Opinion: People living in rural Ireland cannot blame Dublin for the empty towns and villages

BACK WHEN THE government formation talks were taking place earlier this year, you probably remember how the term ‘rural TD’ was regularly used in the media; a person distinct from other TDs, one who was keen to solve rural Ireland’s development issues. Many people would agree with the ambition. It is essential that balanced regional development happens in a coordinated way, in a manner that makes sure our cities remain competitive in the world but that rural Ireland continues to have vibrant and healthy communities.

In most countries there has been a continued move to urban areas. Cities are getting larger, while rural areas face depopulation in many cases. Ireland is not an exception. Rural Ireland faces considerable challenges, its small towns and local villages most of all. Such villages and towns historically may once have been market towns, serving the farmlands and countryside around them. They contributed to the strong sense of community that is so unique to Ireland.

The village and small town is the spine of rural Ireland – or at least this was often the case in the past. However, recently we see more people moving to live in individual houses in the countryside, leaving many rural villages to face decline. It is a sad sight to pass through such villages, with empty townhouses and boarded up shops, and people rightly fear for their post offices, their services and their garda stations in these areas.

Unfortunately however, every rural house cannot be accompanied by a school, a bus stop, or a post office. Once a village falls below a critical level of population, or if we don’t reinforce our settlements by building in and around their boundaries, it is often hard to keep such services. Rural communities need to appreciate this.

The problem with one-off housing

Rural constituents and at times their TDs point to Dublin for answers. Yet we ignore our own role in this unfortunate trend. Little can be done to stop the move towards the cities, but in Ireland it appears that people have also been abandoning their rural towns and villages in favour of a house in the country.

When writing this short article I studied the census data for some counties in 2013. In Roscommon 100% of new units (although a small number in total) built in the county were classified as ‘one off’ dwellings. In Kerry and Cork, counties largely dependent on their landscape for tourism, approximately 75% and 66% of all new units respectively were ‘one offs’. Although this may include detached houses within settlements, the figures are still high.

For rural Ireland to overcome its challenges, its spine of rural towns and villages need to look to the past, where the local economy of the market towns helped them survive. We need village and small town renewal, but what decision-takers need to realise is that this is almost entirely dependent on people living in these villages and towns. With current levels of planning permissions in rural Ireland mostly being for one-off houses, the challenges facing regional development are stark, and any efforts at village renewal will be redundant.  I have great concern for places that do not benefit from tourism, in particular. However it may be an inconvenient truth, but those of us from rural Ireland cannot point to Dublin or Cork, and blame those ‘inside the M50’ for our decision to vacate our small rural towns in favour countryside living.

People need to return and live in these villages and small towns

Farmers and other people who live off the land (through forestry, for example) need to dwell there, yet a continued preference for large country homes seems to be now the most desired option for many. The issue of one-off housing has been well documented (groundwater, road safety, tourism impacts, etc) but its effect on smaller rural settlements is also very worrying.

Development plans for local authorities do try and seek development in settlements and measures such as grants for retrofitting older townhouses as well as masterplans that identify sites within and/or on the edge of settlements can help, but generally the preference for a country home is often too strong, and unfortunately it can be a controversial political issue.

Rural areas have a limited population, and this is set to get smaller, as the move to cities continues. To scatter what is left of it in fields throughout our countryside seems like the worst possible course of action. I hope that people will continue to live in our rural towns and villages so that in places like Mountmellick or Newtownforbes they can continue to use the local shop besides driving to the nearest large town’s supermarkets from dwellings outside such settlements. It will also ensure that in Rathmore and Ballyhaunis there are enough people living in these towns in order to retain their train stations. To save rural Ireland, we need to save its villages and small towns, but for this to be successful their people need to return and live in them.

Shay Kelleher is a regional and urban planner who works in local government having previously worked internationally and in planning consultancy. The views expressed are personal.

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