Speech delivered to Citizens and Governance Conference at Dublin Castle, 25th February 2009
I welcome this opportunity to debate with a lot of like minded citizens on the future of our City. I say like minded, not because we all share the same views on how the system works – or should work. Like minded simply because by being here we are all demonstrating an interest in the future of Dublin.
Last Saturday Tim Pat Coogan writing in the Irish Times had a number of side swipes at Local City and County Councillors. In what is a regular journalistic device to appear balanced he allocated blame for our current economic crisis to all Politicians and remarkably included a culling of Councillors as being part of the answer. I accept neither proposal.
Blaming our City and County Councillors for our current economic mess is akin to blaming the ticket seller in Cobh for the sinking of the Titanic.
While I will leave it to National Politicians to respond to his remarks about the Dail and Seanad I cannot allow his unfounded and factually incorrect statements about Local Government in this country to go unchallenged.
Far from having a surfeit of Local Councillors, the facts show that Ireland has the second lowest proportion of Councillor per head of population in the entire European Union. This is particularly so in Dublin.
The figures i.e. the facts, demonstrate that the average ratio across the EU range from:
118 per head of population per Councillor in France,
250 per head of population in Sweden and 350 in Germany.
This rises to 610 in Spain and 1100 per head of population in Greece and Belgium.
Here in Ireland the figure is one Councillor to every 2,336 people.
Only the United Kingdom has a higher ratio with one Councillor to every 2,603 per head of population. However in that case no account is taken for the representative roles of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Regional Assemblies which significantly alters the real figures.
In my own ward of Pembroke-Rathmines – the largest in the Country – the figure is an astonishing, one Councillor for every 10,000 people.
As a part time Councillor, with none of the resources available to an Oireachtas member, I try to represent my Constituents to the best of my ability. To suggest that the number of Councillors be reduced does no service to Ireland or the needs of Dublin -our collective Capital City.
We need reform not a populist appeal to reduce the number of representatives. In fact in order to achieve any sort of equality of representation for the people of Dublin there should be a significant increase – not a decrease in the number of Councillors.
However in these financially challenged times I know that is not going to happen.
So how do we make progress?
I would welcome a real debate about the future of our Local Government system. I wish this could have happened with the publication by Government of the White Paper on Local Government reform prior to the next Local Elections. However the deep hostility – both Departmental and Political – to such reform precluded that.
The unending belief of central Government both permanent and temporary in their own infallibility has ensured that much needed reforms remain in the same storage points as the unwanted e-voting machines the same Department gave us.
Despite the fact that we share a Constituency I genuinely wish the Minister John Gormley well in this task of achieving real reform. I share his aspirations and don’t doubt the battle he will face.
Can I also say at this point that it has often amazed me that given their fixation with the latest Junket by Councillors and despite receiving over E160 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.
While I welcome the fact that RTE Nuacht and TG4 have recently made such an appointment here today I again call on RTE, OUR Public Service Broadcaster, to appoint a Local Government Correspondent.
It is interesting that once again initiative and innovation has come from outside the narrow confines of Montrose and from the far more in touch and creative TG4.
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. Their reporting of the Local Elections will inevitably centre on what it means for the Political Parties at a General Election or whose son, daughter, nephew or niece will inherit the “family” seat.
So we can expect little from them in terms of advancing the debate and our agenda for Reform.
The case for reform is all around us.
For me Local Government matters. In terms of planning, housing, community development, provision of accessible recreational, cultural and sporting opportunities it is very often the first point of call. It has a record in all these and in Education – through the VEC structure that is second to absolutely no other body in Ireland.
The fact that it has been starved of funding over the last decade should not obscure that fact.
Incredibly during what were our “Celtic Tiger” years Local Governed finances have been plundered by Central Government. Far from Dublin City Council been supported by Government we in fact transfer more money to it than the other way round. From income collected through Motor Taxes we transfer more than we receive through the Local Government Fund. Government itself has decided it will not pay Commercial Rates on their Offices at a cost to Dublin City last year of approximately E28million and the costs of implementing the Benchmarking agreement amounted to E76million – none of which was contributed by the same Government that ordered us to pay it.
So I agree with the Minister when he said that independent finance raising powers are essential if we are to achieve real Local Government. However Dublin is still entitled to its fair share of National Revenue.
While the detail of any reform is extensive the essentials are not. For me if it is to be in any way meaningful reform must include:
• An Independent source of funding for Local Authorities and not subject to the whims of the Department of the Environment.
• Reform of the City and County Managers Act creating a new post of Chief Executive Officer – accountable to and appointed by the relevant Local Authority following recruitment through the Public Appointments Commission.
• A directly elected Mayor of Dublin with a five year term and accountable to an enhanced Dublin Regional Authority.
• The extension of the role of the Dublin Regional Authority to include Transport and Planning and subsuming bodies such as the Dublin Transport Authority and the Affordable Housing Partnership.
• Real controls and limitations on electoral spending at local elections and an ethical framework that is robust and just.
These are but the bare essentials of any reform package.
Reform must also provide for greater public engagement in our democratic process. Regular Town Hall type meetings at which Local Councillors would engage with their constituents on relevant matters should be an easy step to initiate more or less immediately. We are often told that the answer is through the process more commonly known as Participative Democracy.
It is not a view I share. Participative Democracy has been used to co-opt but not empower citizens. It pretends that citizens have power while real power remains with the elite. Often it allows for very unrepresentative voices to exercise disproportionate influence over decision making.
It is a concept beloved by those who manage the Local Government system or those who observe it from an academic standpoint. As a Practitioner I believe it leads to less empowerment and the protection of vested interests. It de politicizes politics when we need to energize real politics and present real choices and is in my view a step backwards.
It is my strong view that we need to strengthen Representative Democracy.
Reform must also include a serious review of our Planning Laws. We need to provide for genuine public participation. The development of a planning framework to provide for pre-planning consultation and the abolition of the Planning Observation fee would be key ingredients of such an approach. It strikes me as reprehensible and against everything that the Aarhus Convention that we charge people for engaging in the planning process. It also angers me that as an elected representative I have had to spend well over E1, 000 over the last year or so defending the City Development Plan and the well being of the area and of Dublin. That in itself I would submit is a direct attack on the democratic process and the Minister should review it. It should also be the case that when you win at An Bord Pleanala you should have your fee returned.
I sought election many years ago to improve my local community and because I enjoyed the cut and thrust of political life. I have never regretted my decision and my belief that local government is the best model to deliver real reform to Irish Society has intensified over those years. The Public need and deserve a better system. It is time for those who agree with me to, Stand up for Democracy, Stand up for Local Government and in my case Stand up for Dublin.”