The Government has unveiled its blueprint to transform and develop Ireland beyond its cities post-pandemic.
The five-year strategy is described as the most ambitious and transformational policy for rural development in decades, and has a major focus on attracting remote workers to rural communities.
“Our Rural Future” aims to see more people living and working in rural Ireland with good career prospects, regardless of where their employer is headquartered.
Less commuting under the strategy will also see regenerated and repopulated rural towns become hubs for commercial and social activity.
Speaking at the launch of the plan, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Ireland is heading into an era “of unprecedented change”.
“Rural Ireland will play a central role in our recovery from the impact of Covid-19,” he said.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we have discovered new ways of working and we have rediscovered our communities,” he added.
He said the new strategy was “forward-looking and ambitious, and addresses both the challenges facing rural areas and the opportunities which rural economies and communities can capitalise on.”
The whole-of-Government policy is part of the National Development Plan and its objectives will be achieved through the delivery of 150 commitments across a range of Government departments.
The strategy will be underpinned by investment in areas such as the rollout of high-speed broadband, remote working facilities, town centre regeneration, improvements in roads, new cycling and walking infrastructure, and expanded rural transport services.
In the area of remote work, key actions to be delivered include the establishment of a network of over 400 remote working hubs nationwide, and the piloting of co-working and hot-desking hubs for civil servants in regional towns.
There will also be a move to 20 per cent remote working in the public sector in 2021, with further annual increase over the next five years.
The Government will fund the repurposing of vacant buildings in town centres into remote working hubs, and provide funding to local authorities to run targeted campaigns to attract remote workers to their area.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said that the plan will mean “less commuting and more vibrant communities.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has already shown us what’s possible in terms of remote working and flexible working,” he said.
“Our Rural Future is one of the ways that the Government is making that a permanent option.
“Our Rural Future will help the tourism and hospitality sectors to recover after the pandemic, create jobs in the green economy and the agri-food sector, and make it easier to set up and grow a business in rural Ireland.
“It means more people will be able to live in their communities, or move to new ones, with the option of good quality employment. It will mean less commuting and more vibrant communities as people have more time to spend with their families, their neighbours and local clubs and organisations.”
Freeing up workers from their long commutes will ensure more time for family, friends, hobbies, sports
Minister for Transport and the Environment, Eamon Ryan, said investments in other areas such as climate action would interlink with the new strategy and “bring new job opportunities to rural communities, in areas such as renewable energy, retrofitting and sustainable farming and tourism.”
Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys said the plan was an opportunity to reverse a “long-standing trend” of young people leaving their local communities to live and work in larger cities.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has welcomed the strategy, describing its measures to support remote working as “a big step in the right direction to improve many workers’ quality of life.”
ICTU General Secretary Patricia King said: “Freeing up workers from their long commutes will ensure more time for family, friends, hobbies, sports and involvement in the wider community.”
However, the ICTU emphasised its stance that remote working must be a voluntary option and should not be imposed on workers.