TOWNS UNDER THREAT?

25 October 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Some sense of the practical outworking of the changes in how local government services are to be delivered in this country from the middle of next year emerged at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council.

A presentation from Director of Services Paul Clifford explained how local government is likely to work when Town Councils vanish and are replaced by the new Co Council/Municipal District structure – and a lengthy debate on the pros and cons of the new structures was engaged in by the elected members of the authority.

Both Mr Clifford’s presentation and the members’ opinions on it and the vexed question of local government reform in general are reported in detail in separate stories in this week’s edition of this newspaper and we feel readers will glean much of interest from them.

A cursory perusal of our reports might suggest something of a conflict, or at least a difference in emphasis, between the executive position and the elected view on the new reforms.

This is perhaps superficially true: the practicalities of the new system and the implications for the redistribution of staff and restructuring of services will preoccupy the professionals more than the elected men and women, who must address the political ramifications these changes bring in their wake.

But, even if they are approaching the issues from different directions, we feel there is ample evidence from Monday’s deliberations that both officials and councillors are chasing the common goal of making sure that the new system works the best way it can for the people who really matter – the members of the public who will be engaging with it at times of difficulty or need.

The seeming public ambivalence towards what are profound changes in the local government scene has often been cited as evidence of the low esteem in which local politicians are held.

It is perhaps more reliable testimony in support of the argument that the majority of us take the workings of local government for granted.

We give little or no thought to the mechanisms that maintain our roads and our environment, and supply vital services to our homes, until something goes awry with them – or to the processes involved in planning until the course of our lives brings us into contact with them.

It is then that we expect speedy interaction with the appropriate authorities, and just as expedient address of our requirements or complaints.

The public won’t pine after Town Councils with anything more than nostalgia if the system that replaces them gives them a prompt and efficient service – and putting in place the framework for the delivery of such a service is the important work that Monaghan Co Council devoted the majority of its meeting on Monday morning to.

From Mr Clifford’s presentation it was evident that a good deal of work towards this end has already been undertaken – and that it was work of a kind necessary whether Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan had dropped his ‘Putting People First’ bombshell or not!

The ambit of responsibilities of local authorities has undergone significant and likely irreversible change in recent decades – services they once provided have been taken away, and responsibilities for the delivery of major capital projects and infrastructure have been devolved elsewhere, while a great many new roles and functions have been assigned to them – not always with the manpower of financial resources commensurate with their delivery.

And the manner in which the public interact with their local Councils has also altered profoundly with the proliferation of modern information technology, to the extent that relatively few people now feel the need to present themselves at their local Council office or Town Hall to have their needs attended to.

How local authority services are delivered in the future have to reflect these realities – and although local councillors might cringe at the suggestion, people will wave goodbye to Town Councils quite happily if the service they get after they are gone is as good or better than what they have been used to.

The majority elected view at Monday’s meeting was that dissatisfaction would be the public’s portion under the new structures – and particular concerns were raised for the future status and economic health of towns such as Ballybay and Castleblayney.

The autonomy, or at least the impression of it, conveyed by towns having their own local authority was arguably more important for the smaller population concentrations in Co Monaghan than the larger.
‘Blayney now finds itself in a municipal district with the larger Carrickmacross, and Ballybay in a linkage with Clones where the headquarters for the municipal district will be located – and there are obvious grounds for concerns that both will be the losers under the new arrangements.

How much of any resultant diminishment in status or fortune will be practical and how much will be perception is debatable – but perception, particularly in terms of likely future entrepreneurial investment, is not to be discounted.

Both Ballybay and Castleblayney will still have Town Councils until mid-2014 – perhaps the fears that both locations are under threat by the new local government structures to come into being after that could be in some measure dispelled if both those Councils were involved in regular discussions with the county authority in the months ahead to agree measures that might alleviate their concerns and counter any practical disadvantages both locations will have to grapple with.

SR CELINE
We join with many in the Co Monaghan community this week in tendering sympathy to the family, friends and colleagues in religious life of Sr Celine McArdle, whose passing on Sunday removes from the Castleblayney area a community activist of exceptional achievement and surpassing influence.
Her renown as a driving force for community good derived from uncommon capacities of energy, innovation and persuasion – but these qualities alone would not explain the affectionate nature of the regard which the Sisters of Mercy nun commanded in her Mid-Monaghan locality and throughout the county.

This was secured rather by her esteem for the dignity of the human person, a consideration that seemed to give a unifying Christian coherence to the great diversity of the work she undertook.
Monuments to Sr Celine’s contribution to her community abound – but the place held for her in the hearts of the countless numbers of people to whom she rendered temporal or spiritual assistance at times of deep need and vulnerability will remain her most abiding legacy.

TRIBUTES WELL DESERVED
The many tributes paid at meetings of local authorities in the county this week to Mr David Fallon were well deserved.

Mr Fallon’s imminent retirement as Acting Co Manager and Town Manager of Monaghan and Castleblayney seems unfortunately timed in that it coincides with the preparatory stages of what will be fundamental and far-reaching changes in the delivery of local government services in this country – a time when the diligence and common sense that hallmarked his discharge of duty would be valuable resources to draw upon.

But there was evidence at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council that he has already placed his businesslike and conciliatory hallmark on the manner in which these changes will be put into effect in the county.

Mr Fallon was an excellent public official, and if the new local government era in Co Monaghan is ushered in with an emphasis on the inclusiveness he foregrounded in the discharge of his managerial duties, its potential merits have a better chance of being fulfilled and the disadvantages many have perceived in the new dispensation stand a better chance of being mitigated.

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