The Irish Times view on rural development: a vague outline of a good plan

Rural Ireland has fallen well behind the main urban centres – the post-pandemic era is an opportunity to fix that

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys and Minister for Transport  Eamon Ryan at the launch of the rural Ireland framework in Croke Park on Tuesday. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan at the launch of the rural Ireland framework in Croke Park on Tuesday. Photograph: Julien Behal Photography

 

The Government’s new plan on rural Ireland has many laudable objectives and may act as a roadmap for policy in the years ahead. However, in presenting it as a massive leap forward, the Coalition was over-selling what is in effect a repackaging of a number of policies that have already been announced, with a lack of specifics or timelines on many of the aspirations.

The direction of travel is the right one and many of the problems identified are real – for example, the need for intervention to support the redevelopment of rural town centres and the opportunities from remote working. However, fixing the key problems of rural Ireland would require a major programme of investment – and it is not clear just how much cash might emerge.

Much of the detail is welcome. The plan to develop 400 remote-working hubs and decentralise more public servants is an attempt to take advantage of the fall-out from the pandemic. Working patterns post-Covid-19 remain unpredictable – there is an opportunity here, though how exactly this plays out remains to be seen.

The plan also touches a number of other key policies which will be essential if there is to be a revival in the rural economy. These include the need for investment in third-level education and also in the acceleration of broadband provision. Details of how these goals might be achieved remain to be fleshed out. And the plan falls prey to the temptation of throwing small and large measures in together – some specifics and some aspirations – to come up with 150 actions. Where are the priorities? There must be a suspicion of disagreement or at least indecision in Government on tax measures to encourage and help people to work from home and to boost town centre development. We are told that these are matters for the budget in October – but there is no reason why they could not be outlined now and implemented then.

Likewise we are informed that details of major investment plans will have to await the review of the National Development Plan. It remains to be seen how commitments translate into cash.

The IDA is to target the attraction of 400 projects to more rural locations by 2024. The promise to construct special premises harks back to the advance factories of previous years. The key factor today is more likely to be the availability of skilled staff and research capability, both mentioned but requiring major investment to deliver.

Rural Ireland has fallen well behind the main urban centres in terms of economic development. Emerging from the pandemic does give an opportunity to rethink this. The Government’s latest plan contains some good ideas and welcome commitments, but a much more rigorous framework with goals and funding will be needed if it is to add up to its billing as a landmark programme.

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