Academic journal article Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland

The Economic Structure of Towns in Ireland

Academic journal article Journal of the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland

The Economic Structure of Towns in Ireland

Article excerpt


While there has been a significant amount of research on urban areas or rural areas (Quigley, 1998; Cervero, 2001; Terluin, 2003; Agarwal et al., 2009), there is been a relative paucity of research on small and medium sized towns. (1) As Tacoli (1998) points out, the distinction between urban and rural is complex, with the demarcation between the two often being blurred in reality. This interaction between urban and rural is particularly relevant for small and medium sized towns, combining both urban and rural economies.

A substantial proportion of the population live in small and medium sized town with over one third of the population living in settlements of more than 1500 outside of the main cities. Historically, the towns developed to serve as both inputs to the surrounding farm economy as a source of both goods and services and as a market for agricultural produce, both in terms of consumption and trade. Towns were usually close enough together for farmers and their families to visit them on foot or horseback on market day and then return home on the same day (Courtney, 2000). Additionally, small towns acted as a focal point for their hinterlands, which helped to maintain both economic and social linkages. However as transport and communication links have improved, many of these roles have been replaced by bigger towns that are now more accessible. Increased commuting and in-migration, raised consumer expectations in terms of service range and quality and pressures to reap economies of scale have contributed to the decline of service availability in small and medium-sized towns (Powe & Shaw, 2004). The move towards larger and more economic outlets for both goods and services has also meant that the smaller settlements have lost functions and the larger settlements have acquired additional or larger scale functions. This can be seen in the decline of village shops and small retail outlets in town centres as improved transport links and greater car ownership encourage more shopping trips and out-of-town shopping centres (Courtney, 2000, Powe & Shaw, 2004).

Small and medium-sized towns operate at the centre of the local rural economy and therefore reflect the changes the rural economy has been seen in the developed world in recent years. The decline of agriculture, both as a source of employment and as a share of GDP, has been a significant factor in the shifting rural economy. In Ireland, agriculture and related sectors employed more than half the workforce in the 1950s. In 2012, employment in agriculture stands 4.7% of the workforce and contributes 1.2% of GDP (DAFM, 2013). This pattern is mirrored in other developed countries, such as the United States (Henry & Drabbenstott, 1996) and the United Kingdom (Courtney, 2000). Over time, rural areas with significant natural amenities, recreational opportunities or quality of life advantages have the greatest opportunities for growth and development (Johnson, 2006).

Hubbard and Ward (2008) through interviews outlined a number of driving forces behind recent changes in rural Ireland, including (i) the CAP support for agriculture; (ii) the influx of foreign direct investment (FDI) and (iii) the development of infrastructure based on EU Structural and Cohesion funds. CAP support in the form of subsidies for farmers has helped maintain Irish agriculture but has also driven structural change in the sector. FDI driven by multinational companies (particularly in the high tech and internationally traded services sectors) has provided employment in rural areas. However, most FDI has been directed to urban areas. Infrastructural development in terms of roads, airports and telecommunications has also influenced changes in surrounding urban areas.

From a planning perspective, small and medium sized towns are referenced in national planning documents such as the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), the National Development Plan (NDP) and the County Development Plans (CDPs). …

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