Last month saw the publication of the latest government effort at an action plan for rural development. Realising Our Rural Potential takes the now familiar glossy format of recent government action plans replete with 276 actions, slickly produced with accompanying promo video and, for sake of appearances, an official launch in the suitably rural location of Ballymahon’s (soon to be staffless) public library.
The plan places a welcome, and long overdue, emphasis on rejuvenating rural towns and villages which are recognised as essential lynchpins to sustain and improve the living and working environment of rural dwellers. It is acknowledged that, as the populations of rural settlement centres have diminished, so too has the demand for and provisioning of essential services, hindering their capacity to compete for investment and employment opportunities. A new town and village renewal scheme is therefore proposed (a rehash of a scheme launched last August), at a cost of €12 million per annum, to encourage increased residential occupancy in over 600 town and village centres (€20,000 each!).
In these so-called ‘post-factual’ times, it is without any sense of irony, however, that the plan completely glosses over the inconvenient reality that it was the assiduous political commitment over successive decades for policies favouring unfettered suburban one-off housing sprawl that has done most to undermine and depopulate rural towns and villages. Between 2001 and 2011, 104,058 one-off dwellings were constructed in rural areas, 85% within 5km of a town or village. Since 2011, a further 18,500 have been permitted. The level of cognitive dissonance on this issue is all the more striking when you consider that the final report of the Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA), upon which the action plan is largely based, also makes the same glaring omission. The reality is that, nationally, over 70% of dwellings in defined rural areas are built outside settlement centres, and higher still in some counties. This hemorrhaging of population is not deterministic but as a direct result of a sustained and deliberate policy intervention. As one insightful letter writer to The Irish Times noted, what is killing rural towns and villages is not population decline, but their irrelevance, as rural areas become progressively (r)urbanised and assimilated into the functional reaches of larger cities. No amount of fiscal incentives will reverse this trend in the absence of corresponding firm policy measures to restrict and reverse dispersed suburban housing in the countryside. Of course, such an idea would be an anathema in Ireland against a backdrop of political short-termism and patronage. So instead, the action plan includes a rather insipid reference to increase delivery of small housing schemes in towns and villages as an alternative to one-off housing.
Aside from the umpteenth re-launch of the national broadband strategy, one of the more eye-catching objectives of the action plan is the highly misleading target to create 135,000 new jobs and increase by 40% Foreign Direct Investment in ‘rural Ireland’ by 2020. Ensconced behind the attention-grabbing target is the actuality that the action plan opportunistically conflates ‘rural development’ with ‘regional development’ for the sake of appearances. What is, in fact, targeted is the creation of 135,000 jobs outside Dublin i.e. primarily in cities outside Dublin. This sleight of hand epitomises the policy churning over successive decades on rural development issues in an effort to give the impression of doing something. As I have argued before, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, in order to defer and displace the political strife that accompanies an implicitly urban-led national growth strategy, we have instead sanctioned the widespread (r)urbanisation of the countryside. Vague, populist and anachronistic concepts like ‘Rural Ireland’ and ‘Action Plans for Rural Development’ simply serve as a symbolic gesture to paper over and silence a more fundamental political discussion on the nature of urbanisation in Ireland – which is off-course the great taboo in Irish political discourse. Our lack of collective memory is all the more alarming when you consider that almost twenty years ago the White Paper on Rural Development (still available on DAFF’s website) was published which contained all of the symbolic rhetoric of the current action plan (including, as today, a commitment to create a twenty-year spatial strategy to promote balanced regional development – sound familiar?). Unfortunately, this latest action plan is simply yet another episode of opportunism over strategy where we are failing to accurately conceive the true nature of the problem. No doubt twenty years hence we will be back having the same discussion again.
The National Spatial Strategy was officially scrapped in 2013 by then Minister, Phil Hogan TD. Soon after, the development of a replacement strategy, the National Planning Framework, was announced. On Thursday the initial consultation document was published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and launched at Maynooth University by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, the Minister for DHPCLG, Simon Coveney TD, and Minister for State for Housing and Urban Renewal, Damien English TD. It sets out the process and timeline for formulating the full NPF and provides an initial framing of government thinking with respect to what should be included in the plan.
The NSS was widely considered an unmitigated failure for a number of reasons: there were too many gateways and hubs; it was misaligned with its funding stream the NDP; it was not supported by government, agencies and local authorities and was actively undermined; and it was not implemented on a statutory basis (see this post for a full history and explanation). So have lessons been learned? The Taoiseach would like to think so, stating at the launch that in the NSS, ‘towns were placed against towns, politics against politics … and we are not going there again.’ Instead, the NPF will seek to be more cooperative, coordinated, and regionally based.
The rationale for the NPF is broadly the same as the NSS. It is to coordinate spatially the development of sectoral areas (economy, transport, housing, energy, education, health) and guide and drive balanced regional development as the population continues to grow. If development is not managed and it is left to business is usual to deliver shared national goals, then Dublin will continue to expand, the regional cities will have modest growth, and smaller towns and rural areas will stagnate or decline, the document argues. Instead, the document argues that there needs to be:
- a coordinated, strategic approach with a twenty year time horizon;
- this approach needs to be backed by government across departments/agencies;
- be aligned with public/private investment, including capital spend;
- a focus on health and well-being, the environment, North-South relations, as well as economic and property development;
- a recognition that it is a strategy, not a wish list and that it will involve making hard choices;
- address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
- include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.
The proposed approach to organize and operationalize the NPF through the regional assemblies and in alignment with regional spatial economic strategies that are presently being prepared. Rather than towns competing within a region, they should cooperate and work together as clusters. And there should be stronger urban-rural interdependence, with large and small towns supporting rural communities. Nonetheless, it is argued that there is a need for concentrated development of the five principal cities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford – and the towns around them, to create strong growth polls for business and to realise agglomeration effects and to create scales of economy/critical mass for service and infrastructure delivery. Unlike other countries with a similar sized population – Scotland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand – Ireland has a weak city structure with just five cities with a population above 50,000 (and only two above 100,000), that limits the ability to create balanced growth. More modest growth will be sought in regional towns. While growth would be welcome in rural areas, the priority is to stop further decline and to create resilience, sustainability and to improve quality of life.
There are a couple of big challenges in preparing the full NPF and getting it put on a statutory basis. The first is the seeming paradox between ‘making hard choices’ and ‘addressing all parts of Ireland and avoiding the perception of winners and losers’. The plan needs to make strategic decisions and prioritize areas for development and investment while also persuading everybody that those decisions are for the ‘national/regional good’ and that there is something there for them. Given the legacy of the NSS, the localist/clientelist nature of Irish politics, and the siloed nature of government depts/agencies, that will be a challenge. Second, and related, is given that the proposers are a minority government, the process of getting political support may involve a watering down of the plans aims, or the plan being tweaked in a way that undermines the plan’s logic to curry favour or ensure votes. Third, in preparing the plan, it needs to be made clear how it will be implemented in practice, how it will be resourced, and how its progress will be tracked and steered back onto course if it falters, to persuade people to have faith that this isn’t a NSS v.2, but a strategic plan that will actually work in practice.
As someone who is in favour of a planned and coordinated approach – through a guiding framework, not a heavy-handed roadmap – the publication of the consultation documents for the NPF is a welcome first step. The next step is to develop a full plan that can achieve political and public buy-in. Part of the process to try and ensure this is, on the one hand, to produce a detailed evidence-base and various scenarios, and on the other to invite submissions as part of a consultative phase.
To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or email@example.com; or write to:
Forward Planning Section,
Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government,
Dublin D01 W6X0
The deadline for receipt of all submissions is 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.
Some related media commentary: RTE 1, Drivetime interview; RTE Radio 1 News at One; RTE 1 Primetime.
For additional information see the Ireland 2040 website.