'Rural proofing' plan by Minister aims to protect local facilities
Rural Affairs Minister Ann Phelan is preparing radical new plans aimed at preventing future closures of rural schools, post offices, nursing homes and garda stations.
In a memo set to be brought to Cabinet, Ms Phelan will seek that the Government issues a diktat to State bodies and government departments that "critical local facilities" be maintained.
Ms Phelan wants to ensure that all departments and State bodies such as An Post and the HSE take part in a "rural proofing" strategy in a bid to revitalise rural towns.
The minister's plan was discussed briefly at the Labour Parliamentary Party meeting last week and has been welcomed by backbenchers.
But her proposals to secure guarantees that facilities such as schools and nursing homes must be maintained will prove difficult to sell to Cabinet ministers.
The Government received praise for creating the new post of Rural Affairs Minister last July, saying it was a sign of the Coalition's commitment to rural Ireland.
However, Ms Phelan has voiced frustration during discussions with colleagues that ministers need to do more to support her brief.
"They need to put their cards on the table and show what they really mean when they say they are truly committed to rural communities," she told this newspaper last month.
Ms Phelan is to propose that the Government directs departments and other State bodies to ensure that certain vital facilities are kept open until the implementation of the CEDRA report (Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas).
This report made 35 recommendations aimed at assisting in the economic development of rural communities.
It recommends that greater focus be paid to 'funding models' for rural towns and the establishment of Rural Economic Development Zones (REDZ).
The CEDRA report also recommends greater collaboration at regional level between State bodies such as the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) and Enterprise Ireland.
Labour Party senator for Galway Lorraine Higgins last night called on the Government to support Ms Phelan's plan, adding that many rural communities have yet to experience the economic recovery.
"We need to do more for rural Ireland. There is a two-tier recovery happening and it's almost like rural Ireland is another country compared to Dublin," Ms Higgins told the Irish Independent.
"By implementing this plan, it would show that Government is truly committed to ensuring that rural communities are part of the upturn in the economy," she added.
It is understood that the minister's proposals will be brought to the attention of Cabinet in the form of a memo later this month. A Government source last night said the measures being put forward by Ms Phelan will be strongly considered "on their merits".