Revealed: The Government's €60m plan to revive rural Ireland

Taoiseach to launch scheme to help 600 regional towns

The plan will be launched by Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys, pictured at her family farm in Co Monaghan. Photo: Kyran OBrien

Niall O'Connor

The most comprehensive plan for rural Ireland in years has placed a major focus on protecting rural schools as well as tackling commercial rate bills that are crippling small businesses.

The Government's €60m action plan, entitled 'Realising our Rural Potential', also proposes the increasing of flight connections at Cork and Shannon Airports, as well as a clampdown on so-called "mobile phone black-outs".

And a scheme due to be rolled out by the autumn will see house buyers offered grants on a pilot basis to restore properties in rural towns and villages.

Some 90 new public nursing home facilities and 18 primary care centres are to be established, while the Government has also pledged a grant scheme for CCTV and personal alarms for the elderly.

And there is a significant focus on rural schools, according to the plan seen by the Irish Independent.

It says that there will be new rules to ensure no small school closes against the wishes of parents.

More amalgamations have been signalled in order to prevent schools closing due to capacity.

And there will be new guidelines introduced to allow school buildings to be used for community purposes after school hours.

Businesses have also been handed a boost by the plan.

In cases whereby vacant commercial units are being changed into homes, an option for the planning process to be by-passed entirely will be introduced.

The rolling-out of a new rural public banking system will be considered, while significant changes to the rates system will be introduced.

Local authorities will introduce a new "rates alleviation scheme", in conjunction with moves to re-evaluate rates in nine rural counties.

Meanwhile, a new training scheme will be aimed at getting women back into the workforce, and mobile phone blackspots will be tackled.

The plan, a copy of which has been obtained by the Irish Independent, will be unveiled today by Taoiseach Enda Kenny the ministers in the Department of Rural Affairs, Heather Humphreys and Michael Ring.

However, the Opposition is likely to accuse the Government of neglecting rural Ireland for too long.

Overall, the plan aims to reinvigorate over 600 rural and regional towns, through an investment of around €60m over the next three years.

The plan also pledges to develop an Atlantic Economic Corridor to drive jobs and investment along the western seaboard.

Mr Kenny will tell a press conference in Longford that the Government intends to increase the number of tourists coming to Ireland by 12pc.

And 135,000 new jobs in rural Ireland will be supported between now and 2020.

"As I know well, there is huge untapped potential in rural Ireland.

"These are strong communities with ideas and ambition for their futures," Mr Kenny is set to say in his speech.

The ongoing implementation of the plan will be overseen by a monitoring committee, to be chaired by Ms Humphreys.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Ms Humphreys said another major part of the plan relates to broadband.

She said she has asked every local authority to appoint a dedicated official to liaise with departments in relation to the roll-out of high-speed fibre broadband.

"I think every shop has got to go online. Because what do you do when you want to find something, you Google it," Ms Humphreys said.

The Cavan-Monaghan TD said she expects to see the plan for the roll-out of blanket broadband to begin in the autumn.

Ms Humphreys said she believes there is too much negativity around rural Ireland.

"Comments like 'rural Ireland is dying'. I don't want to hear that, because it's not," Ms Humphreys said.