Rural areas will not be left decline to aid cities, says Minister
Heather Humphreys tells MacGill Summer School of ‘action plan for rural Ireland’
Heather Humphreys said she did “not believe it is feasible to simply promote the development of cities and large urban areas, while rural areas are left to decline”. File photograph: Dara MacDónaill
An “action plan for rural Ireland” is to be developed, the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys has announced.
Ms Humphreys told the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, on Friday that under the plan Government departments would be given key objectives which they must meet in the context of regional and local development.
During the debate on a national strategic rural development plan for Ireland on Friday former secretary general of the Department of Finance John Moran contended that rather than rural development the concentration should be on developing cities. He called for the creation of higher density, properly serviced urban areas, and promoted his own city of Limerick for such a pilot development to begin.
“We need to get our cities to work first and then we might get the resources to fix rural Ireland,” said Mr Moran.
Ms Humphreys however said she did “not believe it is feasible to simply promote the development of cities and large urban areas, while rural areas are left to decline”.
“What would the people of northwest Donegal think if the policymakers of the day told them they weren’t going to be provided with public services, that transport links would cease, that the airport would close and the school buses would stop running, because there isn’t a sufficient ‘population cluster’ to justify such supports?” she said.
“Policymaking shouldn’t be just about cold hard statistics. In my view, it is the job of the politician to combine policy with people,” added Ms Humphreys.
“The view that urban areas should be developed and promoted over the rural is missing one crucial factor: people. For it is the people of this small country which make it great. And it is the people of rural Ireland which make it a place worth fighting for.”
Ms Humphreys said that under the action plan regular and structured reports would be delivered to the Cabinet committee on regional and rural affairs chaired by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny and that regional and rural issues would be considered in the design of the National Planning Framework.
She described the framework as “the overarching plan from which other regionally and locally based plans will emanate”.
Ms Humphreys said the single most important factor in the sustainability and continued rejuvenation of rural Ireland and the regions was delivering rural broadband.
Outlining the scale of the project she said: “The broadband black spots in need of State intervention account for 750,000 addresses, and cover 96 per cent of our land mass. We’re talking about 100,000 km of road network, traversing areas which are home to 1.8 million people. Put simply; it’s a very big job – it’s akin to rural electrification.”
Ms Humphreys said that high speed broadband has the potential to be a “game changer” for rural Ireland.
“It will quite literally plug rural communities into a world of opportunities which are currently out of reach. Delivering the National Broadband Plan is a top priority for Government and the allocation of new responsibilities at Cabinet level also signals the Government’s firm intention to address broadband and other telecoms challenges in rural Ireland,” she added.
The Minister said one of the key elements of the rural action plan would be revitalising towns and villages. “One of the many mistakes of the Celtic Tiger years was to drive business and investment out of town centres, with the development of sprawling out of town retail spaces,” she said.
“We cannot wipe out these developments, but we can look at ways to encourage people back into our towns and villages.”
“I am considering options to make it more attractive for young couples in particular to live in town centres. If you look across Europe, people live not just in city centres, but also in town and village centres,” she added.
Ms Humphreys said Ireland had a “plethora of heritage buildings” which were wholly or partially vacant. “I believe there is a real opportunity there to both address our housing challenges and bring life and vitality back into our town centres,” she said.
On rural regeneration generally the Minister said, “It cannot simply be a numbers game, where we say to ourselves that rural communities must be sacrificed for the sake of cheaper, more efficient living in urban spaces. We must strive to build a society which values both people and place.”