Renewing rural ireland

Wed, Aug 20, 2014, 01:00

We all know what Éamon de Valera’s vision of Ireland was – “a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens . . .” His was a quintessentially anti-urban vision and, to a considerable extent, it has actually been realised. Thanks to a liberal planning regime, we now have half a million individual houses dotted over the countryside – the majority urban-generated and dependent on cars even for basic everyday needs. This has not only scarred Ireland’s landscapes, but also sucked the life out of our towns and villages.

Abandoned buildings, boarded-up shops and derelict sites are all too prevalent, particularly in places remote from Dublin and other major urban centres. Boyle, in Co Roscommon, is a depressing example of what can happen when things go wrong. Out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres have certainly taken their toll, and the new Minister of State for Rural Development, Ann Phelan, is right in saying that county development plans “should be protecting the high street”. But will her Labour Party colleague, Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, issue a directive under the Planning Acts to tighten the Retail Planning Guidelines so as to ensure that future shopping schemes are directed to town centres rather than peripheral areas?

Given the challenges facing towns and villages, it is surely a misdirection of resources that most of the €2 billion in funding for rural development under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy over the next five years will go directly to farmers. This ignores the traditional role of towns as marketplaces and centres of economic activity in rural areas and their potential to contribute to creating employment and relative prosperity. Towns and villages simply cannot be left to be occupied, as they increasingly are, by elderly people. As planning consultant Diarmuid Ó Gráda argued last month, an early priority must be the diversion of new housing into villages, where families would be able to avail of a range of social facilities, including shops and schools.

It is unrealistic, however, for hard-pressed towns to pin their hopes on what used to be called “IDA advance factories”. In more remote areas, tourism would be a better prospect, especially if linked by walking and cycling “greenways”. The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas has made 34 recommendations aimed at reversing economic and social decline, identifying 30 poorly-performing towns as priority areas for investment. Ms Phelan has promised a “pilot scheme” to target these towns and it is of the utmost importance that this is properly funded to achieve the desired results.