The Real Case for Local Government Reform in Ireland
Speech to the Local Authority Members’ Association
I welcome this opportunity to engage with my fellow Councillors on a topic that is dear to my heart and to which I am absolutely committed. I want to thank LAMA for their invitation.
However I would be dishonest if I did not put on record my disappointment that LAMA, despite being invited by the Minister, did not participate in the Consultative Committee. I believe that it represented a missed opportunity to seriously engage on this issue and to put forward the legitimate needs of Councillors as part of the reform process.
In particular those of us who were advocating for increased resources for Councillors could have done with additional voices of support around the table.
Can I also acknowledge at the outset that I do not claim to be an expert on this issue? There are far too many people, in this room and elsewhere, who know far more about Local Government than I ever will. What I do have is a passionate belief that the ordinary things that matter to ordinary people can be best dealt with through a reformed and revitalized Local Government system. I simply bring my experience to the table and look forward to a lively and challenging debate ahead.
Initially, of course, this session was meant to be a sort of reflection on the Green Paper which was due to be published last January, then February, then March and now April. The delay I believe reflects the real hostility at Government level from both the permanent Government in the Civil Service as well as at a Political level to real reform.
Despite the fact that we share a Constituency I genuinely wish the Minister well in this task. I share his aspirations and don’t doubt the battle he will face.
At the outset can I say that it has often amazed me that given their fixation with the latest Junket by Councillors and despite receiving over €160 million a year the State Broadcasting Service – RTE still has
no Local Government Correspondent. Their willingness to lazily cover the attendance of Councillors at some conference – always a junket in their eyes – is about as close to covering Local Government as we can expect
from the cozy cartel of commentators operating from their even cozier perch in my own Parish of Donnybrook. Here today I again call on RTE - our Public Service Broadcaster – to appoint a Local Government Correspondent. I have no objection to Local Government being criticized. I do object to
it being criticized from a position of ignorance.
Quite simply the Commentariat in RTE neither understand nor care about Local Government. So we can expect little from them in terms of advancing the debate and our agenda for Reform.
And yet: The case for reform is all around us and we as Councillors must be at the front line in advancing that cause.
We need real reform, real power and real responsibility. Local Government is the poor relation of the Irish political system. It is badly resourced, underfinanced and often ignored.
However before joining the mob in criticizing Local Government we should first celebrate our success.
The hugely credible record of Local Government in the provision of quality housing, developing our Library system, maintaining Public Parks and providing a broad range of community facilities and services is
second to none.
Through the VEC structure Local Government has been imaginative, innovative and progressive in the field of Education. Indeed I would argue far more imaginative, innovative and progressive than the Department Mandarins have ever achieved operating as they do far from the front line in their bunkers in The Custom House and Marlborough Street.
Far from being limited in its vision, Local Government has provided Ireland with an energy that is only limited by a blinkered Department of State and a central Government obsessed with controlling all.
Instead of supporting Local Government we have a Department of State that despite its lofty title of “Environment, Heritage and Local Government” is, in my opinion, clearly ill-disposed to the first two and
actively hostile to the third. The record is there for all to see.
We were told that the “Better Local Government” policy was the way forward. We were told that Government had a plan for effective reform and that, as always, it was “on the way”.
As a long standing advocate of reform I only wish that they did have a plan. To put it mildly, in recent years we have not been blessed by Ministers who actually believed in their title Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
It is fair to acknowledge that in recent years Brendan Howlin followed by Noel Dempsey made tentative steps in the area. However the hard work and commitment of both Ministers was thwarted by a coalition of
backbenchers and bureaucrats. Of course any real reform will need Councilors themselves to take more responsibility.
As a Dublin City Councillor since 1993, and particularly during my time as Lord Mayor, I have consistently argued for reform and acted in the best interests of the City when faced with difficult choices. Sadly,
despite repeated assertions to the contrary, the record of recent Governments has been entirely in the other direction.
Removals of powers, relating to traffic, to planning matters and the making of the Development Plan have been the order of the day.
Powers in relation to waste charges, control of the Taxi industry – and the list could go on have all been removed in recent years.
We are told this is happening because local Councilors will not exercise their responsibilities. We are told this by a Department of State that has failed to tackle our Housing crisis will not tackle our environmental problems and recently wasted over E60million in an e-voting experiment that nobody asked for and even less people want.
Every six months I ask the same question of the Dublin City Manager. What powers have been transferred to Dublin City Council since June 1997 and what powers have been transferred from the Council in the same
period? The list of powers removed is almost triple the powers the Council has gained. This pattern is repeated on every Council across the State.
The much hyped Constitutional recognition of Local Government has been referred to as some sort of progress. The reality however is that it is primarily a meaningless sop designed to conceal a pattern of
destruction. If Deputy Michael Ring proved anything in his abortive challenge to the Dual Mandate ban it was to show just how weak the Constitutional recognition really is.
Funding for Local Government remains deeply inadequate and, despite the boom Celtic Tiger years, has actually decreased in real terms. The “wide ranging independent study of Local Government funding” promised by the last two Ministers was binned within minutes of its publication. More recently we have had the appointment of the Commission on Taxation.
Incredibly despite having Local Government Funding included in its terms of reference there is not a single Local Elected Representative or even a former Local Elected Representative as a member. How can we take
Government commitments to reform seriously when on this fundamental issue no regard is taken of the Local Government sector?
All of this takes place at a time when in Dublin City alone we are owed over €200million from central Government funds for the year 2006 alone. The same proportionately applies to every single Council across the Country.
This fundamental issue of finance must be central to any reform package. Governance without an independent source of financing is not governance at all. It is simply administration, at local level, of central
It often strikes me that the Social Partners are quite happy to criticize our role as Councillors and members of Local Authorities yet they are never prepared to assume any responsibility. Well let’s try them. It is quite simply time that in relation to Local Government activities, services and expenditure that they either put up or shut up.
In my view there is a need for a National Forum on Funding of Local Government. Such a Forum would be charged, with agreeing a consensus approach on the issue. The Forum would be comprised of the Social
Partners, the main Political Parties and the Councillor Representative bodies. There would be an opportunity to contribute for the wider public and it would be given a maximum of twelve months to report.
The Forum could consider either a national and common approach to the funding issue or, as I would prefer, a range of options that could be determined, as appropriate by local elected Councils. These could include everything from a tourist or hotel bed levy, planning enforcement charges, a variable income or sales tax and so on.
Real responsibility will then rest with local Councillors who will also have real flexibility in how to spend the money. Local Government is best placed, if allowed, to tackle the key issues of housing, traffic/transport, planning, community services and policing.
On all these I believe that Local Government could deliver more efficiently, more swiftly and more economically to local communities. Instead of each City or County Council having to prepare a set of
housing plans, which must then be assessed by another team of architects based in the Custom House, let responsibility remain at local level. Time saved and money saved. Instead of the Dublin Director of Traffic
having to consult with over thirty different agencies before a decision can be taken let such decisions be taken at elected Council level. Instead of National Lottery funding allocations being processed at National level by Government it would make far more sense, within general allocation rules, if these decisions could be made by those who understand the needs of an area through the extensive local government system.
The same principle applies to policing, planning, education and so on. In most European countries these matters are the preserve of Local Government. Here they are either the responsibility of Government
Departments or unaccountable Quangos. There is no reason to believe that National knows best.
However such a widening of functions cannot be achieved under our present structures. Our present system belongs to the 19th century. Ireland has changed dramatically since the map of local government was
drawn over one hundred years ago. Any new structures should recognize that fact. Local Government needs to be remapped to be based on the real living space of citizens and reflect the actual communities in which
they live. In some areas and particularly the larger urban areas this will require Regional Bodies to which members would be directly elected.
These new structures should then be truly responsible for the design and delivery of services within their respective areas. All Public bodies and State agencies active, or inactive as the case may be, should be
accountable to these democratically elected Councils. Not alone would this be good for the areas concerned and for the principle of subsidiarity, it would also have the side effect of releasing space for the Oireachtas to deal with the issues of national strategic importance that should be its remit.
We have often been told that there have been reforms. That “Better Local Government” has given us Area Committees, Strategic Policy Committees and City and County Development Boards. That is true – except we did not ask for them. Yes, Area Committees are effective if all you want to do is protect your patch, or look after your immediate Parish or community. But they have a negative effect in terms of developing a sense of
responsibility for the wider City or County.
The so called Strategic Policy Committees are simply a waste of time and space. Sadly in my opinion, that is exactly what the Department wants. Let me give some simple examples. On the Traffic and Transport Committee of Dublin City the law forbids us from including Dublin Bus or the Gardai as members.
On the Environment and Engineering Committee we cannot propose amendments to the Waste Management Plan. On the Arts, Culture and Youth Committee we have no input or opportunity to question the Department of Education on any of the issues for which it is responsible. I could go on.
Significantly of course all of this is overseen by a Managerial system in which Councillors have no hand act or part in the appointment of the Manager. Can you imagine any scenario in which the Board of Directors of
a Company had no say in the appointment of a Chief Executive Officer or a Managing Director?
So what do I want? In Dublin I want to see a directly elected Mayor for the Dublin Region who would serve for the full term. I want to see a Dublin Regional Assembly and I want to see real devolution of powers. Such powers would be devolved downwards from the Quangos and the State Institutions rather than, as is far too often advocated, be transferred from the lower tier Councils.
In relation to existing Mayoral and County Council Chairpersons I believe that these should be retained as at present. There is a role for an annual election and the operation of a Civic leadership and host type role. The Dublin Region and, perhaps others, needs a directly elected longer term Mayor. It could be fairly argued that Longford or Leitrim does not. Such a format can be repeated, as appropriate, across the country.
In this respect also we need to see the Managerial system fundamentally reformed with the Manager to operate more as a Chief Executive Officer and the interfering hand of the Department of the Environment removed from any role in their appointment.
Some people believe that the role of Local Government is to implement the policies of the so-called Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I do not. It is my job to do all that is best for our City and Citizens. It is my job to “Stand up for Dublin”, not to regurgitate the failed views and policies imposed from the Custom House. The same applies to Councillors representing other parts of the country
in respect of your areas. However we need the resources to do that job.
The next Local Elections take place in a little less than fifteen months time. This time should not be wasted and lost as the last number of years have been. The Government should grasp the nettle, seek the support of the opposition parties and introduce a vibrant, independent and relevant Local Government system.
In particular the Government can and should introduce limits on the expenditure allowed at Local Elections. It should not be possible to buy a Council seat. Quite simply if such limits on expenditure are deemed
suitable for Dail elections they are equally appropriate for Local Government.
I have great hope for the future of Local Government. A failed series of Ministers and an obdurate Department cannot block reform forever. Local Government can work and will deliver – if it is allowed to. Will central Government ever have the will to release the energy that is there at local level or will the Mandarins forever believe in their own over riding competence as they continue to fail the people?
The media too can play their part. More accurate and informed coverage of Council affairs would be a start. As I said at the outset RTE for example should consider the appointment of a Local Government Correspondent.
The rest of the media could also start engaging Councillors on issues of relevance and not just on the latest “junket”.
In my experience we have, here in Ireland, the most accessible and yet maligned elected representatives in western society – the City, Town and County Councillor.
Does Local Government work? Clearly it works better than it is given credit for, far better than one could expect from the resources and powers allocated, but far short of what it is capable of.
I am proud of the service that the vast majority of Councillors have given to our Country. I will be far happier when we are given the power, the structures and the resources to deliver more.