The Government’s decision to give people living on Ireland’s islands extra grants to renovate vacant and derelict properties is part of a welcome overall policy approach also involving areas such as housing, health and education. At a time when housing is in short supply across the State, encouraging people to live in, and work from, our islands makes sense, even if the overall numbers will be modest enough.
There is also an important wider social goal of keeping these communities in place by lowering the barriers which have traditionally led younger people to move on.
Part of the policy involves making higher grants available under the vacant property grant scheme – the Croí Cónaithe – to those redeveloping vacant and derelict properties. Given the higher costs which would apply to such projects on an island, this seems reasonable. Changes will also be made to planning guidelines, which islanders say have been a barrier to development by making planning permission difficult to obtain.
The news does put in focus larger questions of Ireland’s spatial planning and development. The National Planning Framework is based, in part, on speeding development outside the crowded eastern half of the country. However, rather than encouraging once-off housing in the countryside, it favours development in, or closer to, rural towns and villages. The logic is, in part, to encourage less car use.
The trend to remote working, accelerated by the Covid pandemic, does raise some questions, however. Given the availability of broadband – another part of the new plan for the islands – a remote worker can easily operate from one of these locations. A requirement to attend an office for a few days a week would be likely to make this impractical, but this does not apply in all cases.
In short, the imperative of reducing carbon emissions means policy must do what it can to support remote and hybrid working models. This requires some rethinking of our spatial strategy, which needs to go well beyond what is entailed in the new policy for the islands.