Some of the most popular snacks at the three-day National Ploughing Championships at Ratheniska, Co Laois, last week were the ringed doughnuts with the centres hollowed out.
They were savoured as a tasty bite by some of the thousands of people from all over Ireland who attended the annual pageant of country living.
But they also symbolised the economic plight of rural towns and villages whose centres have also been hollowed out with business closures and edge-of-town shopping centres.
Much was heard at the championships about rural decline and many solutions were put forward on how to revitalise the country’s smaller urban centres which have been devastated over the past decade.
While overall statistics show a recovering economy, the scars of the downturn are still obvious in many towns and villages, with business premises closed, shop windows covered with the pages of fading newspaper pages, and sale and rental signs on display.
A €30m investment package for rural towns and villages was announced by the Government. The six-year scheme is geared towards supporting revitalisation and enhancing potential to support increased economic activity into the future.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny acknowledged the impact the economic downturn has had on towns and villages in rural Ireland.
He said the Government is committed to ensuring that rural Ireland can benefit from the economic recovery that is emerging after the recent very challenging years.
“While the recovery is significant, its benefits are not yet being felt as deeply in rural communities as in the large urban areas and to some extent this is inevitable,” he said.
“What is important now, however, is to take positive action to make sure that these benefits start to spread more widely and that they do not remain confined to our cities and other large urban centres.”
Environment Minister Alan Kelly said the Government is committed to creating a strategy for rural regeneration, but Fianna Fáil environment spokesman Barry Cowen said €30m is a sticking plaster approach to the problems of rural Ireland.
Meanwhile, one interesting strategy to tackle the problem has come from the Irish Farmers Association.
It has noted that the decimation of many villages and town centres during the recession has resulted in rural communities being badly impacted by emigration and experiencing high levels of youth unemployment.
Support for small- to medium- sized enterprises will be an essential part of supporting economic recovery in rural areas and rejuvenating rural towns and villages.
However, small businesses starting up in rural Ireland face significant administrative and regulatory costs. This can be a disincentive to increasing employee numbers.
The high cost of local authority rates can often absorb cash-flow, which could be used to boost employment and to grow and develop the business.
The IFA has urged the Government to introduce a Charter for Rural Ireland to drive economic recovery in all parts of the country.
It is calling for double tax relief on rental expenditure and concessions on commercial rates to encourage businesses to locate in those villages and town centres that have been decimated during the recession.
Tax credits to encourage employers to take on apprentices and create sustainable employment are also being sought.
It says these are measures to encourage and make possible economic activity, entrepreneurship and business start-ups, which otherwise would not be created.
The IFA says these moves would allow new firms breathing space to become established, creating employment and downstream exchequer benefits.
Under the proposals, an employer would get an income tax credit of 10% of the apprentice’s salary, up to a ceiling of €2,000 per employee per year.
Small-scale enterprises establishing in vacant buildings in town/village centres would receive double tax relief on rental expenditure up to a specified ceiling.
Exemptions or reliefs on local authority rates for newly established businesses are also being sought by the IFA.
It said the Government must provide a high-quality rural fibre broadband network across rural Ireland to support homes and businesses, job creation, investment and rural development.
The IFA also wants measures for the 440,000 households that live and work in rural Ireland and for those who holiday in the countryside or simply enjoy it.
These include increased and measurable targets for policing hours and the presence of Garda mobile units in rural areas to reduce crime including the theft of valuables, machinery, and livestock and create a greater sense of security.
IFA also wants a repair and maintenance scheme for rural roads. It says an estimated additional 75,000 cars have come on the roads since 2010, increasing motor tax paid by about €17m.
Over the same period, rural dwellers have continued to report the inadequate repair and maintenance of rural roads, with a resulting impact on the economic and social well-being of rural areas.
IFA president Eddie Downey said Central Statistics Office figures show unemployment rates across the country ranging from 8.8% in Dublin to 12% and 13% in the West, Midlands, and South-East regions.
“This highlights the need for Government to introduce more targeted measures, to ensure the economic recovery is better balanced across the regions,” he said.
IFA deputy president Tim O’Leary said IFA’s report contains important policy proposals for an overall focus to the challenges faced by rural communities.
“However, there are many challenges. Communications infrastructure such as broadband is totally inadequate; rural roads are often left unmaintained for long periods and rural security continues to be a real concern,” he said.
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