‘We have casually removed a level of local democracy’
Opinion: Sub-county authorities should be strengthened to address social problems. Instead they have been destroyed
‘The justification for the abolition of town councils, the most accessible level of our local government system, is that big is better and more efficient. Unfortunately for Phil Hogan (above) there is very limited evidence to support this assertion.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Robert Flack once wrote: “Local government is the foundation of democracy. If it fails. Democracy will fail”. The strongest argument for local government is as an organ of local democracy, whereby councils of elected members make policy decisions on behalf of their local communities.
Powers are not retained at central level by national government but are held and maintained by the citizens of each community. Therefore, as well as local government being a means of self-expression, it also serves as a safeguard against central government domination.
In its role as a mouthpiece of shared community interests, a local authority can factor an area’s history, geography, political culture and economy into its decision-making processes.
Regrettably, the Irish model of local government is far removed from the version of community self-government just described. In this country, local government is centrally controlled and is becoming more and more removed from the citizen. Successive governments have prioritised central control over local democracy and have exhibited a consistent lack of respect for sub-national government. This lack of respect was highlighted by a Council of Europe report in 2013 which strongly criticised Ireland for its lack of constitutional protection for sub-national government.
Seanad Éireann, a marginally relevant institution, could not be abolished without reference to the people by way of referendum. Yet, a whole tier of local democracy and 83 directly elected councils, can be removed through legislation without reference to the people.
The Council of Europe report was also critical of the direction of Ireland’s local government reforms. It commented that the policy paper Putting People First from 2012 praised decentralisation in spirit but did not provide many concrete stapes in that. Rather, the report noted, some of the steps proposed went in the opposite direction and would result in increased centralisation. Most of the provisions of Putting People First came to legislative effect through the Local Government Reform Act 2014, which – among other things – abolished all of the country’s town councils and created amalgamations in Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary.
Therefore, since the introduction of the “modern” system of local government in 1898, we have moved from over 600 local authorities to 114 and now down to 31 – with minimal debate along the way.
We have also casually removed a level of local democracy and have moved from a two-tier system to a single-tier system. This seems a far cry from the vision Fine Gael presented in its 2010 New Politics document which stated: “The over-centralisation of government in Ireland is, in our view, inefficient and fundamentally incompatible with a healthy Republic.” Thus we can conclude, with increased centralisation, our Republic is very ill.
The justification for the abolition of town councils, the most accessible level of our local government system, is that big is better and more efficient. Unfortunately for Phil Hogan there is limited evidence to support this assertion. In fact, the international evidence tends to refute the notion that a smaller number of larger local authorities yields improvements, savings and efficiencies. Instead the evidence from other jurisdictions identifies that structural reform and the redrawing of local authority boundaries is not a cost-free exercise and frequently results in diseconomies of scale, especially with one-off costs arising from amalgamations.
Reform noticeable by its absence
The Minister was correct that change was needed at the town council level but he has opted for amputation over reform and an opportunity has been squandered.
Town or municipal councils should be at the heart of local government. The very nature of local government is that civic society is involved. Local councils and councillors have to deal with issues and factors not of their making and for which they may have no formal responsibility. Many of the social problems faced by Irish communities are evident in urban settings and towns. Sub-county authorities should be strengthened to address these problems. Instead they have been destroyed.
Government policies which promote centralisation over local democracy will not serve Ireland well. Have we many centralisation success stories? Has Irish Water had a good start to life? What about the student grant scheme operated through SUSI? Has the driving licence process improved with centralisation?
Mahatma Gandhi once stated: “The spirit of democracy is not a mechanical thing to be adjusted by abolition forms. It requires change of heart”. The disrespectful way that central government regards local government has to change before progress can be made. Local government is not a passing luxury; it is a critical element within any country’s democratic system which can safeguard against central domination and absolutism by putting in place a local system of political checks and balances.
Dr Aodh Quinlivan is a lecturer in politics
at the Department of Government at UCC where he specialises in local
Blog: localdemocracymatters.blogspot.ie Twitter: @AodhQuinlivan