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Researchers Highlight Potential for Rural Economic Growth

There is an urgent need for greater emphasis on the rural economy and rural communities by policy makers. Speaking at the Irish Rural Studies Symposium 2010 taking place in Cork today, David Meredith from Teagasc’s Rural Economy Research Centre, cited recent research indicating that the rural economy was particularly exposed to the economic crisis due to the large number of men from rural areas working in the construction and transport sectors. Women fared little better, as many worked in the retail sector which has suffered a sharp contraction in employment. The growth of these sectors during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period masked underlying and persistent weaknesses in the rural economy. With the collapse of the economy, these weakness and their attendant problems of creating jobs and sustaining population are once again exposed. Looking to the future these challenges are compounded by the fall in family farm incomes in recent years, the long-term impacts of renewed emigration and the increasing prevalence of rural poverty, particularly in areas that saw rapid population growth since 2000.

In responding to these issues, Dr. Kevin Heanue, from Teagasc’s Rural Economy Research Centre highlighted the menu of potential strategic responses to the economic crisis and their implications for rural areas. Employment from foreign direct investment in sectors such as medical devices, ICT, financial services, food, travel, entertainment, and digital media which is seen as part of the solution by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, will be largely urban based. Based on current trends, largest towns and cities will benefit most from these developments. Research presented by David Meredith, however, established that Ireland is divided into 54 distinctive local economies, most of which are based around smaller towns and their associated rural hinterlands. Analysis of the structure of these economies highlights their diversity in terms of the number, type and quality of jobs. A number of contributors emphasised that rural potential reflects locally available resources and assets and as such it is critical that a strategic framework be put in place to support the development of their potential.

Dr. Heanue highlighted the importance of locally based, collective responses in dealing with the challenge of rural underdevelopment. David Meredith stressed the need to take a holistic rather than sectoral perspective of rural economic development. There is considerable potential to enhance the resilience and sustainability of rural economies through the development of local services. An example of this approach was presented by Mary Ryan from Teagasc of the Clare Wood Energy Project through an assessment of the opportunities that arose from synergies between enterprises engaged in the production of bio-fuels.

The Irish Rural Studies Symposium (IRSS) is taking place today, 31 August, in UCC and is jointly hosted by the Department of Food Business and Developments, UCC and Teagasc. This year’s IRSS sees over 30 researchers from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK, policy makers and rural development professionals meeting to present and discuss the results of recent national and international studies. A range of issues are being covered with many focusing on the implications of the recession for rural areas and communities.