EEP Group

EU and National Policy in Supporting Vibrant Rural Communities

Published: Mon, 25 November 2013

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Delivered at Irish Rural Dwellers Association Conference, Tralee, Co Kerry on “Rebuilding Our Rural Communities”

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to be here to address this conference this morning.

I would like to commend today’s convenors on a very comprehensive and engaging programme.

Rural Ireland is fighting for its very survival! The challenges which face our rural communities are manifold ranging from the economic to the social.

Let me say at the beginning that I believe Irish Rural Communities  can have a bright future ahead of them, I firmly believe that with the right mix of vision, inclusion, solidarity, and resilience, our rural communities the family farm will continue to be a fundamental element of Irish agriculture into the future.

Policy considerations, at national and European level, will have a considerable bearing on this but all discussions recognise the importance of rural communities, as a model of sustainable social and economic development.

Events such as today’s highlights the how strong our local communities are, faced with the social devastation wreaked by the economic crisis, they have proven their resilience. Bringing together policy-makers, academics, local development workers, community organisations to discuss the real issues facing the communities they support. Discussing and outlining challenges and difficulties is vital, for me as a public representative, it is fundamental. However, the search for solutions, new ideas, preparing and planning for the, are even more important; I frequently feel these tend to be overlooked or overshadowed in public and political discourse which too often is dominated by protest and complaint.

The future of our rural communities and less urbanised areas is only ever discussed against the background of withdrawal of services, issues such as isolation, and lack of infrastructural connectivity. Conferences such as this, are vital to addressing these issue, not only through highlighting issues and identifying solutions but also is maintaining general awareness amongst policy makers that “yes our rural communities have a voice that needs to be heard”.

New thinking and the development of new smarter approaches to local community and economic development are vital in achieving the necessary goal of vibrant rural regions of inclusive and engaged communities,  guided by the principle of sustainability, the social, cultural, natural, and economic assets of the thousands of rural communities across Europe are harnessed to achieve an improved quality of life and secure a vibrant future.

Regional and rural development have been at the centre of my work as an MEP, serving as a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development, for four and a half years now. This was not the genesis of my interest in this area. Growing up on a farm in rural Kerry, teaching in Killarney, serving as an administrator in the GAA, the economic and social development of our rural communities has been an ever present issue my entire life.

This conference seeks to identify how best to ensure that our rural communities thrive into the future, economically and socially. Vibrant rural communities have been a feature of Irish society since time immemorial. They have weathered many storms, migration caused by the lack of unemployment opportunities, is a scourge which is continuing to wreak havoc across the Ireland, not least in Kerry emptying our rural communities of the young people so vital to securing future vibrancy.

It is this curse of depopulation which is at the root of all the challenges facing rural communities. It is not a new concept, for generations, our young people migrate towards the major urban centres. They leave for higher level education, many expecting to return, but then the economic magnetism of jobs, careers bind them to the cities and towns, then they settle down, have families and returning becomes less and less likely. 

This constant flow of young people from rural communities is further exacerbated by emigration. Last week, Eurostat, the European Statistics office put Ireland’s emigration level for 2012 at 35,000 people. This is a frightening number, which becomes even more chilling when you break it down: 95 people every single day, or just under 4 people every single hour. 

Migration and emigration hit our rural communities disproportionately hard, depriving them of vitality leading to an uncertain future. If we can arrest the tide of migration, our rural communities are in with good shot of winning the fight for their survival.

Today’s conference is a clear statement of intent that our rural communities are willing and able to fight for their futures!

I stand with you and EU policy will support you!

Turning the tide of migration requires employment. Unemployment and lack of opportunity is the fundamental reason why our young people migrate. If employment: real, viable, sustainable, well paying jobs can be created then all the other issues can and will work themselves out.

This requires a multi-faceted approach at European, National, and Local level.

Supporting local communities and local economies is a fundamental goal of European Regional Policy. Investment in infrastructure, funding support for local projects, and solid support for small businesses form part of the suite of methods the EU uses in helping to secure the futures of our local communities.

Turning to specifics, the European Union supports local communities in a variety of different ways from direct financial support to indirectly fostering the economic and social conditions conducive to local development.

The Common Agricultural Policy plays many varied roles, acting as an aide to production to farmers in guaranteeing consumers a sustainable source of high quality, affordable food in the main but it also plays a major role in the economic life of rural and regional communities.

The Single Farm Payment underpins the spending power of our farmers, injecting vital business into local and regional economies. With the new CAP almost finalised, the certainty nationally we are taking a very small overall cut, combined with the reality that many farmers will gain under the new CAP, is very welcome indeed for rural communities and local businesses.

Similarly, Pillar 2 of CAP which has three primary objectives in relation to rural development funding: competitiveness, sustainability, and the health of the rural economy. Pillar 2 is worth €313 million per annum until 2020.

Overall, I am confident that the certainty the new CAP has the potential to act as a stimulus for jobs and growth in many rural areas across Ireland South. 

Support under Pillar 2 will be channelled in a number of ways and I hope that the excellent work done by the Local Development Companies is not lost with the reform of local government structures.

CAP, through both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2, has the potential to serve as a local broad based stimulus for local economies across Ireland South.

I spoke on this very issue in the European Parliament last week. Given the particular nature of Pillar 2 funding, I suggest that instruments be developed to enable Ireland and other countries to draw down all the money allocated.

Through reinforcing spending power in local communities and supporting the development of small, local enterprises, the European Union will continue to support communities and enterprises.

Local communities across Ireland have benefited much from the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, the European Agricultural Fund for Regional Development and the Cohesion Fund and will continue to do so.

As Europe continues to enlarge the focus of most of these funds, particularly the Regional Development, will turn Eastwards, developing the infrastructure required for sustainable economic growth. However, Europe will continue to support communities and enterprise in Ireland financially, and through adopting and implementing policies designed to foster enterprise, jobs, and growth.

That said, thanks in part to the European Parliament’s Multiannual Financial Framework vote last week and the government’s negotiating prowess, Ireland’s share of the Structural Fund Budget has increased to €1 billion over the next 7 years enabling targeted investment in major, vital infrastructure. 

In terms of transport, for Kerry, the major infrastructural investments required, neither of which are which in the county bounds: I refer of course to the construction of the long-overdue by-passes of  Macroom and Adare which are currently choking road transport access to Kerry. Discouraging investment and ultimately hindering job creation. Between structural funds and the European Investment Bank, I believe funding for these two essential projects for the South West can be realised, ensuring the future prosperity of the region.

Kerry Airport similar plays a key role to the economic life of this county, and this role can be expanded and developed focusing both on tourism potential as well as connections to major European hubs facilitating easier access for potential investors coming to Kerry but also enabling businesses and entrepreneurs to base themselves in Kerry. I am currently fighting European Commission plans which would seriously threaten the future viability of Kerry Airport. The proposal is that state aid would be banned for airports with 200,000 or more per annum. This is completely unacceptable threatening air-connectivity, future tourism, inward investment, and local expansion, 

A prosperous future for our Rural Communities requires a vibrant local economy which depends on local spending and local small businesses.

Fostering an environment of entrepreneurship through supportive policy frameworks conducive to growth, jobs, and recovery is central to how the EU helps small business. In practice this means that every effort is made to make sure that red tape is kept to a minimum for small businesses. No entrepreneur wants to labour with endless government and EU imposed regulations, they want to get on with the work of running their business, making sales, finding new customers not conforming to the rules dreamt up by a bureaucrat with no experience of the private sector.

Small and Medium Enterprises are the biggest employers across Ireland and the EU. In Ireland around 80% of those in employment work in an SME. 

These figures beg the question: what future for Start-Ups and SMEs in rural Ireland?

Helping SMEs survive and empowering them to thrive is key. At EU level, the European Investment Bank is open and willing to provide loans to SMEs. While it doesn’t do this directly, operating through an intermediary, it is open, willing, and able to provide financing for all tangible and intangible investments necessary of small business to develop and thrive. Investments such as plant, equipment, research and development, the full run of business development projects.

Similarly the unwieldy titled Programme for the Competitiveness of Enterprises and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, is designed to provide better access to finance for SMEs, tangible support for entrepreneurs, aid with access to markets, and fostering more favourable conditions for business and growth. This programme has a budget of €2.6 billion. While financial support is important, creating and fostering the right conditions, and developing best practice for national governments in supporting SMEs.

While the European Union continues to support small businesses and communities through policy and financial instruments, action is needed at local and national level to ensure the health and recovery of the small business sector in Ireland.

It is at national level where the fate of our Rural Communities will be determined.

The ongoing reform of Local Government is a major factor in this respect, while controversial, especially in relation to the abolition of town councils, I feel the reform agenda lays the foundation for greater powers to be devolved to local authorities. The current proposals and the likely referendum next year for a directly elected Mayor of Dublin, if successful could be the template for for the further devolution of powers to local authorities across the country. 

The importance of local figureheads and dignitaries to local areas has been understated with towns like Tralee, Killarney, and Listowel losing their Mayors as part of the abolition of Town Councils. I strongly feel that local advocates are needed to lobby and represent our local areas. Towns such as Killarney, as well as any other community that wishes, should be able to hold local plebiscites to elect their Mayors.  

I am sure that I am not alone in this room to be concerned with the proposed the assignment of responsibility for rural development to County Councils. The institutional knowledge and experience of the local development companies and partnerships is very significant and their loss will be regretted unless a positive, empowering solution can be found to ensure their survival through structured cooperation with the new County Council Social and Economic Committees.

The work of Pat Spillane’s Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, will undoubtedly guide future national policy in this area. The every establishment of the Commission is at least recognition that action needs to be taken to fight for the economic future of rural communities. The report is due to be published soon and it will certainly make for interesting reading.

While it is simplistic to speak of a silver bullet for the salvation of our rural communities, broadband is the closest thing to one.

Road and rail transport drove economic growth and opportunity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Broadband is doing the same in the 21st century. Broadband eliminates the need for Start-Ups and SMEs to be based in urban centres, geography no longer needs to be a consideration for businesses in deciding where to locate.

Roll-out of Broadband to rural areas has been a government priority for a decade but the reality on the ground has been disappointing to say the least. Yet high speed broadband, and it has to be high speed, we need speeds of 100 megabytes available in every corner of the country not 1, 5, or 10 megabyte speeds. 

The potential impact of proper high speed broadband to rural Ireland will significantly boost competitiveness and economic activity. It will also make rural Ireland a far more attractive place to live and work. I know of no urban dweller who relishes their traffic-choked morning commute. For quality of life, nowhere surpasses rural Ireland. Proper broadband can make the dream of returning home which so many of those who have migrated to urban areas to work or conduct business hold dear, a viable option. 

High-Speed broadband enables e-commerce entrepreneurs and companies to operate and thrive from anywhere. Similarly, the nature of employment has changed to the extent that working remotely is a realistic option 

Broadband roll-out has the greatest potential of any possible government action, to breath new life into rural communities, fostering enterprise and employment 

The future of our local communities, much like our economic recovery, rests on the proactivity of local people, rolling up their sleeves, taking action. But for those who do, Europe stands behind them, to help them achieve their goals in fostering jobs and growth in sustainable local economies and vibrant local communities. 

Events like today’s, show that we have the spirit, the ingenuity, and the wherewithal to improve the jobs situation in our communities, and build a brighter better future for all our local communities. 

I would like to thank you for your attention.


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