The State needs to get out into the community

11th April 2001

ECONOMY of scale has led to a huge amount of the alienation that is haunting modern Irish life. The idea that cheaper is better is understandable, especially when you have no money, but it is deeply regressive.

So we have local schools replaced by 1,000 student monstrosities.

We have one Garda station for 30,000 people. We have massive estates built two miles from the nearest shops.

Barns now replace pubs in the suburbs.

No value whatsoever has been placed on the idea of community because it can’t be measured in punts.

The weakness in the sub-urban community has led to anti-social behaviour, crime and a lack of neighbourliness that we use to scoff about when we thought of London or New York.

Geographical communities are giving way to virtual communities where the circle of friends is based around work or interest.

Most of this has been observed before. People can see the community spirit degenerate before their eyes. The question is: what to do about it?

It isn’t fashionable to call on the State for intervention these days. But it is through the State that our collective will is enacted.

Volunteers all around Dublin are doing tremendous work to improve, and in some cases hold together, their communities. But they need support.

What I’m thinking about is the need for civic offices throughout the city, say one for every 5,000 people.

Typically, two end houses on a road or two semi-ds, the civic office would combine a number of functions operated by the State or local authority.

It would have a small Garda office, a small library, a citizens’ advice centre, a sub-post office, an ATM machine, internet access, a social welfare desk, a meeting room and even a small cafe/bar.

I can think of 20 areas off the top of my head in west Dublin where such a facility would transform the locality.

The thing is that for any of the agencies involved it wouldn’t require a major capital investment which turns the idea from a concept to a possibility.

In fact, the best thing would be for the State to provide the capital funding and then allow each of the agencies to occupy the office for operational rent. In much the same way as is envisaged for Stadium Ireland.

In many of the communities people are crying out for support from the State. In poorer areas activists see their efforts – and the quality of life – being degraded by anti-social behaviour. A local Garda presence would be a huge boost to these people.

In Ballyfermot there is one Garda station covering about 25,000 people. With the best will in the world it is impossible for the guards in Ballyfermot to have an intimate relationship with the community.

Instead, the guards can only re-act when things go wrong. If Ballyfermot had five new civic offices with a Garda presence in each, the guards and the community would get to know each other much better.

A similar reappraisal could be applied to schools, hospitals and prisons. In each case, the scaling up process was supposed to lead to better facilities, less capital outlay and a wider availability of services.

In my opinion this process has disregarded the importance of individual relationships in the lives of people.

In education the process is actually under way with the advent of Gaelscoilanna and the multi-denominational sector. Scaling down is a by-product of these new schools and is a major attraction in itself for parents.

The warehousing of prisoners is a huge mistake and much smaller units might well have led to better rehabilitation. Unfortunately this Government seems to believe that getting offenders behind bars is the only important part of the process.

With an election on the horizon any political party offering a well thought out civic office programme would be a very attractive proposition. It’s time for community politics to get an airing.

As well as that…

The traditional Post Office is finished

FOR the past few years we have had the debate over rural post offices wheeled out almost as regularly as the taxi issue.

Now the definitive report has arrived saying that 1,900 post offices, including 400 main post offices, are uneconomic and will have to shut.

This isn’t going to happen for the simple reason that any Minister or party in any way connected with such a move would be committing political suicide.

And yet the current network is untenable. It is sustained mainly by the distribution of social welfare cheques. Everyone knows that it would be far more cost effective to distribute these electronically or by ATM.

You don’t need a post office to get a stamp and most of the parcel business is now liberalised.

And still the post office is a symbol of civil life that few communities will lightly let go of.

And they are right.

To keep the uneconomic offices open, the Government will have to pay a direct subvention which doesn’t come out of An Post’s revenues. And therefore this is the moment to begin the debate over whether to extend the civic presence of the post office or to kill them off altogether.