End the Quangos and restore Local Government

End the Quangos and restore Local Government

Sunday Business Post, 13 July 2003

Hopefully the sun will shine on Friday 11th June 2004. Next year’s Local Elections have been pencilled in for that date. If the weather is good there is a reasonable chance that the turnout for the local elections may rise to over 50%. This was the turnout in 1999. If it rains there is a danger that voter turnout may fall below 45%. In Dublin City only one third of the voters bothered to show up last time round. However the weather is not the main reason for low voter turnout. People have realised that very little power resides in local government, and consequently they take little interest in what goes on in City Hall. I spent the years from 1991 to 2003 as a local councillor on Dublin City Council. During this time powers were gradually stripped from local government to the point where the council chamber had simply become a talking shop for the issues of the day.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I visited Aalborg, a city in Northern Denmark some years ago. There I was astounded to meet councillors who have the powers and finance to effect real change in their communities. The local council had separate committees dealing with transport, health, housing and policing. Each of these committees was chaired by a knowledgeable councillor who devoted much of their time to ensuring that the right decisions were made in the city’s best interests. If a bus stop needed to be moved the Council could make the decision. If a neighbourhood wanted more police on the beat they could effect change. If housing was needed the local authority had the land and the clout to make it happen.

In Ireland, Local Authorities have to go cap in hand to the Department of the Environment for almost any significant funding or decision. The failure to give local government power or responsibility was best illustrated last year when Dublin’s Director of Traffic was stalled from putting up new traffic signs by the Department of Transport, as the Minister for Transport had not reviewed the proposal. Surely the Minister has better things to be doing with his time! This approach is rife throughout Ireland. Almost all significant spending decisions have to be vetted and approved at national level. This may have been appropriate prior to Irish independence, but it smacks of a neo-colonialism to have every decision checked and approved by the central government. It also adds millions to civil service wage-bills to the point where remuneration consumes the bulk of overall spending.

Back in 1991 Tom Barrington chaired an excellent report ‘Local Government Reorganisation and Reform’. He used information compiled from a Council of Europe Report to devastating effect. The Report showed that Ireland was at the bottom of the league table when it came to allocating powers and responsibilities to local government. Even Luxembourg – not exactly a super-state –allocated more functions to local government than Ireland. Barrington stated: “Local government should be recognised as a valid partner in the process of government and its role expanded with appropriate links with community groups. Central government should be willing to ‘let go’ and devolve functions.” Twelve years later there is still much to do in order to deliver on the excellent ideas contained within his report.

Of course there has been some reform in Ireland, and the passing of a referendum that gave constitutional recognition to local government was a welcome step in the right direction. However allocating clear functions to local government should follow up the changes in the law. If not, we are paying lip service to the concept. The recent passing of the ‘Protection of the Environment Bill’ by the Dáil takes away significant powers from local councillors to make waste management plans, and may well pave the way for municipal incinerators being built without a local democratic mandate.

The Bill follows a recent trend in allocating powers to City and County Managers. While these Managers have played an important role in the history of local government in Ireland they have no democratic accountability to the people. They are permanent civil servants, and often have the upper hand in discussions in the Council Chamber. Once the annual Estimates Meeting of the Council has been held, the Manager can normally breathe easy for another twelve months, safe in the knowledge that his or her future is assured. The two-tier system of Manager and Councillors has led to the Mayors of Local Authorities having little power other than that of a figurehead. We should ask ourselves do we want someone who attends social events for photo-calls with a chain of office or do we want to delegate significant functions to a dynamic mayor with the ability to get things done?

In many cases the stripping of powers away from local government has been accompanied by the creation of quangos, (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations). These bodies have a significant democratic deficit, and have added to the disempowerment and confusion that members of the public experience when engaging with local government. Bodies such as the County Enterprise Boards, City and County Development Boards and Partnerships Companies have a vital role to play in community development, but it has got to stage where the life-blood is being sucked out of local government in order to support these bodies. Local Authorities can be dynamic, reactive progressive bodies, but their capabilities are not been harnessed effectively. A ‘bottom-up’ approach to the renewal of Temple Bar could have given local councillors a stronger role in ensuring that super-pubs did not dominate the area.

Strategic Policy Committees (SPC’s) have also been set up by dictat from the Customs House. However they have failed to rise to the challenge that their names suggest. The inaugural meeting of one county’s SPC on Environment and Engineering spent much of its time discussing the litter problem in the chairperson’s own electoral area. Much more could be achieved if they were granted the resources to effect change. The creation of Regional Authorities some years ago was also a false dawn. Much of the time at the Dublin Regional Authority’s first meeting was taken up with haggling over the design of a chain of office. Authorities without powers are empty vessels that will perpetuate mediocrity. Nothing more than a radical reform of local government through the devolving of power to local level is required.

Giving powers to local government will also require financing. Twenty-five years ago the abolition of domestic rates gave Fianna Fáil a boost at the polls, but led to the gradual downgrading of council services. In addition income tax and VAT increases were used to compensate for the drop in tax revenue. Part of the process of local government reform must involve placing local authorities on a sound and independent financial footing. This could be achieved by ensuring that the Rate Support Grant is increased. An alternative would be to allocate a proportion of value added tax directly to local authorities. If Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council was given a firmer financial base, it could restore Dún Laoghaire Baths itself, rather than pander to developers’ over-blown proposals .

Unless we devolve powers to county level and abolish the quangos we will fail to energise local government to the challenges of the twenty-first century. It is the people and the communities that local government purports to serve that will be the real losers if this fails to happen. Revitalised council chambers could attract people with dynamism and vision that would make innovative and courageous decisions. Over to you Minister Cullen, and may the sun shine on the 11th June 2004.

Ciarán Cuffe is a Dáil Deputy for Dún Laoghaire and is the Green Party’s Justice Spokesperson. He can be contacted at Ciaran@CiaranCuffe.Com

Quango Watch

Some of the quangos operating in the greater Dublin area.

Cuffe argues that although most of the bodies listed below are operating well, some rationalisation is necessary arising from the fragmentation of services and diffusion of resources due to the emergence of quangos in recent years.

Agenda 21 Regional Network
Area Development Management Ltd
Committee of the Regions
County and City Child-Care Committees
County and City Development Boards
County and City Enterprise Boards
County and City Partnership Boards
Dublin Docklands Development Authority
Dublin Employment Pact
Dublin Healthy Cities Project
Dublin Regional Authority
Dublin Tourism
Dublin Transportation Office
Dun Laoghaire Harbour Company
LEADER II Groups
Local Drugs Task Forces
Local Government Management Services Board
RAPID (Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development) Programme
South-Eastern Regional Assembly
SRUNA Project (sustainable recreational use of natural assets)
Task Force on the Integration of Local Government and Local Development Systems
Temple Bar Properties
URBAN Programme
Vocational Education Committees