The Government is hoping to attract workers to rural Ireland after the pandemic, with new job opportunities, remote working hubs and supports for those working from home.
Rural Ireland is the target of ambitious new development plans launched by the Government this week. A five-year strategy, called Our Rural Future, promises to invest in rural regions after the pandemic, with a particular focus on enabling remote working in rural communities, revitalising town centres and rolling out broadband.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we have discovered new ways of working and we have rediscovered our communities,” said Taoiseach Micheál Martin, TD, at the launch of the initiative in Croke Park yesterday (30 March).
“The Government’s vision is for a rural Ireland which is integral to our national economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing and development. That vision is built on the talent, skills and creativity of people in rural communities, on the importance of vibrant and lived-in rural places and on the potential to create quality jobs and sustain our shared environment.
“Rural Ireland will play a central role in our recovery from the impact of Covid-19.”
Remote working in rural areas
One of the biggest areas slated for investment under Our Rural Future is remote working.
The Government said that it will establish a network of more than 400 remote working hubs across the country, pilot co-working and hot-desking hubs for civil servants in rural towns and repurpose vacant buildings in town centres into remote working spaces.
As outlined in a recently launched Government strategy that could see remote working become a more permanent option for many, the primary goal is to have 20pc of the public sector working remotely this year, with annual increases over the next five. Legislation is also planned to allow employees the right to request remote work and local authorities will receive funding to run recruitment campaigns.
With a potential shift away from city offices, the Government plans to examine the introduction of specific incentives to attract remote workers and mobile talent to live in rural towns.
It also said it will review the tax arrangements in place for both employers and employees working remotely in Budget 2022. However, Marian Ryan, consumer tax manager at Taxback.com, said waiting until October to announce new tax incentives will mean that some city-based employees will already have had to decide whether to return to Dublin or not.
“As it stands, if a person works from home, they can apply for some tax relief on the cost of utilities and other expenditures that might be incurred over their working year. Workers having to collect all relevant utility and other bills, and the amounts received at the end, although welcome, are not very much – perhaps on average between €20 and €60, depending on the worker’s salary and other factors.”
Rural job creation
After Covid-19, the Government plans to step up investment in job creation in rural communities. It said it will target 400 new IDA investments for regions outside Dublin between 2021 and 2024.
It promises to develop and construct advanced technology buildings and landing spaces for multinational companies in 19 strategic locations, as well as to invest in more technological universities to support regional development. It will also publish a new Action Plan for Apprenticeships.
All of this will be underpinned by a €1bn Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, grants for retail businesses in rural towns to establish an online presence, and an increase the number of places on the Rural Social Scheme, Tús and Community Employment Schemes.
The Government also said it will develop a new adult digital literacy strategy so that “everybody, regardless of age, can capitalise on the connectivity and opportunities presented by the National Broadband Plan”, which is currently rolling out a high-speed fibre network across rural areas of the country.
MEP Maria Walsh, who sits on the European Parliament’s Employment and Social Affairs Committee, emphasised the importance of focusing on digitalisation and digital education.
“In parallel to Ireland’s National Development Plan, the EU is shaping digital and green policies to support rural Ireland,” Walsh said. “If we can retain young people in the west of Ireland by giving them every possible opportunity to develop their full potential, it is the start to building communities together for development and investment in their area.”
‘Narrowing the divide’
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD, said that Our Rural Future is “designed to unlock the enormous potential of rural Ireland”.
“The potential of working remotely, high-speed broadband and changed priorities means we can really narrow the divide between urban and rural in the years ahead. And rather than one taking from the other, it’ll be one enabling the other and vice versa,” he said.
“Blended working will mean less commuting, more time for family and leisure and fewer transport greenhouse gas emissions. New job opportunities will be created for people who want to live in rural Ireland. New businesses will find it easier to establish and grow.
“Small towns and villages will see new investment, greater footfall and spend. Communities, sports clubs and organisations will be reinvigorated as people spend more time working locally, while others choose to relocate there for a better quality of life.”
Varadkar added that through IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Government and its agencies will promote remote working among client companies to drive regional job creation.
‘We need to leverage the workforce across the country, from Donegal to Dungarvan’
– KILIAN CAWLEY
OCO Global, a trade and investment firm that advises Enterprise Ireland, has supported the Government’s development plans. Its director for Ireland, Kilian Cawley, said that this isn’t about favouring one part of Ireland over another.
“Instead, it’s about improving infrastructure to allow for jobs to be done from any part of the country,” he added.
“To truly make the most of our potential, we need to leverage the workforce across the country, from Donegal to Dungarvan. Global firms may enter through Dublin, but their workforce, highly skilled and well paid, can be based across Ireland. Not only could this secure Ireland’s reputation as the world’s go-to destination for European headquarters, but it could be an absolute game changer for struggling local economies.”