The arrival of Covid-19 has turned the world as we knew it on its head and forced us to change the way we live our lives. Many of the things which had previously been the accepted wisdom in planning our communities and our way of living are now in question.
Our future seemed mapped out and unstoppable: further centralisation in urban centres, increased commuter numbers and congestion, the decline of rural towns and communities.
But this is no longer the future we must face. Instead, one positive from the last year could be a long-term reality. Remote working at an unprecedented scale can work. We know it can.
Before March 12, the main roads into our cities heaved with traffic each day from the early hours and until late at night. Packed buses and trains meant many faced a daily struggle getting to and from their workplaces. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were spending hour after hour sitting alone in their cars when they could be at home with their families.
The future was clear. More and more of us living in smaller and smaller homes in urban centres while the lights in rural Ireland were turned off one by one.
We now know it does not have to be that way.
It’s not just about working from home. Money is being spent in local economies where it would previously have been spent in our major cities. Fewer cars on our roads will drive down emissions and help us to meet our climate change commitments. There is more capacity to be closer to elderly or infirm relatives, more time to spend with children and greater connections with our communities.
Many of us will not return to the commuter grind as we knew it before unless we must. So how do we get there? The good news is that most of the building blocks are already in place. The National Broadband Plan is being rolled out. Although it has taken far longer than it ever should have, it can replace our motorways with thin lines of fibre.
I believe many employers recognise that their workers can do just as good a job from home. While many will not want to work remotely for their entire work week, many will want to do a day or two at home. In order to do that we need more than just fibre, we need high quality digital hubs with suitable workspaces built into communities.
The state is taking a leadership role in mandating remote working in 2021, but we need to see the focused development of new, national policies to promote remote working where possible in the private sector.
That can be started by expanding on the existing Amárach Research, collecting information on the numbers of employees and employers who are considering making the current arrangements permanent, or who would like to do so. We need to understand where in the country these people and businesses are, and what they need to succeed.
For employers in particular who can, but are not considering at least some element of continued working from home, we need to understand their concerns and what can be done to support them. The transition to large-scale working from home cannot be enforced, it must meet the needs of employers too.
The move to working from home will facilitate more people to continue on the proud tradition of family farming which accompanies many a life lived in rural areas.
We need to put in place the structures to support and modernise our agriculture sector, and in particular smaller farms. The quality of the Irish produce is among the best in the world. The introduction of new smart technology and genomics will allow us to improve that product even further and deliver a sustainable living from farming.
More time at home means that this becomes possible, both to facilitate more productive small producers and to allow them to improve their products even further. This will allow for improved incomes across the country. It will also support a greener agriculture sector.
And after that, we need to assess how our transport system will work to assist this new way of living. Regional connectivity needs to replace delivery systems to major hubs. We know there is a natural limit to the former approach — there are only so many new lanes that can be added to a motorway, after all. While some projects will still be necessary in this regard, we need to improve the quality of connections between smaller communities.
I think most parents will agree that although staying at home with their children has been challenging at times, it has also been hugely rewarding. While I would not advocate for a return to remote learning on the scale we saw previously, I think the school system has learned many valuable lessons, and that teachers have built and developed many new skills which may have applications in the future.
The weight of schoolbags could be drastically reduced by putting more work online for students to access when appropriate. I believe that the Department of Education should seek to learn from the experience of school closures, and to take the positives which have been gained to be used into the future.
For rural Ireland, there is a particular issue with regard to maintaining and protecting our small schools. It is welcome that the programme for government continues to recognise the value of these schools to local communities. If more people come to live in rural communities, the future of these schools will be secured. The one-to-one education that our children receive will increase, leading to better educational outcomes.
The vision for the future of our health system has already been agreed. Sláintecare, which is currently being implemented, recognises that the future of our healthcare system will see more and more care taking place in the community. A key part of this will be greater investment in health services and facilities provided in smaller hospitals around the country, delivering healthcare within the community.
That investment in facilities in our area needs to be backed with further supports to allow older people to continue to live in the communities in which they have spent their lives when they require additional support. While I accept that some limited circumstances may require a move into care, we know that most people wish to continue to live within the communities that they know and love.
With more people living and working within these communities, issues such as social isolation and loneliness could also be addressed for older people. After all, it is much easier to visit or care for an elderly relative if they are nearby and comfortable in their own home.
I strongly believe that a social dividend should come from the current crisis, and I believe that social dividend will come in the form of the renewal and restoration of rural communities.
There has been a tendency to consider these communities as some sort of fading legacy or shrinking minority by some who look down on them.
All too often, advocating for rural Ireland is considered to be a class of “gombeenism”. I strongly disagree – in light of the opportunities which have come to light in the recent crisis, it is now clear to me that nothing could be further from the truth.
These communities now represent the future. The time has come to prepare to pay out on that social dividend. If we choose to do so, the lessons of lockdown will allow us to build stronger communities, rebalance work and life and truly embrace the opportunities provided by the provision of high speed broadband in all parts of Ireland.
The vaccine which will be rolled out in the weeks and months ahead opens the door for a new Ireland for us all to emerge into. The question is now whether we embrace that which we gained in the process of losing so much to Covid-19.
Michael Moynihan is a Fianna Fáil TD for the Cork North-West constituency