Are the best of intentions causing the decline of our rural towns and villages?
Trying to reach the future through the past is a line from a 1985 song by Paul Brady that summarises the root cause of why we struggle to attract and sustain populations in rural areas.
Developing policies and plans that will be successful for these areas requires a more realistic understanding of where these places really came from and where they are really going.
Our rural areas are changing because of a the global modernisation of agriculture on the one hand and the urbanisation of society. These changes have been happening for centuries elsewhere, but they are later and slower in Ireland.
Two important facts set the context.
Ireland is the only country in Europe that has fewer people now than it did in the 18th century.
Secondly, Ireland has one of the EU's highest proportions of people living in rural areas [42pc compared to the EU average of 27pc] and the division between Ireland's rural and urban population is now almost exactly opposite of what it was when the State was founded when 60pc was rural.
Ireland is changing fast, the population is growing and urbanising rapidly. At the same time, agriculture's share of the workforce and of the economy is now very small [4.6pc], indeed the proportion of farmers in the workforce is down 85pc in the last 50 years and 75pc of that workforce is over 50 years old.
Increasing urbanisation changes ideals. Many now have unrealistic values about the countryside - attaching greater importance to heritage, scenery and ecology than to food production. Such values extend to the cores of rural towns, mostly comprising smaller, mostly 19th century stone buildings, that are increasingly designated as architectural conservation areas.
Values based on abstraction, idealism and precaution have led to very extensive and restrictive designations that give priority to protection, preservation and restriction which can increase the cost and complexity of development and reduce the attraction of these areas for new uses.
The redevelopment of 'Main Street', all over Ireland, is also restricted by the owners of the majority of the commercial core in small sites who are unable or unwilling to cooperatively develop the scale, access and parking necessary to accommodate modern retail requirements. This is one of the principal causes of the migration of modern stores like Aldi and Lidl to the outskirts which drains the already impoverished centre of footfall and vitality.
'Use it or lose it' is a truism that also applies to towns. Unless the main street is filled with uses it will begin the death-spiral that starts with charity shops and ends with dereliction and loss. The other truism that can equally apply is 'change is a choice'.
To change we will need to both let go and reach out, if we are to create vibrant and attractive futures for those rural towns and villages that support and sustain rural hinterlands.
Letting go means increasing the incentives for the landowners of the centres of these towns to release land for integrated, plan-led development that would benefit all.
Letting go will also involve reducing the influence of well-intentioned, but misplaced, forces of planning and conservation that place a greater priority on preserving the parts rather than the whole of our settlements.
Reaching out means making specific, purposeful plans for specific uses and futures - by assigning specific roles to each place so that all play a specialist part within the larger network of services, supports and attractions that will sustain wider areas at county level.
Reaching out means expecting change and embracing its arrival by preparing for changes in population and economy - especially in matters of age and agriculture. Planning is about facilitating the future by facing reality - not by wishing it away. Planners are well-accustomed to making plans for more land to accommodate growth - but where are our plans to prepare for contraction when people age or leave?
Planning in Ireland is mostly about the development and growth of settlements. Our County Development Plans are largely silent about the countryside - technically called 'white lands' because they are un-zoned - except for necessary designations to protect water, ecology and scenery.
We need plans for transitions in the rural areas surrounding settlements. We need plans to transition away from agriculture in some areas, plans for more intensive agriculture in other areas because a mere 12pc of all farms produced close to two-thirds of the agricultural output using less than a third of the total farmed land area. We need plans for an older, smaller population in some places. All of these changes need to be linked to plans for rural uses such as tourism, food production, leisure, rural enterprise.
Change can happen by the slow and accepted accumulation of external effects - which is exactly what is happening now in rural Ireland - or change can happen by design. Our rural towns can be transformed by a combination of interventions and strategies by central and local government.
Fiscal instruments could be introduced, like farmer retirement schemes, to incentivise settlement-centre land-owners to release or combine smaller un-economic back-land and main streets sites into viable plots to meet modern land-use requirements
Local authorities could develop new serviced residential frontage roads to wrap behind settlement back-lands to increase density, reduce ribbon development and improve mobility patterns
The future of rural Ireland needs a new narrative that addresses the hard realities of irreversible population change caused by changing agriculture. This will involve accepting the futility of hankering for the return of a mythical past. It is nostalgia, blaming and denial that is killing our towns, not neglect. We continue to make rural policies based on opinions, expectations and entitlements - not evidence.
We will need to re-purpose our rural areas, town and country, so that will be able to accommodate these changes instead of becoming lost in a fruitless downward spiral of regret and blame. Newly imagined, these areas have a future with equal, if different, opportunities from the larger settlements. Reaching that future requires us to first get out of our own way.
Conor Skehan will chair the conference 'Death from Nostalgic Sentiment or a New Narrative for Rural Ireland?' this Thursday at Ballymascanlon House Hotel, Dundalk, Co Louth. This article is based on a paper which he will deliver at the event