Revealed: Plan to lure first-time buyers to rural towns
135,000 jobs and broadband to revitalise 'main streets'
First-time buyers are to be offered incentives to live in the centre of provincial towns, new Rural Development Minister Heather Humphreys has revealed.
She wants to prioritise a scheme that will see young people migrate to 'living on the main street', rather than buying homes on the outskirts of towns.
The minister plans to make grants available for the restoration of some houses and is willing to change planning laws so that buildings zoned for retail purposes can then be re-designated for residential use.
In her first interview since being appointed to the new ministry, Ms Humphreys told the Irish Independent: "When you look at the towns, there are a lot of vacant buildings, a lot of businesses closed down and a lot of dereliction. That is an issue that I want to address.
"I think the recovery is starting to spread out but I think it needs to be more focused in terms of delivering for rural Ireland. We need to get more energy into the towns."
A new 'Action Plan for Rural Ireland' is to be developed over the next three to six months with definitive targets assigned to every government department.
"I live in the country, I spent nearly all of my life in the county and I'm very conscious of the issues in rural Ireland, such as job opportunities and getting young people back to the country. In a lot of families, the young people are educated in Dublin and never come back.
"It's about doing what I can to regenerate rural Ireland and to make sure that it is top of every government department that makes a decision. I want all of their policies to be rural-proofed. I want them (other ministers) to positively discriminate towards rural Ireland."
Among the key elements in the plan will be:
■ The new €250m Rural Development Programme (LEADER), roll-out of which will begin later this year;
■ An enhanced Town and Village Renewal Programme;
■ A number of tourism initiatives, including a doubling in funding for the Rural Walks Scheme and €100m investment in the Wild Atlantic Way and the greenways network;
■ A doubling in funding for local and regional roads;
■ The roll-out of high-speed rural broadband.
"My own personal view is that we should be incentivising young people, first-time buyers, to go back into the centre of towns," the minister said.
"Twenty years ago, everybody wanted to move out and it's amazing that in a lot of small towns across Ireland the shopkeepers have all moved out and have houses outside of town.
"It's about how we can incentivise people to come back and live in the centre of town and if we have to change the development use of property from retail back to residential, so be it.
"When people move into town, it brings business in and they'll automatically move back into retail if the people are there," she said.
While still supporting the right of people to build one-off homes in the countryside, Ms Humphreys said "great use" could be made of many empty business premises.
"A lot of centres of towns have heritage buildings, so maybe there is a way through my other area, which is Heritage, that we could incentivise to encourage people to return to the houses. There's some heritage benefit in that and giving them a grant to help them restore a heritage buildings."
The minister said the roll-out of broadband and making sure everywhere in the country has a high-speed connection by 2022 will be her "number one priority".
She described the process which will lead to contracts being signed for the national plan by the middle of next year as "complex" but was adamant that "it will happen".
"In the interim, there is a good lot I can do. First of all, definitely, we are going to work with the local authorities to make sure that there are no roadblocks.
"When the switch is ready to go on for national broadband and people say, 'here it is', I want local authorities to be able to say, 'I'm ready.' I don't want to see any blockages in terms of planning or development levies. I want a uniform approach and I want them ready. I will work with local authorities on that.
"I think we can look at community broadband and how communities can come together and maybe get a better offer from existing providers.
"There are a lot of different providers in the market and if communities come together they will have a critical mass. I want to talk to the existing broadband providers."
Ms Humphreys continued: "The priority here is not about, 'we have so much money and we'll do this, this and this'. The priority is we are going to deliver broadband to everybody. It's an important utility now, it's like electricity."
The Programme for Government has also set her a target of 135,000 new jobs for rural Ireland over the next five years.
Ms Humphreys said it was "not realistic to have an IDA factory in every town" but the Government needed to look at supporting indigenous industries.
"What we can improve on rural Ireland is a spread. We can't be dependent on one thing. That's what happened before. We were over-dependent on the construction industry.
"We had the young lads and they were farming part-time and on the building sites. That collapsed. Then they were falling back into the farm and the farms sometimes just don't generate enough income to rear a family like they did years ago.
"That's why I want to see a spread. It's about supporting indigenous industries, it's about providing an educated workforce."