Demography is destiny in rural Ireland

Whatever the economics or the emotions, the true viability of rural Ireland is related to its demographic future and we need different and sympathetic plans for urban and rural Ireland, argues Dr Lorcan Sirr. [Comment on this story]

Explanations for recent decisions over bus routes viability, bank branch closures, and ambulance response times are cloaked in the rationale of economics – if it’s not economically viable, we are closing, cutting, stopping.

Reports on rural Ireland can also be quite emotive.

Rural Ireland began to change significantly in about 1966, when for the first time more than half the population lived in urban areas.

Now about sixty per cent of Ireland is urbanised, most noticeably in and around Dublin, where about forty per cent the population lives on about ten per cent of the land, and one third of these people are originally from rural Ireland.

This has significant – but different – implications for urban and rural Ireland. Urban Ireland has to deal with an increasing proportion of the population trying to live in close proximity and the challenges of rising rents and house prices. Rural Ireland – currently 1.7 million people – has to deal with a shrinking proportion of the population, and that’s arguably more difficult.

Rural Ireland needs people to survive, but the more educated our children become the more comfortable jobs they want, to make more money with less hardship.

Fewer people want to work long hours in all weathers farming, for example: it’s hard graft and not great financial reward.

These comfortable jobs, however, are increasingly locating in urban Ireland and especially in and around Dublin. Internet companies, the Googles, Facebooks, financial services, start-ups and legal firms are all locating in big cities because they have to.

To attract the best employees, they need to be where there is plentiful accommodation, efficient transport (so no need for a car), theatres, arts, fancy coffee shops selling over-priced cappuccinos.

They also need to poach each other’s staff. Pay is good and their employees – many from rural backgrounds – are typically well-educated and ambitious. In addition, many large companies need a huge pool of (often highly qualified) talent close by from which to start hiring.

There’s a reason Intel didn’t locate in Leitrim (catchment c.50,000), but did locate in Leixlip (catchment c1,500,000). With the continued emphasis on attracting high-value foreign direct investment, this is going to continue to happen.

The IDA does its best to spread employment around the regions, but it’s often fighting an uphill battle – companies will go where companies need to go, not where the IDA or local politicians might want them to go.

The move towards high-end employment has meant less focus on manufacturing in Ireland. Manufacturing was easy to locate around the country as it had little skills requirements and didn’t need to be near a city.

Factories are rarer now, but need to be seen as a viable employment solution. Individual pay is often lower than similar urban jobs, but the cumulative effect of the new employment can be huge on a small town or rural area.

Rural Ireland has also often been sold a pup with political promises that it could have what Dublin has, setting up an unwinnable competition between ‘us and them’.

In addition, the notion that if you build houses the people will come has simply left us with a lot of ghost estates. Yet some places are still clinging to this idea.

Last year, Mayo county councillors attempted to increase Mayo’s population by a phenomenal 35,000 back to 1951 levels (coincidentally the last time they won an All-Ireland) by amending their draft Development Plan to remove the need for planning permission for one-off houses.

People come for jobs, not easy housing. Planning for rural Ireland nationally has been a disaster.

The concept of balanced regional development, where jobs and then housing are located to specific gateways and hubs around the country, had no evidential basis and consequentially failed utterly.

It has also hampered economic recovery in many rural places especially the north-west and border regions. Balanced regional development only works if you have other big cities to counterbalance Dublin, which is now about eleven times the average size of Limerick, Cork and Galway.

As for gateways and hubs, you can’t balance a bowling ball with marbles.

The improved road network means people might stay rural but move closer to urban areas for employment.

The more peripheral the location, the more likely there is population decline.

Headship ratios, or the number of people who will potentially form a new household, are also low in rural Ireland, and the more remote the settlement, the lower the ratio.

This is significant, as it means the pool of people who could possibly, potentially, remain in rural Ireland and settle is declining, and without a population there can be no jobs, communities or economic success.

Many rural readers know this already, but next time around – which is now – government ministers and local politicians need to plan with these figures and trends in mind, to plan for a demographic reality not political aspiration.

NEED MORE THAN ONE PLAN

There should also be more than one plan – there is an obvious need for different and sympathetic plans for urban and rural Ireland. Decent broadband will help, but to what extent is unknown.

The solution to demographic decline is perhaps one of mitigation rather than aiming for population recovery, which the figures show is unlikely to happen in meaningful numbers.

There is a need to accept and plan for population changes, to regroup and rethink in the light of future demographic inevitabilities.

Strategising about how to survive is crucial but only if based on proper statistics, as is the need to harmonise: whereas the county jersey might be a friend on the GAA field, it is an enemy in planning for the future.

The needs of neighbouring counties are often the same, so there is little need for local competition.

* Dr Lorcan Sirr is currently professor associat at the Universitat Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona, Spain and a lecturer in Dublin Institute of Technology.

READ MORE: Pat Spillane: ‘Last chance saloon near for rural Ireland’.  

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