Radical change in model of capital investment necessary to sustain viable rural communities - Culture, Heritage & Gaeltacht Committee report

There needs to be a radical change to the model which underpins capital investment policy across Government Departments in order help sustain viable regional and rural communities, according to a new report by the Joint Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The report Sustaining Viable Rural Communities recommends a change away from prioritising investment based only on ‘existing demand’ and supplementing this with a criteria based on regional economic development goals, and ensuring communities have basic services such as adequate roads, water, public transport, telecommunications, employment, schools, health facilities and Garda services.

Cathaoirleach of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Peadar Tóibín TD, said: “As we emerge from a decade of economic crisis two different Irelands are developing. Economic energy and population are concentrating in urban areas most especially in the Greater Dublin Area. Many areas in regional and rural Ireland are depopulating. Dublin’s dominance in comparison to the rest of the state is an outlier in European terms. This rapid divergence is damaging for both Dublin and the regions.

That Dublin is an international city is a good thing. All of Ireland benefits from its economic engine. However nearly two decades of rudderless spatial development has left Ireland lop-sided without a critical urban mass elsewhere to provide balance.

Over the course of the last year our committee received evidence from more than 50 organisations that work, live or advocate for rural Ireland. We learned that rural Ireland, despite the many challenges identified in this report, is a great place to live. It is full of creative and energetic communities that are turning the tide and developing solutions in certain areas. We also saw the blinding need for targeted investment and infrastructure in order for fair spatial growth. There is massive potential throughout Ireland and the objective of this report is to give fair opportunity to that potential.

This report details many steps that urgently need to be taken in ensure that a healthier more balanced Ireland can be developed.”

Other recommendations and conclusions include:

Infrastructure

The current criteria for infrastructural investment that focuses only on existing demand must no longer apply. Funding must also be allocated for demand for future development in regional areas.
Infrastructure-led development is critical to the development of rural Ireland. This must be supported through the Atlantic Economic Corridor.

Enterprise Ireland and the IDA need to ensure that enterprise development is focused in the regions in order to add balance to the skewed eastward development.

Connectivity

A policy to connect fibre broadband to all houses and businesses in the country should be adopted. Access to fibre broadband and world class mobile communications, will narrow the divide between urban and rural areas. Interim measures must be sought where communities are forced to wait.
 
The Government needs to develop a Border Innovation Zone at key regional hubs along the border.

This work should be carried out in partnership with the administration in the north of Ireland.

A public social banking system, along the lines of the Sparkasse Banking System, needs to be created in Ireland with particular focus on rural and regional areas.

Local task forces and broadband officers should be responsible for establishing temporary solutions to the lack of high-speed broadband given that it is not expected to be completed by at least 2023 at the earliest.

Increased funding is required for regional and local roads to ensure connectivity to and from rural areas.

Infrastructural developments and initiatives need to be identified in an effort to resolve the issue of over-concentration of road developments and public transport provision in the east of the country and to ensure these basic services are available to all.
There is a need to ensure that there are commuter services from rural towns and areas adjacent to urban areas with third level institutes, hospitals and major employers are in place, and also to ensure that these services run into the late evening, as happens in urban areas.

Distance & Remote Work

Many jobs and professional roles can now be delivered remotely by workers. This provides advantages to employers in that it can reduce accommodation overheads. It also relieves transportation congestion, reduces CO2 emissions, reduces housing pressure in cities and can breathe new life into rural communities. There are examples around the State where it has been achieved in a structured hub-based system. This is useful as it allows for cross-pollination of ideas amongst workers. The hub-based system can also include workers working from home. The key ingredient is good telecommunications infrastructure and the State should ensure the development of fully serviced hubs throughout regional and rural areas.

Medical Care

Obstacles to innovation in the provision of GP care in rural communities should be removed.

The Rural Practice Allowance should be reformed and increased so as to make it attractive for doctors to work in rural areas. Distance coding should also be restored.

Rural Post Offices

All efforts should be exhausted to maintain rural post offices as a key part of rural infrastructure and Government policy.

Enterprise & Skills

Larger State agencies, such as Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, and their clients, should remain an important source of enterprise and employment in rural Ireland and this should be a national policy goal.

There is a need for Government to provide greater commitment to area-based venture capital funds (e.g. Western Investment Fund) through providing €100m over 5 years or though the development of a model based on public community banks.

Sectors of Comparative Advantage in Rural Areas

The removal of obstacles to accessing the national grid for small and community enterprises wind farms, solar farms, bio mass and bio digesters must be prioritised. The provision of a viable feed-in tariff must be expedited.

Regional planning guidelines for wind farms and solar farms must be accelerated.

High Value Branding

Products such as Aran Island Cheese, Tara Lamb, Cashel Whiskey, etc. could be created. National brands in other areas of the State should also continue to be developed.  

New Internet Shopping Networks

Retail is migrating online and is having a negative effect on business in general in Ireland as the majority of this retail is to locations outside of Ireland. It is also negatively affecting rural retail centres. Local Enterprise Offices should be tasked with helping towns provide online retail platforms for local retail outlets. The provision of broadband in rural areas is also important to allow these platforms compete.

Credit

Credit Unions are currently highly regulated and are prevented from participating in large areas of banking activity. It is necessary for the Government to help provide the management and governance expertise to the Credit Unions to facilitate the development of critical mass within the sector and to allow them meet the needs of people in rural areas.

Agriculture

Brexit is a significant threat to agriculture in the whole of Ireland. Uncertainty about the final outcome can make planning for the future difficult. But one thing we can be sure of is that both food businesses and farmers need to focus on competiveness and innovation in order to survive these challenges and grow their business sustainably in the future.

The Government must seek to ensure that the north of Ireland operates under the same regulatory system as the south.   

According to Teagasc, only a minority of farmers are independently economically sustainable. Farming is the backbone of rural Ireland. For rural Ireland to remain sustainable, it is important to make farming economically sustainable. This necessitates a move among farmers up the value chain with regards to production and diversification. It necessitates farmers receiving a larger proportion of the income that they generate. This can be done by the development of farmer cooperatives and fairer supplier- buyer profit splits. Much more work needs to be done to win new foreign markets

Údarás na Gaeltachta

Údarás na Gaeltachta has suffered severe cuts in comparison to other enterprise development organisations in the State. It plays a vital role in ensuring that Irish remains the main communal language of the Gaeltacht and is passed on to future generations. Ensuring its adequate future funding is crucial

Western Development Commission

The Western Development Commission offers a successful development template; the Government should therefore increase funding for this body and replicate its structure in other regional areas.

Third-level education
 
Third-level education is a significant driver of enterprise development. The lack of third-level education in certain regions is one of the causes of ‘youth flight’. Encouraging third-level institutions to provide outreach campuses in regional towns would allow for young people to remain living in local areas and could facilitate the development of enterprise and industry in those same areas.   

The real and sustainable future of apprenticeship training, with a greater focus on work-based learning and a closer alignment to the current needs of the Irish labour market, must continue to be developed.

The full report and its recommendations can be accessed here https://data.oireachtas.ie/ie/oireachtas/committee/dail/32/joint_committee_on_culture_heritage_and_the_gaeltacht/reports/2017/2017-11-30_report-sustaining-viable-rural-communities_en.pdf

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Committee Membership:

Deputies

Peadar Tóibín (Chairman)    Sinn Féin
Seán Canney            Independent
Michael Collins            Rural Independents Group
Danny Healy Rae        Rural Independents Group
Martin Heydon            Fine Gael
Éamon Ó Cuív            Fianna Fáil
Niamh Smyth            Fianna Fáil

Senators

Maura Hopkins            Fine Gael
Marie-Louise O’Donnell        Independent
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin        Labour
Fintan Warfield            Sinn Féin