In recent years the Irish local authorities have seen their range of service responsibilities expand. This includes the facilitation of both public and private investment, ranging from local incubation units to direct investment in local producers and tourism facilities. Given the challenges now confronting the Country the Programme for Government seems to be indicating that it is now time to reconsider the role of the local authority as a leader for local economic regeneration. This move seems to be building on recent experience where local government is finding itself at the forefront of supporting innovative actions. This includes leading local actions in areas like training, employment creation, the marketing of local tourism and the strengthening of local economies across the State.
This renewed role in economic development brings with it a welcome recognition of the role of the local democratic process. However it would not be unreasonable to acknowledge that it will be a role which will require considerable re-structuring of the local government system, the local development sector and perhaps, more significantly, the national development agencies. The widening and expansion of this critical role will necessarily have to bring together various local actors to meet local service needs and provide facilities which are currently outside the direct remit of local government.
As such there will be a need to address the capacity of the local government system to resource both the internal re-structuring of individual local authorities and a re-focusing of already limited finances towards sustainable economic development. Fortunately there is more than enough evidence to suggest that a revitalised local government system could rise to this particular challenge. Examples of such evidence include the Mayo Ideas Lab, the Roscommon Industry Group, the Joint Economic Development Committees in Cork and Limerick, among others, all of whom have taken a lead in turning back the clouds of economic depression which is a hallmark of much of Irish media coverage in recent months.
Building on potential
The Programme for Government seems to recognise an approach that local economic development will require much greater integration between national policy expectations, much of which are now driven by international obligations as a result of the so called “bail out”, and the local authorities ability to lead local economic change. If placed at the heart of a sustainable policy framework, local government in Ireland, as is the case elsewhere in the OECD, can play a key role in getting the country back to a more sustainable development environment. Welcome, if hugely challenging!