THAT rural Ireland is in need of revival is something that all of us who live outside of the big cities have known for ages, but the urgency of which has not been properly appreciated in the corridors of power for far too long. Successive governments have been paying lip service to spreading the economic recovery into the most far-flung areas of the countryside, but still the bulk of the jobs created go to the bigger urban areas, even though some of them – Dublin in particular – are too expensive for workers to live in due to the housing shortage.
This forces people back to the long commutes they have to make from areas they can afford to live in to their places of work. Because our public transport infrastructure is so basic, roads and motorways become clogged up with cars and this adds greatly to the carbon emissions we are supposed to be reducing. With several hours of travel added to their working day, people find themselves too drained from the journeys to take part in local community activities when they get home.
These people have jobs they can go to, but there is little enough being created for those who would like to work in or near their own towns and villages. People’s pay packets are the lifeblood of local economies and, if people don’t have the money to spend, businesses are going to suffer.
The sad thing is that a lot of the shops, pubs and small businesses that closed down during economic downturn hit us almost a decade ago have not re-opened since in towns and villages across rural Ireland and boarded-up premises are the pitiful legacy of this and a blight on many townscapes, taking the vibrancy out of the communities they once served. The sight of them is depressing and an impediment to morale also.
Two reports published last week highlight the gaping divide between the affluence experienced by many in our cities and some of the deprivation in rural areas. They contrast starkly how well cities like Cork are doing with the situation in smaller towns and villages as one moves further away from the bigger urban centres.
One of the reports, from Pobal, which includes a Deprivation Index, confirms that the economic recession hit rural areas hardest, leading to a generation of young people being lost to them through enforced emigration. The other report, compiled by the Economic and Social Research Institute stated that, while all families were impacted by the recession, in absolute terms, one-parent families experienced the greatest increase in economic stress.
The findings of both reports are borne out by the St Vincent De Paul Society (SVP) through the hands-on experience on the ground of people suffering deprivation with its volunteers in small towns and more rural areas still seeing the consequences of job losses, cutbacks in services, emigration and austerity for struggling households.
SVP national president Kieran Stafford maintains that these communities have been unable to take advantage of the recent economic improvements ‘due to poor social infrastructure, such as a lack of public transport, broadband and key services.’ His organisation – which will be getting even busier in the run-up to Christmas – wants policy makers to focus on the Pobal Deprivation Index and take a targeted approach to tackle deprivation, poverty and disadvantage in communities across Ireland that need the most help.
While towns and villages in West Cork have been benefitting from the welcome boost in tourism numbers in recent years along the Wild Atlantic Way, those further inland have not fared as well economically and are finding it difficult to reap the fruits of the recovery in a tangible way. Local voluntary groups have been trying hard to revive their communities, but it’s an uphill struggle that they need help with from the powers that be.
The National Planning Framework has been criticised for not offering more for rural areas outside of the hinterlands of our cities. The current Programme for Government makes a commitment to the renewal of towns and villages and has seen the setting up of a Department of Regional Development and Rural Affairs with Minister Michael Ring at the helm, but it cannot function effectively if it is not given an adequate enough budget to finance incentives to revitalise rural areas.
On his recent visit to West Cork, Minister Ring showed that he knows how to talk the talk, but ultimately he will be judged on his actions and these need to be stepped up significantly in order to stem rural decay, revitalise local services and provide some real hope for the future.