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'Our Rural Future' - Rural Development Policy 2021-2025

The future of rural Ireland is inextricably linked to a number of issues. Brexit, the recovery from COVID-19, and meeting our climate commitments.  How we transition to a more sustainable society and how we ensure rural areas and regions are supported to adapt to the potential impact of the future of work will determine what kind of rural communities we will have in Ireland by 2040. This is a once in a generation opportunity to put rural Ireland at the heart of Government policy and build strong, resilient and vibrant communities.  In order to deliver on the ambition of ‘Our Rural Future’ Government must deliver the resources, services and infrastructure required.

In particular we welcome the commitments in ‘Our Rural Future’ to:

  • Develop an integrated, place-based approach to rural development to maximise investment and meet the long-term needs of individual parishes, villages and towns.
  • Develop an integrated network of over 400 remote working facilities throughout the country.
  • Provide financial support to Local Authorities to bring vacant properties in Town Centres back into use as Remote Working Hubs.
  • Invest significantly in the development of parks, green spaces and recreational amenities in town centres to make them vibrant hubs for community enjoyment, and to increase footfall for local businesses.
  • Publish a new Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 to ensure that we have a modern and responsive apprenticeship programme with a strong regional footprint.
  • Deliver ambitious regional job creation and enterprise development targets for the indigenous sector in the strategies of Enterprise Ireland, Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Local Enterprise Offices.
  • Invest in and deliver more Technological Universities to help support regional growth and to act as an anchor for regional economic development, research and investment.
  • Increase the capacity for remote and blended learning to enable young people, in particular, in rural areas to access further and higher education courses through online learning while living in their local communities.
  • Develop an effective rural proofing model to ensure the needs of rural communities are considered in the development of Government policies.
  • Establish a Rural Youth Assembly to allow young people living in rural Ireland to make an on-going contribution to issues that impact on them and their future.
  • Maximise our resources and strengths in the Green Economy to support employment opportunities for rural communities in areas such as renewable energy, sustainable tourism, energy retrofitting, the Bioeconomy and the Circular Economy.
  • The integration of the Sustainable Development Goals into each of the 152 policy measures.

In order to fully deliver on the ambition in ‘Our Rural Future’ Social Justice Ireland recommends that Government focus on the following priority areas:

Public Services

  • Without adequate services and infrastructure rural communities will not survive.  Government should ensure public service delivery in rural areas according to the equivalence principle i.e. public services in rural areas should be of an equivalent quality to those in urban areas.  This should form the core basis of the rural proofing model outlined in the strategy.
  • Reports from the Central Statistics Office show that the average distance to most everyday services for rural dwellings was at least three times longer than for urban dwellings. For supermarkets/convenience stores, GPs and pharmacies, the average travel distance was seven times longer for rural dwellings.  These are all issues that should be considered when planning public services and infrastructure. Interestingly, six out of ten people (approximately 2.9 million) lived within 2 km of a post office which should inform the debate regarding the potential expansion of services that could be made available through post offices.
  • Improved and expanded public services (including public transport, broadband, healthcare, childcare) will contribute to regional attractiveness in remote and rural areas, provide the social and economic infrastructure to ensure that those who live there, and those who take up the opportunities in terms of remote working outlined in ‘Our Rural Future’ have access to quality public services and a better quality of life. 

Broadband

  • One of the clearest lessons from the pandemic is that a good quality internet connection is not a luxury but is in fact essential to allow people to fully participate in society. This applies not just to economic inclusion, but to educational and social inclusion as well. If it was not clear prior to the current crisis that a quality internet connection is an equality issue, it surely is now. It is one that has both regional and financial dimensions, and covers a broad range of policy areas.  For ‘Our Rural Future’ to work, the rollout of high quality broadband must be an immediate Government priority.

Investment and rural economies

  • Investment is one of the main instruments for rural development. Public investment policy should prioritise investment in human capital, infrastructure and innovation.  It is vital that investment in infrastructure in the regions and rural areas is expedited to ensure rural economies can diversify and adapt to support thriving rural communities.
  • To ensure viable rural and regional economies into the future means that Government must provide the required support for the provision of public services, investment in micro businesses and small or medium enterprises, innovation, and the sustainable use of natural resources and natural capital in Rural Economic Development Zones. 
  • The target of 400 remote working hubs, and 400 IDA investments is very welcome, but in order to be fully realised adequate levels of investment and infrastructure are required. 

Sustainable rural communities

  • Every rural area is different, but many face the same challenges.  A more flexible policy response is required to support rural areas adapt to local challenges.  This means implementing rural policies at different scales that match with, for example, local services, labour supply and food chains and adapting them based on current and future needs. This would see collaboration between local agencies, employers, the community and voluntary sector, trade unions, and local and regional academic facilities in collaboration with the REDZ. 
  • An ongoing place-based dialogue with a diversity of stakeholders could ensure that rural areas and regions are well placed to meet the challenges of adapting to transition and the changing world of work.
  • Rural development policy must be place-based, reflecting the strengths, assets and challenges a region faces, and have multi-stakeholder input. It should be underpinned by a concept of wellbeing defined by three multi-dimensional objectives: economic, social and environmental, as recommended by the OECD. Developing policy via this framework means that household income, access to a broad set of services, and a cohesive community in a pleasant local environment are all key considerations of rural development policy.

Capacity Building

  • Who is best placed to make and implement policy decisions for rural areas? There is an urgent need to deliver more balanced regional development, and local authorities in conjunction with key local stakeholders can play a major role if they are given the requisite powers and functions.
  • They must have greater control over funding and the ability to adapt policy to meet regional needs. Local Authorities, civil society, Government Departments, enterprise and industry, PPNs, the community and voluntary sector and others must be involved in delivering place-based rural development policy.
  • Capacity building for all stakeholders at local level is required to ensure that this form of policy development is successful. Investment in capacity building will make rural communities more resilient to external shocks and help to underpin the implementation of rural development policy.
  • Capacity building will also be vital to implementing appropriate mitigation and transition programmes to support rural communities in the transition to a low carbon society.

Training and Skills Development

  • Almost half of the labour force will be impacted by changes to their jobs as a result of automation by 2040. Our training and skills development policy must be adapted to meet this challenge to ensure that our regions and communities have the necessary supports in place to ensure that they can adapt to meet this challenge.
  • Focussed investment in education and training for people in low skilled jobs or those unemployed in rural areas as part of an overall regional employment strategy aimed at generating sustainable jobs should be an integral part of rural development policy.
  • As with many other aspects of rural development, decent broadband and transport systems are required to enable rural dwellers, particularly those on low incomes, to access education and skills development opportunities.

Just Transition

  • Rural areas are among those that will be most impacted by the transition to a carbon-neutral society. They will also be impacted by the potential changes of technology and automation on employment and the future of work. An ongoing dialogue on how to support transition and adaptation is essential to ensure that vulnerable rural communities are protected, supported to meet future challenges, and not disproportionately impacted.
  • The refocusing of the CAP budget to climate action presents an opportunity for farmers to invest in sustainable forms of agriculture and the Farm-to-Fork Strategy has the potential to deliver on short supply chains for farmers, and address some of the issues of product pricing for Irish farmers.