Why we need to protect local government

 

Sir, – Diarmaid Ferriter’s article (“Why Irish local government is absolutely useless”, November 23rd) spells out the compelling historical context to the efforts of central government to undermine local government and local democracy. His account of the controlling mindset of central government since the foundation of the State offers valuable insights into the context and background to local government in the 21st century. It resonates strongly with current official thinking, which finds local government an “irksome constraint” on departmental control, as it has over many generations.

Perhaps the headline on the article was a tongue in cheek reference to how local government is perceived by central government. Whatever the thinking behind it, it risks promoting a deeply flawed account of the role of local government in Ireland today. Local county councils underpin and support the very fabric of local community living. Our parks and playgrounds, our arts programmes, hugely supported and valued library services, our roads and public realm programmes, community support programmes, biodiversity initiatives, employment supports, social housing programmes, heritage protection and much more form the basis of the quality of daily life in our communities. Can anyone realistically suggest central government would do a better job?

It is well known that Ireland has one of the most centralised forms of government in Europe, and the push to even greater centralisation grows apace. Threats to take away responsibilities from local councils are routine. We have seen the role of our local planning authorities diminished in the case of large developments of more than 100 units; there is a plethora of regulations from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government enabling our democratically developed Local Area Plans and County Development Plans to be overridden. And new legislation is in the pipeline to restrict even further the right of appeal.

The funding for local councils represents the most powerful controlling mechanism for central government. In the case of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, of the €52 million collected in Local Property Tax, only just over €10 million is available to the council to provide local services. A further €10 million goes to support poorer councils, and the balance is paid to the council as a replacement for central government funding. In other words, the main beneficiary of the LPT is central coffers. Instead of some level of fiscal autonomy, grants are doled out for a variety of services, enabling central government to maintain tight control.

Local councils in Ireland do a great job in supporting strong communities, and the fabric of local life. It is at our peril that we allow a creeping centralisation to restrict and reduce local autonomy.

I would invite Prof Ferriter to add value to the historical insights he has so effectively described by making the case for protecting the autonomy of local government, and by extension, the rights and quality of life of local residents and local communities. – Yours, etc,

Cllr ANNE COLGAN (Independent)

Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council,

Co Dublin.