The recent experience of local elected representatives on the Borough Council of Clonmel raises issues of the status of local democracy, not only in South Tipperary but throughout the Republic. (It is an issue which has found its way into this column on more than one occasion).
According to a local newspaper report, the councillors on the Borough Council were “red-faced and angry” because South Tipperary’s local authorities had taken a decision to discontinue their local refuse collections. The councillors had neither been consulted nor informed and had only become aware of it when informed by the public. Hence the anger and red faces.
It seems to me that many members of the general public had been aware, for several months, that the authorities proposed to dispense with the collection. I heard allegedly well-founded rumours that they had taken this decision: “well-founded”, I was told because the authorities were not disposed to compete with private contractors. Some rumours went event further in saying that it was known (by what means I know not) that the authorities had not ordered garbage collection equipment which needed replacement. But, it would seem, that none of these rumours reached the ears of the elected representatives.
So, although I had paid in advance my annual collection charges to the Council, like my neighbours I have now entered into a contract with a private collector for the collection of my domestic garbage. The fact that many people have taken the same course of action has been obvious, even to the dogs in the street, since council black bins, have been steadily replaced by the green, blue and red bins of private contractors. Did the councillors not observe this colour change?
The decision was, according to the report, an executive decision, and as such did not require either discussion with, nor the confirmation of, the elected representative. But, since domestic garbage collection was one of the most important services provided by a local authority, it might be assumed that, as a matter of ordinary courtesy, and good business, the councillors would have had some previous information. In commenting on the decision, the Mayor of Clonmel, Councillor Darren Ryan, is quoted as saying: “The Council’s decision to announce the sale of the service without any prior consultation with them (the councillors) was a ‘snub to democracy’.”
Most ordinary people would agree, but then it has to be asked: Do we really have local democracy, in the strict interpretation of that concept - government by the people or their elected representatives?
Every five years we elected the members of our local authority. We do so in the hope that they will have both influence and power in the day-to-day regulation and government of the area in which we live. We see them as a bulwark against an inpenetrable bureaucracy, a funnel through which a community’s needs can be identified and articulated. And so indeed do they.
But their actual powers are limited to just two functions, and these are so circumscribed that they seem hardly worth the candle. Their annual statutory function is passing the Council’s budget and striking a rate. While they can certainly re-allocate proposed expenditure between one area and another, or tweak a figure here and there, it would seem from experience that the composition of the overall budget, and the ultimate expenditure, is rarely changed. and certainly not changed in favour of the ratepayer.
The other function within the remit of elected representatives is that of revising the County/Town Plan every five years. The draft plan is normally prepared by consultants, and is open to public consultation for some months. The councillors, and ordinary members of the public, can make submissions, which can be rejected or accepted and included in the final draft.
Councillors have the power to re-zone land, thus substantially increasing its value. In hindsight it would seem, on a national level, that this power may have been misdirected, and even abused, often influenced by political allegiances. NAMA is now trying to deal with the outfall in acres and acres of derelict, dumped-upon fields, giving weedy grazing to piebald horses, on the peripheries of our Irish towns.
The Greens identified this abuse, and other abuses in planning, which have resulted in our ghost estates and unfinished buildings, and had drawn up a prospectus for tightening the planning laws, but also for giving more practical powers and authority to local councils in the administration of their own areas. But it is unlikely that this reappraisal of the functions of local authorities and the elected representatives will now take place within the lifetime of the present government.
The character of representation, purely based on membership of political parties, has also been identified as an issue. Any town or city is much more that the sum of its political parts. It has been argued that at least a quarter of any council should be made up of business people, citizens involved in cultural, sporting, social and charitable activities, thus giving a wider representation, reflective of the life of an area.
Failure of the councillors to adopt and pass into law one or other of its limited functions, automatically results in suspension and the replacement of elected representatives by a manager. There has been so much replacement in the recent history of local government in Ireland.
Local democracy, or what passes for local democracy, is expensive. It costs the ratepayers much money. The anomaly of councillors not knowing of the executive decisions taken in the name of their Council, such as recently occurred in South Tipperary, begs the question: Is this money well-spent?