One of the long-standing challenges confronting successive governments over the past twenty years was that of aligning local government and local development. Various initiatives, from the Task Force on Local Development and Local Government through to the Cohesion Process under the then Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, sought to bring greater coherence between local government and , the rural, community and local development processes.
It is also fair to acknowledge that local elected members have carried a grievance that they were excluded, as they would argue, from a process where their role should have been central given their democratic mandates.
In part, such grievances and other concerns reflect a recognition that over time the local, rural and community development sector has become a key pillar at local level and the success of many initiatives through the pillar has brought with it a political demand for the local democratic process to become a central aspect in local development and in doing so to help re-establish the local democratic process.
It was no surprise then to find that the then opposition parties, in the run up to the last general election, proposed that local, rural and community development would be fully integrated into local government. Doing so, of course, would bring with considerable challenges not least the challenge of keeping momentum in the local, rural and community development process.
Equally, the challenge of integrating new staff and systems into a local government system which itself would see considerable change in light of other party manifesto proposals, particularly the move to a national water utility of a large body of technical staff.
So a simple idea was and is remarkably complex.
The response on the part of the current Government, initially, came in the form of a steering group set up to examine the options for aligning local, rural and community development with a re-configured local government system. The groups broad parameters were:
• Review the role of Local Government in Local and Community Development;
• Review the role and contribution of Local and Community Development programmes in order to determine the scope for greater synergy with Local Government; and
• Make recommendations on how the alignment of Local Government and Local and Community Development should be progressed with a view to:
a. improving delivery of services for the citizen at a local level;
b. achieving greater efficiency and effectiveness; and
c. enhancing the role of local authorities in the delivery of Local and Community
Development programmes and functions.
This Group crucially reported as the local government reform process was in train. As a result, the recommendations of the Group are a central feature of the proposed reforms, which if implemented, will see a considerably changes operational environment for the existing players in local rural and community development along with the serious challenge of shifting local government from being driven in large part by engineering issues to playing a more facilitative and leadership role in the sustainable development of their areas.
Key recommendations for implementation as a central part of the reform process include integration of the planning policy process in local government and the business planning in local development. This includes the potential to develop better integration between the local area planning that will now take place at municipal district level. This potentially will allow for a greater alignment of community planning with spatial planning, a model of best practice already evident in various locations across the State.
The introduction, through a new committee (Socio-Economic Committee), of a Local and Community Plan will give added focus to mainstreaming local, community and rural development issues into local government services. More interestingly is that this local effort will be underpinned by a national policy framework which will be overseen by an inter-departmental committee, providing, hopefully, a similar level of integration and policy alignment at the national level.
While over time integration within management structures of local government over time might be envisaged in the report it nonetheless recognises that need to sustain the experience and capacities of the existing local development companies over the long-term. Coming up with workable models to do so is going to be a major challenge but given the pressures on communities across the State no one will be thanked if local, rural and community development are disrupted, no matter the benefits of underpinning local democracy.
Existing management in local government will necessarily have to keep a clear focus on these challenges over the coming three years, even having regard to the general re-configuration of the local authority system at the same time.
While integration with local authority support services will bring the potential for greater resource synergy at local level, there is a risk that the positive experiences of the local development companies might be lost, undermining the bigger strategic picture for local government which the policy paper demonstrates succinctly in the criteria it sets out for the broader devolution of powers and responsibilities to local government from across the public sector.
Management and members cannot lose sight of this as they confront the challenge of taking the leadership role in local, rural and community development and sometimes being the facilitator might be more strategically appropriate than being actually responsible for the delivery of the immediate service, in this case local, rural and community development.
Such issues remain to be explored over the coming months but one thing is certain and that is that levels of isolation and non-engagement with each other by both local government and local development are clearly off the table from a national policy perspective.