Rural rejuvenation is a prize worth fighting for

The rejuvenation of rural Ireland at a time of unprecedented change in social and economic life is a great challenge for citizens and policymakers alike, writes Joe Gill.

A ramble through towns and villages across Ireland reveals, time and again, shops and properties for rent or sale if not closed and disused.

It would be simple to conclude this trend towards larger city living is an inexorable trend that cannot be reversed, but life is not and should never be simple.

The fight back is already evident in some towns and there are others where similar positivity is in the air. Clonakilty and Bandon in West Cork are two good examples.

Over the past number of years, Clonakilty has transformed itself into an urban environment which its residents proudly promote.

A mixture of policies — including the introduction of street furniture, a flood protection programme and an intense tidying campaign — leaves the town as a jewel in west Cork.

It has become a pleasant and welcoming base for tourists and workers, alike, offering a combination of urban life amidst an enviable rural and coastal region.

A virtuous cycle of fresh retail openings, restaurants and a growth in new housing is helping to embellish its scale and standing as a place to live and recreate.

While Clonakilty has prospered, the town of Bandon has struggled. Its vulnerability to persistent flooding has been a major disincentive to invest in any retail or hospitality in the main streets.

The absence of a significant hotel has also been a drawback. Yet, Bandon is located ideally as a satellite town for Cork City.

It is just 30 minutes from the part of Cork full of technology and other companies that are growing and seeking fresh employees. It has housing prices and rents that are materially lower than in the city, while offering the exposure to the countryside and seaside that many covet.

The key to unlocking Bandon’s potential to flourish lies with those who lead it locally.

The mammoth work undertaken to remove flood risk from the town is a major step forward because it gives entrepreneurs and investors the confidence to commit to its centre.

Already, there are some artisan cafes and specialist shops open that did not exist two years ago.

On their own, these have added energy to the main street but so much more can — and should — be done.

Employing the tactics used by neighbouring towns would help. The permanent street furniture in Clonakilty is a winner, while the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen is a worthwhile template too, particularly if it wants to attract business dependent on the world wide web.

Exploring the scope to convert floors above street level to urban living would be worthwhile, too, although it needs imagination around rents, rates and grants.

Last week, I arrived in London’s Paddington train station at about 6pm one day, and watched as thousands of commuters trudged on their daily long commutes using the Tube and train to move long distances between work and home in the heat of early summer.

Those homes cost a fortune, yet the time to spend in them is squeezed by the tyranny of commuting times.

Many of these people work at jobs that do not have to be in the centre of London, or Dublin for that matter.

Surely, rational employees will respond positively if towns like Bandon work to provide an affordable high-quality living environment while offering employers the support and connections that make it worth their while to develop links with regional towns.

That prize is worth fighting for across rural Ireland over coming months and years as Ireland’s economy evolves.

Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.

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