Smells like town spirit as the regions fight back

3 Dec 2018

New Ross at dawn. Image: Patryk_Kosmider/Depositphotos

Instead of lamenting the death of Irish towns, let’s bring them back into the fight, writes John Kennedy.

Tenacity is one of the best and most baffling qualities humans have. It is that weird human glue that sees you through even the deepest of personal crises. In 2018 diversity lingo, it is about ‘showing up’. For me personally, it is about asking yourself every day: ‘Are you still in the fight?’

If you are reading this at your desk, then heartiest of congratulations, you have probably survived the ravages, or entered the workforce, during one of the worst economic crises in living memory. And many fear that worse may come thanks to Brexit. I vaguely remember the ’80s but shudder at the history of the mass emigrations and depopulation of rural Ireland during the 1950s and 1960s.

‘For businesses in small towns, not having broadband is akin to operating with one hand tied behind their back’

I never want to go through a crisis again like the 2008 financial meltdown, but every time I travel on mud-spattered roads from my village to a city and I see a pre-2010 Skoda Octavia or Volkswagen Passat, I silently salute it. I remember how boom-time traffic jams suddenly evaporated into a steady trickle of poorly maintained diesel road warriors that lurched to the Big Smoke to keep the show on the road and food on the table. At one point, the brakes simply fell off one vehicle I had.

During this time, small towns in rural Ireland, especially the west, were hit the hardest. Ghost estates stood silent witness to wooden shutters over shop windows that were poignant reminders of daring to dream and losing the run of ourselves.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of getting our towns working again. I recalled the work of John Healy, author of the Backbencher political column in The Irish Times, who published a seminal work entitled No One Shouted Stop! Death of an Irish Town, which centred on the economic decline of his hometown of Charlestown, Co Mayo.

As 2018 gives way to 2019, Ireland is a divided country. Some will tell you the boom is back and how some families will spend more than €2,690 on Christmas, according to a Christmas Retail Monitor report from Ibec. At the same time, a Social Justice Ireland report notes that 700,000 are on healthcare waiting lists, more than 500,000 homes are without broadband and more than 11,000 people are homeless.

On Friday (30 November), it emerged that small towns are suffering a “perfect storm” from the legacy of out-of-town shopping centres, the dissolution of town councils, high vacancy rates and, critically, the lack of broadband. Placing a restriction on out-of-town shopping centres and the provision of high-speed broadband nationwide are among the measures proposed by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland (SCSI) to reverse the decline.

The report said that the recession “tore the heart out of Irish towns and author Stephen Purcell from Future Analytics Consulting noted that “the crash, when it came, pushed more people towards our main cities – or emigration – while the impact of out-of-town shopping centres exacerbated the challenges faced by businesses in small towns”.

Purcell went on to say: “There has been a lot of coverage in the media recently about problems with the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan (NBP). For businesses in small towns, not having broadband is akin to operating with one hand tied behind their back. The delivery of high-quality broadband connections is fundamentally important for high streets, and the implementation and roll-out of the NBP must be prioritised by Government.”

Tenacious towns, be the best you can be

Events are moving fast, but fast enough? Last week, the kerfuffle over whether former Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, had too many lunches with one of the bidders for the NBP, David C McCourt of Granahan McCourt, was put to bed when a report by auditor Peter Smyth exonerated Naughten from any wrongdoing. Very quickly, it emerged that the NBP with National Broadband Ireland –  which includes Granahan McCourt, Enet, Actavo, Nokia, Kelly Group and KN Group – is in stealth mode with plans to get a significant portion of more than 540,000 premises in rural Ireland connected in 2019.

‘From an introduction into where the best pint is, on to the local school pros and cons, it’s all the human stuff’

Eir has said that it is spending €1bn on an upgrade plan – including €150m to bring 4G to 99pc of Ireland’s geography – and aims to convert 1.4m premises from fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) to fibre to the home (FTTH). Aurora Telecom revealed recently that it has begun work on the final portion of a second Dublin-to-Cork fibre optic link as part of a €35m dark-fibre investment plan, while Siro aims to grow its network to 225,000 homes and businesses, and Virgin Media surpassed 900,000 premises across Ireland with fibre last summer. And don’t forget that mobile operators, from Three to Vodafone and Eir, are also beginning their 5G deployments, with roll-outs expected to ramp up in 2019.

The connectivity is coming, but the real test of the mettle and tenacity of these towns will be what they do for themselves. The future of our towns is inextricably linked with the future of work. Remote working hubs are sprouting up in Meath, Kilkenny, Cork, Leitrim, Sligo – you name it. This means people who work in cities can instead work locally and spend locally. Every loaf of bread and pint of milk bought in a local shop goes a long way to sustaining local jobs.

Last week, Tracy Keogh, one of the founders of the Grow Remote movement, wrote to me about a new Town Taster initiative that recently ran in places such as Dingle, Tullamore and Abbeyfeale. Leaders of the movement showed executives around these towns with a view to encouraging them to work remotely.

“With hundreds of fully distributed jobs available on Nodesk, Europe Remotely, Abodoo or Remoteur, our communities want to compete on the things that matter,” she said. “The Town Taster project is a way for people to experience what it’s like to work from a community with the help of a local. From an introduction into where the best pint is, on to the local school pros and cons, it’s all the human stuff.”

I’ve done at least three radio interviews in the past month with Cork’s 96FM about efforts to pedestrianise the city in order to draw people back from the out-of-town shopping centres or recover from lost revenue to e-commerce. Each time, I pointed out how retailers can use technology and a personal touch to increase footfall, combining clever use of social media with handy buy-and-collect services. The tools are there, they just need to use them.

That tenacity I spoke about, it exists in spades. We have lessons from recent history to teach us, oncoming connectivity to join us and no shortage of fighting spirit.

Regional Ireland, you’ve got this.

New Ross at dawn. Image: Patryk_Kosmider/Depositphotos

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years