Time for the Government to start narrowing urban/rural economic gap

There could be real political minefields lying in the path of candidates from the Government parties as they traverse the highways and byways in the weeks ahead.
Time for the Government to start narrowing urban/rural economic gap

Voters in rural Ireland have long felt neglected by the decision makers based in Dublin.

They surely have a point.

The Irish economy is lopsided.

Ireland is not alone in this.

Across Europe, the big cities are leaping ahead while the countryside empties out.

Can this situation reverse itself?

Do the people in the outlying regions have some of the answers?

What are the stated priorities of bodies speaking for those living beyond the Irish economic ‘Pale’?

In a recent budget submission, Irish Rural Link concentrated on the following six issues:

Education: the closure of small local schools and the high cost of sending children to third level.

Rural energy poverty.

Septic tanks.

The lack of available credit.

Withdrawal of key services.

Discrimination in transport pricing against rural people.

IRL puts the average annual cost of sending a country child to university at €11,500 and calls for a full review of grant supports for students similar to the medical cards review.

High carbon tax rates hit car-dependent rural people hardest.

Rural energy poverty is also exacerbated by the nature of the housing stock and lack of access to the natural gas network.

‘Rural Link’ is calling for greater support for people in maintaining frequently neglected septic tanks.

Those in the provinces have long argued that the banks are merely a mechanism for transferring their savings towards the Government and commercial heartland on the east coast.

The greater provision of micro finance for people to aid start-up enterprises is seen as a means of addressing this issue.

There is a natural tie-in here with the extension of broadband.

Greater connectivity could foster the development of far more web-based businesses opening the way to a new generation of lifestyle businesses run by people interested in raising families in healthy environments, or simply in opening a new chapter in their lives.

Parts of West Cork have benefited greatly from immigration of people from overseas.

However, poor connectivity means that people nowadays are running, in commercial terms, with a ball and chain attached to their leg.

The Government faces a dilemma, here.

Does it pour money into technology infrastructure at the expense of investment in repair and maintenance of the country’s sprawling network of roads?

Planning issues are critical. Can we afford the expense of thinly scattered housing?

Should householders opting to live in isolation pay the full economic cost of providing utilities such as roads and electricity to more isolated locations?

Chambers Ireland represents local Chambers of Commerce.

It has a broader, regional/town focus.

According to spokesman, Mark O’Mahony, the new €27bn six-year public capital programme is viewed as vital by the membership.

He singles out the Atlantic Corridor vision for achieving balancing development along the Western seaboard as well as the long awaited programme of investment in broadband aimed at fostering teleworking and web-based businesses.

Mr O’Mahony warns of the danger that the funds will be ‘spread too thinly’, particularly when it comes to tackling flooding risk.

He worries about the long delays in bringing broadband investments to fruition.

“We now have the National Broadband Plan, but when are the shovels coming out to connect the cables?” asked Mr O’Mahony.

His concern is that by the time we get our cast together in broadband, the technology will have moved on.

One key recent development is the greater role that the local authorities are now playing in economic planning.

“In the past, they were overseers.

"Now, they are responsible for delivering plans,” says Mr O’Mahony.

Local and regional planning must be made to fit within the national planning framework which, one must hope, will evolve in a more positive manner to that of the now deceased National Spatial Strategy.

That grand initiative flopped because it was seen as favouring a ‘one for everyone in the audience’ approach.

The emphasis, nowadays, is on clustering and co-operation between towns and local areas.

In practice, however, it is hard to subdue local rivalries.

Localism has its strengths, an example being the huge community effort evident during the flooding crisis, but too much rivalry leads to the dissipation of resources.

The needs of our country towns differ markedly with the needs of farming and other rural communities, yet town and countryside need each other.

Prosperous farmers and their families are good supporters of their local towns which, in turn, can absorb surplus rural labour.

These days, many of our towns have been stagnating.

Retail Excellence Ireland has highlighted the disappearance of destination retailers, long-established family businesses which gave flavour to our towns.

Many settlements have been the unwitting victims of the spread of the motorway network, bypassed into irrelevance and forced into reinvention.

The retailer group argues that “the primary cause of town centre vacancy is the demise of the independent retailer.”

A big bugbear is spending online by Irish consumers, with almost €5bn going in this direction in 2014.

Businesses in the region need to grab much more of this spend.

Galway booksellers, Kennys, were early movers in this area.

REI is pushing for ‘town revival plans’ and for the establishment of business improvement districts funded by revenues from parking charges.

It argues that empty buildings could be used to host creches, tourism offices, and niche businesses.

However, decent broadband would allow more enterprises to develop organically.

What is clear is that the problem of uneven economic development has been with us for generations.

It will not disappear overnight, but we need to make a start.

No bird, after all, flies on one wing.

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