Elaine Loughlin: Without radical reform, local government will remain toothless and useless

Our strange centralised system of government is hindering progress on a range of issues from housing to climate change
Elaine Loughlin: Without radical reform, local government will remain toothless and useless

ALL politics is local, but in Ireland it’s not local enough.

While the parish pump is still firmly in operation at both local and national level, when it comes to actual power, we operate a “hyper centralised” system, which stymies local government and is out of step with our international neighbours.

We are nowhere near the likes of Denmark, which filters 65% of public spending through local government — meaning creches, nursing homes, unemployment services, and waste collection, as well as the running of museums, swimming pools, and amenities are controlled at a municipal level.

A 2019 study by Professor Mary Murphy of Maynooth University show that only 8% of Irish public spending occurs at local government level compared to an EU average of over 23%.
A 2019 study by Professor Mary Murphy of Maynooth University show that only 8% of Irish public spending occurs at local government level compared to an EU average of over 23%.

Not only does central government hold a tight fist on the purse strings, the minister of the day, through measures first introduced in 1923, also has the authority to sack the local council if it is deemed that it is not properly discharging its duties, and a government commissioner can be appointed in its place. It’s a threat that was wielded — but not acted upon — a number of times by former minister Eoghan Murphy against councils that failed to pass a budget.

Irish local authorities lag behind their counterparts in other EU countries  

A 2019 study carried out by Professor Mary Murphy of Maynooth University, found that only 8% of Irish public spending occurs at local government level, compared to an EU average of over 23%, and that a quarter of the Irish spend is not fully under local authority control.

UCC political scientist Theresa Reidy: 'I don’t think it’s fully appreciated in any meaningful way how absolutely strange our structure of governance is.'
UCC political scientist Theresa Reidy: 'I don’t think it’s fully appreciated in any meaningful way how absolutely strange our structure of governance is.'

Theresa Reidy of UCC says there has always been a “kind of mania” in the civil service about the structure of local governments, but when it comes to funding we are “hyper centralised and we don’t realise that”: 

I don’t think it’s fully appreciated in any meaningful way how absolutely strange our structure of governance is and how centralised the State is — so much so that somebody in Athlone in the Department of Education is deciding what days schools open and what days schools close for the whole country without any reference to local conditions. 

She added that local authorities are generally best placed to know where more schools should be built, whether a new health centre is needed or if the expansion of childcare facilities is required. The State, she said, has been abolishing the layers of local government by amalgamating authorities and getting rid of town councils, but it has never truly examined what local government actually does or what functions it should have.

Ireland continues to centralise and privatise

While everything from funeral services to beach guards is controlled at a local level in other European countries, Ireland continues to adopt a policy of centralise or privatise.

More than 95% of tax revenues in Ireland are raised by central government and 93% of all public spending in Ireland is done at central government level. The result is that local authorities are heavily dependent on central government to fund large sections of their work.

The Department of Housing, which is responsible for the area of local government, maintains that the funding system that applies to local authorities is a complex one, as authorities derive their income from a variety of local sources, including commercial rates and charges for goods and services as well as funding from central Government.

But Social Justice Ireland has stated that this high degree of centralisation can leave local communities feeling as if they have little or no say in how local policy is developed.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy says we need to develop 'a local government system as opposed to a system of local administration.' Picture: Niall Carson/PA
Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy says we need to develop 'a local government system as opposed to a system of local administration.' Picture: Niall Carson/PA

In fact, most funding sourced from central government and provided to local authorities must be used for specified services. These can be grouped into five broad programme categories — recreational, education, environment, housing, and transport. 

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy raised the local property tax as an example of the complex funding system currently in use. The tax is collected by Revenue, which then goes to the Department of Housing, which then sets down criteria around how this money is spent by local councils. 

While local authorities will now keep 100% of the local property tax, she said a key point which the Government doesn’t like to focus on is that they don’t have full discretion around what this money will actually be spent on: 

It’s not just property tax that needs to be rethought, it’s that we actually develop a local government system as opposed to a system of local administration. 

Ceding power could actually benefit ministers, who often feel they are scapegoated for the various failures within their departments be it in housing, education, or childcare. 

If local authorities were given the power their counterparts have in most other countries, we might achieve solutions that actually solve problems in a workable way for communities.

Local democracy a key to tackling climate change

Prof Mary Murphy also believes that a low carbon transition requires a strong democratic form of local governance and local control over the local economy. However, she maintains that the “four dead hands” are strangling local government. These four impediments include a policy of centralisation which has seen the loss of functions such as water and third-level grants to central state.

Prof Murphy also points to marketisation which has resulted in the outsourcing of some functions such as refuse and housing as well as a more recent emphasis on executive direction which has occurred with the introduction of new public management processes and changes in administration, evaluation and control mechanisms. This, she says, has increased bureaucratic power at the expense of political representatives.

Finally, she says the austerity years eroded by stealth local authority capacity and downgraded it in scope, scale, and skills.

Local government has the potential to solve many of the issues we constantly complain about in our daily lives.

But until the system is overhauled, local government will remain toothless and useless.

Did you know?

There are 31 local authorities in Ireland.

A total of 949 councillors are elected across the country, with council membership in local authorities ranging from 18 to 63.

Apart from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, South Dublin, Dublin City, Cork City, and Galway City, all local authority areas are divided into municipal districts, with councillors simultaneously representing the municipal district and the local authority.

In total, there are 95 municipal districts in the country.

What to look out for this week

The Dáil and Seanad are on recess this week, meaning a quieter schedule than usual. However, there are still a few things to watch out for.

• A farmer’s work never stops and neither does the work of the Oireachtas agriculture committee, it appears. While the Dáil takes a week off, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue will appear before the committee on Wednesday to discuss the Sea-Fisheries Bill.

• World leaders will descend on Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). Given the focus on reduction of carbon emissions and the climate crisis, the discussions are likely to be watched tightly across the world.

Calls have already been made on private financial institutions to announce new ambitious actions at COP26. These would include credibly committing to net zero and setting science-based targets for 2025/2030 as well as committing to phase out coal finance.

• Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman first promised that details of the redress scheme for mother and baby home survivors would be published in May. However, the details have yet to go to Cabinet. The Department of Children has indicated that the redress package will be finalised in the coming weeks.

Back in time

1920

November 1: 18-year-old medical student, Kevin Barry was hanged in for his part in a raid in which six soldiers were killed. Detailing the “touching scenes” outside Mountjoy prison, The Cork Examiner reported that he was “charged with being one of a party that attacked a motor lorry in North King Street, Dublin. It was shown that his own revolver was undischarged, and it was not alleged that he had actually shot any of the soldiers”.

1953

October 29: The Dáil debated proposals for a new airport in Cork, with TDs lobbying on behalf of sites in Midleton and Farmers Cross, where it eventually was built. Arguing in favour of the site at Ahanes, Fianna Fáil’s Martin Corry said he hoped the airport would be started there within the next few months, to which Sean Lemass responded: “Don’t take any bets on that”.

1976

October 28: Máire Drumm, Irish Republican and Sinn Féin vice-president, was assassinated while lying in her hospital bed by unionist gunmen. A group of men, one wearing a white coat similar to a doctor, walked unchallenged up to her bed and shot her at point-blank range.

The then 'Cork Examiner' reporting on the assassination by loyalist gunmen of Sinn Féin vice-president Máire Drumm this week in 1976.
The then 'Cork Examiner' reporting on the assassination by loyalist gunmen of Sinn Féin vice-president Máire Drumm this week in 1976.

1990

October 31: Faced with Progressive Democrats threat to collapse the Government, then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey was forced to sack his “friend of 30 years” Brian Lenihan. The Cork Examiner reported that the Tánaiste’s dismissal was greeted by “shock and outrage by the party faithful around the country with strong talk of resignation”.

2002

October 31: In a meeting with employers and unions in Dublin Castle, then finance minister Charlie McCreevy announced that the Celtic Tiger boom was finally over and workers would face a pay freeze of up to a year.

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