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Building strong and sustainable communities is important

Margaret Geraghty Director of Housing and Community at Fingal County Council outlines their approach to developing communities and responding to their needs.

Having a director responsible for housing and community within a local authority isn’t very common but we have it in Fingal County Council and I believe it is a very good mix. Creating communities is just as important as constructing houses and it makes perfect sense for the two to go together.

One of the criticisms of the past was that housing went in first, followed usually a good few years later, by the social and community infrastructure and we have tried to take that on board. I previously worked on the regeneration of Ballymun and Finglas South where the absence of some of the things we now take for granted in Fingal were certainly part of the underlying problems in those areas. The creation of strong sustainable communities is not just about building houses.

So, as well as ensuring that people have a home, I also have responsibility for community development, arts, sports and libraries. These are the building blocks required for sustainable communities but are also part of existing communities so it is more than just thinking about where housing development is going, it’s about maintaining the communities that are there already.

Across the county we have been very strategic and very active in constructing shared community facilities around schools that have been built in the area. That’s come about from asking questions such as: Where are the community facilities needed? Where are we at from the schools perspective? What is the transport like? What additional facilities do we need?

The willingness to evolve to meet the changing needs of people is at the cornerstone of everything we do. When we are looking at building housing in new areas we are not just looking at infrastructure like water, electricity and roads but we are also determining which community facility or library will serve it and how the staff there can link into new communities that are created. When we identify a need for new facilities we then look at including them in our capital programme.

“The creation of strong sustainable communities is not just about building houses.”

As a result of asking questions and examining the answers we have developed 31 different community facilities across the county including a number of purpose-built, shared facilities that deliver community activities but are also part of the school in that area. The result is that the local community gets a school with top class facilities which are then available for the community when the school is closed instead of lying idle in the evenings, at weekends and during the holidays.

We’ve also developed links with the major sporting organisations such as the FAI, GAA and IRFU which allows for our indoor and outdoor community sports facilities to be used effectively and our sports team are very active on the ground delivering a range of programmes across the county for all ages and abilities.

We also work closely with older people and have found that by focusing on the needs of older people we actually ensure the requirements of the entire community are met.

All over the county there is a lot of great work being done by community and voluntary groups. In order to assist them better we have brought them together under the Public Participation Network and this has given us a better understanding of what the issues are on the ground. There were 462 groups affiliated to Fingal’s PPN by the end of 2016 and it is allowing us, as a Council, to better service our communities.

With the rapid advances in technology, there was a tendency to think that libraries would be become a thing of the past but that hasn’t been the case at all and they are probably even more relevant to people nowadays because they serve the entire community from young to old.

The Library Service in Fingal is not just about borrowing books. Our County Librarian, Betty Boardman, describes our libraries as ‘community living-rooms’. They are neutral, social and inclusive spaces for active citizenship and community engagement.

Our 10 libraries host over 3,000 events per year and are a key element in our efforts to integrate our diverse communities. The Library Service’s resources, cultural and educational programme support lifelong learning, print and digital literacy. There is 24 hour access to our digital services, which include ebooks, enewspapers, emagazines and online learning courses. Our ‘Work Matters’ centres offer information, advice and support to entrepreneurs and job-seekers.

As with other aspects of what we do, we are constantly looking to improve our libraries so we currently have a programme of upgrading and regenerating some of our existing libraries and are also replacing some of our older mobile library vans with state of the art vehicles that will allow us to enhance the service that we bring to the people, particularly those in rural areas.

As well having the fastest growing and youngest population in Ireland, Fingal also has one of the most diverse with 18 per cent of the population born outside Ireland so integration and social cohesion is an important part of our work. Together with the Immigration Council of Ireland we have established a steering committee to develop an Integration and Social Cohesion Charter for the county.

One of the reasons why last year’s 1916-2016 commemoration programme was such a success was because local authorities were able to organise events on the ground that brought everybody in the community together and there is similar potential for community engagement with the Creative Ireland programme which will run up to 2022 and hands local authorities responsibility for stimulating creativity in the community.

Fingal already has a civic and culture centre in Blanchardstown and plans are underway to develop a €25 million cultural quarter in Swords that will include a theatre, a library and an arts space that can showcase local talent in the county capital. These centres will sit alongside the 2,000 hectares of public parkland and open spaces and the 1,000 acres of woodland and urban forestry that the Council manages. With 88km of coastline and 10 major beaches there is already an enticing package that makes Fingal a good place to live in.

It is how we continue to look after our existing communities and provide for our new communities that will shape our county for generations to come. Looking beyond the bricks and mortar, being aware of the rich and diverse fabrics that make up communities and being willing to adapt and change are the keys to ensuring that the lessons of the past have been learned.

Margaret Geraghty is Director of Housing and Community at Fingal County Council
Tel: 01 890 5000
Web: www.fingal.ie