Speech by Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill at the LAMA Autumn Seminar 2012, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. 29/9/2012

LOCAL AUTHORITIES – DOING MORE WITH LESS

REFORMING LOCAL DEMOCRACY

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today on an often neglected but vitally important topic. I am delighted to be here at the Local Authority Members Association (LAMA) autumn conference where you are discussing the challenges being faced by local authorities. I was first elected to Donegal County Council in 2004 and then to Seanad Éireann in 2007. Over these years I have had the chance to reflect upon how we do politics in this country and what we can do to improve things both at a National and Local Level. Today I will focus my contribution to Local Politics or Local Government.

 

Since 1991, I have counted at least 14 reports on local government structures, services, finance and efficiencies but the public debate has been effectively non-existent. How many political commentators and opinion formers, let alone members of the public have read the local election manifestoes of the political parties ever?

 

Contrary to the government’s assertions some progress has been made through Better Local Government, the removal of the Ultra Vires rule and constitutional recognition. Who would have thought it was Fianna Fáil who would end the Dual mandate? However, much more radical action needs to be taken.

As Edmund Burke put it “to innovate is not to reform”. The sweeping changes announced by the government do not mark a real improvement in Irish Local Government, that will be felt by people across the country.

 

Instead of radical reform we will have the centralisation of power through abolition of town councils. Rather than moving power closer to the citizen this will see it become even more distant. In place of efficiencies we will have large, inflexible organisations where size is mistaken for savings.

The publication of the government white paper on local government reform is long overdue. The delay is unfair to Councillors who must plan for the next local elections in 2014.

Ireland already has one of the lowest number of local government representatives per capita in Europe and one of the weakest local government structures.

The creeping sense of alienation that ordinary people feel towards government will only become worse under the kneejerk reactions being pushed by the government.  The decision making processes that affect our everyday lives, rather than taking place at the level closest to the citizen, will be shifted even further away from them.

 

Local Democracy and local accountability cannot be sacrificed in the name of efficiency.

 

Why have Local Government?

 

                       

 

I firmly believe that as the tier of government closest to the citizen, local government is the embodiment of democracy at work on a local level.

 

•           First level of political education

133 T.Ds out of 166 or 80% of Dáil members have previously been members of Local Government. Membership of Town and County Councils is a useful training ground for national politicians and can be used to experiment with new ideas with limited potential negative impact that can be later used at a national level. It is also a useful platform from which to encourage greater female and younger participation as well as from other traditionally under represented groups such as ethnic minorities.

 

•           Reinforces a sense of place and community

I Believe that local government presents a platform to represent and articulate local concerns; it also represents a sense of community and represents a level of government that, in theory, should be most responsive to the local community. The county structure in Ireland was developed as a British administrative Unit and is now synonymous with local identity with the GAA county team system a reflection of this.

•           Delivers services at the level nearest to the citizen

Local government is key to delivery of services such as transport, education, water, housing, planning, amenities and the environment. In other countries such as Germany, France or a similar sized country like Denmark local government is entrusted with areas like Education and Welfare services.

•           Acts as an agent of Local Government

The distribution of grants, collection of Motor Taxation is examples of Local Government acting on behalf of central government.

•           Acts as a local on the ground regulator

The enforcement of standards such as planning regulations or environmental standards either from an EU/National or local level is in the hands of local government. Planning systems in other countries, such as certain States in the USA, place certain aspects of planning powers on appearance etc. in the hands of much smaller community council style groupings.

•           Safeguard against central control and dominance

The concentration of power in a central body exposes the state to an unhealthy centralisation of power in fewer and fewer hands. Dispersing power across various units’ provides checks and balances against an over powerful central government.

 

Background to Reform

Local Government in Ireland stands as one of the most limited across Europe in terms of the range of services it provides and the resources available to it.   Areas such as transport, welfare, education and health that are an integral component of local government functions in other European states are not functions of the lower tiers of Irish governance.

The abolition of domestic rates in 1978 made Ireland almost unique across Europe in not having a property tax on residential units. In 2010, 41% of Local Government income came from Central government, indicating a heavy reliance upon the central exchequer and lack of local discretion in how revenue is raised and spent.

There are 1,627 elected local government members in Ireland. 883 elected councillors at county and city level and 744 on town authorities. The average population per councillor in Ireland is 2,815 people. This is the highest proportion in the EU 15 with the UK in second with 2,664. It compares with an average of 118 in France or 1,115 in Denmark, a similar sized and populated country to Ireland.

It is untrue to say that Ireland has too many elected representatives in light of the fact that we have the lowest number of councillors relative to population in the EU 15.

 

Table 2. Comparative number of Councillors

 

Country Population No. of Relevant Local Councils   Average Population per Council Area   Average Size of Council Population per elected Cllr
France 60m 36,700 1,600 14 118
Germany 83m 15,300 5,400 15 350
Italy 58m 8,100 7,100 12 608
Belgium 10.3m 589 17,500 22 811
Holland 16m 548 29,000 19 1,555
Greece 10.6m 1033 10,300 10 1,075
Denmark 5.4m 275 19,600 17 1,115
Portugal 10.1m 308 32,800 29 1,131
U.K. 61m 468 127,350 49 2,664
Ireland 4.58m 114 36,842 14 2,815

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The County Council institutional structure of local government remains largely unchanged since the 1898 Local Government Act except for the abolition of Rural District Councils in the 1920s and the introduction of county managers in 1940.

 

The 1990s witnessed a number of changes including the removal of the ultra vires rule, introduction of new policy structures such as Strategic Policy Committees, creation of the General Local Government Fund from motor tax receipts, constitutional recognition under Article 28A and abolition of the dual mandate. The 2001 Local Government Act introduced a series of modernising measures.

 

These changes came on the crest of a plethora of reports and recommendations dating back to the 1970’s such as the Barrington report 1990, Better Local Government 1996 and the Indecon Financing Report of 2005.

 

The 2009 McCarthy Report specified the abolition of Town Councils and the reduction of the 34 city and county councils into 22 units.

 

The 2010 Local Government Efficiency Review group earmarked some €511m worth of savings in the sector. It recommended the amalgamation of 20 city and county councils; the transfer of powers involving planning, roads and housing from town councils to county councils; a reduction in staff numbers (currently at around 30,000); and increased powers for the remaining managers.

 

So therefore let me outline a number of areas where I believe can and should be reformed.

 

Directly Elected Mayors

The argument for Directly Elected Mayors rests upon a concept of leadership. A key individual provides an opportunity to drive forward an agenda, fight for the advancement of local government needs, heighten the visibility of the local authority and the locality itself, as well as broadening engagement with the public and promoting greater accountability. For instance, Q&A sessions conducted online with Boris Johnson are a distinguishing feature of the London mayoralty. In the Irish case a directly elected mayor would require specified powers, a full time, remunerated position and a clear definition of their relationship with the county manager who currently commands immense influence in the system. There is no reason why other urban centres Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford could not be led by directly elected mayors before moving to implement this model across all counties in the long term. This incremental process should allow for sharing of best practice between local authorities.

 

Cabinets

Local Government is structured around a series of key services it provides namely, housing, transportation, water and sewage, culture & amenities, environment planning, education, social, agriculture and miscellaneous. The current system sees each Strategic Policy Group committee with a chair head up policy making efforts on behalf of the elected members. There is also a Corporate Policy Group of all SPC chairs.

 

I believe that in tandem with the introduction of an executive leader, the introduction of full time “Heads” , the equivalent of Local Ministers, for the duration of the council’s five-year term in charge of each service area driving forward reform and offering clear accountability would be a major advancement on the current part time haphazard SPC and CPC system. The “Heads” would sit with the directly elected mayor in a cabinet. The “Heads” would be elected from among the councillors rather than separately so as to facilitate clear avenues of promotion, advancement and experience within the council structure.  Potentially these individuals could be made full time representatives with their activities scrutinised by part time ordinary councillors serving on committees in each area and in overall council meetings.  A majority of Councillors can also remove the individual from the position if they are underperforming.

 

Structural Reform

Ireland currently has 29 County Councils, 5 City Councils, 80 Town/Borough Councils as well as 2 Regional Assemblies and 8 Regional Authorities.  The County Council structures follows a 19th Century framework that in many cases bears little relationship to infrastructural and service demands. Creating governance framework that facilitates economic growth and development should be the key priority behind structural reform of the current system.   In terms of strategic planning, the need for overarching planning authorities such as an elected Greater Dublin Area Authority encompassing the commuter belt would reflect the distinctive transportation and housing demands in these areas.

 

The needs of urban centres spill over into separate administrative and planning authorities creating tension between County Development Plans and Regional Planning Guidelines. As the Mahon tribunal recommended Directly Elected Regional Authorities setting planning and transportation policies for specific regions would strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the planning process while maintaining local responsiveness. Regional assemblies must serve a clearer role and must be radically reformed.

There is substantial scope for reducing cost by sharing services such as IT and Human resources which may be currently duplicated across the existing local authority structure.

 

The Minister for the Environment has said that local government reform “will most likely mean that I will be cutting the number of Councillors and the number of authorities”. The Government’s policy of amalgamating some councils and having others share the provision of certain services is intended to reduce the cost of service provision by introducing economies of scale. However I firmly believe that there are a number of arguments which challenge this proposition:

  • The optional size of an area varies for the provision of different services. Smaller councils have been found to be more efficient in the provision of housing while large councils can provide road maintenance more efficiency.
  • Diseconomies of scale emerge where local authority areas are too big.
  • The costs of amalgamating councils are very high and should be fractured into projected savings.

 

Town Councils

The abolition of the 80 Town councils in the State was specifically proposed for abolition by the McCarthy report and recent media leaks indicate that Minister Hogan will at least reduce the number if not outright abolish them. This would further distance government from the citizen in a country where a major gap already exists. Combined with government plans to reduce county councils and abolish the Seanad it centralises power in the hands of the government which dominates the Dáil.

 

The principles of efficient service provision and the democratic legitimacy provided by town councils must be at the heart of town council reform. The establishment of new town councils would need careful consideration having regard to the potential impact on resources and efficient service delivery. In terms of functions, measures such as the empowerment of existing town councils through devolved decision making and the negotiated transfer of functions from county to town level should be examined. Currently 54 Councils have rating and other powers while the remaining 26 councils have largely representational roles.  Steps such as participatory budgeting, binding local plebiscites and town meetings could also be developed to foster direct, meaningful contact between councils and the citizen (Local Government Green Paper, 2008).

 

A major disparity in the population of Town Council Area undermines their legitimacy with burgeoning towns such as Celbridge Co. Kildare bereft of representation while smaller towns enjoy Councils as an historical privilege. This disparity should be rectified.

 

Role of the Councillor

Tentative efforts have been made to enhance the policy making role of the councillor with the creation of SPCs but generally their role has remained limited both in terms of powers and their own concept of their capacities. Councillors play an essential role in representing their communities and tying them together. Any future reforms must reflect their central role.

 

A consequence of the introduction of directly elected mayors and policy “heads” is the need for greater scrutiny of local executives. A majority of the ordinary part-time Councillors would be required to approve the policies pursued by the cabinet while having scope to introduce initiatives of their own. Each policy area should have its own scrutiny committee to review the actions of each specific “Head” while the entire council would continue to approve major policy such as Development Plans and Budgets. Local Area Plans for instance, would require the approval of the relevant Area Committee and the planning scrutiny committee who would have recourse to refer the issue to the overall council.

 

Councillors need effective resources in terms of office facilities and potentially a small research capacity to complement their activities. The role must be adequately renumerated in order to attract a diverse range of people to local government.

 

Local Government Powers

If the institutional reforms are to have a real impact a wider range of powers should be delegated to local authorities. HSE consultation forums could reflect the county/city council structure. The main thrust should be towards transforming public service from the current silo department mentality to a one-stop shop solution provided by the local authority with local flexibility and room for innovation.  Local Government should also be adapted to ensure its consumer friendly with convenient opening hours and access.

 

Local Government Finance

If local authorities are to lead the way in promoting meaningful democratic engagement, expressing local needs and transforming public services, it will require real fiscal autonomy. The mounting debts of local authorities and heavy reliance on the central government to fund it are one of the primary reasons that local government in Ireland is so comparatively weak. The acute vertical fiscal imbalance suffered by local government which is currently spiralling towards a real financial crisis amongst beleaguered local authorities will inevitably sap any reform

Local property taxes/household charges are an intrinsic component of the majority of financial arrangements for lower tiers of government across the world.  Ireland is a noticeable exception. A new property tax with some local rate setting powers to ensure buoyancy and flexibility is a start to ensuring councils will have the resources to achieve the various ambitions as set out by the elected representatives.  However the household charges introduced by the government are simply being used to replace the revenue cut off by the government to Local Authorities rather than a fundamental departure in local authority financing.

 

Local flexibility over revenue allows for targeted spending through innovations such as tax increment financing (a form of borrowing on future revenues used in US cities) to tackle urban plight and revitalise business districts and transport links.

A key part of the reform of local government is the revision of funding sources. Local government finance is the litmus test for central government

 

Balance of power between elected representatives and the County Manager

The County Manager offers a range of technical expertise and administrative support that forms a major role in Irish local government. The separation of reserved powers exercised by the councillors and executive powers by the County Manager is a central part of the operation of local government. Currently the County Manager can exert a disproportionate amount of influence on policy that undermines the role of elected representatives.

 

An effective working balanced relationship between the elected representatives and the executive should be at the heart of local government reform. Creating effective policy committees headed up by full time chairs for the duration of the term and the creation of a directly elected mayor offers a counter balance to the dominance of the county manager.

 

Integrity of the Local Government System

 

Restoring public trust in the political process is not simply an issue for the Oireachtas. Local government must also be seen to adhere to the highest ethical standards in an open and transparent system. Planning corruption at a local council level explored by the Mahon Tribunal has been one of the most corrosive legacies of Irish politics in recent decades.

 

The rigorous enforcement of rules relating to corporate donations and lobbying in Local Government by a specialised section of SIPO and the application of whistleblower legislation to local authorities will all be key elements to ensuring Local Government is run according to the highest of standards.

 

The Mahon tribunal came forward with a series of recommendations to underpin the integrity of the local government planning system and re-store public trust in the process. It recommended training for councillors on planning issues in order to give a technical basis for planning decisions. A mandatory public declaration of the reasons behind the council going against the advice of the County Manager on planning issues was also recommended by the report. This will ensure greater transparency in the planning process and a broader range of information for the public to hold their representatives to account. Further recommendations on recording the intervention of councillors in planning permissions and providing notice of material contraventions also promote greater transparency without constraining councillors’ democratic powers.

 

The idea of a planning regulator is the biggest measure put forward by the Mahon Tribunal. The Mahon tribunal argued that the centralisation of power in the hands of the Minister for the Environment is an unhealthy development. The Report advocates that a planning regulator should be established which will take some of that power away from the Minister.

 

Conclusion

This is a brief overview of my ideas for addressing a neglected sphere of Irish politics and ensuring it fully harnesses its potential as a democratic body and a local provider of services. Transformed powers, institutional structures, fresh avenues for citizen engagement, real powers for councillors and real fiscal independence are possible ideas in revitalising local government and equipping it for the future.

 

ENDS.

 

NOTE TO EDITORS

Local Government at a Glance

Facts and Figures 

•           There are 1,627 elected positions in Local Government in Ireland at county council, town council and Borough level.

•           There are 114 Local Authorities in Ireland, composed of 75 Town Councils, 5 Borough Councils, 5 City Councils and 29 County Councils.

•           Ireland has the lowest number of councillors per head of population in the EU 15, with the UK in second place.

•           Local Authorities spent €4.65 billion in 2010 on current expenditure.

•           41% of Local Government Income in 2010 came from Central Government.

•           Local Authorities took €1.25 billion in Commercial rates in 2010 or 29% of revenue.

•           Over 30,000 people are employed by Local Authorities.

•           Local Authorities provide services in a number of key areas: roads and transport, housing, planning, environment, education, amenities, libraries and water.

•           The EU “subsidarity” principle of decisions being taken at the closest possible level to the citizen is enshrined by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

•           Ireland also signed up to the European Charter of Local Government in 1997 and ratified it in 2002, which asserts the integral role of local government in the democratic process.

 

 

Posted: Sep 29, 2012     |     Categories: Uncategorized