Maintaining local services


Sir, – Your Editorial (February 11th) raises a very important and often overlooked element of public sector reform, namely changes to local government.

Among the problems the Editorial raised was the issue of the excessive number of local authorities. Including town and borough councils, Ireland has 114 local government units. The 34 city and county councils are the primary units of local government with responsibility for the full range of local authority services while the 80 town governments undertake a reduced range of public services.

The usual claim made for fewer and larger units of local government is the economies of scale argument. The size of local governments can be measured in terms of population or area. Either way, the average size of local authorities in Ireland is relatively large compared with other local governments throughout the EU.

Using 2009 data (from the 2010/11 edition of the EU Subnational Governments: 2009 Key Figurespublished jointly by the Council of European Municipalities and Regions and Dexia Crédit Local), the average local government size in Ireland is 39,190 inhabitants or a geographical area of 612 km2, as compared with an average size across the EU-27 countries of 5,580 inhabitants or 49 km2.

Using population as the measure, only the UK, Denmark and Lithuania have more inhabitants per local government unit. Using area, only Sweden, Lithuania and Finland have larger geographical areas. This raises doubts about the case for and the accepted wisdom of territorial consolidation or amalgamation of existing councils in Ireland as is considered, at least in the popular press, to be both necessary and desirable.

The problem with the local government system in Ireland is less to do with the structures and more to do with other issues, such as the limited number and/or quality of public services provided by the local authorities and the inadequate own source revenues. From an EU comparative perspective, local government in Ireland has fewer functions than elsewhere, is poorly funded, has limited discretion and powers, and, overall is characterised by a high degree of centralisation.

Despite periodic reviews of local government, with at least 15 in the past half century, Ireland’s past record and current position on intergovernmental fiscal relations and fiscal decentralisation remains unremarkable. With this in mind, the proposals for a residential property tax and water charges as a means of properly funding local government and charging for local public services should be welcomed, while, at the same time, acknowledging that it will undoubtedly cause considerable hardship for many households (even with a waiver scheme for the poorest).

Although these measures are likely to be unpopular, we live in a representative democracy where governments – national and local – are elected to make tough decisions. The introduction of a property tax and water charges will be a test of whether we can expect real reform in the Irish local government system in the near future, with a view to increasing the efficiency, autonomy and accountability of the local authorities throughout the country. – Yours, etc,


J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics,

NUI Galway.