The proliferation of developer-led suburban housing on the edges of towns and villages throughout Ireland is "unsustainable [and] can't be allowed to go on the way it is", according to Michael Starrett, chief executive of the Heritage Council.
The statutory council is working with professional institutes representing architects and planners to develop an alternative vision of how towns and villages could be developed "so that there is a real onus on politicians to get it right", he said yesterday.
"What we're after is trying to stop ad-hoc development. We need to look at how villages and towns can be developed in a more organic way, and to do that we need to have an understanding of their character and streetscapes," Mr Starrett told The Irish Times.
"That's the crux of it. And if we had used the approach of adopting design statements, we would have avoided a lot of the big issues that are troubling us today with the imported suburbia at the edges of so many of our villages and towns."
Mr Starrett emphasised that the Heritage Council was "not saying they should be fossilised", but rather developed in a sustainable way. To that end, it is seeking to work with architects and planners to provide good models for village development.
"It is difficult to find a village in Ireland that has been well developed recently and people now recognise the impact that poorly planned developments can have on their lives."
In many cases it was too late and key heritage assets had been destroyed.
"We can't allow this type of ad-hoc development to continue. The Department of the Environment should face up to its responsibilities and take a national approach to how landscape is dealt with, so that landscape conservation areas can be designated."
In general, local authorities had been very slow to adopt "landscape character assessment" policies that would provide a proper context for village development. "While the rest of Europe is forging ahead in this area, Ireland is playing about at the edges," Mr Starrett said.
The Heritage Council is working with a number of county councils on landscape conservation, including Meath in relation to the M3 running through the Tara-Skryne valley; Louth (the Cooley Peninsula); and Offaly (Clonmacnoise and the Boora bog complex).
Mr Starrett said the lengthy process of designating Special Areas of Conservation under the EU habitats directive would have been a lot easier if a national centre for biological records had been set up in advance. Instead, the files were "all over the place".
A national biological records centre was established earlier this year at Waterford Institute of Technology, with an annual budget of 600,000. It will provide scientific data on species and habitats in any part of Ireland to enable informed planning decisions to be made.
Asked if the cause of conservation is not lost, Mr Starrett said: "There's still enough that's worth fighting for". He also cited public opinion surveys showing that Irish people "are prepared to pay to maintain our heritage as a quality of life issue".