Clare County Council has established a new forum aimed at launching an ambitious Rural Development Strategy for the county. CEO Pat Dowling said he has recast his senior officials and formed a new strategic policy group (SPC) in order to tackle rural decline.

Mr Dowling said the measures coincide with the Government’s Action Plan for Rural Ireland and offer an opportunity to exploit any new resources. He is encouraging various agencies, public, private and community based, to become involved so that they can collectively impact on the issues. The chief executive believes that new funding streams may emerge and this is an attempt to bring together all agencies working for rural Clare and select a number of pilot projects to show what can be achieved. A rural development strategy will be in place by June, said Mr Dowling, adding that the council’s role will be to ensure that the various stakeholders unite and operate in a cohesive manner.

Pat Dowling, Clare County Council's chief executive

Pat Dowling, Clare County Council’s chief executive

The new forum effectively subsumes the council’s CEDRA committee which took its lead from the commission led by Pat Spillane to investigate economic development in rural Ireland. Cllr Gerry Flynn, who served on the CEDRA committee, noted that this was formed despite misgivings from council management and produced some significant work in embracing rural development. With regard to the new initiative, Cllr Flynn commented, “Unfortunately, I think CEDRA is being scuttled in favour of this new forum which, to me, is just another layer of bureaucracy.”

Cllr PJ Kelly was also sceptical, saying the new strategy will result in some key services, such as transport and broadband, being transferred to local authorities that previously were the responsibility of Government. However Cllr Johnny Flynn, one of the initial proposers of the council’s CEDRA committee, welcomed the initiative saying, “there’s only one game in town and that’s to work with the Government and all the other agencies”.

CEO Pat Dowling said the journey ahead will prove difficult and challenging and he acknowledged that, “as a nation, we have failed rural communities for the last number of decades, because of this it will take a while to reverse that trend”. Mr Dowling added, “We are not reinventing CEDRA, we are developing a new structure which will exploit national programmes. But I think we have to be realistic about what can be achieved.”

The new rural development forum met for the first time recently and plans to meet five times in order to formulate a new rural development strategy to be launched in early summer. Its inaugural meeting was attended by Sinead Copeland from the Dept of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, who outlined the Government’s Action Plan for Rural Ireland. There was also confirmation that the public will also have an opportunity to make observations and submissions in the course of the development of the strategy.

According to Cllr Bill Chambers, Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council, the new forum, “will reinforce the efforts of organisations whose work programmes and plans already collectively contribute to rural development in Clare.” He added, “My councillor colleagues and I are keen to play our part too so as to ensure that our shared vision for Clare’s future rural development is implemented for the betterment of all citizens of this county. Together we must move to bridge both the urban-rural and digital divide, enhance working relationships between our community and voluntary sector and sate and government agencies, realise the potential of our tourism and heritage assets, and support enterprise and employment.”

At the launch, Pat Dowling spoke of the need for a strategic rural development intervention to address the “terminal population decline” experienced in parts of the county, particularly West Clare. He also referred to the capacity of Clare’s towns and villages to act as growth centres for the surrounding hinterland and wider county. Mr Dowling stated, “Improving the lives of those living and working in our rural communities underpins the aims of all organisations involved in the area of rural development. Whether we work on a voluntary basis, or as part of an organisation, we need to have an understanding of a range of socio-economic factors that shape our rural county.

“Clare County Council,” he said, “is facilitating the coming together of key stakeholders to create a united and cohesive plan for rural Clare.  This strategy is aimed at enhancing the quality of life as well as the social and economic well-being of rural areas in the county.”