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Our rural future

There is always a lift to the spirits after Easter - daffodils, primroses and buttercups bring a badly needed splash of colour to field, garden and ditch. Slowly and steadily the trees develop a light green dusting and an ever expanding cacophony of birdsong fills the air with promise.

Aside from the resurgence of nature, one of the signs of hope to come our way this spring has emerged from the innards of government in the form of Our Rural Future, the latest rural policy document.

While there are many reasons to be hopeful about it, there are as many reasons to be cynical. We’ve been here before, indeed, one could insulate a celtic tiger mansion with copies of Irish rural development policies. In 1999 Bertie Ahern’s government produced a much vaunted ‘White Paper on Rural Development’. In January 2017, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny and then Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys launched An Action Plan for Rural Development. This mighty tome promised all kinds of investment and infrastructural improvement along with 135,000 jobs, the revitalisation of 600 towns and villages all laid out in a mesmerising list of actions.

We hardly had time to read this door-stopper when along came Leo Varadkar with Ireland 2040 -Our Plan incorporating more plans for rural Ireland to be implemented under the watchful eye of Minister Michael Ring.

Last week we had the third rural development policy produced in four years. These things seem to rise and fall with frequency of Italian governments.

The latest iteration, Our Rural Future, was launched in Croke Park by the three coalition leaders and Heather Humphreys, who is back in the rural development saddle. Like its predecessors it is big on plans and big on numbers – 128 pages long with 270 actions covering everything from broadband, to the creation of local co-working hubs, to revitalising rural towns and villages, to easing planning regulations for the conversion of disused retail premises, to supporting sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy provision, promoting rural tourism, promoting the arts in rural areas along with supporting sports and leisure, education, apprenticeships and rural transport.

While there are serious gaps when it comes to funding and targets, there is something for everybody in Our Rural Future, hardly a snail or a snipe goes unmentioned. It reads like a letter from Santa Claus. One is so tempted to moan about the amount of times we have been here before, but such recrimination only leads to despondency and inaction.

This new policy certainly holds much promise and paints an exciting picture, but if left to the government to deliver, it won’t work. It is up to rural communities to take it and run with it.

Covering the range of rural issues it has a message of possibility for the disused drapery on the main street, the unoccupied garda station, the idle railway line and the overgrown river walk. It explores the possibilities of generating electricity locally and selling it to the national grid. It talks about developing farmer’s markets, rolling out broadband, online education and learning - you name and it’s there.

Rural communities should lay hands on this document in whatever format they want. They should download it, print it and study it. It might be an idea community groups to divide it up, asking small groups to explore the parts of the policy relevant to them and concretely plan how they will make it work for them.

The local LEADER/Rural Development Company and the local authority will only be too delighted to help with this process. In my own neighbourhood a draft plan for the community, prepared with the help of Clare Local Development Company, has just been circulated to the people for final comments. Most certainly this latest government policy will add seriously to the final document.

If Our Rural Future is left on the shelf it will not just be the fault of government, those who fail to be proactive around making it work for them will share the blame. If rural communities take the government at its word and produce plans for their future based on the government’s own much vaunted policy, such plans will either be music to the ears of the ministers and officials responsible or it will frighten the daylights out of them.

Let’s start planning and see what happens.

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