The best incentives for a rural economy that continues to struggle


Rural development means different things to different people. For farming organisations, it has meant securing the maximum amount of funding from the EU Rural Development Programme for their members. For small villages and towns, it has meant neglect, high unemployment and a fading hope that Common Agricultural Policy changes might halt their decline. Now that funding has been formally allocated, it is a bit rich for Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan to talk about taking a new approach under future EU structural funding.

A study by the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (Cedra), established by Mr Hogan and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney two years ago, has made a number of important recommendations on how rural areas outside of the five major cities might be helped. Chief among these was the development of integrated planning by State agencies and local authorities. It suggested that, with Government support, these bodies could promote rural economic development and the emergence of niche industries. Cedra blamed past failures on the absence of appropriate support, delivery and co-ordination mechanisms.

The urgency of the present situation was emphasised by a Teagasc report which found that poverty rates in small towns is double that of cities, while unemployment levels are significantly higher. Anyone who knows rural Ireland will be aware of the difficulties currently being experienced by local communities and small retailers. Growing numbers of closed shops and vacant properties provide evidence of accelerating decay.

Funding that might have addressed some of these problems is going elsewhere. Under pressure from farming organisations, most of the CAP funding for the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 will go directly to farmers - and proportionately to the larger ones. Some €2.19 billion will be allocated during that period, but only €153million of that will find its way to Leader programmes. Farming organisations insist that, if their members do well, the whole rural community will benefit. Coordination between development agencies, the reallocation of funding and a Government re-think is required. Rural development should mean more than raising agricultural output. Provision of broadband will help local communities. Revival of the tourism sector offers the prospect of additional growth and employment.

The success of the Greenway in Co Mayo shows what can be done. Cycling and walking holidays are in their infancy and deserve international promotion. Keeping Ireland green, clean and welcoming are key considerations. But high standards and good value are of perennial importance. So is social cohesion. Rural development should not stop at the farm gate.