Central government now holds all the cards

 

ANALYSIS:PHIL HOGAN has turned out to be the undertaker for a Irish local government system dating back to medieval times, and principally from a British Act of Parliament in 1898, which had been under assault from central government since the foundation of the State.

All borough and town councils are to be abolished and replaced by sub-county “municipal districts” peopled by councillors who would then collectively constitute county councils. In effect, the chairs are being arranged on the deck of the Titanic, with many thrown overboard.

And while the two Tipperary county councils are to be merged, along with the city and county councils in Limerick and Waterford, it leaves in place the arbitrary division in 1994 of Co Dublin into four separate local authority areas, on the basis that the capital is a “special case”.

“It is not proposed to consider reorganisation of local government structures [in Dublin] ahead of the 2014 local elections”, it says, adding that the idea of having a directly elected mayor would be considered by a “special forum of the elected members of the four local authorities”.

Putting People First – “the most fundamental set of changes in local government in the history of the State”, in the Minister’s words – claims to be an action programme to deliver effective local government throughout the State. But the devil is in the detail of its 198 pages.

Even though it admits there is a “democratic deficit” and a need for more “civic engagement” in the affairs of local government, the document fails to acknowledge that this would be encouraged if there was a direct, tangible link between taxation and representation. Instead, the Government decided on July 24th that the Revenue – rather than the local authorities – will be responsible for collecting the local property tax; the proceeds will be distributed (by central government) to the surviving councils.

It talks about the need for “devolution of specific functions from central level and . . . relaxation of specific central controls on local authorities”. However, apart from giving city and county councils a new role for social and economic development, it singularly lacks specifics.

On the one hand, it talks about the “delegation of greater responsibility for certain functions in which local authorities are involved”, such as water services. On the other, it notes that this function is to be taken over by a new State agency, Irish Water.

National primary and secondary routes are under the control of the National Roads Authority, public transport provision and regulation are under the control of the National Transport Authority, health services under the control of the Health Service Executive, etc.

While the document acknowledges the “compelling rationale for an effective system of local government, as distinct from purely ‘local administration’ . . . where local authorities act as mere agents of central government”, it does little to change the current balance of power. It even concedes that the authority of local government in Ireland had been “eroded” by the removal of several of its functions. As a result, its potential “is underutilised”.

The 1991 Barrington report on local government reform is cited as saying that Irish local authorities had a “narrow range of functions” compared to their European counterparts, in such areas as social welfare, health, education, policing, transport and consumer protection.

The document also refers to the Devolution Commission’s 1997 report, which “recommended a devolution programme that should aim to develop the widest possible role for local authorities in specific functional areas”, and then admits that this “has not happened”.

It blames the absence of reform on a “lack of confidence in the local government system, reinforced by a mixed track record in the performance of some existing functions”, but says very little about the real reason: central government’s unwillingness to cede power.

“The range of functions proposed for devolution by departments so far is relatively limited and there will be further engagement with relevant departments with a view to identifying additional potential functions for devolution to local government” – in advance of the legislation.

A trawl through various departments and agencies to find out what functions they’d be prepared to devolve to local authorities turned up this telling line from the Garda Síochána: “Certain functions in relation to the assignment and use of bus stops”. That says it all.

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