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Ireland wants pandemic-era remote working to revive its rural towns

Terrace of historic shops and buildings, Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, Irish Republic. (Photo by: Geography Photos/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Geography Photos | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

DUBLIN — In March, the Irish government unveiled a plan to revive the country’s rural economy by enticing more people to work remotely.

A long-standing challenge for rural Ireland has been the migration to urban areas. With the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic and what can be achieved through remote working, the Our Rural Future plan aims to incentivize more people to stay in or move to non-urban areas.

The plan commits to providing financial support for local authorities to turn vacant properties in towns into remote working hubs. This includes a plan for “over 400 remote working facilities” across the country.

Grainne O’Keeffe has first-hand experience of attracting people to a rural town. She heads up the Ludgate Hub, a co-working space and start-up support organization in the small town of Skibbereen, about 80 km west of the city of Cork in the south of Ireland.

Ludgate Hub — which is named after scientist Percy Ludgate — was set up in 2016 and was an early mover in rural start-up efforts.

O’Keeffe told CNBC that Ludgate provides a practical example of attracting founders and employees to a small town.

It operates out of an old bakery and is opening a second facility in an empty school building later this year. It has mostly attracted individuals whose start-ups allow for working remotely, including Eric Yuan-backed start-up Workvivo.

O’Keeffe said significant investments in physical infrastructure like high-speed broadband and sourcing suitable buildings are key to making any town viable for remote working.

Skibbereen is connected to high-speed broadband through a Vodafone-led venture called Siro.

“That is without doubt a game changer for every region. That is fundamental and so is having a building that is conducive to a work environment,” she said.

Rural broadband connectivity has been a regular bugbear in Ireland. The government’s National Broadband Plan is rolling out services in previously underserved areas but it has had its fair share of delays. Other operators like Eir are in the midst of their own rural rollouts while Elon Musk’s Starlink is testing in one location in Ireland.

Work environment

Garret Flower made the move from Dublin to his native county of Longford, in the midlands. He is the chief executive of software start-up ParkOffice, whose team of 15 has now gone fully remote.

“The countryside has so much to offer,” he said. “I think remote working is something that can really drive people back to the rural areas.”

But he also warned against an over reliance on home working. As lockdowns eventually ease, the availability of office space or desks in towns and villages will be a key component of any strategy, he said.

“Not everyone has an enjoyable living area to work from. You can’t put that pressure on everybody to be able to work from their home. I grew up in the family home and it was chaos. I could never have worked with everyone there in the house,” he said.

Separately, a government-funded start-up accelerator called NDRC, which is now run by a consortium of business groups around the country, is focusing on developing start-up ecosystems in more diverse areas of the country.

One of its members is the RDI Hub, a facility in the town of Killorglin in County Kerry, in the southwest of the country.

“In Kerry we traditionally have a very ingrained migration. People leave Kerry. It’s rare that you would stay, most people go away for college, most people go away to start a job. Some come back but the majority go and keep going,” said Reidin O’Connor, the manager of RDI Hub.

O’Connor is from the area originally and relocated from Dublin with her partner and children a few months before the pandemic arrived.

She said that government efforts on remote working hubs need to focus not only on workers but how they can be integrated into local communities as well.

“Hubs should be the space where you have your start-ups and your creatives working together. But you also have classes and it becomes the hive of the community and it’s where people gather,” she said.

P A Thompson | The Image Bank | Getty Images

Housing and transport

A lingering issue for the development of any region in Ireland is housing. Prior to the pandemic, the housing shortage was long a hot-button issue. But since the onset of the pandemic, the issue has become more acute with construction activity halting.

Of late, institutional investor activity in the housing market has attracted a great deal of public scorn.

Ludgate’s O’Keeffe said that rural regeneration efforts will have to contend with housing and that authorities like county councils will need to “recognize that there will be increases in populations and that there is a need for housing to be accommodated.”

O’Keeffe acknowledges that transport links between rural towns like Skibbereen and nearby cities like Cork or further afield in Dublin presents challenges too.

“It is certainly an issue that we have for us, that remoteness, but I do think digital enablement reduces physical divide,” she said, adding that reducing digital divides can help address shortcomings in physical infrastructure like transport links.

Flower said there’s a significant opportunity afoot to revitalize large swathes of the country that could be otherwise forgotten about.

“A boatload of my friends in the last recession up and left for Australia and Canada and haven’t come back. We need to put images in people’s heads that they can come back and that they can work these world class jobs in remote parts of the country.”

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