EU Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan was in Castlecomer on Friday where he outlined further details of the ‘Smart Village’ concept which it’s hoped can help revive and sustain Ireland’s rural towns and villages in the years ahead.
The Commissioner was interviewed by local broadcaster John Purcell in front of an invited audience at an event in the town’s restored Creamery House. It was part of a number of events organised to mark the tenth birthday of Kilkenny Leader Partnership.
The man behind the restoration of the house, John Comerford, spoke to Mr Hogan directly and told him broadband was the biggest issue facing the town. Mr Comerford is among a number of individuals who have made significant investments in the area, but insufficient broadband has hampered his plans for expansion.
Commissioner Hogan explained to the room that ‘ Smart Village is not a programme, but rather a concept about what each community should be looking at to be able to keep up with changes taking place in research and innovation, climate policy, sustainability and other areas. It requires ‘paying particular attention to overcoming the digital divide’ between rural and urban areas, and to develop the potential offered by connectivity and digitisation of rural areas.
“If we don’t enable the services to be provided and the infrastructure to be provided in our villages, well then people are going to continue to drift to the cities,” Mr Hogan said.
“People are a lot more educated than they were, they have a lot more options to go places and work. But also many people in urban areas – contrary to what we might hear – would like the option of being able to live in rural areas. But they have to have the services – for themselves, their families, their children.”
Mr Purcell said that Castlecomer seemed to be ‘on the up’, and the Commissioner noted there had been investment by the local authority in the town in terms of water and sewage infrastructure that had allowed it to develop. He said these investments were sometimes taken for granted, but had shown their merit.
However, Mr Hogan said that while the EU could help with what was programmed, the EU did not roll out the broadband; it was up to the Member Sates to do so.
“At the end of the day, it’s a matter for the member State Governments to do the business in relation to prioritising this,” he said.
The Commissioner said it was a theme that would havet funding put behind it through the Rural Development Programmes, and there will be opportunities to draw down that funding. Planning is in the post-2020 funding stream, but it is a concept that is going to get support.
A pilot project on Smart Eco-Social Villages was launched in 2017 and is on track to conclude the work, as foreseen, in April 2019. The project is focusing on the analysis of ten ‘best practice’ examples for Smart Village, and six case studies on potential Smart Villages.
Final results are then to be presented in a stakeholder workshop in March 2019.
Mr Hogan said that the local authorities and LEADER would have to do their homework, and it would likely be 2020 before there was ‘a ratcheting up of activity’.
“But they should be making people aware of it,” he said.