Still waiting for someone to shout stop to rural Irish decline
Taoiseach to launch report today that will make series of recommendations on ways to revive rural areas
The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas was set up to creat a plan to drive rural economic development and create jobs. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
It’s 46 years since John Healy published No One Shouted Stop , the book that chronicled the economic decline of his home town, Charlestown in Co Mayo. But is it time to issue that clarion call again?
Or is it too late? Today Taoiseach Enda Kenny will launch a report which will make a series of recommendations on ways to revive rural areas.
The report has been drawn up by the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas which was set up in 2012 to create a plan to drive rural economic development and support and create jobs.
That plan cannot come soon enough for villages like Dromahair. In common with many rural towns, the Co Leitrim village has seen a slew of business closures in recent years.
Its only hotel was refurbished and reopened with great fanfare by Charlie McCreevy in 2004, only to close without notice in 2009. The dining room was set for dinner, its napkins and cutlery neatly laid out, waiting for the guests that would never come. The hotel remained frozen in time for a while but then a window was broken, a door forced and it was stripped of its valuables. Soon moss was growing in the function room that had hosted local weddings and First Communion parties and it was boarded up.
Other closures included the French restaurant, the corner shop and, inevitably, the Garda station. And then one of the remaining two grocery shops closed. But Gillmor’s wasn’t just a supermarket. It was a grocers-cum-hardware-cum-deli where you could buy anything from fencing posts to a rolling pin to a bottle of wine.
Nestling in the spring sunshine, with Lough Gill twinkling beside it, Dromahair seems a million miles from the disadvantage of some urban areas. But the facts speak for themselves.
Research published by Teagasc in recent days found that small- and medium-sized towns had been affected to a greater extent by the economic downturn than large towns and cities.
Between 2006 and 2011, there was a 192 per cent increase in the number of rural unemployed compared with a 114 per cent increase among the urban unemployed.
Teagasc’s head of rural economy and development Prof Cathal O’Donoghue noted that spending fell faster in smaller towns than in urban areas during the recession and poverty rates in small towns were twice that of cities. The queues of construction workers buying breakfast rolls in towns around Ireland were quickly wiped out when the downturn came. Ironically, these changes boosted the Central Statistics Office employment figures in agriculture.
Previously, someone working on the buildings and farming part time would have described himself – and it’s almost always himself – as being in construction. When the building work dried up, he described himself as a farmer.
So what can be done to revive villages like Dromahair? Is it enough to hope that the rising tide in Dublin and other cities will lift all rural boats?
That return to consumer confidence is proving to be slow and the worry is that some rural businesses will not be able to weather the storm until the spending filters down to them.
Lack of reliable broadband
Why not begin by making life easier for people running small businesses? The lack of fast and reliable broadband is a major headache in many pockets of the State. Prioritising rural areas for the delivery of high-speed broadband is an essential first step.
The Restaurants Association has long complained about the cost of doing business in rural areas. A recent survey of its members found most restaurants had experienced an increase in their rate charges in the past five years and several rural restaurateurs said their rate valuations were on a par with large towns.
They have been calling for reductions in annual water charges, waste licence fees and waste collection charges.
Getting credit from banks is still a major bugbear for small business owners in rural and urban areas, despite what the banks say.
The latest ISME quarterly bank watch survey found the lending refusal rate had increased from 50 to 54 per cent in the three months up to the end of February.
To add insult to injury, 60 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses had experienced an increase in bank charges over that time and 18 per cent had suffered increased interest.
There is also a strong case to be made for a package of incentives to encourage new businesses to move into some of the vacant shops and offices. But if new shops and services open, will they have customers?
When people do spend, are they supporting their local businesses or are they going into the nearest large urban centre? And if they are shopping elsewhere, have they a right to complain when their hardware shop closes down because it cannot compete with the retail park 10 miles away?
There’s no doubt that the report being launched today will come in useful for Fine Gael and Labour politicians campaigning in the local and European elections. They will be able to brandish it when they are asked on the doorsteps what the Government is doing to rescue small towns. But what will happen when the election posters are taken down? Will there be a sequel to John Healy’s book? And if so, what might it say?
Alison Healy is Food and