Our Rural Future is vague and woolly

An Cailín Rua

FUTILE FANFARE Pictured at the launch of Our Rural Future – a blueprint for the development of rural Ireland over the next five years – are Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Rural Development Minister Heather Humphreys, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Environment Minister Eamon Ryan. Pic: merrionstreet.ie

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It’s difficult these days not to be cynical, particularly when it comes to our Government. When the dust settles on this pandemic, it will offer a chance to reflect on how the crisis was handled.
While it is important to remember that those who sit at the cabinet table are mere humans, with mere human abilities, it is still fair – and probably a bit kind – to say that leadership has been sorely lacking over the past nine months.
A lack of foresight and crisis-management planning has exposed deep cracks, and our country has paid the price for years of reactiveness rather than proactiveness.
It is a sad state of affairs, made sadder by the fact that despite all that has happened, there appears to be little appetite for addressing these deficiencies. Budget constraints will no doubt be blamed for an inability to invest; ironic given the amount of money that could be saved if we didn’t have to continually fix leaks and apply band-aids to hold together creaking systems.
So, it’s regrettably hard not to be a bit cynical about the contents of the Government’s new plan for rural Ireland – ‘Our Rural Future’ – while simultaneously being glad that there finally is one.
No one wants to be negative all the time, and it is very positive that finally, the rural Ireland’s value has been acknowledged in a policy, and that there are measures contained within to potentially stimulate rural economies and address the dreadful imbalance that has run riot over the past few decades.
However, it is remarkable that plans produced by Government or public bodies consistently fall short when it comes to SMART planning, and it’s even more remarkable that this isn’t highlighted more.
Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound (SMART) goals form the very foundation of any kind of planning. This simple framework ensures that things get done, that everyone involved knows their role (down to the individual) and has deadlines.
Irish policy documents – whether they are National Development Policies, county plans, town plans, sector-specific plans – while sometimes lacking creativity or imagination are usually aspirational and ambitious. However, the SMART aspect is usually conspicuous by its absence.
‘Our Rural Future’ is no exception. If one were cynical, one might suggest that it’s hard for anyone to point out failures when specifics aren’t there to begin with.
SMART planning allows you to measure success – or not. Sometimes you won’t succeed in fully implementing your plan. That’s fine – healthy even. Most plans are working, living documents. But when implementation is dictated by a transient political system, it’s hard to be smart, and particularly hard to look long-term. Reading this plan gives us little indication of what success will look like.
‘Our Rural Future’ is rich with actions (152), with lead delivery bodies and stakeholders identified (somewhat positive). However, many actions are vague, while others depend on the creation of new plans (like regional enterprise plans, tourism strategies or digital strategies), and others simply reference initiatives already announced.
There is no prioritisation of the actions, and the plan is weak on timelines and measurement specifics.
Who exactly will be responsible for monitoring progress, and ensuring that actions are progressed? Most importantly, where is the money going to come from, and how much if it will there be?
Much of the reaction thus far has centred around remote working plans and the new form of public sector decentralisation, which is to be welcomed. However, it skims over the fact that there is a serious housing crisis, and many of us living in rural Ireland cannot currently access affordable homes to live in as is.
It acknowledges there is a problem with childcare, but has no solutions to address it, apart from committing to further research.
How will the plan achieve the acceleration of broadband access – which underpins everything?
It is positive to see a focus on apprenticeships, but it too is dependent on the publication of another plan.
And again, what about the money?
It’s good to see a start being made. It offers hope. It’s a terrible thing to be cynical and critical all the time. But if we want to see this plan delivered, it is we who will need to demand it.