Earlier this month, a delegation assembled by Rural Housing Scotland (RHS) headed to County Clare in Ireland for a two day study trip to learn about the Irish approach to digital rural development. The trip came after the Irish Minister for Rural and Community Development, Heather Humphreys, put her Department in contact with the organisation. Over the last year, RHS has maintained contact with the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD), to establish a positive knowledge-sharing relationship, which saw representatives from the DRCD attend the annual RHS conference in February to speak about the Irish National Hub Network.
The Irish Government has put substantial investment into the development of a digital hub network which has helped boost the rural economy and population by making remote working more accessible in rural regions. We were eager to learn more about the logistics of establishing hubs like these in rural and island locations, as Smart Clachan, a housing model devised by RHS to promote rural repopulation, incorporates homes with shared facilities such as digital workspaces.
The trip saw the delegation, which included representatives from the Scottish Government Islands Team, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and two island communities, alongside RHS staff, visit several hubs and meet many of those behind their successful roll out.
‘Hub’ has become a buzzword of sorts since Covid hit, and whilst the concept is relatively simple, the creation of this network of well-equipped modern hubs, in remote places with no broadband connection, brought together through one easy-to-use booking and payment system, is impressive. These repurposed buildings are spaces that resemble the contemporary workplace without workers being bound by the constraints of traditional office culture. They provide excellent and affordable facilities, with high-speed wi-fi, digital tools to facilitate needs such as video conferencing, dynamic meeting rooms, vibrant co-working spaces and private offices, as well as kitchen facilities. Some of the hubs had a metropolitan atmosphere, despite being located in towns of less than 1,000 people.
The hubs, which benefit community members and visitors alike, have helped put Clare at the forefront of rural regeneration. Digitalisation through the development of hubs and Broadband Connection Points (public spaces with a high-speed internet connection, to provide a temporary solution to broadband black spots until communities are provided with full connectivity) has brought new life to rural communities, by offering remote workers facilities that rival those found in urban areas.
On the first day, the itinerary, organised by the DRCD, involved informative presentations from County Clare Council on their rural development strategy and regional hub network ‘DigiClare’, followed by hub visits.
On the second day, the delegation was warmly welcomed to Udaras na Gaeltachta HQ, where Rónán Mac Con Iomaire, Director Regional Development, Community & Language Planning and Mícheál Ó Duibhir, gave a thorough overview of their holistic approach to the preservation of the Irish language. Their projects include the creation of Gteic, a hub network across the Gaeltacht, to encourage innovation and remote working.
The group then visited Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, to give a presentation on our Smart Clachan project and to learn about the impressive work of their community development company as well as the housing challenges they are up against. This visit in particular highlighted many parallels between the issues our island communities in Scotland are facing.
The trip demonstrated the Irish Government’s practical support for the sustainability of rural and island communities through significant investment and recognition of the importance of the rural economy. The benefits of rural investment should not be understated, and yet, in Scotland, a country where 98% of the land is classed as rural, it often seems to be.
There is huge value in inter-country learning opportunities and we hope that the positive connections we have made through this experience will have a lasting impact. At RHS, we feel inspired to take what we have learned into further developing the Smart Clachan model to play an exciting role in the digital future of our rural and island communities. Many thanks to everyone who made it possible, particularly the Irish organisations involved who were fantastic hosts, and Scottish Community Alliance who helped make the trip possible. We hope a return visit to Scotland will be possible in the near future!