A Government plan to reinvigorate rural Ireland aims to breathe new life into dying towns and villages by transforming disused derelict buildings and pubs into remote working hubs.
The plan includes a pilot scheme to turn rural pubs into remote working hubs; the provision of public sector hubs in regional towns for public servants to work in their local areas, and a target of 400 IDA investments for region locations to create jobs.
'Our Rural Future: Rural Development Policy 2021-2025', the Government's plan for rural Ireland’s development over the next five years, was launched this afternoon.
"This policy is Government saying to remote workers we want you to come and work in rural Ireland," Minister for Social Protection and Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys said.
She said unprecedented changes imposed on people by the pandemic present new opportunities for rural Ireland and the plan "is the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural Ireland in decades".
"It is all about creating opportunities. It is about creating good quality jobs. It is about allowing people to live and work in their own communities.
"As we emerge from Covid-19, the new policy is about maximising a recovery for all parts of the country and giving a better quality of life to people who live and work in rural areas," the minister added.
The plan foresees an integrated network of 400 remote working hubs incorporating back-room services throughout Ireland and aims for 20% of public sector workers working remotely or from home by the end of this year.
"We are going to develop specific public sector hubs in regional towns to enable public servants work in their own local areas," said Minister Humphreys.
"Remote working is going to be a game-changer. The pandemic has shown us that it can work. For the past year, it has been an everyday reality for tens of thousands of people all over the country.
"The benefits are huge. There are reduced commuting times and reductions to our carbon footprint."
The policy recommends financial support to local authorities to bring vacant properties in town centres back to life as remote working hubs.
Remote work tax arrangements, and whether they merit further enhancement, will be considered for Budget 2022.
The report also commits to "explore the potential to develop a pilot scheme to support the use of rural pubs as community spaces and hubs for local services".
Minister Humphreys said that "this is something that we have discussed with the Vintners' Federation of Ireland. The concept is around what they have in the UK: the Hub in the Pub.
"We are teasing out how, maybe, pubs can be used for different purposes during the day. It could be working spaces. It could be community spaces. It could be many different things and we can look at having high-speed broadband there. We have yet to explore it," she said.
The rural plan also commits to ensure people living in rural areas have access to good quality public services, including high-speed broadband, and the development of a subsidised Local Area Hackney Scheme in parts of rural Ireland where taxi and hackneys cannot survive commercially.
Broadband is 'shocking'
Cork South West TD Michael Collins said access to high-speed broadband continues to cause problems for people working remotely in his constituency.
"There are huge issues. Many people have come back from the cities to work in rural communities and the broadband is shocking. The Government needs to look at the National Broadband Plan.
"I have hundreds and hundreds of people in west Cork pulling their hair out of their heads because they can’t get broadband in their homes," said Mr Collins.
The Independent rural TD added he is looking forward to reading the Government’s plan and said he hoped "this is not just another piece of paper that is going to be landed up on a desk to gather dust. This needs to deliver".
The rural plan seeks to develop and implement nine new Regional Enterprise Plans to support enterprise development and jobs growth in the regions.
It aims to target half of all new IDA investments – amounting to 400 - for regional locations, supported by the construction of 19 Advanced Technology Buildings in regional locations.
The 158-page plan makes 150 commitments, which will be delivered by various Government departments, State agencies and local authorities over the next five years, Minister Humphreys said.
The report is wide ranging and covers many areas including: remote working, revitalising rural towns and villages, tourism, culture and heritage, transport, health, community engagement, local services, island and coastal communities and agriculture and the marine.
Urban renewal and housing key to reinvigorating rural Ireland
Supermac's Managing Director Pat McDonagh, who is also a former member of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, said before the plan's publication, incentives for urban renewal and housing are a key to reinvigorating rural Ireland and housing shortages.
In response to Mr McDonagh's suggestion, Minister Humphreys said the Government will "introduce new supports to incentivise the reuse of vacant and derelict buildings on our main streets".
The five-year plan states it aims to deliver investment programmes for rural towns and villages through the €1 billion Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, and an enhanced Town and Village Renewal Scheme.
It adds it will deliver major regeneration projects in towns with a population of over 10,000 which play an important role as key hubs in rural areas, through the Urban Regeneration and Development Fund.
As part of Budget 2022, the Government commits to examine the introduction of new supports and incentives for the refurbishment of vacant properties to increase town centre living.
The main delivery point for community health and personal social services in this report is through the network of 32 Health Service Executive (HSE) Local Health Offices and local health centres throughout Ireland.
Over the lifetime of this policy, the report states: "The HSE will establish 96 new Community Healthcare Networks.
"These Networks will support people to live more independently in their community by coordinating and integrating services.
"Additionally, the six new Regional Health Areas will be responsible for the planning and delivery of integrated health and social care services throughout Ireland.
"These new Regional Health Areas will devolve authority from the HSE to the local areas, giving communities a greater role in the delivery of health care."
The report says Covid-19 has triggered an unprecedented crisis in the tourism sector and the plan states tourism will be integral to Ireland's "economic recovery and in supporting job creation, particularly in rural areas".
"The Tourism Recovery Taskforce has developed a Recovery Plan containing over 30 recommendations for the Government’s consideration across a number of areas designed to help the sector to survive and recover from the crisis out to 2023".
Asked if the plan is backed up with money, Minister Humphreys said there "is real and tangible investment to back up the ideas".
She said: "There is the €1 billion Rural Regeneration Fund. The €2 billion Urban Regeneration Fund. Those are significant amounts of funding that are available now to support towns and villages. There is almost €3 billion investment in the National Broadband Plan.
"This year alone there is half-a-billion investment in local and regional roads and in the coming months there will be an update of the National Development Plan. I can say regional development will be at the heart of that and it will underpin everything that we are doing in this policy."
Other key points in the plan are:
A network of 400 remote working facilities with shared back-office space throughout Ireland is planned. The Government aims to have 20% of public sector workers working remotely or from home by the end of this year.
Financial support will be given to local authorities to bring vacant properties in town centres back to life as remote working hubs. The acceleration of the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan will be explored. It is planned to introduce legislation this year to provide employees the right to request remote work. A review of current tax arrangements for remote working for employers and employees will happen for budget 2022.
Ireland’s first ever National Outdoor Recreation Strategy is mooted in the plan. This strategy, the report says, would be backed up by increased investment in trails, greenways, cycleways, blueways and other amenities, capitalising on the increased demand for outdoor pursuits post Covid-19. The development of a new 'Dark Skies Strategy’ for Ireland is mentioned.
Culture and heritage
Culture and creative strategies are to be implemented in each local authority area, including "Culture Days", to showcase local cultural heritage. The policy highlights that the Government is to fund local authorities to adapt and improve outdoor public spaces for cultural events and activities all-year round, and support the recovery of the creative, cultural, entertainment and events sector.
Transitioning to a climate neutral economy
Transitioning to a climate neutral economy and other environment aspirations are peppered through the plan.
It states that the Government will "develop and invest in a Just Transition to a Climate Neutral Society, ensuring that no member of our society is left behind. Through the Just Transition Fund, it plans to deliver flagship projects of scale, such as the €108 million Bord na Móna Peatlands Restoration Project, to assist communities in the transition to a carbon neutral economy".
It commits to enact and implement the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill and set five-year carbon budgets to contribute to meeting Ireland’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. There will be a new Climate Action Plan published in 2021 and it will be updated on an annual basis.
A €70 million Transitional LEADER Programme for community-led rural development for the period 2021- 2022 is highlighted. It moots the establishment of 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.
Island and coastal communities
The plan commits to publish and implement a new ten year cross-Departmental Policy for Island Development and associated action plans to ensure delivery and to establish gTeic enterprise hubs on the islands under the remit of Údarás na Gaeltachta to support employment opportunities and explore the potential for community-based enterprise hubs on islands not under the remit of Údarás.
The Government says it is an ambition to ensure people living in rural areas have access to good quality public services.
It says however, "while it is not feasible to provide a full range of high-end services in every rural town, the Programme for Government underscores the Government’s commitment to improving access to services in rural areas. These include improvements to rural transport services, community health care, water and wastewater services, and the roll-out of high speed broadband".
The plan commits to develop and Implement a new Agri-Food Strategy to 2030, to ensure the economic, environmental and social sustainability of the agri-food sector in the decade ahead. Other areas highlighted include research and development in agrifood, bio-based systems, smart agriculture and precision agriculture to promote and encourage innovation and diversification.
Local authorities will be encouraged to expand the number of farmers markets, farm shops and community owned markets in all towns, to showcase produce from local farmers, growers, and food producers.
The plan commits to providing improved rural public transport services and piloting new transport initiatives to enhance the quality of life for people in rural areas.
It mentions delivering expanded Local Link services, investing in high-quality walking and cycling infrastructure and developing a subsidised Local Area Hackney Scheme in designated areas of rural Ireland which are too small or remote to support a fulltime taxi or hackney service.
Ireland’s first Marine Spatial Planning policy, setting out a clear vision for the future development of marine planning systems, will be published.