Ireland's potential - urban or rural - must be unlocked
A debate on development is needed - but we mustn't allow it to turn into a fight between the country and cities, says Eamon O Cuiv
Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30
In last week's Sunday Independent, John Moran, former General Secretary in the Department of Finance, called for a public debate regarding spatial development in Ireland. I am in complete agreement on this and will be proposing in the coming Dail session that the new Dail committee with responsibility for regional and rural affairs examine this matter and issue a report on its findings. I look forward to John Moran presenting his views before this committee.
Unlike Mr Moran, I have never viewed urban development and rural development as being a choice of one or the other - but instead as being complementary. The fundamental premise of policymaking should be to ensure that citizens have as good a standard of living and quality of life as possible, while recognising the reality that it is of course not possible to make available to rural dwellers all of the services and amenities that are enjoyed by city dwellers.
However, people should always remember that we live on a small island, in geographic terms. For this very reason, it should be possible to ensure that all communities have top-class basic services such as water, roads, broadband, basic health and educational services, while also being able to develop innovative urban development programmes and 'living cities' for those people who choose to live in them.
Mr Moran's remarks, however, imply that basic state services should be withdrawn from rural areas on the basis that rural dwellers have "chosen" to live there or that such services should only be provided at economic cost. This to me seems to ignore the reality that many people already live in rural Ireland, that our population densities are much lower than the other European countries for historical reasons as much as by 'choice' and that the rural services that he claims are a waste of resources are already, in many cases, being provided. If what he is advocating is a policy of rural abandonment, then this is neither realistic nor responsible.
Although a strong economy is crucial in terms of generating the resources vital in terms of providing employment and a decent standard of living to people, Mr Moran appears to make the mistake of believing that people exist to serve the economy rather than the other way around. In our rush to view people as economic units, it is important to remember other elements that are important to quality of life: the cultural, artistic, environmental and aesthetic. Added to that we have things like family, neighbourliness, personal and community security, educational opportunities and recreation.
Many urban planners are of the view that these things could be enhanced by building dense, high-rise accommodation in city centres which would improve productivity and create other positive spill-over effects.
I have never been convinced by this view. For every success story that may be advanced to support this claim, it seems that many other stories of urban and social decay and deprivation could be used as counterpoints, both here in Ireland and abroad.
Furthermore, our own experience in Ireland suggests that living in rural areas needs not be an impediment to creativity or connectivity: one only has to look at the phenomenal growth of, for example, the creative industries clustered around TG4 in Connemara.
As I mentioned above, the costs of providing rural Ireland with the basic tools and services to develop are not huge. Mr Moran, for example, laments the proposal to roll-out high-speed fibre broadband to rural areas. However, given advances in technology where fibre-optic cables can be hung on existing telephone poles, the total cost of this one-off, future-proofed investment is very modest - about €75m a year over for five years out of a total capital budget of in excess of €4bn.
A number of years ago, I joined some of the participants of the first Web Summit in Keel on Achill Island for a meal. They had come there to recreate on a wet and windy October weekend participating in cycling, kite-surfing and other adventure activities. Looking around the room at these energetic creative people, I began to understand their lifestyle of hard work, 24-hour communication globally and love of the outdoors and extreme sport. It was on that night that I became convinced that universal fibre broadband was not only needed for the local population but was also needed if we are to sell this country as the most connected country in the world.
And what does the future of rural Ireland look like, what are the industries, amenities and services that we should be developing? I agree with Mr Moran that it is unlikely that many multinational industries will locate in rural areas and that the development of IDA parks may in many cases be unsuitable.
However, multinational companies are not the only job creators: the SME sector in Ireland provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, many of which are located in rural areas.
Most people recognise that we need to create a much more diverse economy if we want to hedge against future uncertainties.
Amongst the ways of promoting rural employment are industries traditionally more suited to rural environments such as resource-based industries in food, agricultural machinery and services, fish processing as well as timber and extractive industries.
Recreational tourism (including rural and marine leisure) has also exploded and the development of walkways, green ways and other facilities would further its continued expansion.
We should also assist local entrepreneurs to develop sophisticated industries as has happened in many communities by supporting local enterprise and job creation initiatives.
Finally, we should look at the decentralisation of policy administration and the increased use of partnerships between public, private and voluntary sectors in the development and implementation of regional policies.
In the coming Dail term, be it long or short, I will continue to fight for the development of all regions of the country to their maximum potential, recognising that it is the sum of all its parts economically, socially and culturally that makes up our nation.
It is time to put an end to the policies of urban/rural rivalry and to replace them with policies that see the development of any area as the benefit of all.
Eamon O Cuiv is a TD for Galway West