Which towns in rural Ireland are worth investing in?

A whole tier of Irish towns and villages need major investment. Can they be saved?

 

In a series of articles, The Irish Times explores five challenges facing rural Ireland – diversity and migration; poverty; rapid growth; post-recession recovery; and depopulation – and ways to overcome them.

Ireland is lopsided. If you were to create a cartogram representing population growth and economic activity on the island, Dublin would swell up like an abscess, pulling everything in 11 counties in the east and midlands towards it, and shrinking everywhere else, leaving only a small bubble around Cork.

Dublin doesn’t just have lots of people, it has lots of jobs too. Half of economic activity in the country is in Dublin, according to the Ireland 2040 report. In 2018, half of the new tech jobs announced were located in Dublin. Some 42 per cent of the nation’s graduates live in the capital.

For Dublin, it’s a case of opportunity breeding opportunity. “Dublin has 60 per cent of creative occupations and creative industries. The human capital is backing up the geography of employment,” says Dr Frank Crowley, a lecturer in economics at Cork University Business School.

“It’s incredibly lopsided,” says Miriam Fitzpatrick, a lecturer in urban design at UCD and architecture WIT. “Dublin is a global city, and it has the jobs, it has the population, and it has this virtuous cycle that the better it gets, the better it goes on getting. The more people who are close to each other, the more likely they are to spark creativity and create job opportunities. That’s the phenomenon of cities . . . But how do we distribute that energy beyond the remit of Dublin?”

Where does that leave everywhere else – the four other regional cities, and the once-prosperous towns and villages elsewhere in the country? You don’t have to drive too far beyond the counties immediately bordering Dublin to start seeing the answer.

In Dublin’s hinterland, once-busy market towns have been reduced to dormitories servicing the capital. Further out, formerly busy main streets are dotted with empty shop windows. Even towns where the population hasn’t declined on paper feel hollowed out. Growth tends to happen, doughnut-style, in sprawling estates and shopping centres in a ring around the edge.

Ireland’s population is expected to increase by one million by 2040, and we’ll need another 500,000 houses to accommodate that increase. But in the process, the east-west chasm is only likely to widen further – three-quarters of those houses will need to be in Dublin.

David Browne, a director of RKD architects and current president of the RIAI, asks the obvious question. “Where are we going to put everybody?”

Uneven growth

Dublin’s uneven growth has brought its own, well-documented issues: congestion, high cost of housing and pressure on the rental sector, creaking public transport, higher emissions, waiting lists for schools and GP practices.

The solution, Browne says, is not necessarily fewer people living in Dublin, but more people living in denser urban developments.

“We grew by two million between the 1960s and now, and where did we put everybody then? In sprawling suburbs and one-off rural houses. As a result, at the moment 70 per cent of the housing stock or more is in suburban sprawl or one-off rural housing, and that is not sustainable.”

The worst-case scenario would be to “put another one million people in another band around Dublin, and completely choke the city. That will be to the detriment of Dublin, because Dublin will become dysfunctional, and it will be of detriment to the entire country.”

Better, he says, is to find ways to put them inside Dublin, make Dublin denser and more in line with OECD averages. Barcelona, the most densely populated in Europe, has 20,000 people per square kilometre; Amsterdam has 7,000. Dublin has half that. That doesn’t mean high rise buildings; he says six- to eight-storey apartment blocks would go a long way towards combating the sprawl.

The Government launched the Ireland 2040 plan two years ago, an ambitious bid to rebalance Ireland. But there’s a growing sense that a more radical effort is needed to halt the decline of rural Ireland.

“I don’t think it’s going to be very successful,” says Crowley of Ireland 2040. “It’s the same old story as what we’ve had before. With regional inequality, the issue is one to do with autonomy.”

We need “a step change in our thinking” on rural Ireland, says Browne. The RIAI has launched an Irish Cities 2070 initiative to promote solutions that are, he says, “slightly radical. We’re saying: don’t expand existing cities, densify them. Contain the sprawl.”

Autonomy

Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway need greater autonomy, he agrees, and should be “collaborating, not competing” to make the case for better interconnecting infrastructure and foreign direct investment. Boosting the regional cities will, he argues, have a trickle-down effect on rural towns within striking distance of those cities, as people choose to live outside the cities where they work.

But what about the rest of the country, the towns and villages that are neither within commuting distance of a major city, or a tourist attraction like the Wild Atlantic Way?

In those places, crude county-wide population trends sometimes mask what’s really going on. The overall picture may be one of growth, but when you drill down to town level, many rural populations are in decline – and that’s one of the reasons for all those empty shopfronts along the main street.

Historically, Irish main streets have been “an incredible resource – physically, socially, economically, ecologically”, says Fitzpatrick. But now they are in trouble, thanks to demographics and out-of-town shopping.

“It’s not an even playing field,” says Stephen Purcell, a town planner and chartered surveyor with Future Analytics, who co-ordinated a report on Rejuvenating Ireland’s Small Town Centres for the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) in 2018.

The big shops will have “a marketing budget, the promise of convenience, buckets of car parking that’s usually free, glossy buildings, places to eat. The guys in the local town centre are put to the pin of their collar to survive in a historic town where there may be limited parking, narrow streets, and what was traditionally the biggest draw – the big family-run department store – has often closed. And if one goes, it’s a domino effect.”

So which towns are suffering most? Which ones are barely hanging on?

Lack of data

A frequent complaint made by researchers including Fitzpatrick is that we just don’t have the country-wide data to say with any certainty. The Heritage Council is promoting an initiative of town centre health checks to redress that, some of which have been undertaken by Purcell and his team.

One measure of the potential challenge facing rural towns is the percentage of jobs estimated to be at risk from automation. Crowley and his colleague, Justin Long, carried out research on this last year. The data, once again, shows “a real story of west versus east”.

Clusters of at-risk towns were identified “in the west; south Tipperary; north Cork; south of Sligo, and you’ll have some more of the Border towns if Brexit happens”.

In Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, for example, “we found that 58 per cent of the jobs are at risk of automation in the future. That’s at the extreme level, the worst case scenario.”

Taken together, all of these factors – the depopulation of parts of rural Ireland; the decline of traditional towns; the lingering effects of economic disadvantage that often predated the recession; and, in the counties bordering Dublin, the pressures of rapid population growth – have led to the rise of what Crowley calls the “geography of discontent”.

If current patterns continue, “in the worst case scenario, we’ll see the continued decline of rural Ireland. People will be stuck in a spatial trap, because they have a connection to a place and don’t want to move, or because they have a 30-year mortgage that won’t allow them to move, and nobody wants to buy their house because it’s not in the right area. This is how people get caught in territorial distress.”

Similar trends in other countries have led to social problems. “The rise of populism; Brexit; Trump; the yellow vests in France; the rise of the right in Germany; they’re all driven by a geography of discontent. The story is very real.”

The solution is not as easy as “just move to Dublin”, he says. “If we have a person who loses a job in Kilrush or wherever and needs to move, they might not have the education or the likelihood of earning the wages that are required to live in Dublin – it’s not so easy to move.”

Miriam Fitzpatrick believes some tough decisions will have to be made about which towns are worth investing in. “We need some heavily invested exemplars. But first, we need the data, before another penny gets spent.”

Crowley believes “there are an awful lot of towns in decline that don’t need to decline”.

Solutions

So what are the solutions for those towns? The best way to tackle regional inequality is through autonomy, he says. “We’ve got cities and towns that don’t have much autonomy – they’re relying on Dublin to meet their needs, there’s a mismatch between the needs for these areas and what is being allocated.

“When you compare Ireland to the rest of Europe, we have the lowest levels of autonomy when it comes to local government. Devolve decision-making. Devolve resources, and then let towns decide for themselves what interventions are needed.”

The traditional answer of trying to attract a big factory to a region under stress is no longer feasible for many places. Instead, regional towns need local champions and innovative thinking to enable them to get creative, Browne argues.

Along with local leadership and community collaboration, Purcell advocates shifting from a property tax to a land value tax, calculated as a proportion of the achievable rent. Beyond that, relatively small-scale local schemes can make a difference – such as voucher systems, like the one developed in Naas town, encouraging people to shop locally.

Research on regional resilience conducted by a team led by Crowley looked at the factors that make a town more likely to flourish amid the challenges. Having a core strength, such as agri-food or tourism, is one. Resilient towns also have “a good percentage of the population in creative occupations – media, craft industries, artists.”

A highly educated workforce also offers protection, while towns with a relatively high proportion of younger people are more insulated.

Specialisation

The future of many rural towns depends on “smart specialisation” policies driven by dedicated groups of local volunteers. The Town Teams initiative in Ennistymon, Scariff and Kilrush in Clare are an example of this kind of policy in action.

Skibbereen’s Ludgate tech hub and the success of Westport are often cited as examples of the kind of innovative thinking and resilience needed. The bottom line, says Crowley, is to “focus in on what are the strengths. What is the innovation potential? Every town needs a different approach. But there’s no magic bullet.”

Purcell warns that “tourism alone won’t save your town. If you don’t have the supports, the social infrastructure and the sense of community to sustain your own population, there’s no reason to think you’re going to attract other people.”

Ultimately, he says, the biggest stumbling block to renewal is apathy. “People feel powerless. They’re almost jaded at the mention of consultations and workshops. But the community has to play an important role in driving change. They need to put the pressure on decision-makers.

“There is that fear that some settlements are at a point of almost no return if some investment isn’t made. It will get to a point where the scale of the challenge is simply too great. There’s probably a whole tier of towns and villages that are at that point of decline, where it’s going to take not just a miracle, but a major investment as well, to turn them around.”

Analysis

Fintan O’Toole: ‘Rural Ireland’ has been romanticised up to its neck

David McWilliams: We need to move public servants out of Dublin

Challenges facing rural Ireland’s needs centralised decision-making

Two-thirds of towns with 10,000 people are in Leinster

Immigration is as much a rural phenomenon as an urban one

The stark problem for Irish towns is simple: they need people

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