24 April 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It must have looked so good on paper.

The new streamlined model for local government in Ireland is now almost a year in operation but its progenitors will be perturbed as they look upon their fledging creation.

For there is a ghost in the machine – or, more accurately, a revenant, a spectre from the dark days of local administration that has come back to haunt them.

At a time when bodies such as Monaghan Co Council should be getting down to their new business of being drivers of community development and economic growth, the rapidly deteriorating state of the road network is once again a pressing preoccupation.

The issue was in the not too distant past an almost all-consuming one at meetings of local authorities, particularly in our own county which has an especially dense network of minor roads in particular, functioning as essential arteries for all aspects of human activity in our predominantly rural precincts.

The poor state of Co Monaghan roads reached something of a crisis point around the mid 1980s but accentuated investment from the central exchequer and a very diligent programme of repair and maintenance by our mechanisms of local government gradually nursed the patient back to a state of comparatively robust health. Our national road network was transformed by a number of major by-pass developments, while our secondary and county roads improved considerably, with the constant need for repair and upkeep made manageable.

The grip of austerity, however, started to choke the circulation of funding for roads upkeep, and the resultant atrophy of the arteries has been felt with particular impact in Co Monaghan, especially over the last two years when allocations from central government have hit a worrying low.

The initial all-encompassing bite of recession was inevitably injurious to all dimensions of local authority functioning. Our own Co Council bore it stoically enough when it came to the upkeep of our principal transport network, ensuring a certain damage limitation that kept the revenant at a safe distance. However, that point has now been passed, and recent debates at Council level have conferred crisis status anew on the roads situation.

That significant reductions in Government road allocations have continued into the “Putting People First” era of reforms in local administration is hard to reconcile. The country, we are told, is now in recovery mode and, given that local authorities have a newly designated role in supporting job creation and enterprise development, some degree of enhanced expenditure on roads would have been more in conformity with the times.

This point was well made during the latest Co Council discussion on the issue, which had a strong emphasis on the need to have good roads in order to strengthen the local economy. As members pointed out, many of the existing sources of employment in our county are dependent on the minor road network for their transport needs. And, as Chief Executive Eugene Cummins noted, increased economic activity recently evident in the county is inflicting more wear and tear on already battle-scarred road surfaces.

The subtext to the discussion was quite clear – how is Monaghan Co Council going to become a contributor to economic and community enhancement if it can’t keep the roads in usable condition? And what chances have we of attracting new industry and fostering our acumen for entrepreneurship if our roads continue to deteriorate?

These questions were being subliminally addressed to our Minister for Transport Paschal Dohohoe TD in riposte to his letter informing the Council that, as far as local roads funding is concerned for this year, they’ve had their lot and have to make the best of it.

The Minister’s blunt refusal to unloosen the pursestrings any further didn’t provoke outright anger from the Co Council members. The statement was so at odds with the realities the elected representatives are dealing with that they seemed rather inclined to grant Deputy Donohoe a fool’s pardon, suggesting that he and his Government colleagues might not fully appreciate the extent of the roads problem and would eventually wake up and smell the tarmac!

The councillors might be right in one sense – it would not be surprising, particularly with a General Election hovering somewhere around the corner of the current year, if the Minister had a belated change of heart and an additional roads grant allocation was forthcoming before 2014 is out. Colr P J O’Hanlon’s point that late-in-the-year money for roads upkeep, particularly if it came in the form of a pre-election palliative, would be a poor substitute for addressing the problem in the coming months when weather conditions are at their optimum for effective repairs, is a relevant one, but the tenor of the Minister’s letter holds out little hope that it will be embraced.

If the Minister seems unaware of the linkage between good local roads and a strong local economy, in other respects his letter is very cognisant of the changed circumstances local authorities find themselves in. There is an implicit instruction to Monaghan Co Council – and the other authorities around the country that have no doubt been in receipt of similar missives – that they must increasingly look to their own resources and revenue-generating powers in order to fulfil their statutory functions.

The Minister suggests that the Local Improvement Scheme – under which work is carried out to private laneways with some financial input from the relevant landowner – could be effectively revived in Co Monaghan by the Co Council channelling its own finances into it. Given the limited number of public roadways that will see attention in the county this year under the local authority programme, this is a very unrealistic suggestion – but it communicates the clear message that the Monaghan authority and others like it will in the future have to contemplate grasping difficult nettles in order to generate their own revenue rather than relying overwhelmingly on the largesse of central government.

Both Minister and Co Council appear to have reached an impasse in trying to convince each other of some of the unpalatable realities that lurk behind the pristine vision of the new local government era, and might result in that vision being transferred very imperfectly from blueprint into action.

But a possible means of resolving that impasse surely lies in the comprehensive road condition survey that Monaghan Co Council is in the process of completing, a document its Chief Executive believes will be crucial to convincing the Dept that more spending on our roads is of urgent necessity.

The contents of this study may well, as Council Cathaoirleach Pádraig McNally expects, be damning ones – but it is the Dept rather than the Council itself that should be hanging its head in shame.

This systematic exercise in quantifying the extent of our roads problems, telling the factual story as Mr Cummins put it, could form the means of bringing home to the Minister and the Government at large the fact that this issue is indeed a very serious one, and could greatly undermine not only Monaghan Co Council’s chances of contributing to local economic recovery, but also the sustainability of our national recovery aspirations.

It could be the “Bible” that leads to the banishment of the roads revenant!

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