Rural towns need a real fighting chance

Last month western Canada lost a lifeline when Greyhound Canada closed bus services in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and cancelled all but one route in British Columbia. 

This rearguard action means Ontario and Quebec are the only regions now served by Greyhound. 

“We sympathise with the fact that many small towns are going to lose service,” Greyhound Canada said, “but... routes in rural parts of Canada are just not sustainable anymore.” 

This withdrawal must have an isolating impact on the communities that had a bus service up to a few weeks ago.

European populations are also familiar with the loss of services. 

Communities from plains of northern Germany to the hill country dividing Spain and Portugal, from the heartlands of French farming — la France profonde — to subsistence holdings in Greece or Slovakia, face a steady ebbing away, as neighbours, especially neighbours’ children, move away. 

Projections based on European Commission figures suggest up to 22% of people in rural France, Greece, Spain or Portugal are elderly. 

In the EU-28, some 7.5% of farmers are under the age of 35. 

In pre-Brexit Northern Ireland that ratio is just 4%, in the Republic it is higher at 6%.

Though those gloomy figures create an impression of rural population decline Ireland bucks that trend. 

Our last census showed that the number of people living in rural areas has increased by more than a quarter of a million in two decades. 

Some 1.75 million people live in rural areas, up from 1.5m in 20 years. 

No other EU country has seen the rate of rural population growth recorded in Ireland over recent years.

Despite that positive development, this week’s report from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland warned that small-town Ireland is in the grip of a “perfect storm” which has torn the heart out of its main street. 

It emphasised that out-of-town retail developments, questionable local leadership, the absence of reliable broadband and the high cost of rejuvenating derelict properties are core issues. 

The report warned that if small towns are to survive it is necessary to tax owners of derelict properties. 

It is long past the time that this community-first measure was implemented and not just in small towns — it could be transformative in struggling urban areas. 

Acknowledging the global disruption of conventional retailing by online alternatives the report pointed out that traders are faced with “excessive and inflexible rates valuations”, valuations established fadó, fadó when Amazon was just a river in South America probably.

Sustaining or rejuvenating rural communities is a multi-layered challenge and one that, largely, falls to each community, a reality reflected in the focus on leadership in the surveyors’ report. 

That report really did not find anything new, neither did it offer a panacea, but then neither have any of myriad earlier reports. 

Most communities are capable of imagining and delivering a better future and many would do so, but without essentials like high-speed broadband their task is all but impossible. 

It is time that something like a national emergency was declared around the provision of this essential, community-saving service,

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