Horse and cart era councils should be put out to grass


ANALYSIS:We need to introduce a new prototype of local authority to replace our obsolete councils, writes DIARMUID Ó GRÁDA

THE REFORMS which follow the planning tribunal report must be far-reaching. Our local government system is based on the era of the horse and cart. There are 114 local authorities. The primary tier of 34 county and city councils covers the entire country, while the second, 80 smaller councils are obsolete.

Nearly all their services are provided by the county councils, including housing, planning and road maintenance. We need a new template, bearing in mind that our population would fit into London almost twice over and that it is spread out very thinly.

When we look at the number of elected members per capita we find some strange realities: the people of Leitrim have over eight times the representation of those in Fingal. Fingal has one councillor per 11,377 population, Leitrim, 1,444. Similar over-representation occurs in Longford, Cavan and Roscommon, councillors with far too much time on their hands. They compete against each other for our attention and this has brought poor planning outcomes.

Over-representation is compounded by the further tier of town councils below the city and county level. A notable proportion of the population is represented by two councils – as high as 55 per cent in Co Louth. Co Cork has 12 town councils and the list shows how outdated the system is; Macroom and Passage West are included but there is no place for the modern town of Ballincollig.

Some of these crossroads councils are very small indeed. You could get elected in 2009 in Granard, Co Longford with only 54 votes, in Ballybay, Co Monaghan with only 83 votes. Are these puny councils an expensive indulgence, essentially glorified residents’ associations? Many councillors end up double-jobbing.

We have 88 planning authorities, ie councils with a remit to grant planning permission, the majority of which do very little. In 2010, nearly half received one application every 13 working days. Some of the smallest cannot support a proper technical framework and bad planning decisions may well arise from the lack of expertise. And this scale makes it difficult to remain objective; not all council officials will remain unswayed when they realise a certain application was lodged by their near neighbour.

Serious obstacles are created by obsolete town boundaries. Planning policies for all the borough councils, as well as 22 of the town councils, are spread over at least two separate development plans, ie the borough/town plan and environs plan. In some cases, three separate plans are involved for councils which have burst out of their Victorian corsets.

Where development plans are well-written and properly implemented we should expect a lower rate of appeal decisions going against the local council. An Bord Pleanála figures show a very clear pattern in this regard – in 2010 10 counties were listed for the highest rejection rates, most in the Border Midlands and West region. The worst offender is Donegal – almost 60 per cent of its decisions overturned.

Counties such as Donegal are not getting the civic dividend they should expect from so much political representation. Rural counties have too many elected members who waste time vying with each other for public notice. They’ve created streams of dubious patronage; time and again rural radio stations recount the feats of some councillor who has landed a lucky punter a planning permission where all prayers had previously failed.

We now see the legacy of unfinished housing estates, ghost estates left over from the property crash. The BMW counties have about three times as many ghost estates per capita as greater Dublin and three times as many elected members. The Environmental Protection Agency recently found that 80 per cent of the lakes and rivers with a poor or bad status were in the BMW region.

This review must also be extended to the top management. Last April it emerged that Co Longford had one of the highest levels of ghost estates; on top of that Longford town’s new landmark shopping centre lies shut three years after completion, its state-of-the-art business park becoming a dumping ground.

It is the sheer inefficiency of these small rural councils that has brought them so much into the lives of the local people who must keep coming back to them with basic problems that should not require special pleading. This is an unhealthy culture of reliance that feeds into the hands of certain councillors, perpetuating dubious patronage, occasionally something more sinister.

We need to introduce a new prototype of local authority with a threshold that will have a much wider impact. Britain offers some templates, eg, the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority, formed, with a population of 2.6 million. Under it, there are 10 metropolitan district councils, taking the place of 70 redundant local government districts.

We should start with the capital. We must form the greater Dublin council, covering the greater Dublin area; we could expect considerable dividends from a unit of 1.8 million population that would attract serious investment. It would allow a considerably improved reach for planning and specialist environmental services.

Our engagement with Europe might suggest the form of the other authorities. In my opinion there should be just three of them, following the Euro constituencies, Munster with a Cork hub, Leinster with a Portlaoise hub, and, with a hub at Sligo, Connacht-Ulster.

Dr Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning consultant and lectures in planning at UCD