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.