Farm Ireland

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Comment: Rural Ireland has already suffered enough but the Budget looks set to twist the knife

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Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

LOOKING at the Budget 2019 teasers, it's clear that rural Ireland has little political clout and we've got a capital convinced that everything revolves around it.

Living in Dublin, at times, everywhere else can cease to exist even if we sometimes hear stories about the other side of the wall, where winter is coming. No wonder everyone else says that the Dublin 4 media and politicians think they are better than everyone else; it's because they often do. Leinster House rarely pretends to be interested in the hundreds of thousands who live in the countryside and rural Ireland's way of life is under attack again in Budget 2019.

Last year the Government launched an action plan. It called it 'Realising Our Rural Potential: the Action Plan for Rural Development'. Sounds good? Not so much when we hear that diesel, petrol and the hotel VAT rate are all going up in next week's Budget. These are all things that will hit those living in the countryside hardest.

Yes, the money has to come from somewhere. But how fair is taking it from rural Ireland?

We constantly hear dire warnings that a lack of investment, as well as the growing wealth gap and the dominance of Dublin as an economic hub, are creating a crisis. The findings of Social Justice Ireland's national 2016 survey on income and living conditions found that people living in rural areas have higher at-risk rates of poverty than those in urban areas.

In the Border, midlands and western region the at-risk-of-poverty rate was 22.3pc compared to 14.4pc in the southern and eastern region. The Border, midlands and western region also had higher rates of consistent poverty at 10.6pc compared to 7.6pc in the southern and eastern region. Longford had the highest unemployment rate recorded in Census 2016 at almost 30pc. The poverty rate in rural Ireland is 4.5 percentage points higher than in urban Ireland.

Rural Ireland's problems are vast, they are structural and need intervention from local and national government. There's a steady decline of rural services - the buses, Garda stations and post offices. In some of the remotest parts this process is being fuelled by depopulation. Farm incomes are in trouble unless the farmer is diversifying into other sectors. There is no sign of proper broadband being rolled out.

Tourism is important in rural Ireland. The reduced rate of 9pc VAT was introduced in 2011 to stimulate the hospitality sector - crucial to economic well-being in rural areas. It worked. An independent report produced by Indecon research economists on behalf of Fáilte Ireland found that since the introduction of the VAT reduction there has been a strong recovery in overseas trips to Ireland.

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THIS growth was particularly pronounced for visitors from the rest of Europe and from the USA and Canada. There was also a strong recovery in hotel occupancy rates, particularly from 2015 when hotel room occupancy outdid pre-crisis levels.

Employment in the tourism sector had declined significantly in the period before the VAT changes but it recovered dramatically with employment in the accommodation/food sector increasing faster than overall national employment during the recession. Now isn't the time to raise it.

Carbon tax will also go up, that's kerosene, marked gas oil, liquid petroleum gas, fuel oil, natural gas and solid fuels. Outside our cities, people are forced to use their cars constantly, from bringing their children to school to getting to work or even just going out for a loaf of bread.

There will always be a need to have a car when you live in the countryside and governments have to take this into account when they are thinking about taxation. Rural motorists are already paying significantly more taxes on fuel, purely because they have to use their car more often than someone living in a city. It isn't fair to tax them more.

Reports like the Age Profile in Ireland from April 2016's Census show that rural Ireland has problems. It shows that we have an increasingly urban population where young people are flocking to the cities and towns, chasing education and job opportunities. The age profile of rural Ireland grows ever older. Our oldest administrative areas in Ireland are in Kerry and Mayo. Of course they are. Killarney was the oldest town in Ireland, with an average age of 40.9 years.

Rural Ireland is a distinct part of our national character and deserves to be a dynamic part of our economy. Protecting it would give people more choice about where they live and the jobs they do. Businesses would no longer have to be tied to our towns and cities, to the benefit of us all.

The Government has to consider all parts of the country if it wants to create a fair Budget.

Right now country folk have a sad, niggly feeling that they are about to be robbed.

Irish Independent

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