Dublin’s problems will not be solved by an elected mayor

The UK experience shows that a directly-elected mayor results in very little change

Although highly recognisable,  London mayor Sadiq Khan does not govern the city like some sort of supreme leader. Photograph: Getty

Although highly recognisable, London mayor Sadiq Khan does not govern the city like some sort of supreme leader. Photograph: Getty

 

Since the days of Joseph Brennan, the first secretary general of the Department of Finance, Irish legislation has mimicked British legislation with successive Irish governments following the British lead on policy issues, usually 10-15 years later. There are a few obvious exceptions, such as our current lack of legislation governing abortion, and our archaic laws on champerty (third-party funding/class actions in legal cases) but it generally holds that we follow the British lead.

This is particularly evident in the news that Minister of State for Local Government John Paul Phelan is to bring a report to Government in the new year which calls for the creation of a directly-elected mayor for Dublin. The position will have a five-year term, and “statutory executive powers”, with a Dublin-wide referendum needed at some stage next year to enact the proposal.

Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Green Party, the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin, all broadly support the creation of an elected mayor, with their spokespeople all voicing similar reasons for support, along the lines that Dublin needs a single leader they can recognise and hold to account. Instead of making vague statements as to why we may need an elected mayor, these parties and the Government should examine how the model has worked for our closest neighbours over the past 15 years.

London experience

If we wind the clock back 20 years to the UK where Tony Blair, on the verge of becoming prime minister for the first time, was using similar rhetoric to that of our current political parties when he stated: “The heart of the problem is that local government needs recognised leaders if it is to fulfil the community leadership role. People and outside organisations need to know who is politically responsible for running the council.”

Blair’s love of all things American, including its mayoral system, resulted in the Local Government Act 2000. Among the reforms contained in the act was the possible adoption by local governments of a directly-elected mayor model of local government. Residents of a city could vote, through referendum, to have their city governed by a directly-elected mayor. Towns and cities would still retain councils; the plan being that both would work together, with the final responsibility resting with the mayor .

Since the introduction of this legislation, there has been 53 referendums resulting in only 16 of the 326 UK cities and towns voting to be governed by an elected mayor. Although lack of appetite for the proposal does not necessarily equal failure, when one analyses a particular city that has adopted the model and compares it to the city’s previous administration of local government, we find that very little change occurs in terms of policy output and spending.

A directly-elected mayor for Dublin will not act as a panacea for the city's problems in housing, transport or planning

Research of the 16 cities has shown that directly-elected mayors are just as dependent on central government for funding; that their introduction does not lead to the sudden upheaval in a city’s fortunes or spending power; and that it is extremely difficult for a mayor to exert influence over specific policy areas.

Take the City of Liverpool as an example, which has a similar city population to Dublin, of about half a million people. For the year 2011-2012, the city had the standard cabinet leader council model. In that year, the city spent 64 per cent of its annual budget on social services, which included education, housing and social care. The following year, 2012-2013, the City of Liverpool voted for the elected mayor model, and figures show it now spent 62 per cent of its annual budget on social services. Almost identical. The new mayor had no choice but to work with the exisiting council, and the same would happen if Dublin were to adopt such a position.

Many comparisons have been made to the City of London, with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan stating that, “London has 32 boroughs, yet they have one mayor”. He forgot to add that all 32 boroughs have sitting councils who are responsible for the majority of local services, such as education, social services, waste collection and roads. Although highly recognisable, mainly due to his media presence, the current London mayor Sadiq Khan does not govern the city like some sort of supreme leader, as some would have us believe.

A directly-elected mayor for Dublin will not act as a panacea for the problems in housing, transport or planning which plague our capital city. It is bordering on delusional to expect one single person to be able to exert such influence. What it might do however, is let the government of the day off the hook, on critical issues such as housing, if it is able to pass the buck on to a single elected mayor figurehead.

Instead of wasting money on a referendum, not to mention the formation of another office, the Government would be better placed in investing the money back into all 31 local authorities. They badly need it.

Christopher Oonan is parliamentary assistant to Mick Wallace TD. His MSc dissertation was entitled “Local Government in the United Kingdom: Has the creation of a Directly Elected Mayor System of Local Government led to a greater partisan effect on policy outputs?”

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