Reflections from the April 2018 AILG Training Conference

At the end of last week the Association of Irish Local Government held their Annual Training Conference in Dungarvan, Waterford. LGiU Irelands Hannah Muirhead was in attendance and here she reflects on the experience and shares some of the key points that were made by speakers during the course of the event.

On the first full day of proceedings, John Paul Phelan, Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government with special responsibility for Local Government and Electoral Reform, gave the welcome address. Key issues he raised were boundary changes and how vital they are for achieving spatial parity and binging councillors closer to the people they represent.

He then explored the concept of directly elected mayors, highlighting that it is necessary to think carefully about are how these would fit in to the local government structure, and where their functions would come from – stressing the importance of such mayors not sidelining the efforts of councillors. He suggested one way he can see it working – directly elected mayors at the single local authority level, brought about with changes that fit into wider work being done to balance the power of the executive relative to that of elected members.

John Treacy, Olympic silver medallist and Chief Executive of Sport Ireland then took the stand to speak about the crucial role of councillors in promoting sport in their local authorities. He stressed that local authorities are a key partner for Sports Ireland, being responsible for infrastructure provision, for creating an environment that lends itself to people being able to be involved in physical activity, and for their role in Local Sports Partnerships (LSPs).

He appealed to councillors about the importance of involving LSPs, which rely heavily on buy-in from councillors, in meetings, and of thinking about sport when making local plans for environment and health. He highlighted how effective it can be when communities, local authorities and schools work together and pool their resources for the benefit of sport – for example by facilitating the use of school sports halls after hours by community sports clubs, or by tying sport to tourism – as they’ve done with canoe courses and the Waterford Greenway.

Sticking with the Waterford Greenway, next up was a presentation on Waterford’s two recent tourism regeneration projects: the Viking Triangle the Waterford Greenway. Bríd Kirby from the Waterford Local Enterprise Office spoke about the key role of the LEO in the Viking Triangle, and Michael Walsh, Chief Executive of Waterford City and County Council, flagged two things as key to their success: utilising assets that they already had – the great outdoors and the Viking heritage; and ensuring high quality despite budget pressures – by not taking on too much and spreading resources too thinly.

Focusing on the Greenway, he spoke about the connection between the city and the surrounding landscapes, the importance of opening this up for everybody to experience, and how the way is being paved (literally) for the connection of similar routes throughout Ireland.

He highlighted two barriers facing councils when establishing greenways: The first was in regard to land access: the Waterford Greenway was built on publicly owned land yet they still faced significant (yet legitimate) opposition from adjacent landowners. He warned that for substantial infrastructure projects such as greenways, acquiescence is unlikely to be effective and that the use of CPOs should be anticipated.

The second barrier was a financial one – stemming from the fact that, despite the changes in powers, functions and service delivery expectations of local authorities in relation to tourism, financial systems haven’t changed. A project like the Waterford Greenway could only have been built by the local authority – so there is an urgent need to rethink local government funding in relation to such tourism projects if they are to be continued to be undertaken by other local authorities.

The Q&A session was dominated by questions from councillors from local authorities with greenway plans of their own, suggesting that such projects are indeed being be undertaken and that this is an area where policy learning/sharing could be particularly effective. LGiU Ireland has commissioned some work on this, and will shortly be publishing a briefing sharing best practices relating to greenways from Ireland and beyond. Waterford Councillor and President of AILG Damien Geoghegan had a few words of encouragement to add; “if you want to build a greenway, it will be hard and there will be opposition but stick with it, it will be worth it”.

You can a previous LGiU briefing on the Waterford Greenway here.

Next on the stage was Gabriel Hynes, Senior Engineer at Waterford City and County Council who spoke about the local authority responses to the Beast From The East. He praised councils around the country for their responses to March’s severe snow.

He said that central to the successful rolling out of an emergency plan is effective interaction between actors – cooperating with the districts and other relevant agencies, and communicating with contractors, farmers and other involved parties. Maximising the council’s resources and ensuring that flow of information is unhindered. He concluded that if you have a plan, and there is proper communication of the plan so that everybody knows the plan, you’ll be able to deal with most of what nature throws at you.

Next, as 2018 is Bliain na Gaeilge, was a panel of councillors discussing local authorities and the Irish language. With Irish being the first official language of Ireland, there are constitutional language rights that Irish speakers have, and public bodies have a duty to comply with these rights – which include the right to have public services delivered in Irish.

Local authorities have certain responsibilities with regard to this – such as making sure that local signage is correct – but it was raised that there is a lot of variation between councils with regard to their commitment to the Irish language beyond the statutory requirements, and that some councils should be doing more. It was mentioned that each council has their own Irish language plan and that, since they’re all working toward the same goals, it might make sense to have one cohesive plan that all councils can stick to. There was much agreement to this.

What followed was a Q&A conducted almost entirely in Irish where it seemed that most councillors were keen to encourage the promotion of Irish within their councils and make it easier for their constituents to comfortably use what Irish they have on a day-to-day basis.

The last presentation of the day was on social media. Paul Dower of popular Facebook group Waterford in Your Pocket took us through a list of dos and don’ts for using social media as a councillor. Dos included utilising different platforms for different types of messaging, and  keeping messaging positive. Don’ts included ignoring comments, believing everything you read online, and posting under the influence. He added that the optimum time for posting in Ireland is 9pm.

LGiU have recently published a briefing on local government communications and social media, which you can read here.

The conference ended with a dinner which was preceded by speeches from AILG President Damien Geoghegan and Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy. Cllr Geoghegan spoke about how central government needs to have a serious look at terms and conditions for councillors if they want to sustain a high calibre of councillors beyond the next local election.

In his first address to councillors since taking office as Minister, Mr Murphy praised local government for their outstanding response to storm Emma. He announced a string of new upcoming funding for housing and homelessness and hammered home the point that his department is reliant on the work of local authorities and the importance of them working together to achieve their targets.