Transforming Local Government and Local Democracy in Ireland

22 November 2012
Professor Merritt Bucholz, Dr.Brid Quinn, Dr. Eileen Humphreys, Minister Jan O'Sullivan, Professor Paul McCutcheon, Professor Rob Atkinson, Martin Galvin, Professor Paul Lawless.

A large audience, made up of local community members, public and community agency representatives, together with academics from Ireland, UK and US, recently participated in a one-day symposium on the subject of Transforming Local Government and Local Democracy in Ireland.  The event, which was hosted by the University of Limerick, provoked a high level of debate on the roles of local government and local democracy and explored a variety of lessons from other jurisdictions relevant to Limerick.

The day-long symposium forms part of a wider series of learning events scheduled for 2012 -2013 which focus on urban development and regeneration issues relevant to Limerick.  The series is being co-sponsored by the Supporting Social Inclusion and Regeneration in Limerick (SSIRL) initiative, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge in Society (ISKS), University of Limerick and the Life Course Institute at NUI Galway in partnership with the Limerick City of Learning.  “The purpose of the learning series is to bring high quality learning events on urban development to Limerick,” notes Martin Galvin of the SSIRL initiative.

In opening the symposium, Minister for Housing and Planning, Jan O’Sullivan T.D. argued that “we have to push Limerick’s Regeneration effort forward in the context of a broader Limerick” that considers the unique circumstances of specific communities while also focusing on the overall development of the city and region.  The Minister also noted that local government reforms in Limerick and revised plans for the Limerick Regeneration process “put the focus back onto communities”.   The Minister’s remarks were echoed by Limerick Local Authorities Manager, Conn Murray who informed participants that a unified local authority structure for Limerick would address both urban and rural issues such as job creation, disadvantage and isolation.   Mr. Murray highlighted the need to “empower citizens” and said that this process of empowerment should be “based on partnership, participation and innovation”.   He also cautioned, however, on the need for realism in the revitalisation of Limerick City and County in these challenging times, noting that the Local Authority would only promise what it could deliver.

The experiences of other jurisdictions were shared with the audience in a manner that offered real context for the challenges of local governance and democracy facing Limerick.   Speaking from a European context, Professor Rob Atkinson of the University of the West of England stressed the importance of a long-term perspective when planning for urban and regional development.  “It is very important at a local level that all stakeholders build the knowledge and capacity to do things, to use the resources they have in a smart way and work within a clear and realistic strategy towards long-term results.”  He highlighted that European cities and regions that had experienced rapid growth within short-term frameworks were now witnessing the most rapid economic decline compared to regions that had adopted a more steady and long-term perspective.  

Professor Paul Lawless of Sheffield Hallam University also shared the lessons from regeneration programmes in England, drawing on the evaluation results of the New Deal for Communities Programme, the UK government’s flagship regeneration initiative in England involving investment of £1.56 billion.   He explained the manner in which regeneration efforts in England had tended to result in environmental improvements, positive impacts on crime and mental health but had demonstrated limited impact on areas such as education and employment.  He emphasised that mainstream government resources, not additional regeneration funding, represent the bulk of investment in disadvantaged communities “and we need to marshal these resources to much better effect.”

Considerable attention was drawn throughout the symposium to the recent launch by Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of the government’s action programme for effective local government – Putting People First.  In critiquing this policy document, Dr. Bríd Quinn of the University of Limerick highlighted the “trust divide” between citizens and local government and stressed the importance of local government addressing this key challenge.  

“This was a very useful event,” concludes Eileen Humphreys from ISKS, “and one that was highly relevant to the changing context of local government and regeneration in Limerick.  We hope to organise similar events into 2013 and look forward to continued interest from community members and professionals in the region.”