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6. Balanced Regional Development

6.1. Settlement Pattern Objective

A key objective of the Government's strategy is the maintenance of the rural population, not just in terms of aggregate numbers but also in a balanced spatial distribution.

As already indicated, a key finding of the Report of the National Economic and Social Council "Population Distribution and Economic Development; Trends and Policy Implications" (1997), was the influence of urbanisation on settlement patterns in Ireland. The Report noted that

"....there are some important possibilities emerging, mainly at the level of other larger urban centres in all regions, which can be fostered through enterprise policies, infrastructure development, education and training policies and regulatory measures. In terms of a functional hierarchy of towns and settlement, the redefinition of policies along these lines would be cutting with the grain of inevitable patterns of urban centred growth. These centres would stimulate economic activity in their hinterlands and counteract the diseconomies that arise from extremely polarised settlement patterns".

Trends identified in the Report suggest that regional development based on the distribution of a network of urban centres serving and, at the same time, dependent on a dispersed rural community in towns, villages and the countryside in their rural hinterlands, is an essential component of an effective rural development strategy which will facilitate the achievement of a more equitable society and improved social cohesion.

The Government is committed to developing a spatial development strategy which will be consistent with maximising national economic growth while ensuring that all regions benefit. The national spatial development strategy will have a long term timeframe, will facilitate optimal investment in public infrastructure and will enable the Government to plan for the balanced sustainable development of the country as a whole. The National Development Plan, 2000-2006 will outline the strategy for spatial development.

6.2. Regional Planning

The Government will implement the regional approach to development through the following arrangements

National Development Plan
The National Development Plan, 2000-2006 will

  • enhance the economy's productive potential
  • contribute to continuing growth in sustainable employment, help the reintegration of the long-term unemployed, and those at risk of becoming so, into the economic mainstream, and
  • contribute to a balanced geographic distribution of economic activity which is consistent with maximising national economic growth.

The Government's commitment to 'balanced geographic distribution of economic activity' and the strategy for rural development outlined in the White Paper, demonstrate the need for policies to be linked to targets for population and job creation in rural areas. The National Development Plan, 2000-2006, and related Operational Programmes under the next 'round' of the Structural Funds will reflect the commitments contained in the White Paper. The National Development Plan and Operational Programmes will also provide for regional breakdowns of funding.

Regional Assemblies
The Government has secured the approval of Eurostat to Regionalisation. This involves a change in Ireland's status as a single Objective 1 Region to two regions - an Objective 1 Region comprising the current Regional Authority areas of the West, Border and Midlands and an Objective 1 Region in transition comprising the rest of the country. New Regional Assemblies in each region will be assigned the functions of promoting co-ordination of the provision of public services in their regions and, as specified by the Minister for Finance, manage Operational Programmes under the National Development Plan, 2000-2006. The Regional Assemblies will also retain a significant co-)ordinating role in relation to the eight existing Regional Authorities which will remain in place.The Structural Funds' allocation post 1999 for the Objective 1 Region and Objective I Region in transition will be ringfenced for spending within each region. In addition to the national Operational Programmes, there will be a separate regional Operational Programme for each of the two regions. `

The priorities in the national Operational Programmes will vary in each of the two new regions in order to reflect distinctive characteristics and the nature of the problems to be addressed. The diversity within rural areas, as well as between them, illustrates the difficulty in designing effective rural development policies at national level. The approach to regional development which is reflected in the establishment and functions of the Regional Assemblies will ensure a more appropriate integration between regional needs and national, sectoral policies.

Regional Authorities
The Regional Authorities have an important role in a collaborative planning process. This allows them to contribute to the regional strategy in the preparation of the National Development Plan, 2000-2006 and to the creation of a dynamic for confidence and growth on a regional basis.

By continuing to act to promote co-ordination of public services at regional level, in advising the Regional Assemblies and by acting as a consultative forum to the Regional Assemblies, the Regional Authorities will promote

  • the design and delivery of national policies which are informed by the needs of rural areas and have a specific regional impact,
  • the integration of national policies with specific regional development policies under the National Development Plan, 2000-2006, and
  • the effective co-ordination of national and regional policies together with the local and area-based strategies drawn up by the County Development Boards in the region.

In the context of physical planning, the proposed Planning and Development Bill, 1999, which is currently being drafted, will give power to Regional Authorities, in co-operation with local planning authorities, to develop strategic planning policies for their regions and to draw up Regional Planning Guidelines to deal with issues which extend beyond the local level.

County Development Boards
The County Development Boards which are being established following the decision by Government to implement the recommendations of the Task Force on the Integration of Local Government and Local Development Systems (1998), will also make a substantial contribution to the integration of policies, in this case at county level. The Boards, when established, will comprise a partnership of local government, local development bodies, the social partners including the voluntary and community sector and representatives of relevant State Agencies at local level.

The key contribution which County Development Boards will make to the objectives will be through the preparation of a County Strategy for Economic, Social and Cultural Development. The Strategy, which will be developed by the County Development Boards in consultation with, and with the participation of, local authorities, State Agencies, Government Departments, local development bodies and the social partners, including the voluntary and community sector, will set out a comprehensive blueprint which will guide all public sector plans for the county. The Strategy will be an essential element in articulating and implementing the proposals in the White Paper.

Preparation of the County Strategy will facilitate more informed local decision making, maximise organisational effect and resources and exploit and build upon the strengths of the local government, the local development structures and the State Agencies operating locally in responding to local needs and in harnessing local effort. The exchange of information, ideas and experience and the identification of good practice through networking is an important feature of rural development. Networking arrangements will be introduced between County Development Boards and, where appropriate, within counties, at local authority Area Committee level.

State Agencies
The implementation of sectoral policies impacting on rural areas under the responsibility of a range of Government Departments and State Agencies will continue. The linking of local priorities with sources of funding is particularly important given that the predominant flow of public funds to rural areas follows a sectoral rather than an area-based route. However, economic and social conditions in rural areas vary and the strategy set out in the White Paper provides for a rural dimension to all Government policies to ensure that they are sensitive to regional and rural needs. It is vital that the important contribution of the State Agencies to economic and social development is incorporated into a coherent response to regional development.

In accordance with the strategy for regional development, State Agencies, as appropriate, will publish regional development plans. The plans will be based on the areas of the Regional Authorities and will set out targets and performance indicators for the programming period under the National Development Plan, 2000-2006. The regional development plans of the State Agencies will be integrated with the plans and strategies which are drawn up by the Regional Assemblies, the Regional Authorities and the County Development Boards to encourage and facilitate economic and social development.

Investment Incentives
As part of the policies to support regional development, the Government is committed to examining the role of tax incentives for rural renewal in attracting investment and in revitalising rural areas. There is also role for promoting Public Private Partnerships.

Consideration of proposals in the area of tax incentives will be carried out in the context of evaluation of the success of the Rural Renewal Scheme (already in operation in Cos. Leitrim, Longford and parts of Sligo, Cavan and Roscommon). The new Town Renewal Scheme will also help to attract investment and revitalise rural areas over the next three years. Any new regime will, of course, have to operate within the constraints imposed by compliance with EU requirements in relation to competition policy and State Aids.

A range of incentives in the form of grant aid and other supports to investment in rural areas will continue to apply under the National Development Plan, 2000-2006.

Regional development policy constitutes a complex range of policies and interrelationships between urban and rural areas. The arrangements outlined above will

  • operate within a framework for spatial development for economic growth, social cohesion and environmental sustainability which will be prepared in the context of the National Development Plan, 2000-2006,
  • ensure cross-compliance between programme implementation and spatial planning objectives,ensure the integration of the plans and strategies of the State Agencies, County Development Boards, the Regional Authorities and the Regional Assemblies to facilitate coherent and consistent regional development, and
  • allow rural and regional specific sustainable development options to be pursued in the context of national policies.

6.3. Infrastructure
The provision and maintenance of an adequate level of infrastructure is central to the economic and social development of rural areas and to the achievement of balanced regional development. A modern infrastructure is essential if rural areas are to compete effectively for inward investment and remain competitive for existing and new indigenous enterprise. It also contributes to making rural areas attractive places in which to live and work.

The Government is committed to providing, within a strategic framework, the range of modern infrastructure in rural areas which will promote sustainable economic growth and the maintenance of the rural population.The Government will support, through funding under the National Development Plan, 2000-2006 a programme of investment in infrastructure, including roads, rail, sewage, water, telecommunications and transport, in support of the regional development approach in the White Paper. All options for ensuring that investment in infrastructure takes place will be explored, including joint initiatives between the Government and the private sector.

The institutional arrangements outlined will ensure that investment in infrastructure provision and maintenance will be planned in a co-ordinated manner so as to create economies of scale and scope in rural areas.

6.4. Access to Services

Social justice demands that rural communities be treated equitably in the provision of public services.The Government is committed to providing essential public services in rural areas to ensure a proper environment for economic development, promote social inclusion and support dispersed, viable rural communities.

In "A Government Strategy for Services", (1997), the Government set out its objectives for the services sector as the establishment of a competitive business environment within which enterprise and innovation would be facilitated. The main elements of the strategy are an emphasis on competition policy, removal of unnecessary regulatory burdens, a more competitive telecommunications environment and enhancement of the skills base.

However, rural areas often present difficult problems in service delivery due to diseconomies of scale arising from dispersed or small populations. In more remote areas, in particular, innovative solutions must be found to the provision of essential services.

In 1996, arising out of the recommendation of the NESC contained in "New Approaches to Rural Development" (1994), the Government launched a Pilot Programme for the Delivery of Integrated Public Services in areas of declining and dispersed population. The object of the pilot programme was to develop models for the integrated delivery of public services and to test the hypothesis that public service delivery could promote rural renewal.

The experience gained in the Pilot Programme for the Delivery of Integrated Public Services in relation to

  • design and planning at the level of State agency or public body,
  • integration and co-ordination by State Agencies at the delivery stage, and
  • the possibilities afforded by co-operation between the public bodies and rural communities

will be brought to the attention of all publicly funded bodies for examination in the design and delivery of all public services. In addition, a Code of Good Practice will be prepared for consideration by all State Agencies and public bodies and for application in the preparation of County Strategies by the County Development Boards in the context of public service delivery.

In recent years, the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs has extended considerably the range of services which it provides. These services include Voluntary and Community services, Money Advice and Budgeting Service, Back to Work and Education initiatives. Along with the traditional services of the Department, these services are provided through an extensive network of local offices. The Department aims to foster a more integrated approach to service delivery and information provision which will ensure access to a wide range of services at the first point of contact. Closer working relationships have been developed at local level with the Health Boards, Revenue Commissioners, FÁS, local authorities and the network of Citizens' Information Centres. Local initiatives to co-locate and co-ordinate services are currently being piloted in a number of locations.

Local authorities are also decentralising increasingly the delivery of their services to the main urban centres in their areas and are developing 'one-stop-shops' in these locations for the delivery of a range of public services. This trend is being encouraged by Government and is assisted by significant financial support by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government.

Insofar as local service provision is concerned, the preparation of the County Strategies by the County Development Boards will provide considerable opportunities to identify and assess local needs in a partnership approach between service providers and the local community, respond to priorities, establish close liaison between the public agencies and between the agencies and the community, and develop models for integrated public service delivery. These arrangements will ensure that quality, comprehensive State services will be available in rural areas.

In the context of the Government's overall commitment to investment in the provision of essential public services in support of rural communities, the following areas are highlighted

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Information and Communications Technology is opening up enormous possibilities for business, social and cultural interactions between enterprises, communities and people. The rapid development of Information and Communications Technology and increasing convergence with the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors hold short term prospects of very positive benefits and can act as a catalyst for the development of rural areas. E-commerce is creating revolutionary change in how business is conducted.

Ireland's development as an Information Society in moving ahead rapidly. The provision of nation-wide access to new services such as the Internet means that those living in rural areas will be on an equal footing vis-à-vis their urban counterparts and will be able to participate fully in the Information Society. For the purposes of enterprise development, the disadvantages traditionally associated with a remote geographical location can be substantially redressed. However, without the necessary investment, rural areas will be at a serious disadvantage in availing of development opportunities.

The provision of broadband or high speed telecommunications facilities, in particular, will facilitate the regional distribution of new services in the rapidly developing e-commerce sector. The enormous success which Ireland has enjoyed in the development of telemarketing can now be replicated in relation to e-commerce activities provided over the Internet both through the attraction of inward investment and in the development of new indigenous business activities. There is already evidence that indigenous businesses throughout the country are addressing a global market through an effective presence on the Internet.

The dispersal of Information and Communications Technology to rural areas and the exploitation of its potential will not happen without public support. The provision of services necessitates the development of the requisite infrastructure including fibre optic cable networks and structures for the development of wireless technologies. However, policy must recognise technology as an important contributor to development rather than as a factor which will lead rural development in its own right.

The Irish telecommunications market is now fully liberalised and a regulatory framework has been established which ensures a competent, efficient and effective service, while encouraging investment and providing market opportunities. Liberalisation is generating keen competition with lower tariffs and greater investment in high-tech infrastructure. There is on-going development of Ireland's broadband 'backbone' network and investment in the enhancement and extension of the network in order to meet anticipated requirements.

The Government is committed, in the context of the overall policy framework outlined in the White Paper, to ensuring that the necessary physical and telecommunications infrastructure is provided to enable existing and new high growth business to thrive. Incentives will be provided for investment in Information and Communications Technology related enterprise activity and comprehensive responses to education and training needs will be developed in order to enable rural communities to avail of employment opportunities in new and existing enterprises and also in new forms of work.

One of the priorities of Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland is to encourage the development of e-commerce activities and the take-up of Information and Communications Technology. Enterprise Ireland offers a wide range of supports to firms in the software and international services sector while IDA Ireland is targeting overseas e-commerce, multimedia and other related sectors with a view to attracting suitable companies and establishing digital projects.

Over time new technologies and the industries they support will become increasingly important and sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, agriculture and aquaculture will benefit from the application of knowledge intensive production, processing and organisation.

The Irish Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (ICSTI) has recently published Technology Foresight Ireland, An ICSTI Overview (1999). Technology Foresight is a process for identifying technologies and the critical strategic decisions which are required to achieve the greatest economic and social benefit. Technology Foresight Ireland was carried out on the basis of analysis of eight sectors, many of which, including Natural Resources (Agri-food, Marine and Forestry), are of crucial importance to the future of rural communities. The ICSTI will be pursuing the recommendations and the strategic issues arising from each of the eight individual panel reports with the relevant Departments and State Agencies.

The Government remains committed to the retention of the post office network and to its use for the delivery of the most comprehensive range possible of State services to all citizens. Delivery of social welfare payments will continue to be a substantial element of the services provided by post offices in the future. The Government has decided also to develop the Post Office network to provide a "one-stop-shop" service and an Interdepartmental Committee has been established to further this programme.

While an extensive public transport system operates in Ireland, there are many areas where services are not available due to low population density. The absence of an adequate public transport service in all areas means that transport is a major contributing factor in marginalisation. Its availability plays an increasingly important role in accessing services such as healthcare and in the social integration of people living away from service centres.

Given the low and dispersed population of many rural areas, innovative approaches to transport provision are required and a structured approach is necessary to apply solutions at a local level.

Considerable work has been undertaken in recent years by the Area Partnerships and the Community Groups funded by Area Development Management Ltd. (ADM) in operating pilot schemes for the provision of local transport services and in identifying community based responses to the provision of a transport service where public transport is not available. This work is being co-ordinated by Area Development Management Ltd. under the Local Development Programme under the Operational Programme for Local, Urban and Rural Development, 1994-1999, and a number of models have been identified which can be applied to most areas.

In the preparation of the County Development Strategy, each County Development Board will carry out an audit of local transport needs and services as a priority and will identify, with the relevant partners, the most appropriate co-ordination and delivery mechanism to ensure effective local transport provision in its area.

In the context of funding proposals under the National Development Plan, 2000-2006, to up-grade public transport, the Government will have specific regard to transport requirements to support rural development in order to reflect fully the "rural proofing" principles set out in the White Paper.

To achieve the aim of a balanced rural population, planning policy should, as far as possible, facilitate people willing to settle in rural areas, especially those wishing to remain in their own areas of origin. At the same time as respecting the aspirations of the rural community, planning policy must be sensitive to the conservation of the rural environment, including preservation of natural beauty spots and natural habitats.

Local authority development plans set out the physical planning framework for their areas. The Strategic Policy Committees which have been established within the local authority structure and the County Development Boards through the preparation of the County Strategies will facilitate linkages between the economic, social and physical planning processes. The new structures will assist in resolving conflicts and in ensuring a more sustainable and inclusive approach to planning, housing and other land use issues. The County Strategy will have regard to the land use and zoning objectives set out in the County Development Plan of the local authority which should facilitate integrated land use and zoning objectives through encouraging the location, for instance, of commercial and residential development around existing towns and villages where water and sewage facilities can be provided. By the same token, the County Development Plan should be informed by the Strategy.

The Government response to the housing issue in rural areas will be framed in the context of national policy on housing with particular reference to the integration of housing in rural areas with services and infrastructure provision on the basis of the overall strategy of the White Paper.

To meet expanding needs and to help deliver local authority housing more efficiently, the Government has introduced a four year multi-annual local authority housing programme. This programme involving the provision of 22,000 additional local authority houses will be equivalent to an increase of over one fifth of the existing local authority housing stock. The Government is also committed to increasing voluntary housing output and is currently working towards achieving an output target of 4,000 to 5,000 houses per annum. This increase in social housing provision will have a substantial impact on lower income households in rural areas.

The Government recognises that there are areas where particular factors such as strong demand for holiday homes may be creating an affordability gap for house purchasers. The new Affordable Housing Scheme is targeted primarily at major urban centres and their hinterlands. However, provision has been made under the scheme to allow local authorities, where they are satisfied that an affordability gap exists in an area due to factors such as demand for holiday homes, to provide an affordable housing scheme in those areas.

The following key areas will also be addressed

  • local authority housing and support for social housing will encourage developments in villages and small towns which enable people to live in, or as close as possible to, their own areas; local authorities will continue the programmes currently available which are targeted at assisting low income and other households to secure necessary improvements in their housing and will continue also to develop strategies aimed at tackling social segregation in housing;
  • planning for services and infrastructure provision such as investment in sewage treatment and water schemes and serviced land, will favour residential development in villages and small towns; the retention of traditional, vernacular buildings and architecture will be encouraged;
  • support for rural resettlement programmes will continue on the basis of the evaluation of the outcome of nine pilot programmes being funded currently by ADM Ltd in Area Partnerships and Community Groups.

The National Childcare Strategy, Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare (1999), which was published by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform includes a focus on childcare in disadvantaged urban and rural communities. The Report states that, in general, there is a low level of rural childcare service provision and that less choice is available than in urban areas. Rural services are less able, therefore, to meet the needs of particular groups including women, lone parents, the unemployed and children with disabilities and special needs.

The Government has established an Interdepartmental Committee, chaired by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to evaluate, cost and prioritise the childcare proposals in three reports - The Report of the Commission on the Family "Strengthening families for life" (1998), the Report of the Forum on Early Childhood Education (1998) and the Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare - together with the relevant proposals in the Government Programme, An Action Programme for the Millennium. The Interdepartmental Committee will submit recommendations to Government before the end of the year.

Provision of, and access to, healthcare is a key issue in securing the quality of life of rural communities and in the economic and social development of rural areas. At the same time, rural areas, especially those with dispersed population, pose unique challenges for the management and utilisation of services.

The Government is committed to continuing to meet the challenges of healthcare service provision in rural communities. The availability of health services at locations and in settings that are designed to meet the needs of local rural communities involves, in many instances, the upgrading of local health centres and, where appropriate, the provision of new facilities. Such projects will continue to attract priority support from Health Boards and the Department of Health and Children.

There is a need, also, to improve significantly community support structures for vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, particularly those living in isolated areas. These services include the provision of day care centres with adequate transport, home help services, paramedical services at home and in the community as well as improvements in community care nursing and social work services dedicated to vulnerable persons or special needs groups.

The provision of Primary Care Services is of key importance in rural communities given that general practitioners are most frequently the first point of contact between the rural community and healthcare providers. The provision of an appropriate general practitioner service to rural areas is a key issue that the Primary Care Units of Health Boards are required to address on an ongoing basis. The Rural Practice Allowance and innovative locum and rota arrangements will be used to ensure that general practice in rural areas represents an attractive prospect for general practitioners. Equally, grant aid will be targeted to ensure that such practitioners are wholly supported in terms of developing their premises and increasing, beyond general practice alone, the range of services they offer in their communities.

Information and Communications Technology has the potential to make an enormous contribution to the delivery of the health services in rural areas. Accordingly, the role of information technology will be evaluated fully and utilised, on an on-going basis, to ensure that the effects of geographic isolation are minimised in terms of communication and consultation between healthcare professionals. The ultimate objective is in improving access to services both for the practitioner and the patient. In this regard, support and training for healthcare professionals in IT matters will be provided in rural areas.

Given their regional basis, the Health Boards are ideally positioned to have regard to the particular demographics of their areas and to manage the provision of services both in accordance with the needs of their population and in the context of overall national goals. The Boards will continue to build links with the communities they serve together with the voluntary and other groups that reflect the desires and concerns of those communities.

The Government is also committed to developing multi-sectoral partnerships at local and national levels in the area of environmental health.

Distance is measured in spatial terms but it also includes remoteness in terms of access to information, particularly among the marginalised sections of the community.

A wide range of Government Departments, State Agencies, public bodies, local authorities and local development bodies contribute to the economic and social development of rural areas through the implementation of a wide range of programmes. Service provision at local level is an important resource in rural communities from the point of view of facilitating access and information. The Departments of Agriculture and Food and of Social, Community and Family Affairs, in particular, have extensive networks of local offices throughout the country while the delivery of healthcare and education also have a strong local presence. Decentralisation of administration and service provision, which has been an important element of Government policy over several years, also provides employment and generates economic activity in rural areas.

In order to provide a comprehensive pro-active information service in future, the Government will

  • publish through the 'lead' Department, every two years, a comprehensive directory of State services available to rural communities, particularly the disadvantaged target groups,
  • establish a web-site with comprehensive information and an on-going update on current developments,
  • establish through the County Development Boards, local mechanisms to provide access to, and information on, services to the rural community. Each County Development Board will identify the information requirements in its area and determine, with the relevant partners, the most effective and efficient mechanism for providing an information service, including consideration of and the establishment of a 'one stop shop' for information on all public services.