Do we need more of the same?

It is entirely unnecessary to repeat the gloomy facts of Irish life, but in the circumstances of what follows in this column, it has to be done. We are broke. We have lost our economic sovereignty. And since many of the decisions affecting our lives will now be made by the European Union, we may well have lost the essence of our independence.

It is entirely unnecessary to repeat the gloomy facts of Irish life, but in the circumstances of what follows in this column, it has to be done. We are broke. We have lost our economic sovereignty. And since many of the decisions affecting our lives will now be made by the European Union, we may well have lost the essence of our independence.

We have been told by our new government that our recovery will be based on “getting people back to work”; on the creation of jobs in the wealth-producing sections of our society. To do this, we must think up new ways and means. We must reform our work practices, reinvent ourselves, encourage innovation, facilitate the entrepreneur. It’s back to the wheel and noses to the ground.

The above two depressing paragraphs have been written in the context of two recent decisions taken by two Tipperary local authorities, South Tipperary County Council and the Borough Council of Clonmel, as reported in this newspaper, issue of March 10.

At the March meeting of the County Council, Councillor Tom Wood of Cashel proposed that the Council should grant rates concessions to start-up businesses, so as to give business people an opportunity to establish themselves, find their feet and survive in a period of economic depression.

The proposed concession was very modest: a rate-free first year and a 25% reduction in year two. He supported his proposal by citing the large numbers of out-of-business shops and premises which are now a disturbing feature of all of the towns and villages within the jurisdiction of the Council. Give them a break, Councillor Wood, was, in effect saying. Give people a chance to establish their enterprises. They may, in time, become employers, and thus contribute to the back-to-work recipe that the government has prescribed for all of us.

The proposal was rejected.

Yet, to us, ordinary people, it made sound common sense. Closed shops and premises do not make any contribution to the Council’s rates income. Businesses availing of a rate-free first year, would contribute in their second year, and in a matter of a few years, would become liable for the full rates payment. A half-loaf is better than no bread! Simple! Joined-up-thinking! But, it appeared from the report of the Council meeting, that it was neither simple nor joined-up. It was bureaucratically complicated.

The decision of the Borough Council of Clonmel was equally bewildering for us ordinary people. That Council decided that it would implement some legislative dictum for the taxation of street furniture, not on its own seats on the riverside, and the very few that remain on our streets, but on the tables and chairs occasionally put out by coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and pubs on sidewalks adjacent to their premises. “Occasionally” requires qualification - on the warm sunny, non-rainy, scarce days of an Irish summer. It was also decided to tax free-standing advertising signs.

According to the report, a levy of E125 is to be placed on each table. This presents an interesting sum in ordinary arithmetic: how many cups of coffee would have to be sold to merely pay such a levy? Don’t complicate the problem by including the costs of rates, water, garbage, electricity, insurance, wages, VAT - all the charges that are involved in running a small business.

The crippling effects of these additional charges, with the consequent discouragement of jobs, is glaringly obvious. And it prompts the question: do local authorities (or indeed the public sector), from the base of their comfortable security and unassailable permanency, have any concept of the challenges and risks of ordinary business, of earning a living in the uncertain climate of buying and selling, of trade and commerce?

Or does the Clonmel Borough Council not see any disconnect between the decision to impose charges on street tables and chairs and their own planning aspirations, when the Council adopted, in principle, the recommendations of a report commissioned by them in 2003 and published under the title: “Clonmel - A Frontier Town” sub-titled “An Integrated Strategy for Clonmel.”

That report specifically dealt with modern changes in marketing which challenged the sustainability of town centres. The recommendations were that these should become places of high quality, specialised, artisan, galleried shops and premsies with an emphasis on fashion and leisure. Planning should work towards achieving a “boulevard” ambience; a place of relaxed spending of discretionary money (in contrast to the frenzy of the utilitarian shelves of the supermarket). And the town centre should especially be a place where tourists would linger and browse and spend their cash.

Those of us who spend our money flocking to beautiful European cities where sensible planners have achieved that ambience, and where city-centres are thriving - get the picture. And central to that picture is the coffee shop, the restaurant, the wine bar, with tables and chairs on the street-side, and bright umbrellas, and opportunities to sit, sip a coffee, a glass of wine, people-watch, and rest. And the necessary prerequisites? Tables and chairs!

The dichotomy between the planning aspiration and the chosen means of implementing that aspiration by a punishing taxation, is, to the ordinary person, mind-boggling. Do local authorities, as national institutions, have any concept of how to encourage co-operation from the people they serve, get them on side, rather than frustrate and alienate them?

The new programme for government promises to give more power to these national institutions - to local authorities. As presently constituted, the elected representatives on local councils have few powers, and those they have are so circumscribed that they bear little facility for adapting to local issues, and judging from the recent decisions of the two Tipperary local authorities, have even less facility for accommodating the perilous current circumstances of Irish people in the private sector of trade and commerce, the creators of wealth and the makers of employment opportunities.

If these proposed extra powers come, without serious reform of local government and a return of actual local democracy, the question has to be asked: Do we need more of the same?