Clare’s Rural Development Strategy: Innovative approaches to rural development

Last Thursday, in the most appropriately rural of locations, Kilmaley, the Clare Rural Development Strategy 2026 was launched by newly appointed Minister for Rural and Community Affairs, Mr. Michael Ring, T.D., at a ceremony hosted by the Clare Rural Development Forum. LGiU’s Hannah Muirhead was in attendance, and here explores some of the key innovations of the strategy.

The strategy

The first of its kind in Ireland, and in-keeping with national government rural development policy, the strategy is a ten-year blueprint that will guide the county in its aim to reverse the current statistical trends that are reflective of the social and economic challenges faced by rural Clare and indeed rural communities throughout Ireland and further afield.

Crucial to the strategy was rigorous analysis of trends such as shifting populations, demographic structures, social conditions and community identity, as well as sectoral breakdowns of the economy, industry, and public/private services, to identify not only the challenges faced by the rural communities in the county, but the key assets they possess.

The strategy is about Clare County Council working to unlock the potential of these assets through a series of innovative, community-led initiatives. In this the Council, and its communities,  is to be supported by Enterprise Ireland, the Clare Local Enterprise Office, the Action Plan for Jobs, the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, and the LEADER Programme – and in doing so aims to deliver 4,000 jobs in rural Clare between now and 2026. In addition, critical rural bodies such as the local churches and faith groups, community development groups including Clare Local Development, as well as sporting organisations such as the GAA have played an active part in the process and remain committed to actioning the Strategy.

Innovative approaches

A key driver of rural economic decline in Clare was identified to be the lack of scale and comparative advantage in the rural areas of the County, resulting in low returns on investment and low consumer spending. This, in turn, has reduced the attractiveness of the rural communities of County Clare to both private and public investors. Achieving economies of scale was determined to be vital for rural development in Clare, and the strategy includes innovative ways that the county might do so; through “Combined Towns” and “Partnering Parishes”.

Clare has identified neighbouring towns that, when combined, possess all the resources and features that a community would need to build on their enterprise base and bring in more tourists and that, together, could achieve the scale required to attract the investment necessary for growth. The strategy also identifies ways that neighbouring parishes can, amongst other things; pool resources and outputs; create common-access protocols for internationally-marketable tourism products; and jointly develop technologies for various services that will, again, enable them to achieve scale and comparative advantage.

These “Combined Towns” and “Partnering Parishes”, along with other communities in the county, will be supported by the Rural and Community Support Unit – a specially developed unit within the council. Staffed by people with all the required skills and knowledge to enhance the capacity of and cooperation between communities, its formation itself is innovative and a key part of the strategy.

Other innovations in Clare’s strategy include:

  • the establishing of digital hubs throughout the county where local people can access the digital technologies that they need to participate in e-working, conferencing, training and other activities that will enable them to thrive in today’s digital society
  • the introduction of rural transport initiatives such as a type of ‘rural uber’, community carpooling and ‘befriending transport’ along with community bus services
  • the development of multi-service centres run by communities, which will provide many different public services like advice and information, health and medical, social protection, and postal all from the one building
  • commitments ensuring that all developments are environmentally friendly and inter-generationally connected

Comment

Clare County Council’s Rural Development Strategy is a blueprint for the rest of Ireland, and contains exciting initiatives that rural communities, and in particular their local authorities, throughout the country and even further afield might take lessons from. Importantly, it is being led by the Council but with the active support of both national and local bodies, resulting in commitments being made across national and local budgets which will underpin the initial implementation of the Strategy. Very real and tangible impact will be felt by local people in the County almost immediately, and the development of the digital hubs and multi-service centres delivering a range of public and private services are being advanced with the first openings expected within a matter of weeks.

Praised by the Minister and very heavily supported by the National Rural Ambassador, Pat Spillane, the Strategy points a way ahead for rural Clare in a fashion not previously demonstrated in Ireland. Indeed the integrated approach taken is highly innovative which will also be of interest at international level.

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