For all our sakes, let Dublin run Dublin


OPINION:Ending the Department of the Environment’s stranglehold over local government is the key to effective reform, writes DERMOT LACEY

FOR IRELAND’S sake, Dublin needs to run Dublin. The present situation – in which an array of uninterested quangos, largely unaccountable State bodies and often disconnected departments interfere in the affairs of the county without any appreciable knowledge or sympathy for the region – cannot continue. Quite simply, Dublin deserves better.

The situation whereby more than 40 organisations have responsibility for traffic is the most obvious example of this. But there are more.

Dublin needs a political voice. More than perhaps anything else, it needs someone who understands how things work or more accurately do not work, and who will stand up for the city and county. It needs someone who can be a political advocate, armed with the mandate of direct election.

The proposed election of a mayor for Dublin gives us an opportunity to create that voice. That is why, with all its imperfections and limited powers, I welcome the publication of the “Dublin Mayor and Regional Authority” draft legislation.

Many believe that we need more than the simple introduction of a directly elected mayor – they are right. A new mayor can and must drive further reform and a real debate about the future of Dublin.

The draft legislation published recently by Minister for the Environment John Gormley clarifies some issues. It specifies the county as the area involved. It provides a new structure for the regional authority.

However, the proposal that the mayor would chair the authority, to whom he or she would be accountable, is, I believe, a mistake.

Similarly the proposal to merge the four existing city and county development boards is heading in the right direction, but its composition and democratic mandate remain unclear. Unless the public service agencies are accountable to this body and not equal participating parties, as at present, it will not work.

I have said before that the proposed salary is disgracefully and unnecessarily high. It is a distraction from what should be a debate about the role of a mayor. There is no need for a €200,000-plus salary for the mayor, just as in all probability there is no need for it for government Ministers.

The essential financial element is that the mayor would have the power and resources to do the job, and the commitment to do it effectively. The absence of an independent source of funding is a major flaw and must be addressed in time. It is clear to anyone interested that our current system of local government requires renewal and reform.

Clear, too, is the fact that the various local councils are directed, unofficially but in reality, by city and county managers, answerable to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the permanent officials therein. This is key to our present problems, and must end.

Two of the arguments used against the introduction of a directly elected mayor are cost and “celebrity” candidates. In my view, both are bogus. Properly structured, a newly elected mayor, working with the already existing, though enhanced, Dublin Regional Authority, will see the need for many of the existing agencies reduced and/or incorporated into the mayoral structure, with significant savings.

On the “celebrity” candidate issue, the answer is simple – we live in a democracy – let the people decide. We have seen recently the outcome from going down the “celebrity” road. I have great faith that the electorate will decide intelligently.

While the detail of any reform is extensive, the essentials are not. I hope that the debate, soon to take place in the Oireachtas, will seek improvements to the Bill along some of the following lines. If we are to have real reform, these must include:

- An independent source of funding – not subject to the whims of the Department of the Environment.

- Reform of the City and County Managers Act, creating the post of chief executive officer – accountable to the relevant local authority and recruited by the Public Appointments Commission.

- Real controls and limitations on electoral spending at local elections, and an ethical framework that is robust and just.

- Extension of the role of the Dublin Regional Authority. The powers and responsibilities of the authority, working with the mayor, should include: land use planning and strategic development; traffic and transport co-ordination; social and affordable housing, to replace the existing Affordable Housing Partnership in the Dublin area; Dublin Bay, waterways and mountains; economic development and enterprise.

The assembly would also have a co-ordinating and/or monitoring role in relation to countywide services provided by agencies such as the HSE, VEC, Enterprise Ireland, policing, and relations with other regional authorities and relevant bodies etc.

Ireland can be transformed by a reformed local government system. It is long past time to call for better local government, and long past time to “Stand up for Dublin”.

A campaign for a directly elected mayor will give us a chance to do just that. I’m ready to play my part.

Dermot Lacey is a Labour Party councillor for Pembroke-Rathmines, a former lord mayor of Dublin, and cathaoirleach of the Dublin Regional Authority