We need a Marshall Plan for rural Ireland

Towns and villages in rural Ireland are being allowed to wither with little debate about the cultural, planning or economic issues associated with their demise

Rural decline: overlooking Granard, in Co Longford, a badly affected town. Photograph: Bryan O Brien

Rural decline: overlooking Granard, in Co Longford, a badly affected town. Photograph: Bryan O Brien

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

Rural Ireland needs an Irish version of the US-inspired Marshall Plan, designed in 1948 to rebuild war-torn Europe, remove barriers to trade, modernise communications, water, roads and transport, and help countries and cities prosper.

Towns and villages in rural Ireland are being allowed to wither with little debate about the cultural, planning or economic issues associated with their demise. The decline has hit towns and villages across the country: Oldcastle, Co Meath; Granard, Co Longford; Banagher, Co Offaly; Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon; New Ross, CoWexford.

It is, in part, down to out-of-town shopping centres, which suck commercial life from smaller towns and villages, but it is also about neglect. According to Bernard Coyle, who employs more than 100 people in Finea, Co Westmeath, the most obvious support his village needs is a broadband infrastructure – an infrastructural element taken for granted in cities.

The National Spatial Strategy in 2002 sought to concentrate economic development in “gateways” and “hubs”. It never happened. The “Midlands Gateway” of Tullamore, Athlone and Mullingar didn’t get going, and Waterford city failed to become the powerhouse of its region.

A similar concept is outlined in the report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (Cedra), which recommends piloting a number of rural economic-development zones, with a targeted stimulus programme for rural towns.

The report says State agencies, particularly Enterprise Ireland and the IDA, should strengthen their collaboration and examine the potential to attract “small-scale/niche” foreign direct investment to rural areas. Yet earlier this year the IDA said it “cannot corral a company” to go to a particular part of the country.

Net job losses in IDA-client companies in 2013 included 338 in Tipperary South, 192 in Kildare, 167 in Sligo, 61 in Clare, 45 in Westmeath, 26 in Leitrim and five in Offaly.In contrast, Dublin accounted for 55 per cent, or 180, of the 326 IDA-sponsored visits by overseas investors last year.

So what would it take to make towns and villages viable places, from attracting foreign direct investment to keeping post offices open? The Cedra report recommends that the Government reinvigorate its approach to support for rural economic development by preparing a “clear and committed rural economic development policy statement”.

But rural Ireland needs more than words: it needs a plan to deliver rural transport, broadband, roads, jobs, and towns and villages that are more attractive places to live than one-off houses. As the Cedra report itself says, there is a critical need for more co-ordination.

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