Irish local government too centralised - Council of Europe report

Funding for local authorities “remains a mystery”

Irish local government is weak and in danger of losing more power, according to an unpublished European report on local government reform.

The Council of Europe report found the Government unwilling to devolve power to local authorities and said 40 years of ministerial promises of local government reform had produced “little result”.

It also found a lack of transparency on how local authorities are funded and said the system for allocating the Local Government Fund “remains a mystery to practically everyone in the local government system”.

The draft report, Local Democracy in Ireland , is the council's first assessment of the Irish local government system since 2001.


The council’s delegation visited Ireland last October, meeting Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan and officials from the Departments of Environment and Finance, as well as city and county councillors and local authority managers and officials, and a number of other State organisations.

Their report found that, despite promises of reform the system remained "excessively centralised" by international standards. The 2008 Green Paper on Local Government reform which aimed at strengthening local democracy and making it more transparent "remained unimplemented".

"Reform of local government has been on the political agenda for the last 40 years and ministers of [environment] have promised reform with little result ... There is an almost universal recognition that radical changes are needed more than ever," it said.

The policy paper on local government reform, published by Mr Hogan last October "proffers little" in terms of decentralisation, the report said.

"The new policy paper, although it praises decentralisation in spirit, does not appear to provide many concrete steps in that direction. The rapporteurs are concerned that some of the actual steps proposed go, in fact, in the opposite direction."

The unwillingness of central government to cede control appeared to come from a fear that councillors would misuse their power, the report said.

“The rapporteurs had the impression that, at national level, there is a strong tendency to keep the guidance of local government affairs in central government hands in order to avoid mismanagement or clientelist tendencies and to guarantee efficiency.”

The Department of the Environment was able to exercise a “great deal of control” of local authorities principally because it provided the bulk of its funding. Local authorities had limited discretion on how to spend money.

The delegates sought an explanation from several sources of the method of determining how much each council got from the Local Government Fund, but the system remained a mystery.

“Neither officials at the Ministry of Environment or at the Ministry of Finance, nor local financial managers were able to explain how the so-called redistribution model functions,” the report said.

Dublin city councillor Mary Freehill (Lab), who chairs the council's economic development, planning and international relations committee, said the report confirmed that councils were losing rather than gaining power. "This report is a devastating commentary on the lack of power of Irish local government."

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times