Rural plan gathers existing pledges under one roof

Analysis: Much of the investment and many of targets can be found in previous documents

Stepaside Garda station: Constituency Minister Shane Ross  got it reopened through an inclusion in the programme for government. “That it now finds itself in a plan on rural renewal is at least testament to the Government’s commitment to recycling.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Stepaside Garda station: Constituency Minister Shane Ross got it reopened through an inclusion in the programme for government. “That it now finds itself in a plan on rural renewal is at least testament to the Government’s commitment to recycling.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

The Action Plan for Rural Development, launched in Longford by Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphries, along with the Taoiseach, is largely a compendium of existing plans, schemes and programmes brought together under one roof.

Much of the investment and many of the targets contained in it can also be found in previous documents. One of the headline grabbers, for example, the 135,000 new jobs outside Dublin by 2020, was also one of the targets in the programme for government. In the appendices of the document, 47 other schemes and plans are referenced.

The Minister’s spokeswoman confirmed that the €60 million (€20 million a year) to be invested in more than 600 towns and villages over the next three years was coming from existing departmental budgets. She also pointed out, fairly, that it was a small part of the overall investment in rural Ireland.

If anything, the media reports that heralded €60 million of investment in rural Ireland were underselling public investment in rural areas in the coming years. In fact, billions of euro in public investment will be devoted to rural Ireland.

That’s a lot of money; it’s just that none of it is new money.

Essentially, rural Ireland is getting the “action plan for jobs” treatment. This was one of the flagship initiatives of the last government, managed by then jobs minister Richard Bruton, which sought to amalgamate and consolidate all the various efforts made by the administration to stimulate employment. The plan was broken down into hundreds of individual actions and regularly reviewed.

Albeit that the government regularly gave itself stellar reports on the implementation of the plan, the fact of measuring implementation allowed it to be managed better.

Perceived success

Who knows how many of the jobs created under the last government were helped by the action plan? But within Government today the plan is seen as a success, a template for doing business.

So the plan launched on Monday follows the same approach, which necessarily involves restating existing priorities.

Thus, one of the principal issues for job creation and business development in parts of rural Ireland, the lack of effective broadband coverage, is covered in recommendation 232: “Implement the National Broadband Plan to provide high speed broadband to every premises in Ireland.”

In other words, the new plan is to implement the old plan. That does not mean that the old plan is a bad plan, though even its best friends wouldn’t describe it as a fast plan.

With some recommendations, their connection to the development of rural Ireland is tenuous.

The report says the Government will “launch a pilot scheme to reopen six Garda stations both urban and rural, to determine possible positive impacts that such openings will have on criminal activity, with special emphasis on burglaries, theft and public order”.

This is actually one of the bits of the programme for government that Shane Ross insisted on as political cover to achieve to the reopening of Stepaside Garda station, a key local campaigning pledge. That it now finds itself in a plan on rural renewal is at least testament to the Government’s commitment to recycling.

Similarly, the Sports Capital Plan has also found a holiday home in the rural Ireland plan, promising some €30 million for sports and community facilities.

Action 135 promises to “Continue to support jobseekers through the network of local Intreo offices and DSP [Department of Social Protection] case workers”. No doubt this is all to the good, but it would – you would hope – be happening anyway.

Implementing the charter

The report arises from the Commission on the Economic Development of Rural Areas (Cedra), which was chaired by Pat Spillane in 2014. Following its report, the Charter for Rural Ireland was published in January 2016. The document published on Monday is intended to implement many of the objectives of the charter.

The truth is that this is the latest in a series of plans and initiatives over the years to promote development in rural Ireland. Often they have been the tools of politics rather than careful plans to meet the needs of rural communities. Remember the national spatial strategy? Remember decentralisation? They were political wheezes that promised something for everyone in the audience.

The latest plan also has the signs of political influence. It is hard to see where the hard choices of prioritising some areas or sectors are to be found in it.

Still, it is comprehensive, and it is measurable. Perhaps that will make the difference.