In Conversation with Brendan McGrath, Chief Executive of Galway City Council

Responsible for Ireland’s third largest city, and a leader in Irish culture and heritage, Galway City Council is responsible for a population of 83,456 and operates with a 2023 revenue and capital budget of €215 million.

As the largest city in the West of Ireland, and an international scene for culture and the arts, Thomas and Hannah from LGIU Ireland spoke with Chief Executive Brendan McGrath to find out more about the work of Galway City Council.

Chief Executive Brendan McGrath. Credit @GalwayCityCouncil
Chief Executive Brendan McGrath. Credit @GalwayCityCouncil

To start with, after 47 years’ experience in Local Government, what are your reflections on the role of local government in Ireland?

Irish local government rarely stands still and throughout all the changes in government policy and economic downturns, I have seen a real increase in the power and confidence of Irish local government.

For one, until 1991 local authorities were quite limited in the functions they could do – unless there was specific enabling legislation, for example, to give grants to communities, or support tourism development, local authorities could not perform those functions, unless they could find workarounds. I was a Town Clerk in Ballinasloe at that time, and I saw first-hand how frustrating it was for councillors, staff and communities when we couldn’t make important changes in our area, even though there was an appetite to engage.

The constitutional recognition for local government in 1997, and the subsequent Programme for Change brought in corporate structures such as city and county development boards and strategic policy committees, which, under Putting People First, saw the Development Boards effectively change into the Local Community Development Committees. The 2014 Local Government Reform Act brought about more change, with the abolition of town councils and municipal districts being formed within local authority areas and a stronger role for local government in community development.

Local authorities in Ireland today are responsible for the delivery of over 1,105 services, based on the national inventory – ranging from council meetings to housing supply, dog pounds, beach maintenance, strategic planning, libraries, fire service and beyond.

Looking back over the last 50 years of local government, you can see the long-rooted nature of some of our current challenges in the sector. Looking at planning, for example, there is a real similarity in the arguments that led to the creation of An Bord Pleanála in 1976, as there are today, almost 50 years later, for its current reform.

Again, in today’s recruitment market, using a staff grading structure that was formed and updated over 50 years, offers some explanation for the current recruitment challenges in local authorities, especially as the nature of local authority activity evolves, particularly in specialised areas such as ICT, HR and environmental work. Some of these roles didn’t exist 5 or 10 years ago.

Overall, change is a certainty in Irish local government, and looking forward, the role of a directly elected Mayor in Limerick, and how they will work with the directly elected council, will be a key one to watch.

As we move along in 2023, what are the key opportunities for Galway at the moment?

Galway City has a wealth of opportunities. It is the only city directly on the western seaboard, and we have been very successful from an economic development perspective, with 9 out of 10 of the top ICT and medical technology companies in the world located here.

And feedback from FDI companies here is encouraging. Galway is a very attractive proposition for their employees, and unlike other cities, where young professionals are quite mobile, in Galway, people want to stay, and they enjoy the quality of life, the bohemian feel and the strong artistic, cultural and creative sector.

We also have a very strong university sector. Between the University of Galway and the Atlantic Technological University, we have a student population of more than 25,000. Recent pressure on student housing means that more students are living at home and commuting, which does have an impact on the transport situation in the city, both in terms of demand to travel by car, and a future audience to use our growing cycling and public transport networks.

Sustainable growth is a key ambition of Galway City and also important to those who live, study, work and visit our city. Our blue and green spaces are important attractors, with Galway City Council staff playing a vital role in keeping our city clean, and maintaining top-class facilities such as our beaches, community centres, playgrounds, parks, Leisureland, the Museum and the Town Hall Theatre.

Looking forward, Galway will continue to punch above our weight economically, and people from Ireland and beyond will continue to come to work and live in Galway.

The city needs to grow further – in a sustainable manner. But it also needs to retain its small city vibe and feel. It’s one of the most unique characteristics of Galway – this beautiful city – global in its outlook, and local in its feel.

(Interview continues below)

Local government at the Oireachtas: May 2023

In this member-exclusive round-up service, we examine the news from Ireland’s Parliament every month with a focus, as always, on legislation which impacts local government. May’s edition includes a visit from the US President, brand-new local government legislation and ten new Bills signed into law.

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Along the same line, what are the key challenges facing Galway City Council in 2023? 

Housing and transport.

The crux of the housing supply issue is that Ireland has not been building enough new homes in recent years. When you have a shortage of housing, the market prices go up, and the affordability challenge increases. So, building new homes and meeting the targets of Housing for All is really important for the sustainable growth of Galway, to ensure that those who live, work and study here will have somewhere to live that’s affordable. We have a significant homeless population and also a big challenge in relation to homing our traveller community.

Linked to this is the transport challenge. Obviously, a significant controversy at the moment is the provision of a ring road around Galway. While there are passionate arguments involved in building new roads, the heart of Galway’s transport issue is the physical geography. We are sandwiched between Lough Corrib to the north, and 5km to the south, we have the North Atlantic. Adding to this, through the centre, we have the River Corrib, which is one of Ireland’s fastest-flowing rivers, in addition to a number of canals in the city centre.

Galway is geographically squeezed for transport, and most of our junctions in the city are operating over their design capacity. Therefore, our approach is that we have to get the cars out of the middle of the city and give it back to the people of Galway, so they can walk and cycle safely, and have access to reliable bus services to get from A to B, improved rail services and potentially light rail in the future.

However, to do that with three bridges into the city centre is difficult. But proposing another bridge is no easy feat. Buffered between European protected habitats, there is a narrow 600-650m corridor for another road bridge, and to do this requires the demolition of 44 houses, which has a big human impact.

The decades of discussion and stalling over a ring road hold a real human cost. From those stuck in traffic every day and missing appointments, to those whose properties are held in limbo by transport proposals, there is a real need for action.

Looking to the long-term, the Galway Transport Strategy is under review and will include consideration of the introduction of light rail and enhanced heavy rail. The National Transport Authority recently launched a park-and-ride strategy on the approaches to the city, linked in with bus lanes and rapid transport at peak times. A recently proposed review of public bus services has proposed a 50% increase in current city bus services and the introduction of the city’s first 24/7 routes.

But if buses continue to get held in congested bridges, people will lose faith in public transport, which ultimately will be the answer.

There are huge opportunities for Galway in active and sustainable travel, a new world-class pedestrian and cycle bridge adjacent to the existing Salmon Weir Bridge has recently opened. The BusConnects Galway: Cross-City Link is currently with An Bord Pleanála for planning consent, with the BusConnects Galway: Dublin Road project to follow in Q4 2023. Other projects ongoing include the Martin Junction upgrade, to provide pedestrian, cycle and bus facilities; reinstating the old Clifden rail line as a walkway/cycleway; the upgrade of Millers Lane; and delivery of the Galway City Cycle Network to mention a few. The Dublin/ Athlone/ Galway city greenway and the Galway/ Clifden greenway will also be delivered in the next few years.

So over the next five years, the transport system in Galway has the potential to be transformed.

In doing this, taking cars out of the city centre will also transform the face of the city with new public realm spaces created for cultural and artistic purposes and local markets, for example.

By 2030 Galway will have transformed into a global city from a public transport point of view. Taking the congestion out of the city will allow for a greener city in every way. We can be a more walkable city, a more liveable city and a far more efficient city.

Linked with the 2030 growth of Galway City, a continuing challenge is the boundary between Galway City and Galway County Council. Given that the last boundary extension was made in the mid-1980s, and the city has grown exponentially since then, Galway City Council is now geographically the smallest local authority in the country.

On a practical level, this means the existing city boundary splits our business areas in Parkmore and Briarhill, and adds a layer of complexity for our local businesses. However, boundary extensions are not straightforward politically. But leaving the boundary the way it is does not benefit people in either Galway City or Galway County.

Galway is seen as a leader in supporting culture and arts; how did this occur?

The roots of Galway’s cultural sector are rooted in the 1970s cultural renaissance. A number of like-minded individuals in the university (now the University of Galway) graduated and established the Druid Theatre Company and the Galway Arts Festival. Macnas, the spectacle theatre company, also has its origins in that time.

As the Druid Theatre attracted international recognition, these progressive, forward-minded people stayed in Galway and grew their craft, and it formed this array of marvellous organisations that continue to inspire others.

Additionally, about 25% of Galway’s population comes from outside the island of Ireland, so Galway has always been open to new influences in the cultural sphere. In turn, this has helped Galway become a creative city. This also helps the FDI sector, and there is a correlation between creative industries, FDI and enterprise.

In addition, there has been a growing appreciation of the importance of arts and culture to our quality of life. This is reflected in a series of European designations going back to 2014 when Galway was designated as a UNESCO City of Film. Galway became the first Irish Green Leaf City in 2017, followed by the European Region of Gastronomy in 2018, and the European Capital of Culture in 2020. The new Galway Culture Company builds on these designations in terms of the EU and Global relationships and has three simple objectives:

  1. Improving and developing access to international and European funding for arts and culture.
  2. Place-making through arts and culture in Galway City and in the county.
  3. Improving support for the artistic sector – audience development, training or the wider capacity of the sector.

We are working collaboratively at a local and national level, and this underpins every one of these objectives. I have no doubt that the existing cultural infrastructure deficits in the city will be remedied over time.

Overall, historically we’ve always appreciated the importance of the arts and culture to our quality of life, and that is one of our unique selling points.

During your time as Chief Executive, what was critical to ensuring a good relationship with the elected members of the Council?

Personally, I cherish the democratic mandate of local government in my day-to-day work. In doing so, this builds trust and mutual respect between the executive and our councillors.

Councillors represent the people, whose voice deserves to be heard and to be listened to. And whilst the elected council and you might disagree on things it’s really important to appreciate the mandate given by the electorate to councillors and the representative role they perform.

As an Irish person, I am proud to be part of a nation that won its hard fight for independence. Looking at history, our independence came at a huge cost. Therefore, understanding this struggle for democracy in Irish history really makes you value and appreciate the existence of our elected representatives and our right to free speech.

And equally, you have to be prepared to say when and where you have got it wrong. So, appreciating democracy, valuing it and understanding what’s also happening elsewhere in the world is fundamental to appreciating how local government works.

Finally, I would be very, very worried about the attacks on our democracy, especially from social media sources and the dire treatment of our elected representatives through such media. I would hope that our CSP programmes in schools empower young people to respect the importance of free speech and that while we might not agree with someone’s views, they are entitled to put their opinions forward and we all should listen. 

Finally, after all this time in local government, what still surprises you? 

Nothing within local government today surprises me. Local government is constantly changing and expanding its role. It is about providing local services to people, and outside of the Irish legislature, we are the only other Irish institution that is elected by the direct vote of our people. That is what makes Irish local government distinctive.

I think I have been privileged, fortunate and humbled to work in and forge my career in local government. I have seen its evolution with growing influence and confidence, as national government relies more on local authorities to tap into local sentiment, to engage with local stakeholders and to deliver services and infrastructure on the ground. After 47 years, local government has been a major part of my life and a hugely rewarding, fulfilling, and exciting career. I hope I have served the state and local government well and made a positive contribution and difference in people’s lives. I’m now very much looking forward to the next chapter and the many new opportunities that it will bring!

Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís – may we live to see this time next year!

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