 25,000 people. The pressures on the current lack of services such as health and special needs education now must cater for more residents with less and less resources.