Enhancing the effectiveness of local government; securing targeted, cost-efficient and balanced regional, spatial and economic development; and contributing to the promotion of the local and regional agenda in Europe. This is just a small sample of the wide-ranging functions of the Eastern and Midlands Regional Assembly (EMRA).
EMRA is one of three new regional assemblies that came into existence in 2015 as part of the overall local government reform process. Replacing the eight regional bodies which had existed up until then, EMRA, the Southern Regional Assembly and the Northern & Western Regional Assembly were established under the Local Government Reform Act 2014.
The assembly is made up of more than 40 elected members nominated by the 12 local authorities within its region. Its role is very broad and includes implementing the Regional Planning Guidelines; preparing, adopting and implementing regional spatial and economic strategies; participating on EU operational programme monitoring committees; identifying, participating in and coordinating certain EU projects; and supporting Ireland’s delegation to the EU Committee of the Regions which gives voice to local interests in terms of current and emerging European legislation.
"We are part of the local government structure in Ireland and elected representatives sit on the assembly to represent the citizens of the region," explains EMRA director Jim Conway. "It's a new concept and it has worked very well. We operate a very lean organisation with a staff of just 16 people which includes planners, economists, policy officers. We also run the Irish Regions European Office in Brussels which is a shared service for other regional assemblies and local authorities."
The organisation works very closely with local authorities on the implementation of the Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) which covers the period 2019-2031. The RSES identifies regional assets, opportunities and pressures and provides appropriate policy responses in the form of regional policy objectives. It provides a framework for investment to better manage spatial planning and economic development in the region.
It also aims to accelerate climate action, ensure a clean and healthy environment and promote sustainable transport and strategic green infrastructure.
“We translate the national planning framework into regional strategies more accessible to local authorities and local development plans,” says Conway. “The regional plans are aligned with national policy and support compact growth, healthy communities, sustainable transport and the transition to low carbon economy.”
The RSES for the Eastern and Midlands Region was two years in preparation, he adds. “We carried out an extensive consultation process and worked through the plan with the local authorities. It was then adopted by elected members. If we see a county development plan or local area plan that is not consistent with the overall objectives of the strategy, we will communicate that to the local authority, and they will respond to our comments. Actual enforcement rests with the Minister.”
Development and growth
It is also involved with EU funding as a tool for the delivery of appropriate regional development and growth. "Our approach in terms of the regional strategies wraps around it all. We are currently looking at the next round of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). That is aligned very closely with the regional strategy in areas such as sustainable growth, climate action, and economic opportunity. The last programme provided funding for Local Enterprise Offices, home retrofitting schemes and so on, for example. There are also other regional strands of funding that people can apply for."
In addition, the assembly is represented on the relevant Regional Climate Offices (CAROs). The four CAROs support local government in the delivery of change and measurable climate action. As part of this remit, EMRA held the co-presidency of the Environmental Conference of the Regions of Europe (Encore) for the past two years. Encore provides politicians from across Europe with a forum for discussing environmental issues of regional significance.
The Encore 2021 Conference is due to take place in Tullamore in September and will focus on the Just Transition concept which is of critical importance to the midlands region. This will frame discussions on the three key themes of climate action, the circular economy and ecosystem services.
“We are always looking at best practice and looking into the future and doing things like modelling the greenhouse gas impact of new planning policies,” Conway adds. “We need to know how to monitor these things and understand them if we are to get it right. EMRA provides a place where policy in relation to all these things can be debated. Also, our 12-year strategy offers the time and space to achieve the objectives set out both nationally and in the RSES.”