New rural Ireland plan says 20% of public sector staff to work remotely by end of 2021

Covid is the catalyst for ‘worker-led’ decentralisation to revive rural areas

Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys is to announce the plan. Photograph: Tom Honan

Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys is to announce the plan. Photograph: Tom Honan

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A form of decentralisation that will allow for continued remote working by public sector staff is part of a major new Government plan for rural Ireland to be unveiled on Monday. 

Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys is to announce a “worker-led” decentralisation that will provide for work practices brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic to continue in the years ahead.

The five-year strategy includes consideration of incentives to attract remote workers to rural areas, proposals for revitalising town centres and efforts to make Ireland a leading destination for adventure tourism.

It is understood that the plan has a target of 20 per cent of the public sector working either remotely , or “blended” between the office and home, by the end of 2021. There will also be increased targets for each of the next five years.

There is to be a focus on using the rollout of high-speed broadband to rural areas to develop opportunities in areas such as e-health, remote learning and online trading. 

The Our Rural Future plan being announced by Ms Humphreys and Taoiseach Micheál Martin is to be backed by funding in the Government’s forthcoming, updated National Development Plan.

“This is modern-day, worker-led decentralisation – not focused on buildings, but on people,” Ms Humphreys will say in a speech on Monday.

“Remote and blended working is all about giving people choices so that they can have good career opportunities while also living in their own local community.”

Other proposals include the establishment of more than 400 remote working hubs nationwide, where it is envisaged people will begin to be able to book desk space once the pandemic is over.

Vacant buildings are to be targeted for use as hubs. A source pointed to Bank of Ireland branches that will lie empty as the bank scales back its presence in rural towns as being possible locations.

Failed precursor

The decentralisation plan pursued by the former Fianna Fáil-led government from 2003 onwards involved moving government departments and agencies out of Dublin. Targets for moving staff out of the capital were not met by the time the programme was cancelled by the Fine Gael-Labour government in 2011.

There is also to be a review of tax arrangements for remote working for both employers and employees ahead of the budget, as previously flagged by Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar.

The Government is to explore the introduction of incentives to attract remote workers to live in rural towns, and examples of such schemes in the United States are being examined.

A scheme in Savannah, Georgia, offering $2,000 in reimbursement of moving expenses for tech workers that move to the city is one example cited. 

There is also a proposal to provide funding to local authorities to run advertising campaigns to attract remote workers to their county. 

The plan sets out how new financial supports to incentivise residential occupancy in rural towns will be examined prior to Budget 2022.

The Department of Rural Development is also looking at the establishment of a community ownership fund to help community groups and social enterprises buy or take over local assets that may otherwise close.

The UK government announced a similar scheme in its budget last month that provides funding for community groups to take over struggling businesses such as pubs and facilities such as sports clubs and theatres.