In conversation with Dr Pat Daly, Chief Executive of Limerick City and County Council

As part of LGIU’s series on local government leadership, Dr Pat Daly, Chief Executive of Limerick City and County Council discusses how Limerick is navigating the challenges and opportunities of local government in 2023.

Credit: Limerick City and County Council

After three years+ at the helm of Limerick City and County Council, what are your reflections on the role of local government in Ireland and what still surprises you?

The last three years have largely been about crisis management. From managing through the Covid pandemic to supporting displaced persons from the war in Ukraine and now managing the acute housing needs we face. The organisation and I have learned a lot about crisis management that has shaped both my experience and approach in this time.

In Limerick, this generates great momentum and more importantly partnerships that over time gives us an ability to step up and meet what is confronting us whether it is the Ukrainian effort or delivery of more housing and meeting accommodation pressures.

We in local government are always entrepreneurial, but the perma-crisis due to these additional pressures has forced us to be cleverer as an organisation. Having confidence in our staff and allowing them to step -up to make things happen is a key part of this.

As a Chief Executive working with an elected Council, it is our responsibility to give our staff the support they require in being entrepreneurial.

An example of this entrepreneurial approach is the agility and the ability to pivot that the Council has demonstrated by deploying technology in new ways which enable functions to evolve and improve.

Looking forward, keeping up that commitment to betterment and improvement continues regardless of what confronts us and we are trying to normalise change and transformation momentum into everything we do without fatiguing people.

As we move into 2023, what are the key opportunities and challenges for Limerick City and County Council at the moment?

Our biggest opportunity is maintaining economic progress. Limerick has done well over the last number of years as we were the first city region in Ireland to have an economic and spatial plan, which we call the Limerick 2030 programme.

The scale and ambition of Limerick 2030 is enormous. The Plan aimed to create 12,000 jobs, with 5,000 of those in the city. At the moment, we have supported the delivery of about 22,000 jobs and 5 billion euro of investment – double the targets in half the time!  This is transforming Limerick.

Maintaining that progress offers a challenge and opportunity. Last year we delivered the Limerick Development Plan 2022-28, our first development plan as an amalgamated authority. Pre-2014, we had separate City and County Councils with both having distinct policies and procedures. Since amalgamation, we have created a new organisation not a merger of entities. With the combined structures of the new organisation, a strong single Council body for Limerick, underpinned by the new Development Plan we have real ambition for Limerick.

Another major opportunity is our preparation for a Directly Elected Mayor. This represents the first time in nearly 100 years of our existence that the model of government locally has undergone reform – from the council/manager model to the directly elected mayor model. It will be the first such position in Ireland.

Since the plebiscite in 2019,  enabling legislation is now underway at Government level to support this reform. It will be interesting to watch debates in the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) to see what this change will look like. It’s whole scale change for local government, but as an organisation, we will be ready for this change. So overall, looking forward to 2023, it is about keeping the delivery on track while preparing the organisation for these new innovations.

(Interview continues below)

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Following Limerick’s success at Chambers Ireland 2022 Excellence in Local Government Awards, what is the current approach in Limerick behind economic development?

As I said earlier Limerick City and County is very entrepreneurial and this translates into our economic approach.

We have a strong economic development team that provides a lot of support for both national and local development agencies, and, of course, the private sector. Most notably we work closely with our very large foreign direct investment (FDI) sector. We are almost like a concierge service. We’re pretty much an open-door policy with a strong pro-business reputation.

Limerick City Council itself has taken a direct lead in economic development. For example, we bought and converted an empty Dell factory and turned it into film studios, we have co-located FDI companies in our buildings as ‘swing space’ and we have set up a whole new approach to tech development working with all the key bodies in and around Limerick, including our universities to drive Innovation.

We have also established a number of development companies to underpin economic and social regeneration. We have set up a development arm – ‘Limerick Twenty Thirty DAC’ to deliver key economic sites. We have set up an Innovation company, ‘Innovate Limerick’ to drive innovation in Limerick with key partners and more recently we have launched a tourism DAC, ‘Discover Limerick’ to address tourism development. This company will also help prepare Limerick to host the centenary of the Ryder Cup which will be held in Adare Manor in Limerick in 2027. These approaches are paying real dividends.

We are also balancing our focus with core service delivery and we recognise that economic development also requires spatial planning to ensure our region is well-designed and serviced from a housing, transport and climate adaptation point of view. Keeping progress on all these fronts is at the heart of Limerick’s development work, and looking to 2023 we will progress the development of homes, generate placemaking, and, get more people living in and around Limerick.

Recruitment and changing working styles face local authorities around the world. Limerick is seen as an innovative local authority across the globe for advancing the transition to new working models. What is the approach at Limerick City and County Council towards new working styles?

Pre-Covid, Limerick City and County Council enabling hybrid working. We do a lot of transactional-based activity like other local authorities, and we were already used to adapting to changes in technology and workspaces to support these roles.

Accelerating this during the pandemic, we are coming out the other side with new work patterns that aids our recruitment processes as it can address the problem of location. People who might not have chosen to come and work in Limerick are now enabled by technology to make this step, and while we are not exempt from the economy’s recruitment pressures, we are still managing to hit our recruitment targets.

Part of this success is down to our nature as an employer. People are energised by the level of work and the kind of ambition we have for Limerick. We hire over close to 100 new staff a year and the people who have joined us spread the word. We find that they enjoy working with us, and this helps us with staff retention as well as staff attraction. There is a good economy in Ireland and that creates pressure, but we are doing better in dealing with those pressures than expected.

2022 census data highlighted Limerick as having one of the lowest levels of housing vacancy across Ireland. What is the strategy behind vacancy & dereliction in Limerick?

Limerick was one of the first local authorities to adopt a vacancy and dereliction programme.

Limerick faced a lot of vacancy and dereliction, so we set up a team with a community development focus, under the lead of a director, because we believed we need to tackle vacancy and dereliction as a community effort. We were targeting vacancy and dereliction before the pressures of the current housing market became such a challenge. The team have been transformational in addressing the issue in both the City and our rural communities. In doing so we are having a very tangible impact across the City and County which, in turn, is providing a platform for increased private-led investment.

While there is no one size fits all for dealing with vacancy issues, the heart of our approach is about cleaning up ownership titles which allows us to establish ownership to push for improvements or to bring the property back to the market. This then allows us to take what were long-standing derelict properties to the market. As a consequence,  young couples and families have an opportunity to own a home back in our towns, rural villages and in our wonderful City Centre. At any one time, we are usually working on 20-30 vacant or derelict sites to get them into the market and our challenge now is to keep the momentum.

Dedicating resources to such work allows the community to respond. We are getting those communities coming to us saying “please, can you look at that property or help us to address it.’ Our community directorate knows the communities and they have enabled the crucial dialogue between communities and owners/developers to advance the transformation of these sites and properties.

What are the success factors for you as chief executive in the role of the City and County council?

My approach to leadership has been about delegating responsibility to people, enabling them to be the best they can. I spend time helping them understand why we are doing things in a certain way.

There is no shortage of ways to communicate with your teams, but the heart of it comes down to saying “Look, this is the plan, this is why we’re doing the plan, this is what we want you to invent”. So, we invest a significant amount of time making sure people enjoy what they do, and they respect what they do. Working for a local authority is a great way to improve your locality. You have the power and tools to do it. If people understand the assumptions behind actions, they’ll invent better and they will do things for the right reasons and with a strive, instead of doing so because it is their job.

This all comes back to developing the entrepreneurial organisation. When people deeply understand the rationale for doing things, then they react a lot better.

We’d like to think that we are a dynamic public sector organisation. We are very open to partnerships of all kinds, taking a risk, and being innovative. The solutions required in Ireland require us to be innovative and resilient to deliver results and that is exactly what we are in Limerick.

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