Living fabric of our towns key to rural Ireland’s future

The Irish Government’s ‘Our Rural Future’ vision is the right step, but making town centres vibrant and bustling again will be essential to the plan, says John Kennedy.

Yesterday (29 March) the Irish Government revealed a far-reaching vision that is to rejuvenate rural Ireland by making it a post-lockdown workers’ paradise.

In some ways, the vision which will see everything from old cinemas to pubs repurposed as joined-up hubs for remote workers, better broadband and more, already has been forged by the realities of the pandemic as many remote workers already living and working rurally appreciate the advantages.

“Gentrification of our towns and villages, lack of housing, limited public transport and increased pressure on town centres are also issues which need to be addressed”

Broadband will be the sinew of the plan and the economic power of workers living and working locally, commuting much less, will no doubt play out in healthy spending with local businesses.

A rising tide lifts all boats

Specifically, the 120-page plan with 150 different actions plan proposes to:

  • Establish a network of over 400 remote working hubs nationwide, to enable more people to live and work in rural communities.
  • Pilot co-working and hot desking hubs for civil servants in regional towns.
  • Move to 20pcremote working in the public sector in 2021, with further annual increase over the next 5 years.
  • IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta to promote and enable the uptake of remote working across their client base.
  • Fund the repurposing of vacant buildings in town centres into remote working hubs.
  • Review the tax arrangements for remote working for both employers and employees as part of Budget 2022.
  • Introduce legislation in 2021 to provide employees with the right to request remote work.
  • Provide funding to Local Authorities to run targeted campaigns to attract remote workers to their area.
  • Examine the introduction of specific incentives to attract remote workers and mobile talent to live in rural towns.

The plan is a serious step in the right direction for rural towns, proposing to:

  • Put the future development and regeneration of rural towns at the heart of decision making through a new Town Centre First approach.
  • Invest significantly in the revitalisation of town centres through the €1Billion Rural Regeneration and Development Fund.
  • Develop a new pilot scheme to support the use of rural pubs as community spaces and hubs for local services.
  • Examine the establishment of a Community Ownership Fund to help community groups and social enterprises buy or take over local community assets and facilities at risk of being lost.
  • As part of Budget 2022, examine the introduction of new financial supports to incentivise residential occupancy in rural towns.
  • Exempt ‘over the shop’ type spaces from requiring planning permission for change of use for residential purposes.
  • Enhance the powers of Local Authorities to offer commercial rates-based incentives targeting vacant commercial units.
  • Provide funding for the enhancement and upgrade of shopfronts and street facades.
  • Examine the introduction of ‘meanwhile use’ legislation so that empty buildings and shops on main streets can be brought back into use on a short-term basis as pop up shops, street markets and exhibition spaces.
  • Expand the Town and Village Renewal Scheme as a key enabler to bring vacant and derelict buildings back into use as multi-purposes spaces and for residential use.
  • Fund the adaption of town centres and the development of outdoor spaces in rural towns for socialising.
  • Prioritise the siting of new State agencies, Departments and enterprises in towns and cities outside of Dublin.

Broadband is the lynchpin

The lynchpin of the plan will be accelerating the National Broadband Plan, but also helping to support rural enterprises to diversify into sectors and markets by taking advantage of digitial.

Crucially it proposes to provide grants to retail businesses in rural towns to sell online and complement traditional footfall trade.

The IDA and Ireland’s network of Technological Universities will play a key role in landing 400 IDA investments by 2024.

The overall advantage of the vision will be more people who live and work in rural Ireland can enjoy good career prospects regardless of location and rural towns could once again be vibrant hubs for social and commercial activity.

“As we recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to re-imagine rural Ireland and harness the talent, skills and creativity running through our rural communities,” Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys said.

“It will build resilient and sustainable rural communities and economies through investment, supports and services. And it will ensure that rural communities are at the heart of designing and delivering responses that meet local needs,” said An Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD.

“Now is the time to be ambitious for rural Ireland,” added Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan.

“The Government’s investment in climate action will bring new job opportunities to rural communities, in areas such as renewable energy, retrofitting and sustainable farming and tourism. The National Broadband Plan will act as a key enabler for the development of new businesses in regional and rural Ireland, together with an increased opportunity for people to work from home. Through the Just Transition Fund, Government is supporting the retraining and reskilling of rural workers and assisting local communities and businesses to adjust to the low carbon transition,” Ryan said.

Town occupancy rates: Plan for development, not speculation

The vision is timely, and its execution will be crucial. Anyone who lives and works in a rural location is aware of the advantages from a lifestyle perspective. There’s more to do in the country than most people realise and effectively half of the country’s population lives rurally if you count in populations of towns and villages. Advabtages in terms of access to amenities like schools often outweigh sometimes remoteness from city centre or suburban locations.

The irony of the pandemic and the lockdowns is that as the rural population swells as people seek to take advantage of the remote working revolution is that so many good hospitality and retail businesses are unable to enjoy any uplift in spend. Hopefully as summer arrives and vaccinations accelerate, rural Ireland will blossom as it did when lockdowns were lifted last year.

But another reality and a more long-term problem is that Irish town centres have been dying, slowly.

Anyone who lives in a rural town knows that once businesses close at 6pm there is very little else happening in Irish town centres. Main streets effectively become ghost towns. The fact that restaurants and pubs are closed adds to the eerie silence of town centres during lockdown.

The issue here is town and urban centres are blighted by underused and vacant building stocks and have been for some time.

In effect, Irish towns centres are on the verge of no longer being considered “living” towns after businesses lock down their shutters after close of business or failed prospected developments lie idle and unused. How many upper floors above shops and businesses could be used to help solve the housing problem and bring vibrancy back to main streets?

Last year, Chambers Ireland called for a Town Centre First strategy that would support jobs, carry out much-needed public works and build sustainable housing with resilient local economies and communities.

The Grow Remote movement also pointed to the need to bring vibrancy back to town centres to ensure the Government’s vision can have a lasting effect. It stated: “While we welcome the Government’s plan, we are also keenly aware that the window of opportunity to realise this vision is small, as we move towards a post-lockdown world. If the plan is going to work, it needs to work for companies first. Employers need incentives so that they do not simply move everyone back to the office and continue with business as usual. Businesses, community and government need to take a joined-up approach to driving the occupancy of co-working hubs.

“People in rural areas need to be skilled in remote work so that they are ready to take advantage of the opportunities which will be opened up to them, as they compete for jobs that can be done from anywhere in Ireland.

“Gentrification of our towns and villages, lack of housing, limited public transport and increased pressure on town centres are also issues which need to be addressed. For remote work to be a great enabler of change, it needs to work for people, profit and planet.”

Research as part of the Collaborative Town Centre Health Check (CTHC) Programme cast a much needed focus on occupancy rates of Irish towns and showed that towns like Dundalk and Tralee have occupancy rates of 24pc. By European standards if you have an occupancy rate of under 40pc your town centre is dead.

The vision of Irish Government needs to not only serve as a function to stimulate rural economies, but needs to also bring back the living fabric of rural village and urban town centres.

Main image: Beautiful cascades of Ennistymon in Co. Clare, Ireland

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 30 March 2021