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Change in rural Ireland is only a problem when it stops changing

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The Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary. We need different plans for Atlantic Ireland, the north Midlands, the south Midlands, the east Midlands and south east Ireland Picture: Getty

The Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary. We need different plans for Atlantic Ireland, the north Midlands, the south Midlands, the east Midlands and south east Ireland Picture: Getty

Getty Images

The Glen of Aherlow in Tipperary. We need different plans for Atlantic Ireland, the north Midlands, the south Midlands, the east Midlands and south east Ireland Picture: Getty

Rural Ireland is in the news again, for all of the wrong reasons, during a critical week. This week's concerns stem from reports that An Post could be considering closing huge numbers of post offices, while Ulster Bank may close 30 branches, mainly in rural areas.

This is leading to another round of hand-wringing that rural Ireland is in decline. Rural interests insist that something must be done.

These headlines appeared during the last week, when the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government are seeking views on the new National Planning Framework [see npf.ie/share-your-views].

In other headlines this week we learned that Dublin is not prepared for the opportunities offered by Brexit because of underinvestment in social housing, transport infrastructure, education and social amenities.

Meanwhile, Minister Simon Coveney has been holding briefing meetings around the country, seeking views about the National Planning Framework - the NPF.

The discussions to date have centred around finding alternatives to 'business as usual'. These seem to centre around trying to increase regional development while controlling the growth of Dublin.

It is ironic that the real 'business as usual' is that we continue to incorrectly describe both the changes in rural Ireland and the growth of Dublin as if these were problems that need to be stopped.

Turning first to rural Ireland: there is no such place. There are a number of rural Irelands, each with different opportunities.

The main thing that they have in common is the disservice that's done by making sweeping generalisations, as though everywhere that's not a town is the same.

Another disservice is to use distorting and alarmist language to describe a series of changes that arise from new types of agriculture and their effects on rural communities.

In very large parts of Ireland agriculture is no longer able to sustain modern expectations of income and standards of living.

Meanwhile, in other areas modernisation and mechanisation have dramatically reduced the numbers needed, especially since we joined the EEC over 40 years ago.

As a result, two generations of smart, hard-working young women and men have left their home place to find work that matched their education, energy and ambition because of changing agriculture.

This is happening all over the world ­- changing agriculture changes everything.

Sometimes the changes leave behind emptier, poorer places full of older people, but this is not the full story.

Modern, large-scale intensive agriculture empties the countryside too, but nobody describes these areas as declining.

Other rural places are transforming themselves into mixed economies based on part-time farming, tourism, stud-farming, settlement and rural enterprises such as quarrying, forestry, wind energy and aquaculture.

These changes are just that. Changes. They become 'problems' only when we try to stop changes caused by factors outside our control.

They become 'problems' when the changes are blamed on something other than agriculture itself. They become 'problems' when we characterise change as 'decline'.

The new Action Plan for Rural Development addresses this with refreshing clarity, stating at the outset that it is time to change the narrative about rural Ireland and also stating that the perception that rural is synonymous with decline is wrong.

An incorrect diagnosis is as dangerous in policy and planning as it is in medicine. It misdirects attention into addressing symptoms instead of causes.

We will only start to make progress with an accurate diagnosis.

We need to move away from the 'business-as-usual' of using emotional language, blame and denial as a basis for decisions about the future of rural Ireland.

The 2017 Action Plan For Rural Development is a huge improvement on the work of the 2014 Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas.

It still falls far short of what's needed, because it lacks maps. We need to make and map different plans specifically for our different rural Irelands.

We need different plans for Atlantic Ireland, the north Midlands, the south Midlands, the east Midlands and south east Ireland.

We need to make specific and deliberate plans to help some rural communities to grow old gracefully, comfortably and safely.

This approach will anticipate and invent new provisions so that post offices, shops, garda stations and bus services will transform in advance of need, instead of closing as abrupt injuries to the community. We need to end the denial that some communities are aging.

Changes of this type will feel like a victory if they have been planned for in advance.

This needs us to acknowledge, accept and prepare for inevitable changes, instead of remaining in denial or wasting energy and time on blame.

Other rural areas will need deliberate and specific plans to 'get out of the way' of larger and more intensive modern farming.

Meanwhile, other rural areas, near bigger towns, will need places specifically designated for rural settlement - with public transport, safe walks, amenities and bigger schools. We need to end the denial that many people want to live in rural settings.

The National Planning Framework offers the opportunity to address real needs as well as identifying specialisations, purposes and priorities for specific rural areas.

The Wild Atlantic Way is a spectacular example of what can happen when we get specific in rural areas.

Now, we need to get specific about food, intensive farming, forestry and settlement.

Rural readers, take part, make submissions to the Plan. Make specific proposals to the NPF about what, why and how your rural area could be the best place in Ireland.

This is the exact opposite of the comfortable 'one-for-everyone-in-the-audience' approach.

It is also the exact opposite of our 'business-as-usual' approach of wanting everywhere in Ireland to have the same things.

The other approach that we have to change is to stop describing the growth of Dublin as 'the problem'.

We've seen that it is changing agriculture, not growing Dublin, that is affecting rural Ireland.

This incorrect diagnosis is even more dangerous because it endangers the source of the funds needed to support the changes of rural Ireland.

Farmers receive €1.2bn per annum in direct payments, €4bn under the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme and up to €30m per annum for other rural development schemes.

Rural Ireland needs urban Ireland to succeed.

Unfortunately, emerging discussions all suggest that the new National Planning Framework will be a rehash of the failed National Spatial Strategy.

That failed strategy sought to try to contain the growth of the engine of the national economy in the misguided belief that this would reinvigorate rural Ireland by making it the same as eastern Ireland.

Current discussions on the new NPF are framed by attempts to characterise 'business as usual' as something to be opposed and replaced - with seeming disregard to the advice 'don't fix what ain't broke'.

Lest we forget that 'business as usual' has delivered a thriving economy that is starting a spectacular recovery from one of the worst recessions that has ever been experienced by a western economy.

In contrast, our economy has already been wounded by a property boom supported by the misguided 'build it and they'll come' housing approach.

Let's not make that mistake again.

Despite claiming to promote 'balanced regional development' such a plan would only hold back the prosperity of nearly two-thirds of the population.

To date, three-quarters of the Government's consultation has taken place outside of the area where the majority of the population live. Is that balanced?

The plan is likely to interpret the silence of the majority in the Dublin region as approval - unless you demand that half of the plan is devoted to where half of the population and two-thirds of the economy are located.

Sunday Independent