The Government this week announced its new rural development policy, entitled Our Rural Future, which provides a framework for the development of rural Ireland over the next five years. Minister for Rural Affairs, Heather Humphreys, described the rural development policy as “the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in decades”. This policy represents the Irish Government’s blueprint for the post-COVID-19 recovery and development of rural Ireland, a key dimension of the Irish economy that has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 due to the lack of sufficient broadband services and sustainable transport options.
The policy is a wide-ranging plan that aims to cater to the needs of a diverse range of towns and villages across rural Ireland, and outlines several key deliverables that the Government aims to fulfil between now and 2025, namely the increase in the capacity of rural Ireland to facilitate remote working through the delivery of high-speed broadband and the converting of vacant rural properties into “remote working hubs,” as well as the revitalisation of rural towns and villages by increasing the number of people living in these areas through the €1 billion Rural Regeneration and Development Fund.
The new whole-of-Government policy framework will focus on the promotion of jobs in rural areas through the decentralisation of the public sector and their staff, and through the renewed investment approach by the IDA towards rural areas, thus, fostering indigenous firm innovation in these areas.
Moreover, it aims to provide improvements to rural living conditions through the delivery of sustainable transport options and increased investments toward rural housing and amenities while also increasing support for rural Ireland’s tourist industry through increased investment in trails, cycleways, greenways, and other amenities, to capitalise on the increased demand in this industry post COVID-19.
In addition, the framework, seeks to provide grants and tax incentives for those living in small towns and villages and support them through the guaranteed delivery of high-speed broadband and sustainable transport options to allow for remote working.
These key elements are central to the Government’s plan to reverse generations of depopulation and decline in rural Ireland. The planned decentralisation of the public sector alone aims to see 20 percent of the employees working remotely by the end of 2021.
Similar policy initiatives from the Government indicate the shift towards more remote working. In January the Tánaiste published Ireland’s first National Remote Work Strategy, and on Thursday, Minister Varadkar made plans to provide employees with the legal right to seek remote working. These developments, along with the new plans outlined in the new rural development policy, are a clear indication of the continued transformation of working patterns in Ireland.
Opposition parties such as Sinn Féin have said that the plan lacks “concrete measures” and are “disappointed” by the lack of a timeline for delivery of the commitments outlined, while others, including Labour, noted that the plan is “eerily familiar” to the rural development plan launched in 2017. Outside the political sphere, the Government’s announcement was broadly welcomed, but the efficient delivery of high-speed broadband remains crucial to developing rural Ireland.