The proposed changes in local government do not appear to have evoked any great interest from the electorate. There have been no protesting, banner-waving marches; no cascades of letters to newspapers; no dissenting speeches from enraged citizens. In fact, nobody seems to care very much whether Councils go or stay, except the elected representatives themselves.
Perhaps the fact that the implementation of the proposals will not take effect until 2014, has taken some urgency from the issue. Or perhaps it is because local government, as it is presently constituted, is so devoid of any real democratic power in day-to-day constituency management, that is has become irrelevant, and that Councils are often seen by ordinary people as sometimes interesting, sometimes boring, talking-shops.
There is, of course, the long history, the attractive council chambers, the gowns, the regalia, the chains of office. We all like a bit of bling, and even in these penny-pinching times there is something to be said for ceremony and spectacle and formality in the official presentation of a town or county. But the facts are that, for many decades now in Ireland, local elected representatives have had very little real power in the true sense of local government.
Historically, the concept has been in Ireland now since the Anglo Normans introduced it in medieval times. Through the centuries there have been varying descriptions: Sheriffs, Sovereigns, Bailiffs, Burgesses, Mayors, Corporations, Grand Juries, County Councils. Some, until modern times, have been institutions of privilege, of exclusive power and sometimes jobbery. There was considerable reform under the Municipal Reform Act of 1843 which allowed Catholics to participate in Councils, though the franchise was limited. It was not until the advent of the new Irish State, and universal franchise, that local governments could be said to be truly democratic.
In those early years, County Councils, Corporations and Urban District Councils had significant autonomy, especially in the area of local appointments. In the shadow of civil war, this sometimes led to favouritism in appointments, and indeed may have initiated the equivalent of the modern day brown envelope. These abuses led ultimately to the establishment of central appointments commissioners, and in some cases, the proroguing of Councils and the substitution of governance by an official described as a Commissioner.
Gradually, over the decades, the powers of local represenatives have been whittled down, until there are now only two functions left: the preparation and passing into law of a County/Town Development Plan every five years and the adoption of the authorities’ financial estimates every year. Both of these functions, while they allow for some flexibility and amendments, are so circumscribed that if they are not adopted, the council can be disbanded and councillors find themselves out of a job. In the past few years, it has been interesting to watch the length to which some elected representatives/political parties, have been willing to stretch this flexibility until finally making the inevitable self-serving surrender.
Among the unfortunate (even disastrous) legacies left to us over the past few decades have been the result of the re-zoning of land, again one of the few functions of local elected representatives. This re-zoning has often been done contrary to the advice of both executive and professional planning expertise. The ghost estates, the unfinished waste-lands, the thousands of acres of once-productive farmland, now filled with nettles and rubbish, have become NAMA’s conundrum and an expensive irritant for generations of Irish tax-payers.
The current mantra that “we are where we are” has contributed to a climate of not wanting to look at the route by which we came to where we are, and how much local authorities charted the way. Planning permission by local planning authorities was a prerequisite for the granting of bank loans. The building of huge peripheral shopping areas and malls decimated our town-centres. The disregard for the natural drainage of our rivers, the flood plains, facilitated flooding, and the expenditure of massive amounts of much-needed money is now necessary in order to stem the tide. But the ultimate responsibility for this bad planning has never been acknowledged by any local authority.
All of these decisions were presided over by the people we elected. Nobody shouted stop. The immediate became more important than the long-term and the down-stream effect on towns and communities. In the circumstances of this experience, it would seem that reform is now an urgency.
It is urgent, too, because the few domestic functions which local authorities had, have now gone. Garbage collection is privatised. Water is about to be nationalised. In the current recession, planning departments are not over-stretched. Social housing is being met by the overspill of our ghost estates. What’s left?
It would seem that the most important function of local authorities today is the collection of money - from punitive rates and parking fees and fines. A substantial amount of this finance would appear to be directed towards the maintenance of a bureaucracy and its expensive accommodation in attractive, well-heated, buildings, widely-dispersed. It is obvious too, that real local democracy, which encompasses real local responsibility, and real work, has to be restored to councils. That is if we, the electorate, are to maintain any faith in the institution.
Minister Phil Hogan says that is what he is going to do; he is going to reform, but he has not yet issued precise details. Will this be real and effective reform, or will it just be a cosmetic relocation from Billy to Jack, a tarting-up of the old parish-pump?