Citizens’ Assembly asked to consider extending local authorities’ powers

Dublin council chief warns against merger of councils under directly elected mayor

The Citizens’ Assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin has been asked to look at extending the powers of local authorities.

"Compared to the rest of Europe we have very little power, particularly in relation to police, education and health," said chief executive of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Frank Curran.

There was “too much central control in terms of housing, waste management, transportation, planning – a lot of that could be devolved. They are within our core functions. That’s something this group should look at,” he said.

Chief executive of South Dublin County Council Daniel McLoughlin said the extension of such powers, including transportation, welfare and early childhood education, had been discussed “over 30, 40, 50 years in this country” but that “despite countless reports over the last 30 years, it hasn’t happened”.

They were addressing the assembly at the Grand Hotel, Malahide, on Sunday in a panel discussion that also included the two other chief executives of Dublin's four local authorities: AnnMarie Farrelly of Fingal County Council and Owen Keegan of Dublin City Council.

‘Disappointed’

The assembly includes 67 randomly selected citizens of Dublin city and county and 12 elected councillors nominated to participate.

Asked whether the four local authorities should be amalgamated under a directly elected mayor, Mr Keegan replied: “I actually think the four authorities brought local Government closer to the population.” Their creation “was unambiguously a very good move and, personally, I would be disappointed to see us go back to anything that brought us away from local communities, etc.”

On contentious council decisions, he said “a lot of the issues we deal with are very controversial” but “at the end of the day, half of the population are in favour of having dogs on a lead and half are against it. Sometimes you just have to go and do things. Sometimes we can’t please all the people.”

Directly elected mayors are a “dominant and a growing international trend” offering “greater democratic legitimacy”, said Aodh Quinlivan, director of the Centre for Local and Regional Governance at University College Cork.

It “should result in clear political leadership and a champion for Dublin to help it compete against other similar sized cities across the world,” said Dr Quinlivan. It “could potentially become a catalyst for wider local government reform, addressing some of the weaknesses in the system”, he said.

“She or he would have the largest electoral mandate in the country, bar the President, which is an apolitical role anyway. The size of that mandate may make some in central government nervous,” he said.

But “what if the mayor is constantly at loggerheads with the Government?” he asked, and instanced the example of London in the 1980s with Ken Livingstone as mayor of the Greater London Council (GLC) and Margaret Thatcher as prime minister.

“They spent their days shouting at each other across the river Thames, that is until Thatcher grew tired of the aggravation and simply abolished the Greater London Council. And this can always happen in a highly centralised environment.”

However, a directly elected mayor “should see quicker and more decisive decision making” where, “rather than having to reach political compromise with 63 councillors in Dublin City Hall, a mayor with power and clout could decisively seize the initiative”.

He warned, however, that grafting a directly elected mayor on to the current system “may not make any appreciable difference. We need more than structural change. We need a change of mindset from central Government as well.”