Fightback begins for Westmeath town

20 Jun 2003

When it comes to delivering services via the web, few local authorities are as ahead of the game as Westmeath County Council. In February 2002, the council launched an interactive housing services system. Two months ago, that service was joined on the council website by a fully-interactive planning application system.

Over 22 areas of the council’s housing business are now online. Users can track the progress of grants and funding applications or can check their eligibility anonymously using an online questionnaire. Eamonn Murray, internet co-ordinator with the county council, explains that the introduction of the system coincided with a decentralisation of offices from the main urban centres in the county. Both initiatives have been designed to provide people in remote areas with greater access to vital council services.

Crucially, if clients don’t wish to use the web, they can deal over the counter at these new area offices with staff who have instant access to all relevant data via the council’s wide area network (WAN). Since the planning system went live two months ago, it’s been receiving between five and six hundred visits per month.
br>”Again, people from home can track their planning applications,” says Murray, “and again, the area officers use it too. Somebody comes in who mightn’t have a computer themselves. The old procedure where everything was done on paper, the guy at the desk would have had to phone up, get someone else to root out the file and so fourth. It’s all sitting there now on a web system that the public can access or we can access across our WAN.”

The housing system in particular has drawn the attention of several other local authorities while the Department of Environment and Local Government is considering Westmeath’s prototype as a model for a planned national integrated housing system.

Westmeath County Library, in common with a minority of county libraries around the country, offers a catalogue on the county council website whereby you can conduct book searches online. The Athlone branch boasts a purpose-built IT room fitted out with 10 internet-ready computers. Because there’s a dedicated room, Mary Stuart of Westmeath County Library says community groups can hire out the facilities to run courses. Atypically, however, members must pay for services. The charges are €1.50 for 50 minutes for adults and €1 for children and the unwaged. “We found that the cost of providing that service, from a communications point of view, was quite high, so it’s mainly just to recover a small part of the expense,” she explains.

The downturn in the economy has hit the Athlone area hard, with 300 jobs lost in Elan and a further 150 shed by Ericsson last summer. Moreover, looking beyond the town into the greater midlands area, the picture does not improve. Job losses have impacted Snickers, Lowe Alpine, Daiber and Flextronics in Tullamore, Dawn Dairies in Moate, Atlantic Mills in Tullamore and Longford, Leoni in Birr and Tarkett in Mullingar. Some 15 miles down the road in Ballinasloe, the closure of Square D will leave an extra 385 people out of work in an area that has already suffered sizeable job shocks.

The fightback is on, however, with a range of local agencies working hard to recreate employment opportunities in the town. Last summer, Enterprise Ireland approved a grant of €2.54m to Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT) to build a regional innovation centre on the campus. The centre will be up and running next year, while in the meantime, AIT is providing space for the innovation centre’s flagship project, the Midlands Enterprise Platform Programme. Over 12 high-potential start-ups, primarily in the tech and pharmaceutical space, are currently in an advanced-feasibility stage within the programme.

Ann Marie Kearns, manager of the innovation centre, believes the 12 candidates are of exceptional quality and looks forward to the full establishment of many of these businesses by the end of the year. In addition to overseeing their progress, she’s been busy maximising the networking potential of the high-tech sector. With a nod to Dublin’s First Tuesday club, she’s founded the Wireless Wednesday club. Bringing together all the local stakeholders in the sector, the group meets on the last Wednesday of the month to discuss everything that’s relevant.

“One of the more interesting evenings was we had a live link-up with the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Their telecoms department brought us through where some of their research was going in terms of wireless technology … Certainly there was an awful lot of interest at this end in terms of trying to link up applications and commercialising some of the research that they were talking about. This is what we want to do. I know we’re midlands based, but really the midlands is as far or as narrow as you want to make it and we’re very keen on developing the international link,” Kearns says.

Broadband has, of course, been a massive problem. Chris Armstrong is managing director of 2PM, a highly-successful messaging applications company that employs 50 people between its head office in Athlone and subsidiary offices in Plymouth and London. His experience of poor infrastructure shows clearly just how damaging it can be. The business was founded in Ballinasloe, but was forced to move to Athlone because of the lack of decent internet access. But even then, the cost of high-speed internet provision in Ireland compared to the UK meant that eventually, he had to move six jobs across to Plymouth. Since then, he’s grown the Plymouth part of the operation simply because of the lack of infrastructure over here. Esat BT has recently launched its digital subscriber line offering to the midlands, but it comes too late for those whose jobs have since migrated.

By John Hearne