Earlier in the year, the Government published the ambitious Our Rural Future strategy.
The policy reflected the massive change in living and working patterns during the Covid-19 pandemic and the significant opportunities this has presented for rural communities including remote working, revitalising town centres, job creation, developing a green economy and enhancing outdoor amenities.
Under the strategy, the Government has committed to establishing a network of over 400 remote working hubs around the country; to pilot co-working and hot desking hubs for civil servants in regional towns; and to move to 20 per cent remote working in the public sector in 2021, with further annual increases over the next five years.
There is also a commitment to invest significantly in the revitalisation of town centres through the €1 billion Rural Regeneration and Development Fund.
A pilot scheme to support the use of rural pubs as community spaces and hubs for local services is to be developed. In addition, the potential establishment of a Community Ownership Fund to help community groups and social enterprises buy or take over local community assets and facilities will be examined.
Other commitments include the rollout of the National Broadband Plan, targeting 400 new IDA-backed investments for locations outside the Dublin region for the period 2021-24, implementing cultural and creative strategies in each local authority area, and the provision of improved public transport services.
“Our Rural Future is a very important document,” says Mark Christal, manager of Enterprise Ireland’s Regions and Entrepreneurship Division.
“We see Enterprise Ireland’s role as aligned to what it is trying to achieve. For us, the starting point is our Powering the Regions action plan. That is the basis for how we are working to support enterprise in rural Ireland.
“It is very much focused on micro-enterprises and SMEs which are the lifeblood of the rural and wider regional economy. We offer them a range of supports in areas including innovation, competitiveness, funding, and finding opportunities through sales and marketing.”
Entrepreneurship is also important.
“We want to ensure there is a resilient base of entrepreneurs to continue to employ people in rural Ireland. We want to develop a pipeline of entrepreneurs who can come through the tough times. Start-ups and future start-ups are vital to the rural economy.”
Another area of focus is companies located in Dublin or Cork who may be considering expansion and might look at a second site in the regions.
The growth in remote working may have benefits for regional SMEs as well.
“One of the big challenges facing companies is skills and talent retention,” he remarks. “Remote working could be an important way of doing that. It will allow companies to offer their people a balanced lifestyle.”
Remote working will certainly make rural locations more appealing but not as much as may initially have been thought, according to Grant Thornton chief economist Andrew Webb.
“It’s such a fascinating time to be in and around this space. At the start of the first lockdown there was a notion that cities were changing forever, but we now realise that it doesn’t suit everyone. Lots of people don’t have an appropriate workspace at home and the desire to get back to the office is quite strong for them.”
That early narrative has been pushed back a bit, he believes.
“People are starting to see the benefits of working together in a centralised office. It can be good for mental health. It is more collaborative. But it’s not all good if you have very long commutes. There is a certain attractiveness to working at home at times and that may drive a move towards some kind of hybrid or flexible arrangement. That’s not necessarily to the detriment of cities.
“City offices might be used more for collaboration with other work being done at home. It’s a very mixed picture. There is an opportunity that can be tapped into and the Government is very proactive on that and is putting a lot into decentralisation.”
But it will take more than just houses and great broadband to make rural living and working genuinely attractive, Webb adds.
“You need good quality of life, social interaction, culture, services, and amenities. You need doctors and schools and things to do.”
Looking ahead, Webb believes it may be possible for people to get highly paid jobs in firms like Google or Facebook and not have to leave their homes in the regions.
“I certainly think there are opportunities for people to embrace more home working. But it’s not as clear as at the start of the first lockdown. In the hybrid model we will still work in cities at least some of the time.”
Three Ireland RAN director Declan Gaffney also foresees the emergence of a hybrid working model.
“It’s only going to be two days in the office for a lot of people,” he says. “They’re never going back to five days.”
But broadband availability has been an issue for many.
“A lot of people have few options in terms of connectivity,” he notes.
“Take Gaggin, a small village in Cork, for example. The people there were dependent on a single provider and they only had 3G connectivity. A local councillor got in touch with us to ask us for help. We put in a 4G mast and it has transformed the situation. We have been dimensioning our rural sites differently putting in 4G and 5G and so on to respond to change in demand and usage patterns since the beginning of the lockdowns.”
Three is upgrading 10 to 15 sites a week but data traffic is increasing by 50 per cent each year.
“5G will help massively,” says Gaffney. “People maybe never considered mobile broadband as broadband. They think they need a cable, but you can get 500Mb from 5G. It really is a game-changer. It will provide an ideal solution for villages and one-off houses.”
But the focus shouldn’t just be on working at home.
“A whole range of family and work needs have to be catered for. Games can be 100Gb and updates can be 20Gb. There is a big spike in demand with every new release. Adults in the home don’t realise how much data the kids are using. Covid has been a good lesson for all of us. Students had to do their courses online and found they were able to do it. Once people start doing something they tend to continue.”
He remains hopeful for the future of rural Ireland, but it won’t happen by itself.
“To make living in rural locations sustainable a wider policy approach is required. Hybrid working will become the way of the world. People can do a long commute two days a week and we are seeing a lot more people relocating away from areas where they were paying more than €1,500 a month in rent.
“We are part of reigniting towns and villages around Ireland. In the short term we will provide the connectivity, but the Government will have to help with other services. It will gain its own momentum and villages and towns will flourish again over time.”