Remote working: The NI people going into the west for a new way of life

By Julian Fowler
South West Reporter, BBC News NI

Image caption,
Claire and Owen Whitford decided to move to County Fermanagh from Belfast during the summer of 2020

Many of us have seen the daily commute replaced by working from home over the last year.

That experience has prompted some people to reassess where they live and to swap the city for the countryside.

After more than a year of coronavirus restrictions, the value of wide open spaces and the desire to be close to family has led some people to stop and take stock of their lives.

Last summer, Claire and Owen Whitford, along with their three boys, upped sticks from Belfast and moved to Fermanagh.

"I had logged on one day and realised I could do it anywhere," Claire explained.

"That was on a Thursday and I said to Owen on Friday 'we're moving down to Fermanagh'."

Image source, PACEMAKER
Image caption,
The beauty of County Fermanagh has attracted people who want to relocate and work from home

She said if it hadn't been for the pandemic, they would never have made the move.

"We have always thought about it, but there was always the barrier of no jobs, and so we resigned [ourselves] to the fact we would be in Belfast and just coming down to visit.

"The pandemic made it possible for us to make the move, in the sense that it changed working arrangements and made it easier for us to do it, to work remotely and to live down here and still do my Belfast job."

Image caption,
The move has given the family far more room

She said the first lockdown made her claustrophobic and now they feel surrounded by nature with space to live.

Owen added: "It's also given us the chance to grow our own vegetables, we have a field just down the road.

"It's a lot bigger than our old garden in Belfast, so letting the children see where their food comes from has been really important."

Image caption,
Estate agent Nick Finlay said people are seeing the benefits of rural living

Nick Finlay, an estate agent in Enniskillen, has seen a surge in demand for property.

"It's really threefold: the first would be the young professionals who've seen the opportunity to relocate and work from home.

"The second would be the retirement couples that have decided they want a different pace of life from what the big cities hold.

"And the third point would be the people who have moved for holiday homes."

Leaving the rat race

It could be good news for a region that has long suffered from a lack of investment.

Thousands of civil servants are set to switch to a blend of office and home-based working, with Enniskillen and Omagh included in a list of 10 regional hubs.

The Department of Finance said the plan would reduce travel time and promote regional economic balance.

People who previously commuted to Belfast have now found they can leave the rat race behind for good.

Stephen Bloomfield, from Fivemiletown, is looking forward to devoting more time to music, playing for Murley Silver Band.

Image caption,
Stephen Bloomfield has gained time since dropping the Belfast commute

"Since March last year I've been working from home for Danske Bank and that has saved me a 130-mile round trip, which I certainly don't miss.

"The technology is amazing and it just changes people's lives and it certainly has changed mine."

Are we ready?

Looking to the future, are politicians ready to take advantage of the opportunities from these demographic changes?

A £5.2m public realm scheme is giving Enniskillen a long-awaited face-lift and the new £30m Erne campus of South West College is set to open in September.

The chair of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, councillor Diana Armstrong, recognises that more investment is needed to improve regional infrastructure.

"People choosing to work remotely, the biggest hurdle for them - the biggest disadvantage - is the reliability of broadband and that is something we continue to press forward for very strongly."

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Councillor Diana Armstrong said reliable broadband is needed to make remote working possible

"We welcome very much that we have been given more powers of regeneration in our district," she added.

"We are embarking on a very ambitious capital programme as well.

"We want to provide people the best possible healthiest life when they are here, a lifestyle that is enviable."

But can you really have it all?

Mark Smith's employer has allowed him to keep his job in England while working from Fermanagh.

Along with his wife Jacqui, who is originally from the county, they are both looking forward to a "stress-free, easy going way of life".

Image caption,
Jacqui and Mark Smith are looking forward to being close to family

They've sold their house in Warrington and will be moving in the next few months.

"I can't wait to try all the food," said Jacqui.

"I've been keeping an eye on Instagram on all the new places that are popping up in Enniskillen, so I've got an eye on quite a few places.

"And obviously to be close to my mum and my family, that'll be really nice."

Mark is looking forward to weekends away.

"When we're in Fermanagh we can just go away and drive somewhere and be on a remote beach or the green land somewhere, just to be free."

For many years the west has suffered because of its remoteness, now more people are discovering what this area has to offer.

You can watch more on this story on Thursday's The View, which is available on the BBC iPlayer.

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