A capital idea

Thu, Jul 25, 2013, 05:00

There has been a danger in the debate about political reform that both the desire for change and frustration at the concentration of power in few hands could become confused with a generalised cynicism about all things political and about politicians in particular. The two instincts, the latter an understandable but destructive urge, have co-existed happily in the public mind until the time has come for proposing specific remedies. At that point the ideas of new elective offices, or, say, saving the Seanad, and of the devolution of powers are in danger of coming up against a visceral urge to cull the political class.

That said, it is then perhaps surprising how strongly the idea of an elected mayor for Dublin is backed in a poll conducted by Dublin City Council ahead of a plebiscite on the issue next May. The survey of 1,200 found 61 per cent in favour with just 14 per cent against. Strong majorities favoured granting the mayor executive powers over transport, waste, environmental services , planning, housing, policing and emergency services, broadly speaking, the powers of the London mayor. (The councillors should note, however that the majority of the 50 referendums to date in the UK on creating elected mayors have been unsuccessful).

Such extensive executive powers would represent a dramatic increase in the limited powers now held at local level either by councillors or county/city managers, and would require a substantial shift of either or both resources and authority from government departments, transport companies, organisations like Failte Ireland and the Garda Siochana to the new mayor. County and city managers would probably find themselves redundant.

Whether to go for such an ambitious job description, and to give a new mayor the power to set up an executive cabinet, or to opt simply for an enhanced representative function were among the options being discussed last night by a “forum” of the four Dublin councils. They will prepare a common position for submission to government. And the councillors will also have to consider exactly how accountable they would like to make such a mayor and his/her cabinet – elected separately from councillors there is no guarantee that an elected mayor will be able to rely on a majority to govern. Gridlock. Or should they have new powers unchecked?

The argument for a new role is primarily democratic – the case that it would represent significant cost savings through economies of scale or reducing duplication is not really convincing. But many would argue that the experience of London, which has had a directly elected mayor since 2000, has been a success. A popular local figurehead, who has become a significant political figure nationally, has been able to enhance the city’s profile, initiate new policies, and successfully lobby for resources for it. Dublin could do worse.

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