Ireland

In conversation with Paddy Mahon, Chief Executive of Longford County Council

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Paddy Mahon, Chief Executive, Longford County Council. Credit@longfordcountycouncil

A local government body established in 1898 in the midlands of Ireland, Longford County Council’s above-average population and employment growth rates help support natural regeneration trends and underline Irish local authorities’ progressive and dynamic approaches. Continuing with our interview series of local government Chief Executives from across the LGIU’s international communities, Thomas and Hannah from LGIU Ireland spoke with Paddy Mahon, Chief Executive of Longford County Council.  Covering the opportunities and challenges facing Longford County Council and the role of local government in climate action.

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To start with, after nearly seven years experience at a Chief Executive level in local government, what are your reflections on the role of local government in Ireland and what still surprises you?

During my time as Chief Executive, I am constantly surprised by the diverse and growing range of services provided by local government.

The Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), which coordinates Ireland’s local government sector, published a website, “Local Government Services”, which showed we provide some 1030 services to our communities in Longford, ranging from 3D printers to stop food waste initiatives.

Over the last few years, I have seen us expand our role, especially in how we coordinate and communicate with our communities.

For example, in the last few years, we have become more involved in community safety and partnerships with the community and Garda (Police), with health and, more recently, Sláintecare Healthy Communities. And this trend of community involvement and leadership looks set to continue on top of the services we have provided like roads, houses and recreational facilities.

On top of this, local authorities are also taking more of a role in supporting enterprise and the digital transformation of our towns and our villages as well as recreation and regeneration of our town centres. Economic and community development is an expanded area for our involvement. While, Covid-19 challenged us to become more involved in service delivery, especially in the context of Longford and our partners coordinating and supporting the Ukrainian refugee situation.

In 2021, Longford’s blog on LGIU Ireland showcased the award-winning adoption of remote working. As working styles continue to evolve, what is Longford’s current approach to workstyles, and where do you see trends in working styles going?

We adapted quickly to Covid-19 because we were well-positioned to do that. So, during the pandemic, our workforce, while primarily office-based, shifted to remote working throughout the pandemic.

Strategies we had in place in advance of that were crucial to the smoothness of that change, and our elected members also excelled at remote interactions with communities and participating with the council digitally.

Post-pandemic, like other local authorities, we’ve moved now to blended working. We went through the consultation process with our representative bodies and elected members, and in line with a national, local authority sector approach, we sided with three days in the office and a maximum of two days remote.

Most, if not all, of our staff who wanted to work remotely can do so under our blended policy, and we are looking to continue that with the consequent impact on our high level of performance and individual satisfaction.

We showed that during the pandemic, by continuing our service delivery, our communities could be confident in our high level of service. We intend to maintain that.

Longford County Council provides a wide range of services, many of which will be increasingly affected by climate change. How do you view the role of local government in leading the community on climate action?

Our vision is to leverage our capacity and our reach so that we can fulfil our obligations and show leadership for our communities so they understand what they need to do.

As a whole, the local authority sector has adopted the climate action strategy, and we are all tasked with implementing climate action strategies.

Here in Longford, our key objective is to work together with communities and other agencies to develop the right sort of partnerships to bring effective climate action as well as meeting our targets. For this, the climate strategy we adopted in 2019 works towards targets such as reducing emissions by 30% and improving the energy efficiency of local authority buildings by 50%.

We always have to make sure that we deliver adaptation, we have to provide leadership, and empower our communities and businesses so that they can deliver their part.

One key thing that is very relevant in Longford is that we achieve a just transition so that people, individuals, communities, and businesses that are impacted by climate action events or policies can transition fairly.

For instance, in Longford, the Lough Ree Power Station burned peat cut from bogs for the last 60-years and only ceased doing so in 2020. But with that plant closed, we had to quickly realise the effects on the power station workers and those who cut and harvested the peat and, as a consequence, the towns and villages that for several decades depended upon the incomes from the plant. Even the council was impacted as the power station was our biggest ratepayer, so we saw a significant 15% of rates affected by that policy decision.

So the just transition needs to make sure that communities, businesses and indeed ourselves aren’t adversely impacted by what was a necessary climate action policy decision.

There is a Just Midlands Region Transition team that has been set up, and funding is coming from the government and the EU through the Just Transition Fund programme, amounting to €169m by 2027.

Grounded in the reality of climate action, the programme’s three priorities cover worker transitions, restoring peatlands and re-purposing the bog as a carbon sink, and supporting mobility options in the Midlands.

Significant money is there for our communities, businesses and community-based organisations, which will allow projects to be delivered that deliver a just transition.

Our neighbours and ourselves in Longford are already receiving funding to begin retrofitting our social housing stock.

As we move through 2023, what are the key opportunities and challenges for Longford County Council at the moment?

Housing. It’s a national challenge, but as a local authority, we are tasked with delivering housing that is appropriate for the needs of the population. So affordability, appropriate social housing and opportunity in the midlands for people to come and live in Longford and in our towns is a key feature of our responsibilities for 2023.

At the moment, we don’t really have a functioning housing market in Co Longford. There are high levels of employment in the county, and significant FDI companies are in the town as well as active local businesses. For instance, Centre Parcs employs some 1,000 workers.

However, a lot of the workers in the main industries commute into the county and leave at the end of the working day, and we believe there is a huge opportunity for them to come and live in the county, and that means delivering the appropriate housing.

We’re working very closely with the Department of Housing and with our Councillors. We have been planning for the right level of habitation units for the population, now and into the future, no small ask given that according to that 2022 census, Longford has the fastest growing population in the country with an increase of over 14%, between 2016 and 2022.

We haven’t really seen the detailed figures, but we believe that a lot of that population increase has probably found accommodation in some of the properties that were vacant in 2016 as our vacancy rate has decreased, but anecdotally, our major employers are telling us that they can’t attract people to live and work in Longford, and if they do, well some of them are forced to commute. Not a satisfactory position while we are also trying to decarbonise.

Looking forward, we want people living here in a high-quality environment as we believe it reflects the good of County Longford.

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

What is very important is that my colleagues and I respect the mandate that the elected members have from their constituents and from their communities. And that respect is best developed in a mutual manner so that there’s a good working relationship and an open and transparent level of trust between the elected members and myself as chief executive, my colleagues and the management team.

With that respect comes a better functioning and highly performing Council that achieves our vision for a safer, greener and welcoming county.

It’s like our corporate plan, which we and the elected members and community groups have worked on, and it is evident to me that when we work well together and agree on our priorities, then we work in a way which can truly meet the needs of the country.

Once you have that in place, it allows for relationships to grow and prosper. We operate in a democracy, we are at the heart of local democracy, and members represent citizens and communities, and they have to respond to issues and concerns.

It’s built on trust, and it’s built on credibility and integrity.

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