Monday 23 September 2019

Michael Ring: 'Project 2040 is a €1bn game-changer to help rural Ireland compete with cities'

Investment: Officials at the launch of Project Ireland 2040 in Dublin in September
Investment: Officials at the launch of Project Ireland 2040 in Dublin in September

Michael Ring

Ireland is imbalanced. The Greater Dublin Area generates an astonishing 45pc of Ireland's GDP and is home to 40pc of the population of the State. Meanwhile, people living in our rural communities often face travelling long distances to access services and work. This imbalance impacts on everyone's quality of life.

The Government has decided it is time to redress the balance by strategically directing a greater proportion of growth and investment to our regions and our rural communities. This is a cornerstone of Project Ireland 2040, the 20-year planning and investment strategy.

By 2040, our national population will have increased by a million. As set out in Project Ireland 2040, half of that growth will take place in rural Ireland - outside the five main cities.

Today in Co Sligo I will join An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD in announcing the first successful recipient towns and villages under the Government's Rural Regeneration and Development Fund which is part of the Project Ireland 2040 initiative.

This fund will see €1bn invested in towns and villages with populations of under 10,000 over the next 10 years. This level of funding for our rural towns and villages is unprecedented and will be a game changer for rural communities.

The potential of the fund is endless and will be driven by the vision and initiative of the applicant communities. The types of supports are wide ranging and could include, for example: turning vacant buildings into community spaces such as digital hubs; transforming public areas such as parks and town squares; investing in sporting and recreational facilities; and repurposing heritage buildings so they serve as vital community facilities.

Crucially, we are also providing seed capital for applicants to develop more ambitious, larger scale proposals to be rolled out on a multi-annual basis. This is where, in my view, the truly transformative potential of this fund will be realised.

More than 290 rural communities have applied for the first tranche of funding and we will today announce the first group of successful communities to receive this for 2019. More announcements will follow shortly.

In total, €55m has been allocated for 2019. Over the next four years, €315m will be invested through the fund.

Rural communities were significantly affected during the recession. And yes, it did take longer for the recovery to reach rural Ireland. But the rural recovery is now real.

Latest CSO figures show employment has grown in every region in the country. By midway through this year we had already comfortably surpassed the Government objective to support the creation of 135,000 jobs outside the Dublin region between 2015 and 2020.

Changing consumer habits are creating challenges for our town centres, not just in rural areas but in our cities and their suburbs. This year Irish consumers will spend €8bn online, much of it with overseas retailers. People increasingly choose to shop in out-of-town retail outlets and supermarkets, as opposed to in their local main street.

The misleading and often politically motivated narrative which suggests a neglect of our rural communities fails to take into account the fundamental shifts in consumer behaviour changing the face of our main streets and town centres.

The Rural Regeneration and Development Fund provides the impetus for the transformation of hundreds of rural towns and villages over the next 10 years. It is an unprecedented investment by the State in our rural towns and villages and is clear, incontrovertible evidence of the Government's commitment to rural Ireland.

This fund is built on a solid foundation of increased government investment in our towns and villages, especially in the last two years.

For example, since 2016 the Town and Village Renewal Fund and the CLÁR programme have provided significant investment in and improvements to over 1,700 rural communities. This increased investment has been made possible by prudent and sustainable management of the economy.

It is an often overlooked fact that the first act of our Taoiseach was to create a Department of Rural and Community Development. He did this in order to provide a focus, both political and financial, for the regeneration of rural communities.

The next phase of rural regeneration is built around a strategy for significant growth in our rural population, backed up by targeted government investment. It will harness the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of communities and the potential offered by modern technology.

Broadband is key to realising rural Ireland's potential. It will enable businesses to develop and thrive and for people to work close to or within their communities, including from home - an arrangement which is increasingly desirable for employers.

Since the formation of this Government in 2016, the percentage of people that can access high speed broadband has increased from 52pc to 75pc. High-speed broadband is having a transformative effect on communities and we need to see it rolled out throughout rural Ireland.

Project Ireland 2040 is an opportunity to shape the future of our rural communities. That future is positive and exciting.

It's in everyone's interests to re-balance growth away from our cities. I firmly believe rural Ireland will increasingly offer a quality of life which can more than compete with larger population centres.

  • Michael Ring is Rural and Community Development Minister

Irish Independent

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