Elected mayors must have power

Unless mayors are given authority over housing, transport, air quality and waste disposal, the latest initiative will be meaningless

Lord Mayor of Dublin Mícheál Mac Donncha: for some time there has been a demand for the Dublin metropolitan area to have a directly-elected mayor. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Cities are now unquestionably the engines of most countries’ economies and need good governance if they are to attract inward investment and tourism. That’s one of the main reasons for having directly-elected mayors with real power to cut through layers of bureaucracy and get things done. Whatever about the respective talents of those who have held the office of mayor of London over the past 17 years, there is general agreement that it has been a success, not least in providing a recognised spokesman for the city, with a range of powers to address its needs.

For some time, there has been a demand for the Dublin metropolitan area to have a directly-elected mayor. But the last effort, pioneered by the Green Party in government, was stymied by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition's imposition of an approval process involving the four local authorities in the city and county. All that was needed to kill it off was a veto by any one of them, with Fingal County Council executing the coup de grace. Civil servants who had long resisted the creation of an alternative power centre in the capital could once again sleep easily in their beds.

But good ideas cannot be suppressed indefinitely, and proposals for directly-elected mayors in both Dublin and Cork are back on the agenda following completion of a report by John Paul Phelan, Minister of State for Local Government. What will be crucial, however, is how much power will be devolved to them. If such critical areas as housing, transport, air quality and waste disposal are not devolved, the latest initiative will be rendered meaningless from the outset, and the public will rightly regard the new layer of local government as a waste of time and money.

Therefore, in advance of proposed plebiscites in both cities next year, the Government must spell out precisely what powers the directly-elected mayors of Dublin and Cork will have. Otherwise, we will be left in a situation with which we are all too familiar in this excessively centralised state – playing political musical chairs in a bureaucratic hall of mirrors.