The Government has defended its decision not to commit to any job targets or deadlines in a major plan to attract more workers to rural towns and villages.
Unveiling its blueprint to transform rural areas across the country, the Government said the “decentralisation” would provide help for remote workers.
The major shake-up aims to have more people working from rural areas by developing disused buildings and pubs into working hubs.
Entitled ‘Our Rural Future’, it has been described as the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in decades.
Living and working in West Cork is a dream that could come true for many, if the right steps are taken by the Government, Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O’Sullivan said in response to the announcement.
Mr O’Sullivan said it was promising to see incentives surrounding moving to rural areas, but said two key aspects needed to be dealt with — high-speed rural broadband and the high percentage of vacant buildings in West Cork towns and villages.
“You see it is towns such as Drimoleague. The high street is cluttered with empty properties that need to be made liveable again.”
The West Cork TD said there was a puzzle to work out regarding the housing shortage and the vast array of vacant properties falling into disarray across West Cork.
Mr O’Sullivan said it was great to see a plan for rural repopulation and, if the obstacles could be overcome, West Cork could offer a great work-life balance for young and old.
“If done right, it is a dream for any young professional,” he said. “Speaking to people working in the remote-working hub in Skibbereen, Ludgate, it is obvious that people love the lifestyle. It is near the coast, there is amazing scenery, the food scene is brilliant and there is a great community.”
The Government plan contains 150 measures and is intended to be delivered over the next five years.
Among the commitments is a plan to offer city-based workers a grant to relocate to rural areas to boost small towns and villages.
However, the Government has not committed to a timetable or set any targets for jobs in rural areas.
There are plans to set up more than 400 remote-working hubs, but there is no specific date when these will become available.
Heather Humphreys, the rural and community development minister, said the plan was about giving people choices.
Speaking at a press conference at Croke Park in Dublin, she said: “I don’t want to put figures on things like that because it’s about giving people the choice.
“I don’t think working from home is healthy, that’s why we will support 400 hubs across the country, so you have the demarcation when you leave work and go home.”
Ms Humphreys said the Government would also explore tax incentives for employers or employees who accommodate remote working.
“We will look at how we will accommodate both employees and employers because we have to get buy-in from both for remote working,” she added.
“I’m also looking at grants for remote workers to move to rural towns and villages. I want to keep momentum going on remote working.
“I think it’s the one big game-changer that we have in rural Ireland. We have looked at the American model, where they have tried to get people from Silicon Valley to move back to places like Georgia, and offered them a relocation grant of about $2,000 [€1,700].
“This is Government giving a message to people: we want to help you and if you want to work remotely and live in rural Ireland, we want to facilitate it.
“If you buy a new a car and leave the garage, sometimes the garageman will say ‘I’ll fill up that tank for you’ — that’s the help to get you on the way. That’s what this grant is about.”
The Taoiseach said remote working was one aspect that would help develop rural areas.
Micheál Martin also said that allowing people to work from home, particularly young people, would reduce living costs and provide additional saving capacity.
“The population is growing and this plan creates a framework for population growth,” he said.
“One of the points we’re making is that we want population growth in rural Ireland. It’s about how we balance that out in terms of a greater regional balance than we’ve had before.
“That is a clear imperative and this strategy will aid us in redressing that regional balance,” Mr Martin said.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said: “Remote working isn’t just about people moving to rural Ireland, it’s also people being able to spend more time there.
“We’ve people that live in rural Ireland and commute into Dublin, Cork, Galway, and Limerick, but if they were able to spend more time working from home and working from their local village or small town, they’ll spend more money in shops and businesses in that small town and small village.
“It’s not just about people relocating to rural Ireland, it’s also about people who already live in rural Ireland, instead of commuting, being able to spend more time locally and more money locally, which therefore benefits the local economy.”
Ms Humphreys said the Government is focusing on getting the economy reopened.
She said targets to create jobs in rural areas were not included because of economic difficulties during Covid-19.
North Cork Fine Gael councillor John Paul O’Shea said the plan was the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in decades.
“The policy reflects the unprecedented change in living and working patterns during Covid-19 and the significant opportunities this presents for rural communities — from remote working and revitalising our town centres in Cork county to job creation, developing a green economy and enhancing our outdoor amenities,” he said.
“For decades, we have seen global trends where young people leave their local communities in Cork county to live and work in larger cities. As we emerge from Covid-19, we will never have a better opportunity to reverse that long-standing trend.
“The move to remote working, underpinned by the rollout of the national broadband plan, has the potential to transform rural Ireland like never before.
“It will allow people to work from their own local communities in Cork county, revitalise our town centres, reduce commuting times, lower transport emissions and, most importantly, improve the quality of life of our people.”