Ireland Climate action and sustainable development, Democracy, devolution and governance

AILG Conference 2020: Solving Global Challenges through Local Leadership

Source: Cllr Lourda Scott via Twitter

The Association of Irish Local Government (AILG) held their annual conference on 4th–5th March, hosting councillors from across Ireland at the Longford Arms Hotel for a packed programme of discussion about the key issues facing the sector in 2020. AILG used the platform this year to focus on climate action and held the first annual Women’s Network meeting. LGIU’s Jennifer Glover attended the event and brings you the highlights.

Introducing the programme

Duncan Stewart – architect, environmentalist and TV presenter – set the tone for urgent climate action in his speech on the first evening and this urgency continued in the agenda for the main conference.

The day’s proceedings were introduced by Cllr Mick Cahill of Longford County Council, President of the AILG, with a few words from Cllr. Micheál Carrigy, Mayor of Longford County Council. Both welcomed guests to Longford and explained the county’s current ambitions for tourism, employment and infrastructure. The development of the new Center Parks site has been a major boon for the local economy, providing jobs, attracting tourists and unlocking investment in utilities and roads infrastructure. The council has also been involved in launching the ‘Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands’ brand, promoting its canal network (Ireland’s longest greenway) and planning investment in a Norman Heritage Village.

Climate Action and Green Procurement

The first session of the day focused on public procurement and was presented by Geraldine Dunne, Project Manager at the LGMA Local Government Procurement Service, and Michael Finucane, Category Manager and Deputy Head at the Local Government Operational Procurement Centre.

Geraldine gave an overview of Ireland’s procurement structures – in 2013 the Office for Public Procurement was set up to centralise public sector procurement, and then the Local Government Procurement Service was established a year later to support council procurement.

The EU’s definition of public procurement was provided: “the process by which public authorities, such as government departments or local authorities, purchase work, goods or services from companies”. Principles of good public procurement are: equal treatment, non-discrimination, proportionality, mutual recognition and transparency. There are 16 areas of procurement, of which two are relevant to local government: minor building works and civils, and plant hire. Each local authority has its own corporate procurement programme which is renewed every two to three years.

The speakers explained that public procurement can be a useful tool in tackling climate change if managed correctly, by asking for environmental credentials through the tendering process and working with suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint. However, it is important that councils are aware of the impact of new procurement criteria on SMEs. Changes to the standards should be phased so as not to “shock” the market.

One suggestion was that councils could ask suppliers to map their carbon footprint and to provide a plan to reduce it. Examples of good council procurement to support sustainable goals included: South Dublin City Council’s low carbon heat system in public sector, residential and commercial buildings; Offaly County Council’s waste collection office being re-fitted with second-hand instead of new furniture; and Mayo County Council awarding marks for low emissions when tendering for plant hire contracts. The procurement service is working on developing green contracting criteria which can be used across all local authorities and will allow a shift in weighting existing criteria towards green goals.

The three take-home messages from the procurement service were: councils should encourage suppliers to register on the eTender platform; that there are many procurement rules but focus on the five core principles; and that local government has the opportunity to lead the way on green procurement.

The dangers of politicising the climate crisis

Eric Ehigie, Corporate Law student at NUI Galway and Equality Officer of the Irish Second Level Students‘ Union, spoke passionately about the need to come together across ideological lines to meet the immense challenge posed by climate change. He argued that ideology is not linked to climate culpability – countries with vastly different ideological foundations and political and societal structures have contributed to rampant fossil fuel use – and therefore pointing the finger of blame will not get us anywhere. He called for us to hold people to account for their actions, not their beliefs, and warned that this is not a contest as we all either win or lose together.

He reminded the audience that Ireland has successfully united to work through other major issues, such as the public debate and referendum on equal marriage, and in the times of the Troubles, so he feels confident that the country can do the same for climate change.

The view from Longford

Officers from Longford County Council told the conference about the challenges caused by climate change and their climate-friendly strategies.

We heard first from Barbara Heslin, Director of Service, who reminded us that “we do not inherit from our ancestors, we borrow from our children and grandchildren”. She observed that no area is immune from the impact of climate change and that communities across Ireland are already feeling its effects through the devastation caused by increased flooding, storms and coastal erosion. Councils are involved in emergency response, mitigation and adaptation, and there is now more pressure on local authorities to protect communities by, for example, coordinating first response, delivering sandbags and building flood defences.

She described the particular challenges in Longford county posed by the recent restrictions on peat burning in pursuit of reducing Ireland’s carbon emissions. One of the county’s largest employers, Bord Na Móna, had to bring forward its 2030 de-carbonisation strategy by several years after the change in government policy. This risked losing both jobs and business rate income for the area. The council has been working with Bord Na Móna and other local businesses to manage the transition away from peat burning. One strategy they have been pursuing involves encouraging people to live and work outside Dublin to reduce car commutes – co-working hubs have been set up to ensure remote workers have good internet access.

Senior Planner Donall Mac An Bheatha presented the council’s inspiring vision for a green future through investment in sustainable tourism. The council has been developing plans for the Mid Shannon Wilderness Park, which in February received money to begin implementation. The council will make use of 20 hectares of state-owned land around Lough Ree, and plans to transform the Bord Na Móna rail tracks into walking and cycling routes. It is investing in the Corlea Bog Trackway, which is already used more by (especially elderly) residents since the bog harvesting ceased, to improve walkways and expand the visitor centre. Wind farms are also planned.

The plans would help encourage visitors to Longford, which is currently the least visited county in Ireland, and would facilitate active travel, outdoor pursuits (including bog snorkelling, kayaking, angling and water sports) and arrival by public transport. The council is also pursuing other sustainability projects including producing herbs and promoting other local food production, retrofitting housing and looking at UNESCO biosphere status.

Addressing Climate Change – Challenges for our Communities

Kieran Mulvey, the recently-appointed Just Transition Commissioner tasked with managing the closure of peat power stations in the Midlands, shed more light on this difficult situation. He outlined his plans to consult widely with stakeholders in order to make sure the transition worked for everyone. He too raised addressing the volume of car commutes from the Midlands to Dublin and Galway as a key area of opportunity for reducing carbon emissions.

He suggested that investing in enterprises to encourage locating or starting businesses in the Midlands as a good starting point, as well as improving inter-town public transport links, broadband connectivity and the EV charging network. He cautioned that Ireland does not yet have enough renewable energy sources so currently electric vehicles are still contributing to fossil fuel use. In order to tackle the climate crisis, said Kieran, local authorities will have to cooperate more than they are used to.

Paddy Mahon, Longford Co Chief Executive, followed with an overview of the national picture of local climate action. He commended the fact that most local authorities have now signed climate action charters, have set up climate SPCs and have budgeted for projects, and praised the LGMA and CCMA for showing leadership in this space. He also noted that four Climate Action Regional Offices have been established by CCMA and the Department, which will be rolling out a training programme for elected members this year. He also recommended the LGMA’s report from January reviewing local authority climate projects so far and raised examples of good practice including retrofitting social houses, making new-builds zero carbon, low energy public lighting and working with the GAA and other sports organisations to reduce their carbon footprint.

National Oversight and Audit Committee

Michael McCarthy, Chair of the National Oversight and Audit Committee (NOAC), gave some background to NOAC, which was established in 2014 to scrutinise local government’s performance against indicators, its financial performance, adherence to SLAs and implementation of national policy. It also supports and promotes best practice in the sector. (LGIU has produced a series of briefings covering the NOAC data releases – member-only content.)

Findings from NOAC’s recent survey of citizens, commissioned from Ipsos MRBI in 2018, show that citizens in general are very aware of local government, are satisfied with their council’s work and think their area is a good place to live, although some were not convinced by value for money.

In terms of NOAC’s role in supporting positive climate action, Michael explained that some indicators already speak to this goal, for example the number of bins and the number of schools with green flag status. A new indicator was introduced in 2019 to measure energy efficiency, and others are being considered for the future. NOAC holds annual conferences to share best practice in local government – some of these examples can be seen in their annual reports, such as the Dungarvon travel scheme and the brown bin scheme in Laois. Councillors were encouraged to attend this year’s conference.

Women in Irish local government

In the final session of the day, Cllr Anne Colgan, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Council and AILG Vice-President, opened the first AILG Women’s Network meeting. There was a wide-ranging and spirited discussion about how to improve women’s representation in local government.

First up, we heard from Catherine Lane from the National Women’s Council of Ireland, who discussed their recent work Women Beyond the Dáil and recommended setting up local and/or regional women’s caucuses as a means to attract and support women councillors. She commended Dublin City, Fingal and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown councils for attaining equal gender representation among their elected members and asked how we can begin to document the wider benefits of having more women in positions of power.

Tara Farrell of the Longford Women’s Link described how her organisation was founded because local women were fed up with being excluded from decision making. The organisation runs the Women’s Manifesto Group, which brings women’s voices into local decision making and observes council meetings. Through the SHE Project (See Her Elected) in partnership with 50:50 North West, LWL has been successful in supporting more local women into politics and runs conferences and seminars on under-representation.

Cllr Elisa O’Donavan, Limerick City and County Councils, was elected for the first time in 2019 and described her experience in office so far. Women councillors in Limerick were approached by Limerick Women’s Network to set up a Women’s Caucus to address low female political representation, which has been a useful resource for new councillors such as Elisa to get help navigating local government structures and has helped to facilitate cross-party working to focus on issues that affect women. Most recently, a motion passed through Limerick City Council that formally recognised the Women’s Caucus, meaning that the group can now book council space for meetings and request slots in the council agenda.

In the open discussion, many barriers to women’s engagement were identified. One person pointed to the difficulty of keeping women in local government, not just in getting them to run in the first place, and another argued that a critical mass of women is needed in each council in order to enact meaningful change in council decision making.

Flexible meeting times and a greater use of technology to facilitate meetings were also suggested as solutions, as was having an agreed advance notice period for meeting times to give people time to plan. Expenses and poor pay conditions were raised as a major barrier, exacerbated by the fact that councillors cannot claim expenses for childcare.

Public understanding of the benefits of diversity in politics was also deemed to be poor, meaning that even when women, ethnic minority candidates or those with disabilities were on the ballot paper they didn’t receive the votes. In order to get women promoted to senior roles in the council, one person encouraged colleagues to continue questioning why women are not being promoted within their own council. The need for a gender quota to improve women’s representation appears to be a live debate in the sector.

Final thoughts

Throughout the day, it was notable that several audience members raised the issue of devolving further powers to local government and empowering elected members. Ireland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe, and elected members are clearly ready and willing to take on more responsibilities to make the best decisions for their communities. It will be imperative to consider the local democratic processes in tackling issues such as climate change and the coronavirus crisis – hard decisions will need to be made and councillors are well placed to manage these in an equitable and locally-specific way. Democratic and representative local leadership is needed now more than ever.

As dinner speaker Jim Gavin, Former Dublin Football Manager, said in his speech, “leadership is about creating an environment in which people can be their best” – councillors are vital players in the creation of such an environment.

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