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Thursday 21 September 2017

Keeping the faith... regenerating rural communities in the midlands

Our politicians need to be dynamic and innovative if they are serious about regenerating rural communities, Brendan O’Loughlin tells our reporter

Brendan O'Loughlin pictured by the banks of the Shannon in Banagher, Co Offaly. Photo: Quinn Images
Brendan O'Loughlin pictured by the banks of the Shannon in Banagher, Co Offaly. Photo: Quinn Images
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

The day after the Government unveiled its 276- point Action Plan for Rural Development, I travelled to Banagher in Co Offaly. Driving down the main street, you observe that the shopfronts bear eloquent testament to the challenges facing rural communities.

The Shannonside town is neat, tidy and well kept, with a number of lively businesses plying their trade, on closer examination it's apparent that all is not well. A sizeable number of the shopfronts are bare, some are unoccupied and others bear 'for sale' signs.

I am here to meet Brendan O'Loughlin, who has spent 26 years working in rural development in Offaly.

Three concepts pepper his conversation: community, work and political will.

He believes that the greatest resource rural Ireland has is its communities; their greatest need is work and, to make that happen, they need a political class with the will to support these communities.

The athletic Mayo man is CEO of Offaly Local Development Company (OLDC), the implementation body for both the LEADER Rural Development Programme and the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (SICAP) in the Faithful County.

The company also acts as a hub for 16 programmes and projects dealing with social inclusion, employment, training and development.

It employs 48 core staff in offices throughout the county.Five of the 48 work on the LEADER programme.

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O'Loughlin once played U21 football for his native Mayo and, while no stranger to victory and defeat, his default position is one of optimism.

"Our job as a local development company is around working with communities to take responsibility for their own development and their own progress. How do you enable people to do what they want for themselves?" he asks.

He believes the provision of work is crucial and that a good place to start is with the co-op movement,

"In the 1960s and into the 1970s, these co-ops were at their height. They were locally funded, locally managed and they invested the wealth they created locally."

He says that the nearest equivalent we have today are the credit unions, but these are hamstrung by government and the Central Bank.

"We have credit unions up and down the country with lots of cash - local money belonging to local people - but they are completely restricted from investing in the local economy. If, for example, it became government policy that credit unions must invest 1pc of their funds in local initiatives, in this scenario a moderately sized local credit union with €25m in its coffers could release €250,000 for investment in the local economy and local jobs.

"This quarter of a million euro would inevitably attract co-funding from programmes like LEADER and philanthropic funders, and then you have dynamic local development. This is what I mean by 'political will' - this is stroke-of-a-pen stuff," he said.

Commenting on the Government Action Plan for Rural Development, he describes it as a start. "It's encouraging to see a concentrated focus on rural issues but it will go nowhere without political will," he said.

He is also critical of an absence of a clear vision for rural Ireland. "If there is one, I haven't heard it articulated," he said.

Turning to Offaly, he describes it as a county with tremendous human and natural resources but caught in a magnetic field.

"You have Dublin pulling at the eastern end of the county; you have Athlone drawing from the centre and Limerick drawing from the southwest. It is a struggle to keep life in our own towns in the face of these magnetic pulls."

He says the challenge for the villages, towns and rural communities of Offaly and similar counties is to identify their own strengths and resources in order to regenerate them. "They need to tell themselves and everyone else that 'this is a good place to live'."

He is convinced that the key to the regeneration of rural towns is a change of mindset. "For instance, working with farmers a number of years ago along with Teagasc and the farming organisations, we identified three main categories of farm: small, non-viable farms, semi-commercial farms and fully commercial farms.

"The small, non-viable farms were always supported by seasonal or casual off-farm work and were accustomed to availing of off-farm opportunities but needed a lot of support to combat rural isolation and low incomes.

"The commercial farms were viable and working as best they could, but among the semi-commercial farmers, only 4pc of them were looking at alternative sources of income outside of or complementary to the farm. This was where a change of mindset was needed in order for them to maximise the resources they had by adding value to them."

He says this change of mindset is crucial for rural areas: "Here in Offaly, we have woken up to the value and richness of our communities and our resources. We are unlocking the tourism potential of the county.

"We are no longer willing to sit and watch the tourists flock to the traditional destinations - we are developing a confidence as a tourist attraction: in our boglands, in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, in our artisan foods."

As the new €8m LEADER programme for Offaly is rolled out and the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme is bedding down, Brendan O'Loughlin sees clear signs that the work done over the last 20 years, and more, is bearing fruit.

"There is a high level of engagement with the programmes already, the project applications are coming in thick and fast, and there is a confidence in the communities and individuals applying to us."

The change of mindset is happening on the ground; the political will might catch up some time soon.

A community agency with a wide remit

Offaly is not short of rural success stories in which the Local Development Company played a crucial role. 

Among the better-known projects is the Lough Boora cycling route, extending to 22km through cutaway bog near Blue Ball, the site of the Ploughing Championships. Developed in collaboration between the local community, Bord na Móna and Offaly Local Development Company, the project attracts huge numbers of cyclists.

Another locally developed commercial project is the Ferbane Food Campus, where a community group working with support from Enterprise Ireland and Offaly Local Development Company established a commercial kitchen for training purposes and for use by local artisan food producers. Up to a dozen small local food producers use the facility to prepare their products for market.

Under the auspices of Offaly County Council and the governance of the Local and Community and Development Committee (LCDC), Offaly Local Development Company is the implementing body for the LEADER programme (from the French Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l'Économie Rurale, which translates as Liaison Among Actors in Rural Economic Development) and the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (SICAP).

It has a budget of €8m for 2016 to 2020 with funding targeted at community, enterprise, tourism and off-farm innovation projects. SICAP has a budget of €730,000 funded mainly from the national purse. The LEADER programme draws its funding from the EU under the CAP with matching finance coming from national resources.

OLDC operates a total of 16 programmes and projects employing a core staff of 48 along with 180 Tús participants, 52 Rural Social Scheme workers and 18 on the Jobs Initiative Scheme. It has bases in Tullamore, Edenderry, Birr, Ferbane and Banagher.


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