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The (re)population of rural areas
The Irish Way to Rural Resettlement
The success of Rural Resettlement
“We were afraid of finding ourselves in some social housing estate in the country...” Instead of a “social housing estate”, Frank and Eva Page live with their four children in a modest but comfortable, single low-rent home that is owned by County Leitrim Council.
“Dubliners for generations,” the Pages decided to leave the “Fair City” in 1994 when Frank lost his job as delivery man and their two oldest children who were entering their teen years “risked becoming drug addicts and delinquents because of the neighbourhood.” The Pages heard about Rural Resettlement Ireland (RRI). They contacted the association in the summer of 1994, and in November RRI informed them that a house was available in Ballynamore in Leitrim. The Pages went to see the house, liked it and rented it for two years, the time it took the County Council to find them their current home.
The Pages are a good example of the type of family RRI has helped resettle in the countryside: disadvantaged city dwellers, even threatened with exclusion, they have found safety, peacefulness and quality of life in the countryside.
Jim Connolly is the man who came up with the idea that led to RRI back in the 1970s: “a sculptor from Dublin, I was living in the western part of County Clare and started seeing my neighbours disappear one after the after, with no young people to replace them. In fact, the whole of western Ireland was becoming depopulated and the economic programmes implemented were not doing anything to help. They had been designed with a long-term view but the problem had become so serious and urgent that a real ‘injection of new blood’ was needed for the countryside. By contrast, in Dublin and in the major cities of England, a lot of families were living in poor conditions due to unemployed parents, insecurity, a depressing environment, etc. This being the case, why not ask these families to move to our area? At the time, I thought that the key to the operation was employment, but in 1990 the number of unemployed was just 300,000 in Ireland yet emigration was at its peak... So, I turned the question around and asked myself: ‘and if the problem was not the solution? Shouldn’t the focus be unemployment instead of employment to repopulate the countryside?’”
Rural Resettlement Ireland
With a few friends, Jim created in 1990 Rural Resettlement Ireland. The association used the radio to broadcast its message: “Are you unemployed? Do you live in a tough neighbourhood? Why don’t you move to the country? You won’t necessarily find work in the country, but you will certainly find a better quality of life.” RRI received over a hundred letters from interested people. “They all said the same thing,” recalls Jim: ‘find us a house!’ An element played in our favour: the Irish social security system is not linked to the place of residence - you can live anywhere in the country without losing your benefits. This is true for unemployment benefits and for the housing allowances granted recently under certain conditions. You can tell that the government is working with us...”
RRI is one of the partners, along with the Department of the Environment and various local authorities, of a national pilot programme, the Village Renewal Scheme which encourages people who live in social housing in the city to move to the country where they will continue to benefit from a low-rent dwelling.
It is also the Irish State that provides three quarters of RRI’s annual budget, about EUR 100,000. The rest comes from private donors, particularly in the United States. “We still do not receive any direct aid from the European Union,” points out Jim, “but it is worth noting that LEADER and other European programmes have done a lot to help several of our resettled families by co-funding some of the investments needed for their new rural business activity.”
With a permanent staff of four and volunteer correspondents scattered across the country, the association scours Ireland in search of houses for the would-be resettlers. A report published in December 1999 revealed that no less than 400 families had gone through RRI and already moved to 19 counties in Ireland. And Jim Connolly indicates: “in the beginning, all the families who move are unemployed and not one goes into farming. The success rate, meaning the percentage of families that do not go back to the city, is on average 80% after nine years of operating and even 92% in the past three years, probably because of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ phenomenon. (1) Often, those who have resettled find work only a few weeks after they arrive.”
The successes of Rural Resettlement Ireland drew the attention of the European Commission at the Cork Conference on Rural Development in November 1996 (see LEADER Magazine No. 13). As there was no European instrument that could support the association during the 1994-99 programming period, the European Commission officials suggested that the Irish authorities put together a pilot rural resettlement programme, as additional European funding was to become available. In the end it was ADM (Area Development Management Ltd.), an intermediate body responsible for the implementation of the Local Development Programme (LDP) in Ireland, that was commissioned by the Department of Tourism, Sports and Recreation to develop and manage a mechanism to “enhance understanding of the challenges linked to rural resettlement, particularly with regard to employment, training and vocational integration. The purpose was to devise a national strategy for rural regeneration.” The Pilot Scheme for Rural Resettlement was launched in 1999 for a period of one year.
With a budget of about EUR 400,000, this programme - designed as a research action to facilitate rural resettlement - is applied in nine rural areas (2) selected according to demographic, economic and social criteria. As a national technical assistance unit and member of the advisory group, Rural Resettlement Ireland is closely involved in its implementation.
In each of the nine areas concerned, a resettlement committee was set up and a resettlement officer was recruited. His job is to inform people and raise their awareness, to identify needs, to contact the owners of empty dwellings, to take stock of available housing, etc. So that the programme can benefit from as wide a range of experiences as possible, each resettlement officer is given considerable autonomy in the choice of interventions.
Eventually and more generally, the purpose is to raise the awareness of all the players concerned, to explore new ways to support resettlement, to identify examples of good practice and to issue recommendations that, outlined in a widely distributed document, “will lead to a genuine national resettlement strategy as an instrument for regenerating the countryside,” says Martin Flatley, coordinator of the project.
“Helping people move to the country is like putting together a puzzle with four main pieces,” says Martin: “the target groups, the possible areas of resettlement, the supply and quality of the housing, and integration and job opportunities. A programme’s success depends on the good coordination of these four elements.”
“Unlike RRI whose main purpose is to help disadvantaged families move to the country,” continues Martin, “we are trying here to look at the possibilities of helping other specific groups move: emigrants wanting to return to Ireland, practitioners and professionals attracted by the countryside and whose activity is in no way connected with any specific geographical place, not to mention all the means that can help keep people in the country. In fact, we are interested in any category of person who can contribute to the local development of a rural area.”
It looks more like a marriage of convenience than a love match between ADM and RRI, but what Martin Flatley says is confirmed by Jim Connolly: “our paths run parallel but more and more they cross. Everyone has understood that the real challenge is the future of rural Europe. I’m now arguing for a ‘Rural Resettlement Europe’. What I always find fascinating with our ‘customers’ is their determination to survive. And that is precisely what rural Europe needs - a breed of survivors.”
The very strong growth witnessed by Ireland
source: LEADER Magazine nr.22 - Spring, 2000