Strategies for Change

Independent Living Movement Ireland

Local Government Structures 

SFC Local Structures, Co Councils & How Public Participation Networks Work

with Catherine Lane

We are different to our European counterparts in terms of the responsibilities that our local authorities hold. It would be quite normal in lots of European countries for local authorities to run schools, to look after social care and to be able to raise their own revenue and budgets locally. We do have property taxes, that is a revenue raising mechanism for local authorities. Other utilities would also be delivered at local level.

These include:
Roads, social and affordable housing, some water-utilities, tidy towns, support small businesses, attract new investment. Development plans must take account local what people want/need and follow policies to ensure that development plans work.

In Ireland our refuse collection has been privatised, our water is run by one body, although some work is still carried out at a local level – some of this is a result of austerity – where there were cutbacks to public services and local authorities. There was a merging of local authorities, closure of town councils – a lot of reorganisation and restructuring has taken place over the last ten to fifteen years.

Other countries have local structures in charge of delivering more services, including services to disabled people.

Q. Do our local structures need to take on more responsibility?
If services are designed from far away, removed from your local area then they may not meet your needs. There is a lot to be said for a service being delivered by a local authority.

There are models of how that is done in many European countries, for example supports such as childcare, schools, residential services, day services, are delivered at a local level as opposed to the centralised way they are done in Ireland.

There may be greater oversight of how budgets are spent and where the money is going, and it might be easier to see if the money is reaching people and having the greatest impact where it is needed.
Note that there is huge potential if local authorities could take more of a leadership role in organising supports in partnership with service providers.

The Disability Housing Steering Committee (DHSG’s)
The DHSG within local authorities oversees the strategy to support disabled people around housing and personalised supports. It seeks “to facilitate disabled people to live independently with the appropriate choices and control over where, how and with whom they live, promoting their inclusion in the community; and to further enable equal access for disabled people to housing with integrated support services”.

However, local authorities do not have either the budget or the staff to provide all the services that are required to support disabled people amongst other groups to live in their own communities, and unions recently have launched a campaign about the number of workers who have been let go.

We, as a collective, could step in and say, “we have the lived experience – start talking to us, employment us to work alongside you to oversee the work of this committee, to share our knowledge. Ask us, what we need, instead of asking others about what they think we need.

Local Government Management Association
This is a network for all local authorities in Ireland. They are responsible for Transport and Safety, Recreation and Amenities, Planning, Environmental Protection, Fire Services, Library Services, Register of Electors, and other beforementioned services. They are also responsible for citizens and community engagement, community development, well-being and quality of life and making critical decisions locally.

Local authorities can have a strong role and can show leadership in terms of delivering on equality, being proactive as employers of under-represented groups, in the delivery of services, in the development of policies that can impact on the quality of our lives. They are uniquely situated to strengthen leadership of participation and represent our interests.

All of our interests and concerns are affected by local government spending and services, including, for example: housing – grants to adapt your home, homeless services, local environment – accessibility, parks, swimming pools, and your use of public spaces.

Councils and Councillors
Ireland has 31 Local Councils, 26 County Councils, three City Councils and two City and County Councils. There are 949 Counsillors in the country, voted in by us and their role is to represent our interests. They are elected every five years.
We have data for gender representation in local authorities but there is not a lot of recorded data for other underrepresented groups.

Think about a time you tried to influence a decision or policy in a local authority (or a board you sit on or a group you are involved in) What happened? What did it feel like? Was there a positive outcome?

  • The bathroom in my new apartment was not accessible, forms needed to be completed and the things that were needed to be completed made it incredibly difficult. This can put people off, it was a nightmare, they were supposed to be helping me. Luckily, in the end I found the right person to help me, but the system made it so difficult
  • I was building my own adapted bungalow; I was told initially when I applied for the housing adaptation grant that I would only get 50% of the grant if the house is less than twelve months old. I checked if it applied to new houses and was told it did. When I began the build, I checked again, and I was told there was no grant for a new build. My application was refused. So, I spoke to senators, TDs. The building was delayed due to the COVID pandemic and eventually new guidance came through from the Department of the Environment, that once a house was built to wall-plate level, you could apply for the grant. Due to my background as an engineer, I knew how to keep pushing for answers, many other people would have just accepted what they were told initially. I ended up dealing with a different person within the Council (new person), she was very helpful in moving forward with the build – it often comes down to who you speak to…
  • In my local authority, when you are building a new house there are development charges, but there is an exemption in the planning rules for organisations providing housing to disabled people, however there is no mention of a disabled person building their own house being exempt from these charges
  • I challenged the local authority and was told I could apply for the exemption, even though it was not specifically written down.

Q. Has the Guidance changed for other disabled people that are building a house – A. the guidance is there, it is not ideal yet, but the guidance is clear, if you build to wall plate level you can get a grant for accessibility measures to be added, but the grant is only for the ‘fit-out’ of the house because the base is already built. The argument is that the grant is for adaptation work not for new builds, the grant is still only 50% for a house less than twelve months old and there is a cap regarding income. If you earn more than 60,000 you are not entitled to any grant, then your income is means tested on a sliding scale. There should be no means test on the adaptation grant.

  • I worked with local community groups, serving as secretary on the community forum, the positive outcome was that I was elected on to the County Development Board, I was able to bring forward ideas of social inclusion and some of my ideas were taken on board.

How Councils Formally Make Decisions
Chief Executives and Officials – Manage day to day running of a Council and implement policies.

Councillors – Approve budgets, land development plans, policies, and bylaws at Council meetings.

Local Development Committees, Strategic Policy Committees Municipal Districts (Area Committees) – input into decisions.

Social Partners and Public Participation Networks (PPN’s) – nominate members to the above committees – see below for more information about PPN’s.

There are 31 Local Authorities, these run our local Government. These are separated into Reserved and Executive Functions.

The roles of Elected Councillors (Reserved Functions)
These elected Councillors represent the views of the people, they create policy, track issues, and propose solutions to officials, receive a salary and allowances. They pass annual budgets, bylaws, and development plans.

The Role of the Mayor
This is an honorary title; they are elected for one year. They chair Council meetings and represent the Council at events.

The Chief Executive Officer, formerly known as the City or County Manager (Executive Functions)
These people are appointed, not elected, they have concentration of power, they employ staff, accept tenders, and organise the day-to-day administration and running of the Council.

Note – County Development Forums have been replaced with Public Participation Networks (PPN’s) and Local Community Development Committee.

It seems that Council staff sit on these meetings with other agencies represented. The Disability Housing Steering Groups (DHSG’s) would not be formal meetings, they are supposed to be chaired by the Chief Executive, officials from housing departments attend, along with representatives from other agencies.

They feed information to the Strategic Committees – many layered and convoluted. Councillors do not sit on these steering group committees; they are not involved – Council staff are in attendance. Councillors are on the Disability Consultative Committee – steering groups feed into this. Then meetings may not happen if there are not enough people at the meetings.

It is the job of these people to serve us, to serve the community, they are public servants, public officials.

Public Participation Networks (PPN’s)
To access funding for community groups at a local level you must join your local PPN.
PPN’s need to be representing the concerns and interests of local disabled people’s organisations (DPO). Local DPOs must join their PPN – see below for more information on PPN’s.

Strategic Policy Committees (SPC)
All local authorities must have SPCs, these look at different things – Development and Planning, Environment and Transport and Infrastructure, Education and Heritage, Housing, Social and Cultural, Economic Development – led by the Director of Services. They have two or three elected reps and meet four to five times a year. One third must be community reps, nominated via the PPN’s.

Through our local SPC we can access officials, and other state agencies. They provide an opportunity for representation, presentations, and engagement.

Local Community Development Committees
These are committees within local authorities and are responsible for coordinating, planning, and overseeing local and community development funds.
Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (SICAP) is our only National Anti-Poverty Social Inclusion Programme, and LEADER oversees rural development and Healthy Ireland. These are responsible for:

  • Delivering the above programmes
  • Coordinating the delivery of local and community development.

The membership is drawn from a mix of public and private representatives. They also seek the community and voluntary representation through the PPN. They are responsible for developing the local economic and community plan. As disabled people we should request a copy of this plan, read it, find out if there is any data about the lives of disabled people?
The local and national plans can be requested in different versions – audio, easy to read and plain English. Note that they have obligations under the Public Sector Duty, so these documents should be available.

What Are Public Participation Networks (PPN’s)
The development of PPN’s was part of Government reform under the Local Government Reform Act 2014. Then Minister, then Phil Hogan instructed All Local Authorities to set up new local committees (PPN’s) made up of local community and voluntary groups to represent the grassroots views of local people. For the breakdown of these three community sectors (known as Colleges), see the below table:

Community Sectors

So, in theory, every Irish citizen now has a “right” to be consulted in what happens in their local community. Thus (by law) giving the Community & Voluntary Sector a “right to sit at the decision-making table”.

PPN’s are relatively a new structure (six years old), and Catherine told us they are “still trying to find their feet.” Still, in all their endeavours, they must strive to enable local citizens to take an active and formal role in the policy-making activities of Local Authorities that will affect their communities. She went on to say that a lot of the issues that Local Government have responsibility for can “have a huge impact on the quality of all our lives and how we live our lives”, so their entity is critically important to all of us.

PPN’s Facilitates:
  • The participation and representation and nomination of communities in a fair, equitable and transparent manner through the three Colleges (as above)
  • Build the capacity of the individuals within the three Colleges, enabling them to contribute to their local community
  • The provision of relevant and up to date information to the three Colleges and functions as a hub around which information is circulated and received.

So to sum it all up, PPN’s are made up of a diverse network of community groups representatives that work together with their local authority to make sure that all three Colleges have a voice and have a say on issues that concern them.

Funding for PPNs is provided by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and the Local Authorities. This funding facilitates the engagement of a Resource Worker in each local authority area and also funds other related costs.

Principles and Values of PPN’s
PPN’s must:
  • Be inclusive of all volunteer-led organisations in their area, and actively seek the inclusion of groups that may traditionally have been marginalised or left out
  • Be participatory, open, welcoming, respectful, collaborative and facilitative; PPN’s must encourage actual participation in all aspects of its work. Clear communications to and from its member groups (community and voluntary sector ) using a variety of traditional and new mechanisms are essential to achieve this. The PPN should support new or inexperienced members to develop their capacity and skills
  • Be independent of their Local Authority, and all of its interests, be open, and participatory working structures support this
  • Value diversity and recognise that the sectors they support are wide-ranging and made up of people with many different lived experiences and opinions. PPNs do not need to come up with a consensus. Still, they are expected to give feedback on the issues and suggestions raised by its member groups
  • Be transparent in all its operations with its member groups, representatives and Local Authorities. It should communicate openly, regularly, and with precision
  • Be accountable to its member groups via implementing and abiding by good governance structures, policies, and procedures

These principles and values “needed to be on paper” as we (the community) have the power, and we can hold PPN’s accountable “if they are not being through to their values”.

The Structure of PPN’s 
All community and voluntary groups in PPN’s are Flat in Structure, which means that “no one person is in charge”. All elected representatives are seen as. Equals, have an equal voice and have real input into all decisions. There is also no leader, spokesperson, or chairperson. The membership is open to all community, voluntary and organisation representatives (nominated individuals by their voluntary or community group) active in their Local Authority area.

The Plenary
The main decision-making body of any PPN is called the Plenary (heart of PPN’s). The Plenary is made up of representatives from all its registered member groups from all three Colleges. Decisions are made at Plenary meetings, including the election of member group representatives, and each member group has one vote.

Plenary meetings are great for member groups to meet and network and hear about issues of interest to them. This group very much guides the work of PPN’s. The Plenary is also responsible for developing a wellbeing statement for its County.

The Plenary meets at least twice a year to review the work of the PPN and set out the work for its coming year. In addition, all PPN’s must agree to a Memorandum of Understanding.

The Secretariat
The Secretariat is a Voluntary Board made up of 12 PPN representatives elected by the Plenary. The Secretariat works alongside its Resource Worker. The make-up of the Secretariat must represent a variety of different groups and is reflective of the diversity of the membership of its PPN. These individuals must also represent the other geographical areas of the County/City and the three Colleges. The Secretariat is responsible for the administration of the PPN between Plenary meetings.

The Role of The Secretariat is to:
  • Progress the work schedule of the PPN
  • Make sure the Flat structure (equal power) is adhered to
  • Work closely with Local Authority PPN staff
  • Meets six times annually
  • Advance the recommendations of the PPN between meetings.

Municipal District’s
Voluntary and community groups register with the Municipal District that they belong to and work in. Each Municipal District has a PPN. A Municipal District is an administrative entity comprising of a clearly-defined townland with its population.

It can be a city, a town, a village, a small grouping of towns and villages, or a rural area. There are over 90 + Municipal Districts in Ireland.

Linkage Groups 
Linkage Groups bring together Stakeholder Organisations that have a common interest in areas such as, Housing, Transport, Youth & Community, Community Safety & Policing, Community Leisure & Culture, etc. These groups comprise of a collection of PPN member groups/organisations interested in being involved in External Committees, e.g. Strategic Policy Committees, the Joint Policing Committee, and Local Community Development Committees.

Each Linkage Group works with their elected PPN Representative (Rep’s). Their role is to highlight community issues and influence. policy change. PPN Reps are PPN members who have been elected by a Linkage Group to represent the PPN. PPN Rep’s report to and from the Linkage Group that elects them (two-way communication).

Linkage Group
Image is taken from Information sheet on LPPN Linkage Groups

In some cases, potential Stakeholder Groups may be approached directly and invited to join a Linkage Group to ensure all lived experiences and voices are heard.

Joining a PPN
To join a PPN, you must be part of a community / voluntary group. Unfortunately, you cannot join as an individual.

The community / voluntary group must:
  • be made up of five or more people and have been around for six months or more
  • have a postal address
  • volunteer-led
  • not be associated with a political party
  • have a governance structure, e.g., a constitution

As mentioned beforehand, all member groups of PPN’s must fit into one of the three Colleges. So, for example, you might belong to a Sports Group (Community & Voluntary College) or be part of a Climate Change Group (Environmental College).

The Social Inclusion College Group is very relevant to Local Disability Activists and Campaigners because its focus will always be on equality, social justice and improving the lives and opportunities of its local people.

Why Disabled Activists Need to be Involved
  • It is a government policy
  • We have a right to have our voices heard
  • It is an opportunity to change policy / practice / funding / priorities
  • We know the real issues and the solutions
  • There is a real need for collective engagement/strength
  • Influence decisions further up the chain
  • We can hold PPN’s accountable
  • Fantastic opportunity to develop new skills
  • Network and teach PPN members about the social model of disability and the barriers that disabled people face every day of their lives
  • Build solidarity with like-minded PPN members/groups
Some of the Challenges of PPN’s
  • You must be part of a community or voluntary group; no individual membership is allowed
  • The number of groups registered with PPN’s was 17,780 at the end of 2020, however the percentage of organisations that opted to be part of the Social Inclusion College was only 16%. This is very low
  • Top down model – how we invite and organise community participation and representation is decided and controlled centrally and at national level
  • How can we measure impact and influence of people’s participation? need to capture rich data – who is missing
  • imbalance of power – are people who are most affected by policy decisions at the table?
  • Very complex structure and language – Plenary, Linkage Groups, Flat Structure, Secretariat, Colleges
  • move beyond information and volunteering to influence decisions that affect lives
  • Time and resources – increasing demands being placed on Volunteers and Activists in local communities to engage with the PPNs and their associated structures need more supports for participation
  • Making Local Authority structures truly accountable and effective
Why is it Important to Engage with and Influence Structures in Local Government?
  • Women and disabled people continue to be underrepresented in civil and public life
  • It is an opportunity for truly accountable and effective mechanism in dealing with complex problems for participative democracy
  • It is about making decisions closest to people’s lives. We need more innovative ways of gathering views and working with people which fit in with the realities of people’s lives.(ILMI, Strategies for Change, is a model of how we can bring people together to work to bring about change)
  • Using all the skills, experience, and knowledge as disabled people to influence change
  • Participative democracy, accommodation of alternative perspectives, particularly those that do not gain high levels of electoral success.
  • Lack of power, funding, proven track record and expertise in local authorities
  • Making engagement meaningful
  • Reform of structures (such as strategic policy committees). Supports to make it easy to participate
  • Lack of independence and autonomy regarding PPNs – hosting in local authorities and workers employed by local authorities
  • Measuring impact and influence – move beyond numbers, measuring extent and nature of engagement targets around social inclusion pillar. Are we being listened to?
  • Need for independent community spaces
  • New structures do not challenge power imbalance
  • Local authorities directing local development and gatekeeping community participation
  • Need for independent civil society and community sector to organise and governance up around its own agenda
  • Dilution of social inclusion agenda – intersectional agenda
  • Structures are suited to those used to well-established ways of doing things, confident in procedures, official language, stereotyping, hierarchal, etc.
Get involved and take action “Talk to us not about us”
  • Join your local PPN
  • Get involved with the NWC Disabled Woman’s Group
  • Get a copy of your local economic and community plan
  • Ask for a meeting with the Chief Officer or Chair of your Council
  • Attended Committee or Council Meetings. Check are they online? – some are hybrid access – this may need to be requested in advance
  • Take part in consultations, make a submission, attend follow up meetings.
  • Reflect and ask questions – are those affected involved? How will it impact individuals and groups? How can we know and see that we are making a difference?

Does the Government really want to hear from us? From experience, they say they do, but in practice they don’t actually want to know. They do want to hear from us, but they don’t know how, it is out of their comfort zone, and they don’t know what communication should look like.

There is a responsibility on us to do more because it is critical that we are represented.

We should always be talking to our Local Councillors; it needs to come from the people who have the issues. The community and voluntary sector need to question themselves about how inclusive they are.

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