Lecturer in Economics in GMIT
On Monday, the government published Our Rural Future: Government’s blueprint to transform rural Ireland. It is an ambitious plan with over 150 commitments and seeks to capitalise on the unprecedented opportunity for rural development post COVID-19. The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys said, ‘The move to remote working, underpinned by the rollout of the National Broadband Plan, has the potential to transform Rural Ireland like never before.’
The measures are badly needed. The Northern Western Regional Assembly (NWRA, 2020 ) has shown that the Northern and Western Region has not prospered economically compared to the other regions of Ireland. Levels of investment are lagging other regions across a number of key areas such as health, education, infrastructure and transport (NWRA, 2020 ).
The region has a lower level of urbanisation and a weak urban infrastructure. It faces many economic and social challenges, including relatively higher rates of unemployment and poverty and lower disposable incomes. Indeed, this is evidenced by our region’s reclassification by the European Commission from a ‘More Developed Region’ to a ‘Transition Region’ for the post 2020 funding period.
Ramping up remote working is a central pillar of the plan. The government is targeting 20 percent remote working in the public sector by 2021 with further annual increases over the next five years. Introducing legislation giving employees the right to request remote work and establishing a network of over 400 remote working hubs nationwide forms part of the plan. In addition, people will be offered grants to live and work in rural towns – the details of which will be announced in next October’s budget.
A key part of the plan to breathe new life into rural towns like Tuam and Balinasloe centres on a ‘Town Centre First’ approach. Initiatives include providing financial supports to incentivise residential occupancy in rural towns and exempting ‘over the shop’ type spaces from requiring planning permission to be used for residential purposes. The plan also seeks to pilot a scheme to support the use of rural pubs as community spaces and hubs for local services.
Connecting our regional cities, towns and villages must be central to this vision. Optimising digital connectivity by rolling out the National Broadband Plan and exploring how connectivity can reach rural areas quickly is a key priority. There are also commitments to provide grant aid to businesses to allow them establish an online presence, and to assist the development of blended learning to facilitate access to higher education.
The plan will be underpinned by improvements in regional and local roads, new cycling and walking infrastructure and expanded rural transport services. The plan seeks to provide improved rural public transport services, including enhancements to Local Link, a subsidised Local Area Hackney Scheme for remote locations and a pilot to examine the potential for ride-hailing services to improve rural connectivity.
Commitments are one thing. Action is another. And measurable results are yet another. This is indeed an unprecedented opportunity to reverse the decline of the past and ensure that the dividends of economic growth are more evenly spread across the country.
— Marie Finnegan is a lecturer in economics at GMIT.