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Fintan O’Toole: Are we too stupid to be trusted with making choices about our own regions?

The lack of spending power at local level is an absence of power, full stop

I live in the United States for part of the year, in a prosperous university town. Property prices are high – and so are property taxes. It is not unusual for home owners to get an annual bill of $20,000.

And yet I’ve never heard anyone moaning about property tax. The reason is simple enough. People can see what they’re getting for their money: the superb local library, the excellent local schools, the bin collections, the snow ploughs that clear the roads, the police and the fire brigade. They can also take part in making decisions on how funding is allocated.

The big problems with local taxes in Ireland are, firstly, that this connection between what you pay and what you get is obscure and, secondly, that it is hard for taxpayers to feel in control of how their money is spent.

At the root of these problems is the fact that local democracy in Ireland is close to being an oxymoron. The State is crazily, obsessively centralised. Until we fix this big bug in the system, Irish governance will always be dysfunctional.


The simplest and most telling way to measure the degree of central control is to ask: what proportion of all public expenditure is done at a level below that of national government? The latest international comparisons I can find are for 2018. They show that Ireland is almost out on its own in the developed world. In no other country in the OECD, bar one, is public spending so utterly dominated by central government.

Irish society works well at the intimate level... Ask us to raise funds for the local GAA club or for a sick child in the neighbourhood or for the Tidy Towns Committee, and we respond generously and effectively.

In many developed countries, there's a roughly equal split between national spending and local or regional expenditure. In some countries the balance is heavily on the sub-national side. In Denmark, for example, 65 per cent of public spending is local or regional.

Across the 36 members of the OECD the average is 41 per cent. In Ireland, it is just 9 per cent. Only Greece spends a lower proportion of public expenditure at a level below central government.

Does anyone believe that Ireland and Greece are doing this right and the other 34 developed countries have got it wrong? Why do we concentrate the powers of taxation and spending so overwhelmingly in Dublin? Are Irish people too stupid to be trusted with responsibility for making choices about their own regions and communities?

The lack of spending power at local government level is an expression of a lack of power full stop. In terms of the powers of local authorities, Ireland is ranked in last place among the 28 countries of the European Union. Functions that are locally controlled in almost every other European country – policing, health and social care, schools – are in Ireland almost entirely controlled from the centre.

If Ireland is going to be exceptional in this regard, it should actually be at the opposite end of the spectrum. For if we ask what works best in Irish society, most people would point to locality, community, a sense of belonging, a sense of place. Irish society works well at the intimate level. And this includes being good with money. Ask us to raise funds for the local GAA club or for a sick child in the neighbourhood or for the Tidy Towns Committee, and we respond generously and effectively.

But we have a system of governance that doesn’t just waste this strength – it turns it into a systemic problem. There’s a mismatch between our deep interest in what is going on in our own communities and the extreme weakness of local democracy.

What happens when local politics is so feeble is that national politics becomes localised. We solve the problem of the relative powerlessness of our local councillors by turning the Dáil into a glorified local council.

TDs are often elected, not as national legislators, but as local fixers. Their job is not, as it should be, to work on the scrutiny of laws or the development of national policies – a survey of TDs in 2010 found that most spent less than half their time on such trivialities. The real action is in getting things for their constituency – things that in most cases ought to be the business of local government.

Voters collude in this distortion of national politics. In The Irish Times exit poll for the 2020 general election, a bare majority of voters (53 per cent) said they voted for someone who would “put national issues first”. Forty seven per cent voted to send to the national parliament someone who would “put local issues first”.

In a distorted system, this is perfectly rational behaviour on the part of voters. If Dublin is where the big pot of money is kept, you send someone up there to get as much of the loot as possible and carry it home in triumph. But this means that, without a radically reformed local democracy, national government struggles to function too. It is clogged up with stuff that ought to be none of its business.

It is telling that the phrase “parish pump politics” is entirely pejorative in Ireland. The parish pump is a very important thing – in the parish. There is nothing trivial or shameful about issues that affect the daily lives of people and communities.

Sustainable taxation

The difficulty is that we have a system that gives people very little sense of control over how those issues are dealt with. The glory of real local democracy should be that, on an intimate scale, it is perfectly possible to allow people to participate directly in the making of choices about what matters most and how money should be spent. Our over-centralised system shuts down those possibilities.

These problems have been recognised for decades. But the only response has been to make them worse. Fianna Fáil, in a cynical vote-buying exercise in 1977, abolished domestic rates without replacing them as a source of locally-raised funding for councils. Services that people could experience on the mundane level as a return for their local taxes – bin collections, for example – have been privatised.

The local government “reforms” instituted by Fine Gael and Labour in 2014 abolished the town councils that were the most direct – and often the most effective – level of local democracy.

Another feature of Irish local government that is unique in Europe is that unelected chief executives wield huge power. We had legislation to provide for directly elected mayors in 2001 – 20 years on, the first tentative steps in this direction are being taken only now.

The basic belief of all democracies is that people are not stupid. Irish people know that the country needs a lot more money to be spent on infrastructure, public housing and public services. They know that can’t happen without a rational and sustainable taxation system, including local taxes on property. Such a system is one in which citizens see the connection between what they pay and what they get and can directly influence the choices that are made. To make that possible, we have to let people spend a lot more of their own money in their own communities.