Planning Strategy for Rural Northern Ireland
The Context: Economy
The rural economy is an integral part of the Northern Ireland economy and has links with those of Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the European Community as a whole. The economy continues to undergo structural change, with employment declining in many of the older traditional industries such as agriculture and engineering and some growth occurring in the service and commercial sectors. Overall there is a persistent high level of unemployment.
Much of the region's manufacturing base is concentrated in the Belfast Urban Area and the other major urban centres. Small towns often depend upon the fortunes of a limited number of firms and the closure of a particular company can have a serious impact on the local economy.
Fortunately those sectors of the economy which have tended to show an increase in employment are not tied to the major centres of population and opportunity exists for job creation to be more dispersed throughout the region.
Twenty years ago there were 77,000 people working on farms in Northern Ireland. Today the figure is around 57,000 and includes only 22,000 full- time farmers. The trend towards fewer farm jobs is evident throughout the developed world. In the first twenty-five years of the European Community, agricultural employment in the original six countries declined from over 15 million to under 6 million people. During the same period agricultural output within the community increased dramatically and now overproduction is a problem.
There is an increasing interest in farm diversification in Northern Ireland. A number of support systems are in operation to broaden the farm economy. There is also support for traditional farming practices within the Environmentally Sensitive Areas designated by the Department of Agriculture as a means of protecting and improving the environment.
In 1988 the European Community adapted its structural funds, giving high priority to disadvantaged regions such as Northern Ireland. An initiative was launched to help local community groups to put together plans for integrated rural development in their areas. Many rural community groups have been established in Northern Ireland; some in socially and economically disadvantaged areas. In 1989 the Government set up an inter-Departmental committee in Northern Ireland to advise on ways to tackle the problems of deprived rural areas. An independent advisory body, the Rural Development Council, was established to help local groups to develop self sustaining activities in such areas. New structures were introduced by the Department of Agriculture to deliver a co-ordinated response to the regeneration plans of local communities.