THE Government has a difficult task ahead in implementing some of the radical proposals in Fianna Fail's rural development policy document.
The document was published just before the election was called, and might be seen as simple electioneering. It promises a number of innovative measures, however, which if implemented will go a long way towards tackling population decline in rural areas, and other problems.
One key commitment in the policy is to work towards uniform charges for telecommunications and electricity. It remains to be seen how Telecom Eireann will react if it is instructed to treat the whole State as a single call-charge area.
But the Government will gain in popularity if people in north Mayo or south Kerry can ring a Government Department in Dublin for the same price as someone in Donnybrook.
If implemented, the new charging system will also allow people living in remote areas to access the Internet for the same price as someone living in Galway. This is an important consideration if the benefits of the telecommunications revolution are to be shared fairly.
The Fianna Fail document was written by the party's then spokesman on rural development and island affairs, Mr Eamon O Cuiv.
Policies to combat rural decline in the west, says Mr O Cuiv, must be considered alongside the growth of urban centres such as Galway and Castlebar, growth which he argues is happening "at the expense of rural areas".
The urban-rural imbalance is more accentuated in the far west and in Border areas than elsewhere. Large towns with major hospitals, decentralised departments and third-level education institutions "are growing at an alarming rate", Mr O Cuiv says.
In the urban areas, over-rapid growth is leading to socially segregated cities with large housing estates and major social problems," he says. "There is nobody who can argue that it is a rational policy to be developing more Rahoons. Ballymuns, South Hills, Cherry Orchards, Darndales etc."
According to Fianna Fail, the argument sometimes advanced by economists that it is much cheaper to develop cities than rural areas is based on "false premises". This is so even before quality-of-life issues are considered, the document says.
"There is no doubt that if you were starting from a greenfield-site situation, it would be much cheaper to locate people close together for the provision of services than it would be in a dispersed fashion. However, that is not actually the situation we face.
"Even with a declining population in rural areas, we still have to provide such basic services as roads, electricity, telecommunications, water services etc, even to the most isolated houses. As the number of houses drops, the cost of providing these services increases rapidly."
If, however, people settle in rural areas with an existing infrastructure which is under-utilised, then they are making more efficient use of existing resources and the extra cost to the State is less than it would otherwise be.
"On the other hand, in all new housing estates and major developments in our rapidly growing cities such as Dublin, Galway, Cork, Limerick etc, we have to continuously increase in size the basic infrastructural services such as roads, water, sewerage, electricity, telecommunications etc.
"For this reason, we find in most of our cities that no sooner do we provide greatly enhanced major roads, sewerage works, water works etc, than we find that due to expanding population they can no longer cater for demand.
"As a consequence, we wind up under-utilising the infrastructure in rural areas, which is very expensive, and forever having to increase our expenditure on the provision of more and more of these services with greater and greater capacity in the cities.
"Ireland probably has a unique history in relation to rural development and the whole structure of its society. As a consequence, our rural communities tend to have health centres, shops, pubs, churches, schools, football pitches, community centres etc. Most of these are well-developed and modern.
"The biggest problem facing rural Ireland now is that with the decrease in population, particularly with the decrease in the young population, all these community infrastructural services are being underutilised.
"On the other hand, in every new housing estate in the city that is built, all these services have to be provided on green-field sites." This duplication results in an "obvious" extra burden on the Exchequer.
The economic argument is only one reason population stability is a desirable objective, according to Fianna Fail.
"There is also a huge social and human cost in uprooting people and transferring them to huge urban conurbations.
"This is causing a huge social problem with old people with nobody to care for them in the rural areas, and families cut off from parents and other family members in our cities.
"There will be those who will argue that the people choose to live in the cities and that nothing can be done about this. Fianna Fail would dispute this contention and say that the main reason that people choose to live in cities is that they follow wherever they think they are likely to get employment or wherever they are likely to get housing etc.
"It is very interesting that all of our cities and major towns are suffering the problem of urban sprawl, whereby those who are forced to work in the city try to live at commuting distance from the city in the countryside.
"This is giving, around our cities, what Fianna Fail term the 'melting ice-cream effect' which our town planners complain about so much.
"What is meant by this is that all around our towns and cities, in the form of a necklace, there is great pressure for the building of once-off single houses on half-acre sites, because people are trying to combine the advantage of living in the countryside with the requirements of having to work in a town.
"Furthermore, the attachment of people to parish, to club and to county is very evident to anybody who knows anything about Irish society. This is a good attachment and should not be neglected in our national policies.
"The strength of this attachment is quite evident every weekend when one watches the exodus of young people, particularly from our cities, heading home to the west or to other rural areas."