Larger local authorities, in smaller numbers, are not more efficient and do not save money, but they do distance citizens from the political process, says Aodh Quinlivan.
When I worked in Cork County Council and did my post-graduate studies by night, I was heavily influenced by the former Limerick county manager, Dick Haslam, who was my main lecturer and also a mentor.
At that time, 25 years ago, I frequently heard people throw out the phrase, ‘In Ireland, we don’t have local government, we have local administration’.
The focus was on the second word, administration.
Now, when I teach, I focus on the neglected first word. If local government is not local, then it is nothing. Local government exists for two primary reasons: as a provider of local public services; and as an instrument of local democracy to give expression to community self-government.
This is based on the principle of subsidiarity, which states that as many powers and functions as possible should be devolved to the level closest to the citizen.
Ireland has signed up to the principle under the Council of Europe’s Charter of Local Self-Government, the EU’s Treaty of Amsterdam, and under Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But, as the Council of Europe pointed out in 2013, we are hypocrites. We use the rhetoric of subsidiarity — power to the people, putting people first — but our public policies go in the opposite direction.
Local government in Ireland is extremely weak. Staggeringly, it lacks constitutional protection — accordingly, a whole tier of directly elected institutions (the town councils) was abolished in 2014 without reference to the people, by way of a referendum — unlike for Seanad Éireann.
In terms of our numbers of local authorities and local councillors, we have the most disconnected model in Europe.
This year, we celebrate the 120th anniversary of the first local elections, which brought the current system of local government into being. At that stage, we had over 600 local authorities.
We gradually whittled it down to 114 and now we are at 31, soon to be 30, if Galway City and County Councils merge.
The international Local Autonomy Index places Ireland 38th out of 39. Ireland is not only more centralised than developed democracies such as Austria, Finland, and Germany, it is also more centralised that Macedonia and Albania.
Only Moldova ranks below us. This is relevant to any discussion on town councils, because we have blindly followed an appealing, but fundamentally incorrect, narrative, which is: big is better; big is cheaper; big means improved services; big is more efficient.
And yet, the international research refutes this narrative. The evidence informs us that a smaller number of larger local authorities does not yield improvements, savings, and efficiencies.
To paraphrase Professor Howard Elcock, the amalgamation and abolition of local authorities is an addiction suffered by central governments.
The knock-on effects are serious.
The council elected in May 2019 in Cork city will have a ratio of one councillor per 6,800 citizens. This is a massive number compared to 1:120 in France, 1:210 in Austria, and 1:350 in Germany.
This is leading to a political fallout. Nearly one-third of the current members on Cork City Council are not standing in May; three of the young newly elected councillors in 2014 are bowing out; and half of the female elected members are leaving.
Many of these councillors have cited the fact that their jurisdictions are too large and require them to be full-time councillors.
Yet, they are not being rewarded with a full-time salary and find it next-to-impossible to balance their council role with their day-to-day working lives and family commitments. We are moving in the wrong direction, but have an opportunity to reverse the trend.
As Samuel Taylor Coleridge once stated: ‘Every reform, however necessary, will, by weak minds, be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming.’
Here are a few arguments in favour of re-establishing a town council tier.
In other words, the smaller the unit and the closer it is to us, the more trust we have in it; we are invested in how the town is run and how money is spent.
‘Putting People First’ was a lovely slogan to attach to the policy document of October 2012, which proposed to abolish the town councils. The truth is we have removed people from the equation.
We are asking them to participate through fixyourstreet.ie, in the absence of the town council. The ‘citizen’ is barely mentioned in Putting People First; she was replaced by the ‘consumer’. We have championed efficiency over democracy and achieved neither.
Town councils were a useful entry point into politics for young people, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, etc. In removing that political entry point, we have narrowed the pool of people who are willing or able to contest elections for city and county councils.
What is the result? Councils that are dominated by middle-aged and elderly, grey-haired men, who can afford to be full-time, local public representatives.
I have deliberately not spoken to the specifics of the Restoration of Town Councils Bill. My belief is that we need a tier of sub-county government in Ireland and that it is up to the elected representatives to tie down the specifics.
There is no doubt that the old town council model was severely flawed. The councils covered only 15% of the population and the population range went from 298 to 30,000. We need a new model, but, to give it meaning, powers and finance have to be devolved downwards.
The municipal districts are now in place and have been reasonably successful, in a narrow way.
From talking to councillors, the effectiveness of the municipal districts varies enormously between, and within, local authorities.
They have played a role, partly because they are comprehensive and cover the entire country, but let’s be honest about it: they are glorified area committees of the county councils. Do not let anyone pretend that they are an elected tier of local government.
We need to relax the grip of centralisation, which is suffocating local autonomy. Paulo Coehlo once wrote, ‘A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.’ Since 1922, we have been making decisions in favour of centralisation. Now, we need to start making decisions in favour of local democracy and local self-government.
Town or municipal councils should be at the heart of our local government system. The very nature of local government is that civic society is up close and personal.
Local councils, and the services they provide, have a far more immediate, continuous, and comprehensive impact on our daily lives than many issues that dominate nationally.
Local councils and councillors have to deal with a range of issues and factors that are not of their making and for which they may have no formal responsibility.
These issues include migration, multi-culturalism, homelessness, social exclusion and other social problems, such as drug addiction and petty crime.
Many of the social problems faced by Irish communities today are most sharply evident in urban settings and towns.
In 1924, the Dáil debated the abolition of rural district councils, in the name of efficiency and cost-savings. What was really meant was centralisation. During the debate, TD John Daly from Cork, asked, ‘What would a man from Bantry Bay know about affairs in Araglen?’
John Daly knew what he was talking about. He ended his contribution by saying: ‘Local representatives know their area best of all and should be given the power to tackle local problems appropriately’.
It really is as simple as that. Local government must be local.
Dr Aodh Quinlivan, director, Centre for Local and Regional Governance (CLRG), Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork.