There’s a classic trope in horror films where the protagonist sets aside the norms of rational behaviour and goes down into an unlit cellar, or gets into a car with an obviously unhinged stranger, while the audience can see the terrible event about to unfold and are willing the victim to retreat.
It's a feeling that will be familiar to any long-time observer of Dublin local authority proceedings. Impending disaster is painfully apparent and yet, time and again, councillors willingly and wilfully hurl themselves lemming-like over cliffs to lose their limited powers in the ravine at the bottom.
In 2001, councillors – all councillors not just Dublin ones – lost their powers over waste collection and disposal, following their failure to ratify plans for waste disposal facilities, or any form of waste charging. As a result this power was transferred to council management, hugely unpopular bin charges were introduced, and the Poolbeg incinerator, which all parties opposed, was built.
More recently, the failure to agree a route for the Liffey cycle path, which had been six years in the planning, resulted in the scheme being removed from the control of Dublin City Council and handed over to the National Transport Authority.
In this case it wasn’t just the councillors (who couldn’t agree traffic diversions past their constituents’ houses) who were to blame, but also council officials, who produced endless iterations of the scheme, one of which saw double-decker buses rerouted through an existing apartment block.
The most recent, and one of the most damning failures or officialdom to get to grips with decision making, is the College Green plaza refusal farce. The council tip-toed around the issue for a decade, tinkering with selective traffic restrictions, musing over fountains and statuary, but never really grasping the problem, which required getting buy-in from Dublin Bus before the project went to An Bord Pleanála for approval – a step which itself should have been taken years before.
Surely there’s a better way of getting things done in the city. Could this dithering, bottling, buck-passing and procrastination be solved by Dublin having a directly elected mayor?
"The central power, the most important point, of having a directly elected mayor, is that they have a 'bully pulpit'," Dr Deiric Ó Broin, DIT academic and co-author of the upcoming book Mayoral Governance in Dublin, argues.
“The elected role gives them the authority to argue for more investment in the city, for keeping a more appropriate share of the money generated in Dublin. And they have to deliver; their job is on the line. If they don’t deliver they may not be re-elected. That concentrates minds.”
However, the concept of a mayor is one thing, the reality of the role and its functions is quite another, Ó Broin says.
“The big issue is what powers the mayor would have and where would they come from. There is no point if the mayor is just a lord mayor, as in they have significant ceremonial but minor functional role, but who lasts for a five-year term.”
Dublin city chief executive Owen Keegan agrees. "If it is to be successful the directly elected mayor has to have real powers, but he or she can only have real powers where the powers are taken from somewhere else. This notion that there's some unallocated power that you can give to the mayor has no basis in reality – all power is already allocated."
And there isn’t much power within the hands of the council to give to a new mayor, Keegan says. “Since local government is weak here, the power and functions would have to come from central government, and that is a real issue because if there’s a directly elected mayor who is responsible for energy, and communications and transport in Dublin it doesn’t leave very much for the central Government to do.”
Another vexing issue is what physical area would be governed by the mayor. “Culturally and politically we are obsessed with counties and county boundaries. I could see an argument for a city-only directly elected mayor and that gets away from that problem, but I don’t see how a city-based mayor could have responsibility for transport in Dublin, which crosses local authority boundaries,” Ó Broin says.
This issue of boundaries played a large part in the collapse of the last mayoral plan. In 2013, then minister for the environment Phil Hogan decided, despite there being no legal requirement, that the councillors in all four Dublin local authorities would have to be in favour before Dubliners would get a chance to vote in a plebiscite on whether or not to have a mayor.
The following year Dublin City, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and South Dublin voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposal but it was vetoed by Fingal, whose councillors felt they would be the poor country cousins, largely ignored by a city-focused mayor who would only be after their airport.
As Gerry McGuire, a Labour councillor at the time, said there would be “no chance of getting a pothole fixed in rural Fingal”.
Hogan showing great fortitude in keeping a straight face said he was “disappointed” as he was “the greatest proponent of devolution probably in the history of the State”.
Last year the Government revived the mayoral proposal, making provision for a plebiscite this year, but it has recently kicked the can down the road, and kicked it out of the capital, determining that regional cities would vote at next year’s local elections on whether to have a mayor, but in Dublin it would first be referred to a citizens’ assembly for the capital.
It seems like another unnecessary hurdle given that a similar forum spent five months formulating proposals for the mayor’s role in 2013, and, at that time surveys showed public support for a Dublin mayor was up to 80 per cent.
Even if Dublin does get a mayor, what the Government appears to be proposing is a toothless role, either a mayor with the same powers as the current lord mayor, except elected, or an “executive mayor” who would take on some of the functions of the council chief executive.
Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, a former lord mayor, believes there is little chance of Dublin being allowed have a mayor with any real power. "Senior civil servants will move might and main to ensure Dublin does not get a directly elected mayor. The department [of Housing and Local Government] is hostile to reform. Civil servants and politicians have done everything behind the scenes to derail this idea."
A plebiscite to decide whether there should be a mayor is unnecessary, Lacey says. “If the Government is serious about making progress let them legislate for it now. There is no need for a plebiscite. Successive governments never sought permission as they systematically dismantled local government in the past, so let them just repair it.”
However, Lacey does not believe it’s necessary that the mayor would be all-powerful from the outset. “Calling for the full range of powers to be set out in advance is misguided. This is a position and a role that needs to be established and then given space to evolve.”
But he says he can see particular areas where a mayor could make achievements straight away which might seem minor, but would be significant.
“A mayor could initially have responsibility for natural resources. For example there isn’t much point in Dublin City Council cleaning the river Dodder in Donnybrook, if it’s not being cleaned first in Tallaght. Or sports capital grants – it makes no sense for a civil servant sitting in an office in Kerry to decide what local sports organisation in Dublin gets a grant.”
Then, he suggests, other powers could be added such as waste and traffic policy, which should be “brought back under control of the council anyway”, he said.
Ó Broin cites the system in Copenhagen as one where the mayor having control of these services works well. “The mayor has responsibility for education, welfare, labour services, welfare, climate change and a range of municipal services – Denmark, and Scandinavian countries in general, have very good, empowered local government.”
Further afield, Boston and Toronto are recognised as good examples of mayor-led cities, he says. While our nearest neighbours have had some successful mayors, in some British cities, including Stoke-on-Trent, they have scrapped the office.
The London model, Lacey believes, is not the system that should be copied in Dublin. “I don’t think the London model is a good one, with an all powerful mayor and a fairly toothless assembly. I’d like to a see a mayor working in partnership with a much smaller council – 24 or even 18 councillors. We should reduce the four councils to a manageable size, and give them more responsibility.”
Keegan thinks the London model has worked well, particularly in relation to the mayor’s transport and policing supervisory functions, but he is with Lacey on the reducing in numbers of councillors from the current 63 in the city.
“I am impressed by cities that have a small number of full-time councillors. In many cases they have executive functions. I think these councils, with a large number of councillors, make everything very difficult. Dublin City Council is too large. We are twinned with San Jose, where there’s a mayor, and I think they have eight or nine council members.”
Keegan, however, remains unconvinced of the merits of having a mayor in Dublin. “I am a little bit concerned that the next ‘big idea’ is the directly elected mayor, and we’ll all lorry into that with great enthusiasm, but I have seen very little convincing analysis as to why this is such a good idea.
“It’s been presented as a panacea to everything that’s wrong in Dublin, that will automatically be made right the day after we have a directly elected mayor.”
Dublin doesn’t get credit for its success he says. “I don’t accept the notion that Dublin is a basket case. On many parameters Dublin is a very successful city. A good litmus test is the multinationals. They come here because they can attract people to live here. Of course it has problems with transport, and housing but these are problems of success. There was no housing affordability problem when we were in the depths of recession.”
The “mad rush” towards the directly elected mayor idea reminds him of the “mad rush” to set up Irish Water. “Water supply was and is a major challenge but there was a notion that if you set up a separate utility everything would be hunky dory, but its implementation left a lot to be desired.”
If the implementation of the mayor is poor, Dublin could find itself losing more than it gains, Keegan says.“There are strong arguments for a directly elected mayor, and I’m not saying there isn’t scope for improvement in the city’s governance, but there is a danger if we rush into this it won’t achieve any of its objectives, we’ll lose the things that work, and we’ll be worse off.”
Each of the proposals in this Capital Ideas series has been put to a group of three experts for an initial "back of an envelope" evaluation. They are: Frances Ruane, former director of the Economic and Social Research Institute; Caroline Spillane, director general of Engineers Ireland; and Cliff Taylor, economics columnist with The Irish Times.
I have reservations about this plan, particularly due to the size of Dublin relative to the country as a whole. One person would have responsibility for 40 per cent of our population. The powers of this office would need to be carefully defined.
The proposed mayor would be in a position of power for only five years, which could lead to short-term thinking.
An Irish Times article from 2010 estimated the annual cost of the office will be in the region of €8 million based on a minimum staffing level of 35 to 40 people.
This proposal has surfaced in various forms over the years and fits into a common theme that restructuring institutions or posts can fix problems. This could be a good idea, but the job spec, powers and budget are key. The benefit depends on how it is structured – and who is elected, of course.
It is a useful proposal but to work it requires a new vision for local government, something talked about for years and years but never delivered.
Cities with elected mayors seem to work well. However, in Ireland, this would have to be set up as part of a rebalancing of central and local government, if it is to work. If the city itself does not have decision-making power, then adding a mayor will not solve the problem.
Meanwhile, Dublin City Council should work on its governance and adopt an integrated problem-solving planning approach. This must involve all four authorities working together. That would involve no serious resource costs.