04 Jul 2022

'Community-led shops and cafés have revitalised rural Kilkenny'

Day in the Life of Declan Rice, CEO of Kilkenny LEADER Partnership (KLP), on the work being done to revitalise the county

Day In The Life Kilkenny

Declan Rice, CEO Kilkenny LEADER Partnership

Declan Rice is the CEO of Kilkenny LEADER Partnership (KLP). Born and raised in Dublin, he is married to Anna, and has a daughter Aisling.
Declan has worked with various local development organisations in the South-East region since 1997.
Here is a glimpse into Declan’s world…
You must have been pleased to see the Kilkenny walkways being used so much during the lockdowns?
People think our recreational walks and trails are just a tourism product - they are much more for the local people and residents. They were so important to society to be able to get out and use them for mental and physical health on top of being a bit of diversion during the pandemic was vital for people.
We really saw the benefit in my home village of our walk, it was phenomenally busy. I suspect people were coming from further ahead for the walks, but we weren’t looking for passports!
Can you break down what Leader does for Kilkenny?
KLP is a non-governmental organisation and registered charity, so we not part of the state system. KLP is a community-based organisation to help the communities and small businesses of the county to reach their potential as they themselves decide, but to provide advice, new perspectives and innovative thinking to assist the framing of those choices.
It operates and delivers a range of enterprise, community and personal development projects with EU, Irish Government, and private philanthropy funding, across a broad-based development spectrum. The most well-known of which are the LEADER (Rural Development) Programme and the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (SICAP), but also includes the TUS community placement programme, the Rural Social Scheme (RSS) a part-employment in the community for members of lower income farm families, and several others.
So how much money has Kilkenny Leader Partnership available to fund projects?
It’s not as straightforward in monetary terms because there are staff time too to take into account and we are responsible for well over 180 people. In the last Leader programme there was about €7.2 million for Kilkenny and we are now in an interim programme phrase, which is €2 million. This will take us up to the end of next year.
A large part of your work is dealing with social inclusion, yet one of the biggest problems in rural Ireland is connectivity.
There is an issue with broadband and we have being looking at this for a while. The National Broadband Plan is being rolled out, but part of the problem with this plan is that it’s based on a gap model - places that have some level of supposedly adequate broadband already will not be part of this plan.
This seems to make sense until you realise that the broadband in some areas is just about adequate enough to be defined as actual ‘broadband’. How good that broadband actually is was found out during the pandemic with Zoom and Netflix being used in every home. So what was a great broadband system five years ago is only adequate or worse nowadays.
We need a system called ‘fibre to the premises’ (FTTP). This is the only future-proof system where the fibre is going to the house or business. Currently in most rural areas you don’t have that. It’s the gold standard system.
The bigger towns will probably be ok, as they are big enough for a commercial operator to come in and put in the proper FTTP system, however the smaller towns might not be lucky enough for a single commercial operator to come in and put in a ‘fibre to the premises’ system, or if they do come in, that commercial operators will charge them a premium rate.
How do Leader hope to tackle the digital connectivity issue?
We are working with a community in Piltown and they are putting in their own FTTP fibre optic system which they are laying out around the parish in trenches and poles. They are going to run this fibre FTTP system themselves. They will be able to maintain it and keep the profits, while offering it at a marginal rate.
That will not only give the residents of Piltown a better standard of broadband, it also means they will be able to attract businesses with this future proofed and modern system. As a community company any excess profits they make they are allowed to retain and put back into the community to keep running the system and maybe help the community with other expense like the running the childcare etc.
At the end of the day they will have their own community-led fibre to the premises system which will be run by themselves, owned by themselves and the profits retained by themselves for their benefit. I don’t see why this couldn’t be rolled out in other rural towns in Kilkenny too.
What about physical connectivity? Surely we will need that more than ever with the reopening of society?
Twenty years ago we helped establish ‘Ring a Link’ bus service. We are now looking to integrate with JJ Kavanagh’s system, on one of the biggest bus operators in the country, with a lot of fixed line systems. If we get these two systems working together we could have a network of systems to get people around rural Ireland.
We want to make the bus service attractive like the Luas or the Dart where everybody feels they need to use it. Hence we are working on a new project called KITE – Kilkenny Integrated Transport Evolution, to help with physical connectivity.
We want to introduce ‘Smart Stops’ for buses which we will erect around the county. It’s going to be a flexible service and not tour-guided buses but they will drop you to the likes of the community shop and café in Windgap and from there you can hire a bike a cycle around the area.
I think more people will come to Kilkenny and stay longer as when you fully integrate the rural areas, there’s now a week’s holiday with all the exploring that can be done in our countryside.
The local shop and rural retail has really taken a hit over recent years. Can LEADER help revitalise rural retail?
Would you believe over the space of 10 years, 20 villages of a scale in Kilkenny lost their rural shop? Shopkeepers became old and retired, with the next generation deciding not to keep the business going and sold it.
When these shops closed the four roads that used to lead everybody into the heart of the village, suddenly led them out of the villages. We investigated the option of going from a commercial shop to a community based shop for rural retail.
We knew there was a need to support a community rural shop, which incorporated a tearoom and a playground. The first community-led base shop we worked on was in Crosspatrick, which showed us the potential to do this in other villages. Then we funded Ballyhale’s community shop and Windgap’s, with Muckalee building theirs this month. We are also talking to communities in Glenmore, Clara, Dunnamaggin and right around the county about doing the same.
The community-led shop and café has proven to be a great outlet again for our rural community with volunteers giving their time to revitalise the heart of the villages that they are so proud of.
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