So much for devolution as regional hubs see power and financial clout evaporate
Regional cities are crucial to prosperity and cannot be left to fend for themselves
Kilkenny Castle, with John’s Bridge in the foreground. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan
Sligo’s O’Connell Street. Photograph: James Connolly
Waterford’s “Viking Triangle”
Limerick’s riverfront. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
Nobody quite knows what will happen in June to all the mayoral chains, maces, scrolls and other civic paraphernalia of the city and town councils due to be abolished under local government reforms. But knowing the fondness of councillors for chains of office, no doubt some use will be found for them.
Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Sligo – the four “cities in transition” from our series in The Irish Times – will lose their city councils, some of which can trace their roots back to medieval times. Also due to go are 80 town councils, from Athy to Youghal, and some 670 town councillors of all political hues and none.
Instead, the county councils will form municipal committees covering towns and their hinterlands that will meet in the old town halls – for the sake of appearances. However, unlike the corporations and borough councils of old, these committees will not be corporate entities; the county councils will rule the roost.
Not so Cork or Galway, which retain independent city councils, or Dublin, which will continue to be split between the city council and the Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown county councils; there was no question of amalgamating them because of the unwieldy scale of a single metropolitan council.
The Limerick and Waterford mergers will only partially overcome boundary issues. Thus, areas such as Cratloe and Parteen in Co Clare – clearly outliers of Limerick city – will remain under the control of Clare County Council, while much of the suburbs of Waterford north of the river Suir will stay in Co Kilkenny.
Each of the four cities featured in our series has responded in different ways to the new dispensation – Limerick by drawing up an ambitious economic and spatial plan, Waterford by falling back on rich heritage, Kilkenny by banking on a new future for the Smithwicks site and Sligo by seeking ways to reduce its debts.
The long-established north and south ridings of Co Tipperary are also being merged to create a single county council, even though they have nothing in common apart from GAA. They are not even in the same regions – North Tipperary has long been in the midwest while South Tipperary is part of the southeast.
A long way round Tipperary
“Travel in Tipperary from north to south is difficult,” as former Cork city planning officer John O’Donnell has noted. “By public transport, journey times from Borrisokane to Clonmel or Carrick-on-Suir to Nenagh are over three hours.”
Yet he found no evidence that the reorganisation took any account of this difficulty.
An implementation group consisting of the two former county managers and two high officials of central government set up to oversee the reorganisation could not even agree on a single “capital” for the merged county. Instead, it said both Clonmel and Nenagh “should be retained with headquarter status”.
Together with the merger of North Tipperary and South Tipperary, and the amalgamations in Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Sligo, the reform package will ostensibly save €40 million per year.
The 2011 Fine Gael-Labour programme for government promised “a fundamental reorganisation of local government structures to allow for devolution of much greater decision making to local people” – without going into any detail, of course.
Few anticipated that this would involve getting rid of a whole tier of local government.
Noel Dempsey’s 1999 Better Local Government programme delivered few public benefits and turned out to be quite costly by creating a new layer of “directors of services”. Dublin Corporation suddenly became Dublin City Council and even the chairs of county councils were entitled to call themselves mayors.
Purse strings attached
Under the latest package, the Department of the Environment will continue to control the purse strings as tightly as ever. The local property tax is being collected by the Revenue, rather than directly by the local authorities, and how the proceeds are distributed will be determined by the department – or the Government.
In January, it was casually admitted in the Dáil by Minister for Finance Michael Noonan that €490 million intended for local services this year was being diverted to the new State utility, Irish Water. And, of course, Irish Water is taking over all of the services local authorities traditionally provided in water and sewage treatment.
This further centralisation of an already highly centralised State belies any commitment to devolution. So do all of the indications that Ministers are opposed to giving up any of their powers to a directly elected Dublin mayor.
Indeed, even if there is a vote in favour of having such a post, the Government may do nothing about it.
This would be a double blow to Dublin because its citizens will pay a disproportionately high share of the local property tax, simply because houses in the capital are worth more than elsewhere. The fact that Ireland is so regionally unbalanced is not their fault; the blame lies with successive governments going back to the 1960s.
Engines of growth
We need to recognise that all cities are engines of economic growth. Just as Dublin’s success in attracting inward investment is crucial to Ireland’s prospects of economic recovery, so too are the other cities – Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford – of critical importance to their regions.
They simply cannot be left to fend for themselves.
We intend to return to this subject later this year, with a second series featuring Cork, Galway, Belfast and Derry – cities that retain their councils and, to some extent at least, their freedom of action.
They too are “cities in transition” as they try to grapple with a range of issues, including the threats posed by climate change.