Less than a month in the role, new Galway City Manager Brendan McGrath has identified the need to ensure that the city is “fit for purpose” and the “best that it can be” as one of the challenges facing him during his tenure.
The former Acting Meath County Manager is currently meeting with various stakeholders involved in contributing to economic life in the city, from state agencies such as IDA and Enterprise Ireland to Galway Chamber and local business representatives, in order to ascertain their views on what needs to be done to sustain existing jobs and attract additional investment here.
“There’s many, many things, I suspect, being done extremely well in Galway and I’d have to paid a lot of credit to my immediate predecessor Joe O’Neill, former city managers and the councils they worked with but obviously we live in 21st century Ireland and society and the economic scene is changing and has changed and for that reason no city council, no city can stand still,” he says.
Pointing out that the culture and heritage of the city is a critical economic driver, he says Galway is also “blessed” to have attracted blue chip foreign direct investment companies here.
Describing such companies as “phenomenal employers”, he suggests that every FDI job in the city probably supports four other jobs, and stresses the need to build on the existing clusters in the city.
He adds: “We have to work to continue to market Galway, we have to continue to strive to attract new investment, to create new jobs, to create new employers but we can’t lose sight of the existing economy, the existing employers.”
Working with stakeholders and state agencies is key to this, he says. “The city council can do a lot, but we can’t do everything and we certainly can’t do it on our own so partnership has to be at the heart of what we do.”
The former Ballinasloe Town Clerk also believes that there are three key aspects to creating economic investment: people, place and infrastructure. In other words, the availability of a trained workforce, the quality of life in a given location, and having access to quality services.
These services include water and power supplies, telecommunications and broadband – only some of which are under council’s direct control – and Mr McGrath says that there is a need to liaise with the various stakeholders involved to ensure Galway is “shovel ready” so that if a project wants to come to Galway, the city is capable of accommodating it.
“Thankfully we have very good infrastructure presently but infrastructure but doesn’t stand still, part of our role is to plan for the future, to plan for the next decade and beyond. Part of what we have to do is make sure that we’re always ahead of the curve and there’s a fair bit of work to be done on that but it’s an interesting challenge.”
Roads and transport are obviously integral to the infrastructure of any modern city and, with Galway’s traffic woes a regular conversation of topic for both locals and visitors alike, the council’s plan to replace city roundabouts with signalised junctions may yet prove a key issue during Mr McGrath’s time in the hot seat.
“We’re now in a situation where the junctions we have done are working extremely well; throughput of traffic has increased by about 30 per cent at peak times at the most difficult junctions, travel times have improved, but with certain junctions done and other ones when we’re finished still not done, there’s a challenge there and there’s issues there we need to deal with,” he says.
Commercial rates and particularly in relation to empty properties in the city are another key issue, as the council continues to pursue with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government the anomaly that sees it forced to refund 100 per cent of rates on vacant properties, compared to 50 per cent in Cork, Limerick and Dublin.
“It is very important and it obviously requires change at national level, it requires a regulatory change and we will continue to keep the pressure on,” says Mr McGrath, stressing the importance of keeping commercial vacancy rates in the city low.
And the rates issue is not the only national policy impacting on Galway City – Mr McGrath feels that the establishment of new water services authority Irish Water, which will take responsibility for water services on a phased basis over the next few years, has a lot of potential implications for commercial enterprises.
“If another Boston Scientific or Hewlett Packard or whoever was coming to Galway tomorrow morning, up to this they would have dealt with the city council in relation to water and waster water and future availability. That won’t be case now, they will be another entity involved and that may or may not be a problem,” he says.
The Government’s ‘Action Programme for Effective Local Government’, Putting People First, will also impact on how local government services are provided, according to Mr McGrath, with one positive aspect being the establishment of the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs). Replacing the existing Galway County and City Enterprise Board, the LEO aims to be a “first-stop shop” service for local micro and small enterprises.
Mr McGrath however also acknowledges that delivering service reforms will prove a challenge given the reducing work force within the local authority.
“The city council would have lost significant numbers of staff over the last number of years and we’re still providing all the services we provided then and indeed more because, at national level, new things keep being churned out; good things and important things. The challenge for me is to ensure the organisation is capable of taking those, dealing with them, providing for them,” he says.
Returning to the need to now develop future infrastructure for the city, Mr McGrath, asks the question, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One piece at a time.’
“I’m not saying there are any mammoth tasks – all of them are achievable, many of them are necessary, and I commit to doing my level best to work with the stakeholders, to provide the leadership to achieve as much as we can for the city,” he says.
“I’m enthused and energised by the challenge because I passionately think what is a really, really good city, we can develop it even further and make it an even better city and that’s what, fundamentally, I’ll be trying to do.”