In conversation with Jackie Maguire, Chief Executive of Meath County Council

Next up in our series of interviews with local government leaders, LGIU’s Thomas Lynch spoke with Meath County Council’s Chief Executive Jackie Maguire before her retirement to find out more about the Council’s big priorities and what they’re striving to achieve this year.

Jackie Maguire, Chief Executive of Meath County Council. Credit @Linkedin
Jackie Maguire, Chief Executive of Meath County Council. Credit @Linkedin

To start us off, after 10 years at the helm of Meath County Council, what still surprises you and what are the key lessons for local government from your time in senior management across local authorities and in your national role?

I am never surprised by what changes are going to happen and what we are asked to do. Joining the local government system in 1981 as a clerical officer, I worked my way up and in 2006 I became Chief Executive. Over this time, my biggest takeaway is the huge reform in how local government operates and the changing responsibilities of local government functions.

The good side of this is that local authorities can prove themselves as agile, adaptable and robust. Covid-19 demonstrated this to the ninth degree, and while every organisation pivoted during the pandemic, local authorities and their frontline delivery of services demonstrated the real importance of local democracy. Another surprise for me is how little the public knows about what local authorities do and do not provide. I am never surprised by the public asking, “What does a local authority do”, and their reaction is “I never knew you did this”.

Some of that makes sense – such as the specific statutory responsibilities but what always strikes me is the lack of awareness of everyday services local authorities provide, whether it be public lighting, school crossings, litter bins emptied and streetscapes. What worries me is that this lack of awareness extends right down to how communities are governed and how elected and executive members perform functions.

Some of this mystique is our own fault; we do not always brand and communicate the roles of a local authority – but we are certainly improving on that. Part of this also lies with being innovative about how we tell the public about what we do. In the last six years, every local authority will have a communications department, and we are constantly adapting to social media platforms and how we communicate with our citizens.

When you look at the funding of local government then, you have a whole new level of complexity. We are heavily dependent on central government financing and members making decisions around funding – that is not an easy thing for them to do. When funding doesn’t increase, then we are limited in what we do. Sometimes you inevitably have to say, “No, that area is out of our remit and we do not have the finances available”. From that perspective, I am never surprised at the lack of public awareness of how we are governed and what we can do.

Moving into 2023, what have you identified as the key opportunities and challenges for Meath County Council? 

Meath’s location presents us with both a positive and negative. Meath has grown exponentially at a very fast pace, and unlike our neighbouring regions, the same level of public infrastructure has not followed this population growth. Looking at the last census, because of our proximity to Dublin, Meath is one of the fastest-growing counties in Ireland. Population growth is set to continue, which is good, but this also brings with it challenges and demands for housing and infrastructure.

We are rectifying this in a number of ways. Key to this is having accessible infrastructure such as the M3 for attracting FDI and economic investment. Since 2015, we have been revising and refining our economic strategy to remain attractive for investment. However, it’s not all about FDI, and Meath has a number of strong local enterprises. Part of our economic strategy is also about capturing the population growth in Meath. We need to reduce that footprint of outward-bound commuters by 10-15%, and our analysis of our economic strategy showed 34,000 leaving the county every morning. If we can grow sustainable communities from this, we can develop a long-term sustainable source of economic development.

Housing will remain the biggest priority for the next 10 years. Meath features high on housing statistics; we have huge amounts of land zones for housing, so looking forward, we need to facilitate the delivery of new affordable housing. But we remain constrained by the way in which you can grow through the National Planning Framework as if that land is static and unmoving, then we are losing that population growth and the opportunities that come with such growth. We also have to appreciate that with housing and economic growth comes a demand for social infrastructure. Housing and new businesses are great. But you need playgrounds, parks, public lighting and spaces for communities to interact.

Underpinning this, we then have the climate challenge. We have a statutory and moral obligation to tackle climate action, and it feeds into every aspect of what we do – is it climate-friendly? How do we sell this message? What is the long-term impact of emissions? There is a long list of challenges and opportunities, and my key takeaway is that you cannot concentrate on solely one of those challenges; housing, economic growth and social infrastructure are all connected and need to progress in tandem. If you get the large pieces right, the housing and economic growth that creates the drives for sustainable communities will follow.

How is Meath County Council advancing towards an age-friendly Meath? 

Age Friendly is two-pronged with ourselves. In the first instance, and specifically at a Council level, like every other County, we have our Age Friendly Alliance made up of relevant agencies, HSE, ETB, and the Garda, and then we also have an Older Persons Council in each County. Guided by an overall strategy, we work on things affecting our local aged population, such as footpath programmes and walkability studies, as well as looking at making our services more age-friendly with training on IT equipment and digital literacy. So locally, we’ve done quite a lot…and continue to do so.

Secondly, Meath deals with Age Friendly at a national level. We bid for the Age Friendly Island programme as many in local government were of the view that age-friendly would be something that would sit well within local government, and with Department approval, the sector pulled together a shared service, and Meath successfully bid for it in 2018. We’ve been very successful in making strides in getting an age-friendly embedded in government policy in the same sense that health and safety is embedded in how everyone operates.

It’s everybody’s job to be age friendly, whether it be training, housing or public realm designs, as our core messaging is that designing with an aged population in mind also incorporates those with mobility issues. And you can see this reflected in the Department of Housing’s guidelines of housing options for the aged, Age Friendly Homes and HSE. So basically, Age Friendly Ireland is about working at a national level for individuals around all of their needs and our Team here in Meath is central to doing so.

(Interview continues below)

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Post-pandemic there has been an increased focus on our lived environment, and town centres in particular. It would be really interesting to hear about your town centre strategy and the regeneration issues and solutions implemented.

While Meath does not have a huge level of vacancy and dereliction compared to the national scale, we are trying to tackle the units we do have with increased resources now made available to the Council to identify and work with the owners of such properties. But you have to look beyond just turning vacant properties into houses. You also need to consider the role of small businesses. To make a town vibrant, you need a mix of residential and businesses, whether that be creative, coffee shops or a corner shop, to create that vibrancy. In particular, Covid taught us that people want enjoyable and safe outdoor experiences, and we have set up a number of civic spaces for communities and small impromptu gatherings which are close to other small businesses.

At Meath County Council, we have adopted a layered approach to prevent vacancy and dereliction. Whether it is the basic cleaning of areas, public realm plans for an entire area, to public consultation, we are really trying to get community input on what they want to see for the area. We might not be able to provide everything, but if we can secure community buy-in, then the community upkeep of the area helps prevent dereliction. There is a range of vacant commercial units, and we have to balance turning these into houses while maintaining spaces for other small businesses. For example, our 2023 budget and the economic regeneration programme set aside a small level of funding to target small business units that are still vacant.

Part of our approach is in sync with the national strategy, and by reviewing your towns and villages, you very easily see the heart of rural and larger towns lie idle. Before 2019, there was little incentive to do anything with their derelict site. We would use the CPO process to the extent we could, but the difficulty with a vacant property is the need for significant finances and resources and doing it alone is hard.

On housing, there is funding through Housing Capital, but it is much more difficult on non-residential vacant units, and in some cases, the properties just need to be knocked down, and without the financial resources to do this, you are reliant on central funding. The central government is aware of this, and schemes such as Urban Regeneration and Development Fund and Croí Cónaithe reflect the growing momentum behind tackling vacancy and dereliction, and things like town centre regeneration teams are a real force of good. But the key to all this is local authorities’ access to major capital infrastructure so we can purchase derelict sites, put an urban design around the site and put it out for expressions of interest as a local authority cannot do it alone – we need to collaborate with the local economic sector.

Meath residents have some of the longest commuting times in the country. What role do you see for active travel? How is this received by the community? 

Meath has a unique set of challenges. Navan is Ireland’s fifth-largest town, and it is one of the few County towns with no dedicated rail service. For years there was a huge campaign on bringing back the rail line, and it gained a lot of traction in the 1990s, which resulted in the line being advanced to Dunboyne. While there are still campaigns to get rail service in Meath back to the levels we had at the start of the 20th century, Meath County Council is now thinking bigger about how we can advance the County’s transport on several fronts. And we are seeing successes in this area. There is recognition of the need for increased rail infrastructure in the Programme for Government and within the NTA and Transport Ireland, and to pardon the rail pun; we are on track

On top of this, we are looking at increasing public transport and ensuring this is joined up with the provision of rail. There will always be a level of cars for commuting, but we are working with the NTA and DTI for reliable bus corridors, proper bus shelters and communications, and long-term parking for those who commute. It is not a small task, and this takes time – but even now, there is a huge increase in footfall using public transport. Active travel also has its part to play. At first, we started by reducing road space with cycleways and walkways. But the community was not on board, and you were trying to implement cycleways where there was little demand or support from the community.

So we realised it is about doing both at the same time – increasing the provision of public transport and providing alternatives for those who walk and cycle. And now we find a much greater acceptance of cycle ways than, say 6 years ago. Going forward, our transport outlook needs to be joined up and benefit everyone. If I live outside of a town and need to dip in for shopping, cycleways alone will not benefit me. Instead, having increased active travel and reliable public transport provide a holistic approach to reducing short-distance car journeys. But there will always be a level of commuting, and as a Council, we have recently launched our Go Remote campaign. We had got a network of remote working hubs, so Go Remote is about making people aware that instead of commuting Monday to Friday – there is a place they can work without travelling to Dublin. Part of this is also about providing reliable high-speed broadband. While long-term work is underway to rectify this, our Go Remote campaign is about offering people high-speed internet, a space outside of their homes and a degree of interaction which does not entail travelling to Dublin.

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

You have to respect them. Members have their own roles to play, their reserved functions and their representative voice of the people. In my mind, you have to respect the elected representative’s democratic mandate, and you have to listen and be able and respect their viewpoint. Part of this means making time to hear their issues and perspective, even when you are not able to take everything on board, and you have to be honest about what you can do.

All of this is part of building trust with members. We have 40 members, and while it is difficult to build trust with every member, as a Chief Executive, it is crucial to construct good strong working relationships. I’ve always had a very good working relationship with the members. But it is not about saying yes all the time; it is about listening and being honest with them, and if you do that, you cannot go too far wrong.

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