In Conversation with Joan Martin, Chief Executive of Louth County Council

As part of LGIU Ireland’s 2023 series on local government leadership, Thomas and Hannah spoke with Joan Martin, Chief Executive of Louth County Council to find out more about the challenges and opportunities facing Louth, and the local government sector.

Midway between Ireland’s two largest cities of Dublin and Belfast, Louth County Council operates with an  expenditure of €158.4 million and is responsible for a population of  128,884 (2016).

To start us off, after 8 years at the helm of Louth County Council, what still surprises you and what are the key lessons for local government from your time in senior management across local authorities?

I’ve been in charge of Louth County Council for 8 years, I’ve worked with the Council for more than 40 years, and I am more than 45 years in the public service. So, it’s surprising to be asked what surprises you and it’s even more surprising to be able to say that lots of things do surprise me.

I often feel that about every five years I work on a completely different planet and in a completely different organisation. And certainly, the experiences of the last few years with COVID and the Ukrainian war show that it’s a new challenge every few months, never mind every few years.

However, I think what surprises me constantly is the ability of local government to adapt, to change, and to be flexible and agile.   When I joined, it was about building houses and fixing roads. Now we’re involved in all kinds of areas from tourism, economic development, dealing with refugees and coping with hybrid working. So, it constantly surprises me how adaptable local government is. I think local government’s agility is down to its small size meaning we are able to adjust with greater ease.

If I look back over 40 years, never mind the last eight years what we do is fundamentally different. If people who retired even five years ago came back, they would scarcely recognise the place and type of work we’re doing.

From that, I think the lessons are that you must be adaptable. You must always be ready to take up new challenges and new changes and have that agile response. Your organisation must be structured in a way that allows you to do that. You cannot be too hierarchical or manage at a micro level. Instead, you need to have people who are free to get things done.

Another big learning for us would be around collaboration. Both within and outside the organisation, we try to have a lot of cross-directorate and cross-sector teams. For example, in dealing with the Ukrainian challenge at the moment we have staff from right across the organisation who work with the Ukrainian response director to help in any way they can. In the same way, we work with everybody from the Garda, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, our colleagues in N. Ireland, the community sector, the voluntary sector, DKIT, etc. on a whole range of issues

All of that collaboration has become more and more essential so one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that networking, relationships and collaboration are the key to success.

There is almost nothing we can do as a local authority on its own. We’re always depending on other partners, and sometimes many other partners. So, I suppose that’s the kind of learning I would say I had.

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

Louth County Council is not immune from a lot of the same challenges facing other local authorities. So, at the moment, the biggest challenges are the housing crisis which includes providing social housing and meeting the Department’s Housing for All targets.

We have large targets in housing because we have two very large towns, Dundalk and Drogheda, that are over 40 000 in population, and in both towns, there are very big waiting lists for housing. For example, if you got a social house tomorrow, the chances are, you would have been waiting on that house for anything for up to 8 or even 10 years. It is a very, very big challenge for the country and on the private housing side, you’re constantly trying to work to put in place the right conditions and the right framework to allow the private sector to get back to normal  and build more and more houses.

The other big challenge, that is not disassociated from housing, is the Ukrainian refugee crisis. It’s a challenge that faces us every single day and we are constantly being asked as councils if we can identify accommodation for refugees? In Louth, we have had a slightly unique way of dealing with this, in that instead of just identifying buildings for the government to refurbish, we ourselves have refurbished a large number of buildings. And we ourselves are looking after and housing Ukrainian refugees across the county. It is a huge challenge and obviously you’re not sure when it’s going to end.

The need for regeneration, particularly in our town centres, is another big challenge facing a lot of local authorities. The long-term effects on town centres are not just from the long years of the COVID pandemic, but it goes right back to the Celtic Tiger era and that long, deep recession.  Some of our town centres are in poor condition and might, in some cases, have a lot of vacancies and poor footfall. Here in Louth, we’ve had a fair degree of success in Dundalk where we invested a lot of money in improving the town centre public realm. The local Business Improvement District company and the businesses have worked very hard along with us. This has had quite a measure of success in improving the vitality of the town centre, but there is an awful lot more to be done right across the county. So, for 2023, town centre regeneration is another huge challenge.

Climate Action is an enormous challenge facing the entire planet.   As a council we will need to develop a new Climate Action Plan for Louth and work in the years ahead to set and meet targets. Louth County Council has done very well on meeting our own energy targets and we’ve already achieved an energy saving of 48% from baseline with a target for 2030 is 50%. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to be done. So, we have been putting a bigger team in place to grasp that challenge, and to reach out to the community and businesses across the county to get everybody working together to help us achieve our goals and targets around zero emissions and decarbonisation of our towns and villages.

There are so many more challenges and indeed excellent opportunities if we had all day to discuss them.

(Interview continues below)

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Hybrid working cultures and increased staff turnovers are a challenge facing every local authority. Where do you think home and hybrid working will go in the next couple of years? 

Going back to the start of COVID, we were preparing for it weeks ahead because we could see that lockdown was inevitable. We had narrowed down to the 12 or so essential services that we just had to deliver and we were ready to take those home and deliver them when the worst happened.

Over the course of COVID, we gradually expanded the range of services that we could do from home rolling out more and more laptops. As things improved last year, I brought all of the staff back to work at the end of February with 100% in attendance until the end of 2022. We had employed more than 150 new staff during COVID that we had not met face to face, so I wanted everybody back in the office in order to reset the organisation.

Since then we have moved to put hybrid working in place officially where people can work up to 2 days a week at home. At this stage, we have well over 150 working from home and we expect to have some 250 of our staff working at least 1 or 2 days a week from home within the coming weeks. We have sent home chairs, laptops, rolled out Windows 365 and softphone networks to make team collaborative working easier. It’s early days, but I think it’s working quite well.

How is Louth County Council advancing towards an age-friendly Europe? 

Louth moved into the age-friendly policy area in around 2009. We were the first Age Friendly County in Ireland following the WHO principles for an age friendly community.  Prior to the establishment of Age-Friendly Ireland, Louth County Council were the ones going out to speak to other Councils to let them know what we were doing and encouraging others to join the Age Friendly Programme. So, we’ve been focusing on age friendly work for a long time. And certainly, within Louth, it’s very well established and embedded in how we work within the Council. It is at the heart of everything we do, right down to County Development Plan level.

We are part of a shared service at the national level. Meath County Council runs Age Friendly as an umbrella group for the whole local government sector and like the LGIU, they promote best practice and policies. At an EU level, Louth was involved in Europe with Age Friendly IN an EU initiative to try and improve the lives of older people and try to give every older person two extra healthy life years at home. We were involved in that project from the start. Much of it focused on projects and actions to prevent slips, trips and falls and in disease prevention, but our main interest was in age friendly environments, improving our outdoor spaces and our buildings, etc.

We’ve partnered in quite a number of age friendly projects across the EU over the years. At the moment, we’re involved in a project called SHAFE – safe healthy age-friendly environments. We’ve been involved in that project for more than three years, and, while badly disrupted by COVID, it’s just about to come to an end over the coming months. SHAFE is about exchanging best practice on having smart and health age friendly environments and we have worked with countries including Spain, Italy, Poland, Denmark and with Dublin TU and Age Friendly Ireland here at home. In addition to seminars and study visits, we have been trying to influence European policy on age friendly environments and on health. So, for example, the project made a submission on the EU Green Paper on Ageing.

As a county with strong cross-border links, how do you view the recent uptake in funding and projects from the Shared Island programme, as well as the new Peace Plus programme? 

Since the height of the Troubles in 1974, Louth has pursued cross-border links with Newry. So long before there was any funding programmes, we were involved in cross border work. Obviously, INTERREG and now  the PeacePlus and Shared Island funding has given a whole new opportunity to embark on projects, and the current Shared Island program is of particular interest to us as the Narrow Water Bridge project is specifically named within the programme.  Indeed,  the former Taoiseach Michael Martin was at Narrow Water only a few weeks ago for the announcement that we were to go to tender on its construction, which will hopefully be followed by final government approval for the project.

Two other cross-border projects also stand out for us at present . The first is the Shared Island’s €150,000 funding for Louth and Newry Mourne and Down Council for a feasibility study looking at potential for developing the Greater Carlingford Lough Area as a outdoor tourism destination of excellence.   The second project is the funding for Dublin-Belfast economic corridor, where all 8 local authorities along the corridor are working together to develop the corridor as an internationally recognised economic area.

The new Peace Plus programme is also of great interest, and we have benefited greatly from the previous PEACE programmes. In Louth, I chair the Louth Peace Partnership and we met only yesterday to look at the outcome of our public consultation efforts ahead of developing our new Peace Action Plan for the peace side of the PEACEPLUS Programme.   We will also be working with the East border region, our umbrella cross border group, and there are other working groups looking to make sure this funding benefits the region as a whole.    So, it’s a hugely important programme and it is massively significant for communities and businesses across the county.

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

Obviously, the relationship is between just between the chief executive and the Council but with the executive as a whole and it goes without saying that this relationship is very important indeed.

Powers and responsibilities are divided in law between both sides of the house, but you can’t progress one without the other – it’s like two sides of a coin. It’s essential for the good of the county, to get the best out of everything and to maximise our achievements that we always work closely together. For example, in areas such as like the annual budget, we meet up early and discuss Councillors priorities and concerns before we actually start to draft the budget.

Since our last elections in 2019, we’ve had seven new Councillors co-opted, with some joining when we were meeting virtually, so getting to know the new members and understanding their individual priorities and interests was made more difficult by the Covid restrictions.

It’s also very important as a Chief Executive that,  when you’re putting proposals to the Council, you know that you’re doing it not only from the perspective of what’s best for the county or for a particular area, but also with an understanding of where that sits alongside the priorities of the Councillors.     Because we’re coming from slightly different perspectives, and because I have probably a much longer-term view, inevitably from time to time there’ll be differences about priorities but there’s always room for compromise and agreement.

As a whole, however, the relationship works very well indeed, especially on key areas like budgets, the County Development Plan and other big policy areas as long as you put in the work and effort and you listen to what people are looking for and their priorities.

We’re all here working together to serve the people of the county and to advance the wealth and wellbeing of the county and it’s inhabitants.   When you keep your eye on that ball all the time, you won’t go too far wrong and you’ll always work together to solve difficulties that may arise.  Obviously, the elected members of the council represent the people and they’ve been elected by the people so you always have to have respect for that role and have an understanding of what that means.

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