The Action Plan for Rural Development must translate to delivery, writes Thomas Cooney, IFA Environment and Rural Affairs Chairman.
The publication of the Action Plan for Rural Development last week is a welcome signal that the Government is committed to improving the economic and social supports available to rural Ireland. The plan will now be judged by how well it is backed up by funding, resourcing and delivery.
As those of us who live there know, rural Ireland is a great place to live, work and enjoy, but it faces many challenges. The upturn in the economy has not been felt in many towns and rural areas; lack of employment opportunities and infrastructural investment are major concerns and, alongside that, people living in rural Ireland simply do not have the same access to services, supports or infrastructure that their urban counterparts enjoy.
With a well-funded plan, this imbalance can be addressed but the plan must be properly resourced and it must translate into action and results.
The ambitious programme launched last week promises 276 action points and an innovative whole-of-government approach. I am pleased to find among the actions identified many of the proposals set out in IFA’s Rural Affairs Strategy ‘A Policy Charter for Rural Ireland’ including proposals around rejuvenating rural villages and supporting family businesses.
However, also found among the 276 measures are many that are already in in place or promised. This plan cannot become another re-heat and re-launch; it is important that additional, ring-fenced funding is secured to support real progress. If they are to make a difference for rural Ireland, the promise of actions such as the Local Improvement Schemes for non-public roads require a specific allocation, not merely the promise of increased funding. Increased and measurable targets for policing hours and a greater presence of mobile units in rural areas by An Garda Síochána are also required.
The Action Plan promises that responsibility for each action will rest with an individual Government Department. This vesting of specific responsibility is very welcome and we in IFA look forward to working collaboratively with the various agencies to achieve progress.
However, while Minister Humphreys has said the actions will be time bound, specific timelines for delivery are not set out. It is important that deadlines for delivery are established and a public report on progress is published within 90 days, with regular monitoring reports following to ensure focus is maintained and to assure those living in rural Ireland that progress is being made.
Broadband urgently needed
High-speed fibre based rural broadband connectivity is required not only to support farm business, job creation and investment in rural areas but to give those living in rural Ireland the same educational, social, and work-life balance benefits and conveniences they could have living in the city.
The need is urgent; rural Ireland is being left behind. The National Broadband Plan has been announced but we need to see it rolled out speedily and at a quality that will allow rural Ireland to catch up and keep up. It has to be future-proofed, bringing fibre broadband to the home; it must be as cost competitive for the customer in Dingle as the customer in Dublin; and, there must be clear measurable targets for download and upload speeds.
Backbone of rural Ireland
Farming is the backbone of economic activity across the countryside; the 300,000 jobs that flow from a vibrant farming sector cannot be underestimated. Farming and the agri-food sector is Ireland’s largest indigenous productive sector, exporting food and drink worth over €11bn and creating employment right around the country.
It is positive to see the continued development of the agri-food sector as a key objective in the plan, however it is important that a focus is maintained on supporting farm incomes and securing the future of family farms.
Brexit poses a very real threat to agriculture and the rural economy. Already the impact of sterling depreciation has had a serious price impact for exports from certain sectors, including beef and mushrooms. With 40% of our food exports destined for the UK market, the outlook for our vital farming and agri-food industry is at best uncertain.
The new Action Plan has the potential to act as a Brexit buffer and to establish a floor of support under rural areas still reeling from the post-2008 economic downturn. Investment is required to support economic recovery balanced across the regions and to support the development of rural enterprise outside of the main urban areas – a strategic focus of Government.
The Government’s Action Plan has laudable aims and shows a welcome level of commitment to rural Ireland but initiatives such as this have been promised before. This time we need to see impact. Rural Ireland doesn’t need 276 good ideas; it needs actions, responsibilities and real outcomes.