Ireland is seizing the “unparalleled opportunity” offered by changing pandemic-era work habits to shift people from major cities to the rest of the country, envisaging a network of remote working hubs and rejuvenated town centres in an effort to redress the country’s longstanding rural-urban divide.
The Irish government unveiled its “Our Rural Future” strategy on Monday, ahead of a promised announcement on easing a three-month lockdown. Some of the measures currently in force, notably a ban on non-essential travel further than 5km, have hit rural dwellers particularly hard.
The plan, the first of its kind launched by a European country since the start of the pandemic, includes creating a network of more than 400 remote working hubs, and introducing tax breaks for individuals and for companies which support homeworking.
The government has set a target of 20 per cent of Ireland’s 300,000 civil servants moving to remote working by the end of the year. Other measures include “financial support” to encourage people to live in rural towns and accelerated broadband rollout.
“As we recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, an unparalleled opportunity exists for us to realise the objective of achieving balanced regional development and maximising recovery for all parts of our country,” Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin told reporters.
The rural-urban divide has dominated Irish politics for decades. But, Heather Humphreys, minister for rural and community development, said the country now has “an unprecedented opportunity to turn the tide”.
“The biggest mistake we can make as we emerge from the pandemic is to go back to the old normal.”
Ireland’s last big decentralisation push was in the early 2000s, when government departments were moved from Dublin. That move delivered far fewer jobs to the regions than originally expected. Humphreys said this plan was different. “This is a modern, worker-led decentralisation, not focused on buildings but on people.”
Just one of the 152 measures in the plan has a deadline attached. And none has been costed, though ministers stressed that funding was available. Humphreys promised to give more detail next week on what could be achieved this year.
Other European countries face similar questions about how their cities will change in the wake of shifts in working practices brought about by the pandemic.
Ian Warren, a director at the UK’s Centre For Towns think-tank, said that the Irish plan looked “very promising”, adding: “The belief in the UK is that cities have been the focus for government intervention for too long, and that there needs to be a better balance in terms of investment.”
Warren stressed that “lots of investment” was required to manage population shifts, including “very good infrastructure, broadband, good housing, good public services, good transport”, as well as access to green spaces and culture.
Tax incentives of the sort Dublin is promising were “just one lever that you can pull”, Warren said.
The launch event for the plan featured video testimonials from several women who had moved to the Irish countryside in recent years. They cited a range of benefits, including not having to commute, being closer to family and more affordable housing.
The prospect of others following in their wake is already unnerving Dublin businesses, many of which have been shuttered for most of the last year under one of Europe’s tightest lockdowns.
“Office workers are the bedrock of the Dublin economy,” said Richard Guiney, chief executive of DublinTown, which represents 2,500 businesses in the Irish capital. He said the plans bore evidence of a “clear anti-Dublin bias”.
But Ronan Lyons, economist and director of social research at Trinity College Dublin, said the multi-faceted appeal of cities could mean that people are reluctant to leave.
“Cities are not just about where you work, they’re also about how you live,” he said. “It’s hard to see people who were hoping to have the breadth of what cities offer choose to give that up for smaller towns.”
Lyons added: “This is just one manifestation of something that has come up again and again in Irish policy for over a century. Irish politicians . . . want to reward rural constituencies.”
Claire Kerrane, rural development spokeswoman for the opposition Sinn Féin party, said the plan was “very welcome . . . really positive”.
“The big question is whether it will all be implemented, and how quickly,” Kerrane said, adding that while it was “nice to have documents and nice ideas . . . we need a clear road map”.