Rural development: politics drives grandiose plan

High-speed broadband remains a work in progress and yet is critical to success

 

The number of delayed and uncertain start-up dates in the Government’s plan for a rejuvenation of rural communities offers a worrying insight into official and ministerial thinking. There is general acceptance that small-town Ireland is on its knees but, on the basis of the scattergun approach adopted in this three-year action plan, little is likely to change in the short term.

Everything, bar a new kitchen sink, has been included in a wish list of developments, ranging from improved air transport, to flood risk management, the upgrading of schools and public health services and improved rural transport.

Local authority and private sector involvement in refurbishing vacant properties receives particular attention, as does job creation in gaeltacht areas, tourism development and the promotion of an Atlantic Economic Corridor.

Pat Spillane was asked to investigate the prospects for rural development by the last government. The commission he chaired held public meetings all over the State and reported in 2013, suggesting pilot development zones and the removal of responsibility from the Department of Agriculture.

Neither happened. Since then, negotiations involving Independent TDs and Independent Minister Denis Naughten in the formation of this Government moved things along. Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys has responsibility for the plan. Echoing a previous spacial strategy, however, the number of towns and villages has been doubled to 600.

The document owes as much to political calculation as to economic planning. Many of the towns and villages have not recovered from recession and job losses caused by a collapsing building industry in 2008. That situation is likely to worsen if farm incomes are reduced by a hard Brexit and related commercial activity remains depressed.

Urgent action is needed to spark rural job creation. Many of the 276 initiatives proposed in the plan are worthy, but rural high-speed broadband remains a work in progress, in spite of long-standing political commitments.

Available funding, at a time of fiscal uncertainty and public pay pressure, is critical to success. Because new jobs and innovation will ultimately rely on broadband speed, this project should receive absolute priority. Improvements to services and transport should then follow. Since independence, “Saving the West” and rural communities became – like “Draining the Shannon” – a catch-cry for politicians. But while grandiose plans may sound great, they don’t usually work. Ms Humphreys and her officials should be guided by an impartial examination of local strengths and opportunities. Community support and cooperation are vital in maintaining steady, incremental progress. We should leave plans for a “great leap forward” to the Chinese.

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